Introduction for Omar El Akkad
February 17, 2019
by Virginia Bellis Brandabur
Our first reader, Omar El Akkad, has said that he “likes to tell the stories that are easier not to tell.” As an award-winning journalist, Omar laid bare the environmental disaster that is Louisiana, its “ghost forest of dead oaks, their branches like smoothed bone, victims of unbearable salinity.” He wrote of Ferguson, “a bruised and living illustration of what happens when the three central maladies of the United States – racism, poverty and violence – intersect.” And he called out the paradox that is Guantanamo Bay, “a U.S. base in Cuba that isn’t part of the U.S. or Cuba; a legal system whose very legality is disputed; a prison where there are no prisoners.”
When Omar turned from reporting facts to posing questions – that is, to writing fiction – he didn’t leave the uneasy stories behind. His short story, “Trail,” takes two Saudi Arabian students on a drive into the “vastness of the Oregon woodland” with the perilous undertone of a horror film, along the way forcing them – and us – to examine the constructs we call home and family and freedom. “What freedom existed in this place,” his character realizes, “was no freedom at all, simply the sound of a million contradictory stories colliding, endless narratives predicated on the elimination of others.”
In Omar’s debut novel, American War, his protagonist asks, “What was safety anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?” In the world of this story, that safety is gone: we are the targets of our own deadly weapons, the victims of our own cruel policies. American War asserts that human response to violence and suffering is universal; when bombs drop unpredictably from the sky to annihilate a future, there is no question, pain and grief and rage will be the same. Yet Omar didn’t write this as a cautionary tale, but rather to help us feel what is already happening in our world, to take us from universal suffering toward a universal empathy. How else to move from war and retribution toward peace and justice for all, if not through sharing stories that are so hard to tell?
Please welcome Omar El Akkad.
* Omar read from his story, “Riverbed,” published in the recently released anthology, A People’s Future of the United States.