American War: A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Omar El Akkad
There is a moment in Omar El Akkad’s novel American War when protagonist Sarat Chestnut considers what she has come to understand about war. Her conclusion: ‘that the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language’. It’s a sentiment that runs arterially through this fierce, unforgiving and unforgettable debut novel: a prevailing sense of war as a terrible, universal leveller.
That the book’s themes so closely mirror America’s current political and social division, is something author Omar El Akkad never anticipated. “My intent”, he says “was never really to tell a story about the future, in fact my intent was never really to tell a story about America. I wanted to tell a story that said that the way these people on the other side of the planet react to being on the losing side of a war is not entirely different from the way you or I would react if we had the misfortune of living in a place that was on the losing end of a war. I certainly never intended this as prophecy and if it seems that way it’s only because reality is starting to impose itself on the realm of the fictional.”
Set in the near-future transformed by catastrophic climate change, this is not America as we know it, but a fractured nation caught on the back foot, wounded and turning on itself. As the country implodes and the seams of long-held, deeply embittered divisions turn to bloody open warfare, one woman’s life is moulded by the conflict as she gradually becomes a powerful and emblematic instrument of war.
It is this woman, Sarat Chestnut, who defines American War and El Akkad is clear that the story is, first and foremost, hers. “She just turned up,” he says, “I had this image of a six year old girl sitting on the porch of her house, pouring honey into the knots in the wood and once she arrived suddenly everything changed. She showed up and the book became hers, it became hers before it was anything else.”
Physically imposing, striking and uncompromising, Sarat – half-black, half-Mexican, the child of a newly reborn nation of the rebel South – is a character adrift in a nation adrift. Like Akkad himself who was born in Egypt, educated in Canada and now lives in the US, she has no single answer to the question ‘where do I come from’. “She doesn’t have anything in common with me apart from a sense of un-rootedness,” the author says. “I come from one part of the world, I grew up in another part, my background is very different from the culture in which I was educated and it’s that sense that you come from different backgrounds which reflects the book too, the book is unanchored.”
Sarat’s metamorphosis from an eager, strong and open-minded child to a broken, militarised adult provides an unflinchingly honest depiction of a holistic process of radicalisation. “The overarching statement of the book,” El Akkad explains, “has to do with the idea of revenge being universal and damage begetting damage but one of the things I really wanted to do was to get out the middle of the race. When we see people who have been radicalised we tend to see them at the finish line, we see the carnage they’re going to cause, we very rarely see all of the events that came up to that point. So, to my mind, American War is very much a story of that process. What I was interested in was how Sarat Chestnut gets to be the way she is at the end of the book and in the end I didn’t want to create a character that people liked or sympathised with or apologised for, I just wanted them to understand how she got to be that way.
“Part of that had to do with the idea of just how relatively irrelevant the central conflict in the book really is. In a superficial sense this is a book about a war between two sides, the Reds and the Blues, the North and the South and yet that relationship, in terms of its importance, is at the bottom of the list. I wanted to get at that idea that human relationships between people tend to be so much more important than any kind of overriding ‘us versus them’.”
That the novel so utterly belongs to Sarat is a reflection of El Akkad’s skill in reflecting human experience alongside the relentless machine of war and the grinding effects of bureaucracy. This is, in part, aided by the deft interlacing of fictional historical documents into the story, something the author drew from his experiences as a journalist. Originally, El Akkad says he never intended these to form part of the book, but instead wrote them as an authorial map, a familiar way for him to navigate the world he had created. Yet over time they became a key component of creating a sense of authenticity, something El Akkad feels is essential to a novel like this.
“I knew it had to feel true,” he says, “but I also knew it couldn’t be a direct, accurate re-enactment. I wasn’t bound to a kind of iron-clad accuracy. The only thing I was bound to was this idea of not toning it down. I had to describe these things with the same degree of intensity as they had in real life because these weren’t things I was making up in terms of the concepts. Once I created that mandate with myself to be honest about these things I had no choice, I couldn’t tone it down.”
It’s an idea which feeds into the way American War translates the power of imagination to shape reality, in particular the cultural disconnect between how, collectively, a nation sees itself - the world they imagine they inhabit – and reality. It’s an idea particular resonant in the story’s interrogation of war’s most pernicious myth: proactive aggression is the only thing keeping the wolf from the door. It’s a theme that is ever more acutely pertinent at a time when western society is dominated by the crisis of ‘post-truth’ politics. It’s something El Akkad recognises as a key problem in America’s perception of itself.
“I grew up in Egypt,” he explains, “and almost all my cultural education was American. Then I came to live in America and I realised that there is a glaring chasm between what the mainstream of this country believes itself to be and what it really is and a lot of that traces back to the two foundational sins of this country: the genocide that costs the lives of indigenous people who populated this country before white folk showed up and the enslavement of millions of black human beings on the backs of which this country became one of the economic powerhouses of the world.
“There is, almost as a self-defence mechanism, a need for many people in this country to see these things as temporary aberrations and that they happened a long time ago and whatever evil they may have caused is all over now. Then there’s the reality and the reality is that the history which had its bloody apex in the Civil War is still alive today and it’s alive in segregated communities and in gerrymandering and in the crazy discrepancy between the skin colour of people who live in certain communities and the skin colour of the people who police and run those communities. Trump isn’t some kind of temporary aberration, people didn’t just make this mistake, this is a reaction against the first black president and this goes back a lot further than that. That to me is a lot of what America is about, this idea of what you really are versus what you’d like to believe you are. In a sense, the book has to do with that, that sense of what happens to people when they can no longer distinguish between the truth and what they would like the truth to be. To my mind those are the most dangerous people on earth, people who can no longer tell the difference.”
Above all, American War is a compelling reminder of the lasting power of language and stories to become part of a nation’s history, lodged deeply within cultural psyche long after the guns have quieted and the dead are silent. It’s a sentiment neatly summarised in a line in the novel: “You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.”
“That line in particular,” El Akkad says, “came to me when I was writing a piece about climate change. I drove into Georgia and I saw this giant billboard and all it said was ‘Secede’ and it got me thinking about how often, after the blood and guts conflict, the stories that first prompted these wars tend to survive the wars themselves. We’re talking about a sentiment from a 150-year-old conflict that was decisively won by one side, and yet the losing side escaped with their stories intact to the point where I live in a country now where there are more monuments to the perpetrators of slavery than its victims, even though the side that was pro-slavery lost the war. The American Civil War wasn’t a war of us versus them, it was a war of us versus us, and the stories remain alive. People say to me ‘if you were going to write a book about a second American civil war, wouldn’t race be the cause of it?’ and in my mind it couldn’t be, because the first Civil War isn’t over yet, they’re still fighting that war. So that’s what was in my mind: if the stories survive, the war is never really over.”
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