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

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