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The Power of Fiction to Change Beliefs: An Interview with Omar El Akkad

[1]Several years ago, I got into an argument with a friend who tried to convince me climate change was a hoax, based, in part, on his reading of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear, a 2004 thriller with a climate change denier as the main character. My friend tried to make a case against climate science based on a work of fiction Publishers Weekly called “half anti-global warming screed and half adventure yarn.”

I think that was the moment I realized how powerful fiction can be in shaping beliefs and attitudes. Fiction invites us to see through someone else’s eyes and live convincingly in their world. The emotions writers invoke can change our minds and hearts.

Fiction has power. How we chose to wield that power matters.

Although the concept of writing about climate change isn’t new, Cli-Fi novels have been garnering more attention in recent years. It’s no wonder, given 2018’s Bomb Cyclones, hurricanes Florence and Michael, and devastating wildfires, as well as the quieter stories of diminishing water resources, species migration, and agricultural disruption around the world.

Considering the dire future we face, I started to wonder if authors tackling stories that engage climate change carry an added burden of responsibility. Does the science have to be real? Do the characters and story matter more than the message? Or vice versa?

To find some answers, I reached out to author Omar El Akkad [2], whose 2018 debut novel American War (Knopf) takes place in the late twenty-first century in the wake of a second US civil war. Coastlines have shifted as a result of sea level rise. Fossil fuels have been outlawed. Reading American War felt eerily like peeking at US history that just hasn’t happened yet. El Akkad is an award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist currently living in Oregon. American War won the 2018 Ken Kesey Award and the 2018 Pacific Northwest Book Award.

Julie Carrick Dalton: Omar, congratulations on the success of American War, and thank you for joining us here on Writer Unboxed. When you first started drafting American War, were you more motivated by the characters, the story, or a message you wanted to relate?

Omar El Akkad: I started with a thesis statement of sorts – that suffering, and our reaction to suffering, is universal. I wanted to write about the nature of revenge, the ways in which damage begets damage. What I had was something that, to be honest, was much more of a foundation for something like an essay. It wasn’t until I started building the world of American War that the more novelistic aspects of the project began to come together. Then one day, out of nowhere, this image of a young girl pouring honey into the knots of the wood on her front porch came to me. That girl was Sarat Chestnut, and as soon as she arrived, everything else took a backseat. Quickly American War became her story, first and foremost, and stayed that way until the end.

JCD: Many climate stories are told in silos. They address a specific impact of rising seas, or flood risk in a particular region, political unrest, the fate of fossil fuels, extinctions, etc. In American War, you engage race, political borders, geopolitics, issues of identity, etc., as part of a richly woven tapestry. Can you discuss why you wanted to tell a bold, sweeping story with so many elements?

OEA: I have to admit that there is a particular aspect of climate change I do deny, and that is this notion that it exists as a discrete entity, offset and separable from the rest of our human flaws and ruinous endeavors. I find it very difficult to explore climate change in of itself, as opposed to a consequence of myriad other misadventures that have led us to this point, and that’s in large part how climate change is framed in American War. I’m not sure if I did it properly, or if I spent too much or too little time exploring any one of the many causes and consequences of the climate disaster, but I always wanted the book to focus more on the symptoms than the disease.

JCD:  When authors take on stories with climate themes, is their responsibility any different than that of other fiction writers?

OEA: I honestly don’t think so. Climate change, perhaps more so than love or memory or loss, has a very strong journalistic non-fiction component – by which I mean you’re very likely on any given day to pick up a newspaper and find a report on something to do with climate change. But that doesn’t mean that climate change fiction doesn’t have to contend with the central question with which all fiction must contend – what it means to be human. I think it’s important for climate change fiction not to misrepresent the science behind the phenomenon, but I think it’s far more important not to misrepresent the emotion behind it either. When rising seas take someone’s hometown away, that isn’t just a cold scientific thing, it’s so much more than that. I also think it’s going to become much more difficult for writers of any kind of fiction not to address climate change. It’s interwoven into pretty well every facet of human existence, and so must be addressed.

JCD: In real life, the effects of climate change tend to impact vulnerable, marginalized people first and worst. How do you think the literary community, in general, is handling issues of race, gender, identity, immigration, indigenous rights, and socioeconomics in climate fiction?

OEA: We live in a world with gatekeepers, and I think my answer to that question is focused overwhelmingly on those gatekeepers. In truth, there are lots of writers doing absolutely exceptional work on issues of race, class, systemic discrimination, disability and myriad other issues that are generally easier for a lot of folks not to talk about. But only a small, small subset of those writers are getting published, and an even smaller subset are getting serious marketing support. I think it’s telling that we so often see these moments where absolutely incredible, groundbreaking work comes out of a certain genre, and it’s almost always a genre that the traditional literary gatekeepers have momentarily ignored or not taken seriously. A few years ago it was young adult fiction, and right now it feels like poetry is going through a similar moment. I think our mass-published literature will always look and sound like the people who decide what gets published, and when the makeup of that demographic becomes more diverse, it’ll be a good thing for every part of the literary community.

JCD: In American War, echoes of the real US Civil War ring loud. You offer parallels, in that the South separates itself on issues related to reliance on fossil fuels in a similar way that the South seceded from the Union based on reliance on the economics of slavery. Why did you choose to tell this story with a protagonist from the South rather than from the North?

OEA: I wanted to tell a story about the universal nature of revenge, the way damage begets damage, and so it was necessary to tell the book from the point of view of the loser of a war. In the majority of its modern experiences with foreign conflict, the United States has seen the story told from the victor’s standpoint. And this, I think, has allowed for a certain kind of obliviousness toward the other, the person who has to live on the receiving end of all those bombs and drones and “collateral damage.” American War was my attempt to destroy that obliviousness. For me to do that, I needed to center the loser’s perspective, and make sure the loser couldn’t be dismissed as someone foreign, as someone far away.

JCD: Do you have any advice for fiction writers trying to tackle stories related to climate change?

OEA: I would urge writers to keep in mind something I think William Gibson once said – the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. There’s a tendency to think of climate change as a thing that’s on the way, and certainly in many respects it is. But it’s also here. There’s nothing hypothetical about climate change if you live in Fiji or Louisiana or Florida. Climate change fiction doesn’t have to be speculative fiction.

JCD:  And lastly, I’m dying to know, are you working on anything new? If so, can you offer any hints?

OEA: I have a short story coming out in the anthology A People’s Future of the United States, which will be published in early February. I also recently finished a first draft of a new manuscript, but it’s nothing like American War, and I have no idea if it’ll ever see the light of day, so I’ll keep the details to myself for now.

JCD: Thank you for your time and best of luck on the new book.

I’d love to hear what other readers and writers think. Can a novel change a reader’s attitude about topics such as climate change? Have you ever read a novel that changed or challenged your perspective on a weighty topic? If so, what novel? What issues did it make you reconsider?

About Julie Carrick Dalton [3]

Julie Carrick Dalton [4] is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is forthcoming from Forge Books (Macmillan) in January 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.