Omar El Akkad is an award-winning journalist and author, who has traveled around the world covering news stories from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt to military trials at Guantànamo Bay and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. Born in Cairo, Egypt, Omar grew up in Doha, Qatar, studied at university in Canada, and now currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
His debut fiction (albeit eerily plausible) novel, American War, has us thinking about the future in the whole new kind of way, so we chatted with Omar to learn more about his foray into writing, the inspiration for his debut, along with some of his favourite bookish things!
Girly Book Club: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write this book?
Omar El Akkad: I’ve been an immigrant since the age of five, and have spent the vast majority of my life as a guest on someone else’s land. It’s that sense of being placeless that first marked my relationship with writing – and in particular with writing fiction. This ability to create a world on the page, to alter its contours to fit your own experience, no matter how unusual or underrepresented, it seemed to me as a child (and still seems to me now) a kind of magic.
I was inspired to write American War after watching an interview with a foreign affairs expert on one of the cable news networks a few years ago. The interview was taking place in the immediate aftermath of a set of protests in Afghanistan – local villagers were protesting against the U.S. military presence there. The question put to the expert was something like, “Why do they hate us so much?” and as part of his answer, the expert noted that sometimes the U.S. special forces have to conduct nighttime raids in these villages, during which time they may ransack the houses or hold the villagers at gunpoint. Then he helpfully added, “And, you know, in Afghan culture that sort of thing is very offensive.”
I remember thinking, name me one culture in the world that wouldn’t consider this sort of thing offensive. That was when I first had the idea to take some of the defining aspects of the wars of the past thirty years and transpose them to the other part of the world, the point being to argue that there is no such thing as an exotic form of suffering, that our reaction to being on the receiving end of war, the receiving end of damage, is universal.
GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?
OEA: I’ve long been of the opinion that literature is a form of weaponized empathy, a means by which a person can be made to look through a different set of eyes, and in doing so see the world another way. Except for cases where I feel the author is being deliberately malicious, I tend to like the vast majority of books I read, or at least learn something new from them. But I recently realized, to my alarm, that while I can talk for hours about the books I love, I can’t actually say why I love them. It’s something about the aftertaste of a book, the echo that remains in my mind after I finish the last page. It’s something ephemeral, a kind of need the book both creates and fulfills. A great book, I think, is both the storm and the lighthouse.
GBC: What are you doing if you’re not writing?
OEA: I’m a very, very amateur rock climber, and can often be found falling off the walls at my local gym. I’m a fan of big, dumb action movies and all kinds of cooking shows (apropos of nothing, the show Chef’s Table is one of the best profiles of obsessive personality I’ve seen in years). I recently started learning how to play guitar, but it’s not going great.
GBC: Name your favourite bookshop in the world.
OEA: I live in Portland, Oregon, one of the great bookstore cities in the world – home to Powell’s, Broadway Books, and a dozen other incredible bookshops. But I’ve never felt a sensation quite like walking into Shakespeare and Company in Paris on a Friday night – the cathedral lights rippling on the river outside, the ghosts wandering through the walls. It’s one of those places that could have easily parlayed its mythical status into a huge commercial operation, and never did. A treasure.
GBC: Physical book, e-book, or audiobook? – and why.
OEA: I’m very much a dead-tree kind of guy. I’m a very slow reader, and I only really work on one book at a time, so e-readers don’t do much for me. And when I’m reading, I’m always on the lookout for how an author puts words together, so I’m constantly re-reading sentences over and over again, which is difficult to do with audiobooks. I also like the smell of paper books, the way they change over time, the way they age.
GBC: What was your favourite book as a child?
OEA: The first English-language author I read religiously was Stephen King, who I still think is one of the all-time greats at making the reader absolutely need to know what happens next. The first book to knock me out without using any tricks, simply through storytelling, was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. That was the book that stayed with me the most throughout childhood, until I stumbled onto Toni Morrison’s work a few years later, and her writing changed my life.
GBC: We’re always on the hunt for our next great read. Recommend us a book to add to our TBR pile!
OEA: The best book I read last year was The Long Take by Robin Robertson – a novel-length noir poem set in L.A. in the years following the second world war. It’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, and every other line stopped me dead in my tracks. I honestly can’t even tell you what it’s about, only that it pulled me completely into its world, and I didn’t want to leave.
GBC: What is one movie, TV series, or podcast that you’re loving right now?
OEA: I think Bojack Horseman has been one of the best things on TV for the past few years, even though it’s still strange to me that the best contemporary cultural depiction of narcissism and loneliness is a cartoon about a talking horse.
Even if you have no interest in rock-climbing, I would strongly recommend the documentary Free Solo, which chronicles the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale a 3000-foot vertical cliff without any safety equipment. It is one of the most impressive athletic achievements in human history, and this documentary does it justice.