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Novel about second civil war echoes current divisions in America

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LISTEN: Novel about a second civil war echoes the divisions in America today

A Northwest-based author’s novel focuses on a fictional, second American civil war. But the story is informed by his research into modern America’s stark political differences.

“It’s strange to look at it from an outsider’s perspective,” Omar El Akkad told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “Part of viewing America from a distance is also trying to get a handle on the way that America views me. And trying to understand what it means to be brown, or to be different, or to be other in this country.”

El Akkad is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist. Based in Portland for about four years, he has studied America and its divisions leading up to, and after, the 2016 election. It led up to his debut novel “American War.”

El Akkad’s novel is set about 60 years into the future. America’s landscape is burdened by climate change and a second civil war has broken out. Sarat Chestnut, the main character, is six years old at the book’s beginning. The story depicts her upbringing and how she is shaped by her dysfunctional, war-torn surroundings.

It’s not too difficult to see the parallels between El Akkad’s fictional civil war and what he notices in modern America.

Divisions in America today

When talking to people before last year’s election in more liberal parts of the country, El Akkad found that almost no one expected Donald Trump to win. It seemed unfathomable that so many people would vote for the candidate.

“What I saw in the aftermath was just a lot of people trying to understand a country that clearly they hadn’t understood before,” he said. “I think this sense of not fully understanding all the different parts that make up your nation has been the sort of defining aspect of America this year.”

Not many of the seemingly deepening divisions between those different parts of our nation are actually new, El Akkad said, but they can be dangerous.

“I think it’s a difference in volume and a difference in permissiveness,” he said. “The Nazis that marched in Charlottesville didn’t show up here yesterday. They’ve been around for a long time. And what has changed is permission, the feeling that they can go out and do this.”

El Akkad said what concerns him most are the changes he sees to acceptable norms.

“The changes to what we consider normal, decent behavior,” he said.

As a Canadian citizen, El Akkad could leave America if he wanted to. But that’s not what he plans to do.

“When I talk this way, it sounds like I have nothing but distaste for this country, but this country has given me my favorite writers, my favorite movies, my favorite places on earth,” he said. “There are many Americas that I love and that I think are worth fighting for and worth listening to. And then there are the Americas that gave me Donald Trump and ‘All Lives Matter’ and the rest of that.”

“But again, there’s a reason I live in this part of the world. That I’m critical of it is only me exercising a right that I do not have in the places where I grew up,” he added.

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