Author Omar El Akkad talks about experiences as a journalist that influenced the writing of "American War," this year's Rochester Reads selection
CANANDAIGUA — A year ago, when author Omar El Akkad was contacted by Writers & Books about selecting his book, “American War,” for the Rochester Reads program, his first reaction was, why?
The dystopian novel set in the late 21st century about climate change, political upheaval, the decimation of a population and a family caught up in all of it — no wonder its description calls El Akkad’s story one of ruin, revenge and division.
“Why would you subject your readers to this stone-cold bummer of a book?” El Akkad jokingly told a crowd of about 100 people at Wood Library on Thursday.
The intent of the program is to pick a book of substance, one that hopefully prompts a discussion to begin once the book is closed, said Joe Flaherty, interim director of Writers & Books.
“It’s a dark book, but sometimes it really helps to recognize the darkness around us,” Flaherty said.
El Akkad, a native of Egypt who grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada, as a journalist covered some pretty dark stuff — the “Toronto 18” terrorism arrests, the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the impact of climate change on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, and Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
During his talk at the library Thursday, El Akkad dispensed with reading from his work, instead sharing his reporting “war” stories and how they informed “American War.”
During his two years of work for The Globe and Mail on the terrorism stories — for which he received Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting — he became intrigued by and reported on how someone becomes radicalized during a “very slow, meticulous” process that often starts innocuously, which he said shapes the arc of the novel — his first.
His experiences in Afghanistan shaped what he calls the “physical violence of wartime” and how losing a war is akin to moving back in time. For example, he shared a story of accompanying a team of doctors as they administered polio vaccines to young children in Kandahar.
“The notion of moving backward is built into the book,” El Akkad said. “I saw that most everywhere I went.”
His work in Guantanamo Bay showcased the bureaucratic violence of war; the use of the word "detainee" over "prisoner," for example, or how a New York Times article was censored on the Cuban base, even though it was widely available to anyone on the internet.
His work reporting on climate change in Southern Louisiana provided a major aspect of the work as well as a setting, although he said he doesn’t see his work — title notwithstanding — as an “American” book.
His work is more of an attempt to share stories of people from other parts of the war-torn world and place them here; or, as he said, putting people without a lot of volume into one of the loudest places on Earth, he said.
“It’s a book about universal experience and reaction to injustice,” said El Akkad, who also fielded questions from the audience and signed copies of his book..
Jan Starowitz of Canandaigua said the Rochester Reads program is a wonderful idea, and she enjoyed El Akkad’s talk and his book.
“Lots of times the books presented here are books we probably wouldn’t have read because the topics are maybe out of our genre,” Starowitz said.
Maureen Mulley, a former English teacher who lives in Pittsford, said she is a fan of dystopian literature. She appreciated hearing how his background experiences related to the book.
“I felt it was very timely,” Mulley said.