An Interview with Novelist Omar El Akkad

By now most of you have probably read the United Nations’ IPCC report, or articles summarizing it. The report paints a bleak future, one rife with food shortages, violent weather patterns and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs.

I suppose the good news it that the report seems to have sparked a renewed sense of urgency among climate change communicators and activists. The work of artists and writers speaking out about climate change also seems to have gained more visibility in recent weeks.

Below you’ll find an interview with one of my favorite climate fiction writers, Omar El Akkad. His debut novel, American War, was released in 2017. Prior to writing the book he worked as a journalist, covering a range of stories, including the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolutions, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. In this interview we discuss his novel and its influences, as well as his thoughts on climate fiction more generally.

American War seems influenced by a robust understanding of science and your own experience as a reporter.

Yes, my novel centers on a Second Civil War, the cause of which is a rift over a federally mandated fossil fuel prohibition. By the time the prohibition comes about, however, climate change has already ravaged much of the United States. The ways in which climate change wreaks havoc on the country are in large part informed by my research into the ongoing effects of rising sea levels and global warming, including myriad interviews I conducted over the years with climate scientists working in communities where climate change is already causing serious damage, such as southern Louisiana and Florida.

Why does climate change interest you as a novelist?

I think it’s going to become increasingly impossible for novelists not to engage with climate change. It is a phenomenon that will come to alter every aspect of human life – not only our physical geography, but our emotional geography too. There will soon come a time when memory has to account for the changing of the land – some of the places where our memories took place will, by the end of our lives, either look completely different or not be around at all. A writer cannot write honest fiction and not take stock of such changes.

Why are fictional accounts of climate change important?

Fiction is, in many ways, the study of consequences – the consequences of the things we do to ourselves and the things we do to one another. As an author I am not interested in convincing anyone that the science behind climate change is real – I know it to be so and I am, from an emotional and psychological perspective, much more invested in exploring what our lives will look like as the planet changes around us. It’s important for fictional representations of climate change not to misrepresent the science behind the phenomenon, but what is of most interest, at least to me, is not the science, it’s the human consequences.

Who are some of your influences?

Among American writers, there are several I consider major influences, chief among them Toni Morrison, who I believe is the finest living American writer. When I was writing American War, I was most influenced by a book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee. It’s a nonfiction account of the lives of Depression-era Southern sharecroppers, and although it has little to do with American War in terms of narrative, it deeply influenced my sense of how important it is to capture the minute details of a life that would otherwise be very easy for the rest of the world to ignore.

Much of your work reads intersectionally along racial, gendered, and economic lines.  

That’s because I think many of the most cataclysmic implications of climate change will have serious consequences that play out along those lines. Some of the places that are most vulnerable to rising sea levels have also, historically, been on the receiving end of colonialism. And once the sea begins to swallow the land in, for example, Bangladesh, it will likely trigger massive waves of migration that, if the current Mediterranean crisis is any indication, will prompt stiff resistance from the predominantly white global North. It’s difficult to extrapolate from the current moment and come to any conclusion other than the worst ripple effects of climate change will include, at least in part, serious ethnic and racial violence.

What trends have you noticed emerging around depictions of climate change in popular culture?

Broadly, there seems to be a movement away from the macro to the micro. Instead of focusing on the drowning of entire cities or world-decimating climate events, a lot of creators seem to have become more concerned with the individual response to a changing planet – in terms of both physical and emotional survival. I think there’s a growing consensus that we have run out of time to stop global warming altogether, and that what is worth thinking about now is not whether our lives and the lives of our children will change, but how they will change.

What blind spots do you see in recent works of climate fiction?

It is still, overwhelmingly, focused on the West. Many of the worst climate change consequences will be felt in other parts of the planet, and yet we tend to center the experiences of Europe and North America in our fictional depictions of environmental crises (I am one of the writers at fault here). I think there needs to be serious consideration of what happens when climate change begins to intensely alter the landscape in some of the poorest places on Earth, and what that will mean for the people who live there.

American War is Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, available for purchase via Alfred A. Knopf.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 

One thought on “An Interview with Novelist Omar El Akkad

  1. Great interview! I love this novel. Omar’s concern about climate novels mostly existing in the West (or marketed mostly there) is also valid. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I have a newish series that addresses this concern at http://workshop.dragonfly.eco/world-ecofiction-series/. This world eco-fiction series journeys around the world to find novels exploring ecological concerns. It’s fun to do and I hope draws new readers.

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