TORONTO — Omar El Akkad has made the transition from print journalist to novelist with "American War," but his previous dispatches from the front lines helped colour his dark imagining of a futuristic postwar America.
The Cairo-born writer grew up in Doha, Qatar and later relocated to Canada when he was 16. The Queen's University graduate continued his globetrotting during a decade with the Globe and Mail. His reporting included on-the-ground stories about the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Mo.
Sights, sounds and even smells from his international assignments lingered and helped to define key details of his debut novel, a haunting portrait of late 21st century America following a second civil war.
"What I wanted to do is take these conflicts that had defined the world during my lifetime — and which happened to be conflicts that the United States was involved (with) either from great distance or indirectly — and recast them as elements of something immediate from which it was impossible to look away," said El Akkad, who now lives in Portland, Ore.
A sprawling tent city that's home to refugees in the novel, dubbed Camp Patience, borrows from recollections of El Akkad's past work and travels.
"There's a lot of references in Camp Patience to things I either had studied or heard about when I was growing up in the Middle East, or went to," said El Akkad, adding Guantanamo Bay and a NATO airfield in Kandahar served as inspirations.
The central figure of "American War" (McClelland and Stewart) is Sarat Chestnut, a tomboy who lives with her twin sister Dana, older brother Simon and their parents in flood-ridden Louisana, which has been wracked by extreme climate change.
Sarat is only six years old in 2075 when war breaks out. After her father is killed, Sarat, her siblings and their mother, Martina, are forced to flee in the direction of Camp Patience, which is divided along state lines. While there, Sarat meets a mysterious figure named Albert Gaines, a radicalized military veteran who takes her under his wing.
El Akkad covered the Toronto 18 terrorism plot in 2006, and said attributes ascribed to Gaines are based on characteristics of real-life terrorist recruiters.
"Finding people who are bullied at school and don't fit in ... who are very, very religious and prone to zealotry, he comes from that fold of people," said El Akkad. "What was more important to me about him is that he be charming, and that the reader have a slightly difficult time to find out if he sincerely cared about Sarat or not. Those to me are his defining characteristics."
El Akkad said he sees the novel as an anti-war story, which shows the depths people may plunge to when confronted by extreme hardships.
"Really, what I wanted to write about in the book was this sense of suffering being universal. There's no foreign ways of suffering," said El Akkad.
"You or I or anybody else subjected to enough evil will become evil ourselves, and we'll become evil in largely the same way. We'll become vengeful in the same way. So, by the end of the book I wanted to have a fundamentally evil character.
"I got asked the question: 'Are we supposed to sympathize with her?' I said, 'No, you're not. You're not supposed to sympathize with her at the end.' AlI I want you to do is understand how she got to the place that she's at."
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Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press