LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Writer Omar El Akkad spent much of his career as a journalist covering the many revolutions and wars in the Middle East for Canada's Globe and Mail. His debut novel, though, is set in a United States that is riven by conflict.
It's 2075, and America has been beset by flooding linked to climate change. The president has banned the use of fossil fuels. The southern states have broken away looking to protect the coal mining industry, and a rabid civil war is taking place. Omar El Akkad joins us now to talk about the dystopian world he created in his new book "American War" and what inspired it. Welcome to the program.
OMAR EL AKKAD: Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The main character of the book is a young girl. Her name is Sarat Chesnut. She lives in Louisiana in what is known in the book as the free southern state. Who is she at the beginning of the novel?
EL AKKAD: She - of all the characters I've written, she's the only one who came to me sort of fully formed. At the start of the book, she's six years old. And to me, she's sort of this very curious, trusting, defiant young girl whose chief attribute is this kind of rebellion against unknowing. She wants to know as much as possible. And the central arc of the book is essentially her life and how her desire to know - her curiosity is sort of used against her during this war.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sarat is forced to flee with her family, and she ends up in a vast refugee camp where she gets recruited, essentially. She becomes a weapon in this civil war, and she's kind of transformed by hate. She seems like she's not exactly a heroine that you'd read about in "The Hunger Games" but something rather darker.
EL AKKAD: Yeah. I didn't want to write a book with good guys and bad guys and a clear dividing line between them. The idea behind writing it when I first started had to do with the idea of the universality of revenge. There's no sort of foreign way of suffering - that any of us subjected to enough evil will become evil ourselves.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this a book about how someone becomes a terrorist?
EL AKKAD: In part. I talk about this as a sort of - as a Genesis moment for the book. But I remember distinctly I was watching this interview with a foreign affairs expert. And it was in the wake of the - there had been these sort of protests in an Afghan village against the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
And the interviewer's question was something along the lines of, why do they hate us so much? And as part of his answer, this expert noted that sometimes the U.S. forces have to go conduct these nighttime raids in these villages. And when they do this, they'll sometimes have to hold the women and children up at gunpoint. And they'll tear the places apart. And then he added, you know, in Afghan culture, this sort of thing is considered very offensive.
And I thought, you know, name me one culture on earth that wouldn't consider this sort of thing offensive? And so part of the book is - has to do with this idea that we all suffer the same way, and we become damaged by suffering in the same way regardless of which part of the world we grew up in or what we believe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the most jarring scenes in the book is of a massacre at the refugee camp. It reminds me of massacres we've heard about in the Middle East like Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. She also ends up captured - Sarat - and tortured for years in what is obviously a clear reference to Guantanamo. Did you base it on these real events? I mean, you've covered them. You write about massacres as someone who has reported on them.
EL AKKAD: A lot of it was based on things I'd researched, things I'd seen. What I did was, essentially, just dress up the past and the present in different clothes. I mean, I never set out to write a novel about the future. A lot of this is stuff that happened. It just - it happened to people who are fairly far away.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It reminds me - you know, Joseph Conrad said he wanted to write the "Heart Of Darkness" as nonfiction, but he thought no one would ever believe the horrors taking place in the Belgian Congo, so he decided to write it as fiction. Do you think that's why you wrote your book this way because as you say, rightly, there are horrors of war being enacted in other parts of the world?
EL AKKAD: There's not much in here that's fully unanchored from something that happened in the real world. And I - it was interesting for me because I spent the last 10 years writing nonfiction. I've spent last years - 10 years writing journalism. And so it's very interesting for me to take that world and recast it as something fictional. But there's nothing here that doesn't have some kind of analog in the world in something that really happened.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the end of the book, we see the main character turn into, essentially, a biological weapon. And I'm wondering, are we supposed to have sympathy for her at the end? Are we supposed to understand her road to this very terrible act that she commits?
EL AKKAD: I don't think you're supposed to have sympathy for her. My only hope is that you understand why she did it. I think one of the things that's been lost in this incredibly sort of polarized world we live in is the idea that it's possible to understand without taking somebody's side.
And so my only hope is that when you get to the end of the book, you're not on her side. You don't support her. You're not willing to apologize for her, but you understand how she got to the place where she is.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Omar El Akkad - his debut novel is "American War." Thanks so much for joining us.
EL AKKAD: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.