Omar El Akkad on how to avoid American ruin

It feels like America is tearing itself apart. The federal government is alternatively self-destructive or deadlocked. Filter bubbles enclose us in their comfortable but toxic embrace. Most Americans struggle to eke out a living even as corporate profits surge. Propagandists reverse engineer algorithms to deliver automated misinformation at scale. Outrage is the new normal.

The rollercoaster isn’t fun anymore, but we can’t get off.

William Gibson famously noted that the future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed. Many have followed that line of thinking by studying weird pockets of early adopters in order to identify new technology trends. But the future is shaped at least as much by cultural, political, and social factors as by technology. Omar El Akkad spent ten years as a journalist covering the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and the U.S. War in Afghanistan. He braved war zones, detention camps, and mass protests to catch a glimpse of the forces shaping our world and synthesized those insights in his critically-acclaimed debut novel, American War.

American War paints a raw and haunting picture of the compounding nature of violence and the dark places into which the road of divisiveness leads. The protagonist is born into abject poverty, grows up in a refugee camp with no prospects or agency, is radicalized by foreign agents profiting from the ensuing chaos, suffers savage persecution at a brutal detention facility, and ultimately launches an attack that will decimate a divided nation. She is a terrorist. But El Akkad invites us into her mind and heart so that, although we cannot condone her actions, we understand them.

The bleak future imagined in American War feels disturbingly possible under the onslaught of harrowing headlines. But dystopian visions didn’t start with The Hunger Games. Grimm’s fairy tales are chock full of murder, rape, manipulation, and mutilation. “Hansel and Gretel” is a story about cannibalism. These narratives don’t just captivate us with violence. In providing safe spaces to face darkness in our imaginations, they prepare us to face darkness in our own lives.

With American War, El Akkad draws on his experience in places where a dark future has already arrived to extrapolate a broken United States. His writing is at once a warning and a demonstration of how critical empathy is to building a future we actually want to live in. To last, that better future needs to be more evenly distributed.

In the following conversation, we discuss the psychology of extremism, the universality of suffering, the importance of cultivating empathy, and the price of power.

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What difficult truths about the price of power do we ignore? What second and third order effects does our denial blind us to?

I think empathy is a muscle and, like all muscles, will atrophy if left unused. The more insulated we are from the suffering of others, the more inclined we are to ignore or exoticize it. I happen to live in a relatively peaceful part of the world, where it is very easy to assume that those people all the way on the other side of the planet – who have to deal daily with drone killings and indefinite occupation and all the other hallmarks of modern warfare – are somehow fundamentally different, fundamentally foreign.

I wrote American War in large part to argue that suffering is a universal language – that any of us, subjected to brutality or injustice, tend to react the same way. This really shouldn’t be all that controversial a position to take, but the notion that we have an obligation to understand how and why people become radicalized is, in this day and age, fairly contentious.

We tend not to think about these people until they’ve done whatever horrible thing they’re going to be remembered for, until their radicalization reaches its bloody apex. I wanted to write about everything that comes before that point.

What inspired the story’s central allegory? What real or fictional precedents shaped it? What does history teach us about cultures fractured by moral bankruptcy? What does progress mean for a divided nation?

The closest I can come to a genesis moment for the novel, or at least when I first started thinking about the ideas that would lead me to write the novel, is a distant recollection I have of watching a news interview many years ago.

This was early in the days of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and there had just been widespread protests in several Afghan villages against the US military presence. The person being interviewed was some kind of foreign affairs expert (I don’t remember if it was on CNN or some other news network) and the interviewer asked him something to the effect of “Why do they hate us so much?”

As part of his answer, the expert noted that sometimes the U.S. special forces have to go into these villages and conduct nighttime raids looking for insurgents, and that during these raids they will sometimes ransack the villagers’ houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. And then he helpfully added, “And you know, in Afghan culture that sort of thing is considered very offensive.”

I remember thinking, name me one culture on Earth that wouldn’t consider this sort of thing offensive.

That’s when I first started thinking about a story that would transpose the effects of conflict, take suffering that to the Western world is very distant and make it immediate, close to home. The point being to argue that, were we to find ourselves on the losing end of a war, on the receiving end of mass violence, we would behave much the same way.

I think all nations are divided to a certain extent, the modern concept of the nation-state being largely arbitrary to begin with. I think a divided nation can survive, but only if it honestly acknowledges its divisions and the reasons for them. Any nation that refuses to do so inevitably commits violence against itself.

