Stuck in dystopia
American War Omar El Akkad McClelland & Stewart
After 10 years reporting on humanitarian dumpster fires the world over, Omar El Akkad has decided to give fiction a shot.
He had toured Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Palestine on a self-started stint of feature writing well off his paid beat as a Globe and Mail tech writer. So you might have called writing his debut novel, American War, a catharsis — except it’s a dystopian vision set in 2075 after climate change, civil strife and biological warfare have reduced the U.S. to near-Third World status.
So in some ways, maybe it’s not so far after all from that other news writing.
El Akkad is exhausted. “If the sun’s up, I’m tired. I function mostly at night,” he says.
If anyone were fit to write a world of war, terrorism, climactic demise and deadly biological weaponry, it makes sense that it might be El Akkad. He’s observed and recounted tragedy around the globe — from Middle America to urban battlegrounds a few oceans eastward, earning a National Newspaper Award and other honours.
He’s a hungry journalist, starving even, never quite right for the roles assigned to keep him on mastheads — tech editor, finance reporter — but he begs his higher-ups for foreign work as deftly as he writes it.
“I think I had $5 in my savings account when I became a finance reporter,” he says. “I was never a great fit for that beat.”
El Akkad pitched his editors for a feature on the 18 men arrested in Toronto’s 2006 terrorism sweep, a story earning him name and acclaim nationwide. It’s a brand of immersive reporting he seems to enjoy more than whatever day-to-day coverage he’s assigned on the clock.
American War is actually his fourth novel, though the first three, he says, “won’t ever see the light of day.”
But for all their struggle, at least those early works kept El Akkad writing fiction — even though he calls it an exercise in self-loathing.
“Writing, for me,” he says, “is just an ongoing anxiety attack.”
Omar El Akkad