5 Questions with Omar El Akkad, Author of American War

Very excited to welcome Omar El Akkad to City Lights this Thursday, April 20th at 7:00PM. He’ll be in conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom, discussing his book American War published by Knopf. Omar answered our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

The Event: Thursday, April 20th, 7:00PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133. Free and open to the public.

About American War: An audacious and powerful debut novel. A second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

About Omar El Akkad: Omar El Akkad, formerly of the Globe and Mail, is an award-winning journalist and author who has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Egypt and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. He is a recipient of the National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting for his coverage on the “Toronto 18” terrorism arrests. He has also received the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. He is a graduate of Queen’s University.

About Micheline Aharonian Marcom: Micheline Aharonian Marcom  is the author of five books including the critically acclaimed trilogy of novels: Three Apples Fell from Heaven (2001), The Daydreaming Boy (2004) which earned her the 2004 Lannan Literary Fellowship as well as the 2005 PEN/USA Award for Fiction, and Draining the Sea (2008). She currently teaches Creative Writing at Mills College and is also on the faculty of the Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing Program.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Omar El Akkad: Every time I go to San Francisco (and I spent four years as a technology industry reporter, so I’ve been to San Francisco a lot) I go to City Lights. I buy a copy of Howl and I take moody pictures in Jack Kerouac Alley. I own a City Lights hoodie. Hell, I once took a road trip from Toronto to San Francisco, and the first thing I did when I arrived was go to City Lights. So, yeah, I’m a fan.

City Lights:What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

Omar El Akkad: I guess the first book I ever read was an introduction to the Arabic language. It featured a boy and a girl–I think their names were Salma and Hamad, but I don’t remember anymore–and it taught various simple grammar and language concepts via the duo’s assorted adventures. Salma and Hamad led a life composed almost exclusively of simple, straightforward tasks. They started life on the first page standing alone in an existential void and by the end of the book had somehow acquired a working farm.

As for what I’m reading right now, I was recently asked for comment by a reporter working on a story about The Handmaid’s Tale, which prompted me to re-read that absolute miracle of a book. I’m about to start The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, which my friend chose as our book club’s April selection, and is one of those instances where I get to dive into a book knowing absolutely nothing about it.

City Lights: Which 3 books would you never part with?

Omar El Akkad: Lake Effect: An Anthology of Work by the Creative Writing Students at Queen’s University – A million years ago, my college creative writing class published an anthology of our writing. A mediocre short story, whose details I can barely remember, was my contribution. It was the first time I ever saw my fiction in a published book. The print run was tiny and we were each given about a dozen copies to sell. I kept all of mine.

The Great Canadian Novel by Nelson J. Peters – Nelson, an old friend of mine from college, was the first person I knew personally whose writing felt special. He wrote this book a long time ago, and I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s about. It’s unpublished and probably un-publishable and I can’t imagine what kind of drugs he must have been on when he wrote huge chunks of it, but I love it. I have about five copies in my library at home and I suspect that makes me the biggest single distributor of this novel in the United States.

Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) – My father, who died a few years ago, loved this 20-volume collection of 10th-century Arabic poetry more than any other work of literature. His copy, which I used to translate the epigraph that opens American War, sits in the basement library of our family home in Ottawa, occupying the entirety of a bookshelf. I think about him every time I see it.

City Lights: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

Omar El Akkad: For starters, I’d include three songs referenced directly in American War – the gospel hymn “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” (in particular, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s stunning version that appears in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary), a song called “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and “Slow Like Honey” by Fiona Apple. The latter plays during the book’s only love scene, and is one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard. There’s also a scene where a group of drunk Southern rebels are singing Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” albeit with altered lyrics. Finally, I’d include a song called “Interlude” by London Grammar. It’s not referenced directly in the book, but it always plays in my mind whenever I think about the protagonist’s final moments.

City Lights: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

Omar El Akkad: I have a vague recollection of hearing once about a restaurant, I think in Japan, where every customer could order anything on the menu, but the meal they were served was always whatever the previous customer ordered. I always liked the idea of opening a tiny bookstore where every customer comes in, asks for a book, and is given a copy of whatever the last customer asked for. Would such a store serve no useful purpose whatsoever? Yes. But would it go out of business almost immediately? Also yes.


Join us for an evening with Omar El Akkad, he’s in conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom about his new novel American War. Get it direct from the publisher, at City Lights, or ask for it at your local independent bookseller. More about Omar El Akkad here.

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