What false assumptions do we make about the psychology of extremism? How can we better understand those whose views we oppose? Once we do, what comes next?

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do while speaking about my novel this year is argue that it is possible—even necessary—to make an effort to understand why somebody will resort to acts of great evil, and that to understand does not mean to condone or support. I think we’ve been conditioned, especially in the last 16 years, to reject the idea that our enemies can have motivations more complex than searing, mindless hatred. But I think we have an obligation to understand how somebody can be made evil, how damage begets damage. I’m not sure there’s any other way to go about putting an end to evil than to understand the way it takes shape.

As for what comes next, I don’t know. I’m not a diplomat or a politician or an expert of any kind. I only know that, if a solution to the great violence of our age exists, an understanding of the motivations of those we hate and those who hate us is a necessary prerequisite.

How did your reporting influence your fiction, and vice versa? How did you research the book? What did your creative process look like?

A lot of the things I experienced during my 10 years of journalism made their way into the book. In some cases, the influence was superficial. For example, the layout of the refugee camp in the novel is based on scenery from the NATO airfield in Kandahar and the military base in Guantanamo Bay. One chapter in the book, which takes place in a detention camp called Sugarloaf, is also based on things that took place in the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. facilities.

In other cases, the influence is less overt. Thematically, much of the novel is predicated on the idea of symmetry, the notion that we are more alike than different. This, in turn, was influenced by many of the echoes I saw when covering stories all over the globe. For example, two of the most important stories I covered—the Arab Spring protests in Cairo and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson—contained many of the same elements, from the heavily militarized police presence to the masses who were so fed up with systemic injustice they risked facing down that presence.

I wrote the novel while I was still working full-time as a journalist, and so I wrote almost exclusively between the hours of midnight and five in the morning, and did most of my editing on the weekends. It was a difficult schedule to keep for the full year it took me to write the first draft, but writing fiction is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, and it was important to me that, even if American War didn’t end up being a good book, that it still be the best book I could make it.

What role does journalism play in society? How is it changing? What role does speculative fiction play and how is it changing?

Journalism, more than any other organ of society, defends civic accountability. It is the means by which we calibrate common truths, and the light we shed on those who would deliberately distort or ignore those truths.

We live in an age where many of the most powerful human beings on this planet—including members of the current Presidential administration—seem to no longer register any distinction between the truth and what they’d like the truth to be. This is an incredibly dangerous state of affairs, and journalism is our best defense against it.

That’s why it’s so disheartening to see the journalism industry’s entire business model essentially upended by various technology companies that appear to have no concern whatsoever for what long-term damage a society bereft of good journalism will suffer. I’m not sure anyone has figured out a good way for traditional media outlets to make enough money to support strong journalism, and I think a lot of powerful people are going to get away with a lot of misconduct as a result.

Speculative fiction to me is a kind of extrapolation. Ironically, of all literary genres, I think it is one of the most concerned with the present moment, even though speculative fiction novels tend to be set in some distant future or alternate timeline. That said, I think the term has become a little too easy to dismiss in this age when reality often feels more fictional than fiction. I tend to think of my work more as dislocative fiction—I take things that happened to people far away and I make them happen to people close to home.

What books, fiction or nonfiction, have shaped the way you see the world? What avenues would you recommend readers explore after finishing American War?

I grew up reading a lot of American writers, and American writers are still among my favorite – from Melville and Faulkner to Baldwin and Morrison. Many of my favorite young writers are also American, including Garth Greenwell, whose novel What Belongs to You is one of the most beautiful and honest love stories I’ve ever read.

The book that influenced me most when I was writing American War was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (whose novel A Death in the Family is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read). It’s an account of several sharecroppers living in the South around the time of the Great Depression, and it remains one of the great masterworks in its obsessive, careful chronicling of a life.

American War feels like a natural extension of the country’s current engineered turmoil. What can Americans do today to avoid living the future that the novel portrays?

You know, even to this day, I don’t think of American War as primarily an American novel. The novel is set in an allegorical America, but the elements of the story belong to other people. In that sense, I never intended American War to function as a kind of prophecy, and I certainly hope it never proves prophetic. (After all, I live in this country and so would much rather it not tear itself apart.)

I think, despite all the mythology around American exceptionalism, the recipe for avoiding ruin in this country is no different than in any other country. It contains only two ingredients: ensure that your systems of power reflect the diversity of your population as a whole, and acknowledge the entirety of your history, no matter how painful.


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Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.
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