Friday, March 31, 2017

India’s ‘Phone Romeos’ Look for Ms. Right via Wrong Numhers, a NYT article by India correspondent Ellen Barry

LUCKNOW, India — In a glass-sided call center, police constables clicketyclack on computer keyboards, on the trail of a particularly Indian sort of criminal.
The “phone Romeo,” as he is known here, calls numbers at random until he hears a woman’s voice, in the hope of striking up a romantic attachment. Among them are overeager suitors (“Can I recharge your mobile?”), tremulous supplicants (“I am talking to you, madam, but my body is shaking”) and the occasional heavy breather (“I want to do the illegal things with you”).
Intentionally dialing wrong numbers is a labor-intensive way to find a girlfriend. But it is increasingly common in a range of countries — Morocco, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and India are examples — where traditional gender segregation has collided head-on with a wave of cheap new technology.
India is justly proud of its mobile-phone revolution. Call tariffs are among the world’s cheapest, and competition has sent the price of broadband plummeting. An estimated 680 million Indians use cellphones now, with three million new ones coming online every month. India’s leaders promote mobile platforms as a sign of social progress, a better way to distribute subsidies and obtain information about health care and agricultural conditions.
An unintended consequence is that social barriers between men and women are collapsing. Reports of phone stalking have increased exponentially, leading to growing complaints of harassment. But an unknown number of such calls are successful, resulting in what an American anthropologist has labeled “wrong-number relationships.”
“It’s a new thing,” said Julia Q. Huang, a fellow in the anthropology department of the London School of Economics, who has written a scholarly paper on the practice among young women in Bangladesh. “It’s covert, it’s risky, it’s experimenting with that outside world which they don’t have much access to.”
At the police call center in Lucknow, in northern India, roughly 700 calls come in every day, mostly from women complaining of persistent calls from strange men. The Hindustan Times recently reported that phone recharging outlets were selling the numbers of young women to interested men, charging 500 rupees, about $7.60, for a “beautiful” girl and 50 rupees for an “ordinary” one.
Recently, a complaint came from Geetika Chakravarty, 24, a makeup artist who grew up traveling the world with her father, a diplomat. After she returned to India from Canada last year, she posted her phone number in the contact section of a salon’s Facebook page and received so many calls from unknown men that she blocked 200 separate numbers
“I do not know what their mind-set is,” she said. “Sometimes they call and say, ‘I love you.’ Sometimes they call and say, ‘I want to talk to Sonia,’ and I would say, ‘I am not Sonia,’ and they would say, ‘O.K., can I talk to you?’”
But the most persistent among them was from a man who would call three or four times a day, urging her to meet him somewhere. When she blocked his number, he would call from another. She began to worry that he would track her down in person.
“He sounded like a creepy Indian guy to me,” Ms. Chakravarty said.
When the police traced the number, the person they found at the end of it was Premsagar Tiwari, whose given name in Hindi translates as “Sea of Love.” Mr. Tiwari, 24, turned out to be a high-strung, pencil-necked man who grew up in two small rooms in the corner of the down-at-heel government school where his father worked as a night watchman.
Outside his window, young women came and went in their crisp school uniforms. But the night watchman’s son could not approach them.
“The way he was built,” said Satyavir Sachan, the constable assigned to the case, “it didn’t seem he could talk to girls.”
Poring through Mr. Tiwari’s call records, Mr. Sachan found that he was using eight SIM cards, some registered under false names, to contact more than 500 women. The activity occupied, by police estimates, two to three hours a day.
Summoned to the police station, Mr. Tiwari confessed readily and with clasped hands he beseeched the police not to imprison him. His phone calls, he explained in an interview, should better be understood as part of his search for a soul mate.
“One person is enough to fulfill you,” Mr. Tiwari said. “I have nobody. The person you love will be somewhere, there, standing last in line. You have to reach them somehow. And when you find that someone, you stop looking.”
He said he had heard many stories of men and women meeting over social media and going on to marry.
“I may be a failed man,” he said, “but I am very passionate.”
The police were not impressed, and held him in custody for 15 days.
An inverse story was unfolding in Bangalore, where Umakanti Padhan, a moon-faced 16-year-old garment factory worker, tried to call her sister-in-law. She misdialed and found herself accidentally conversing with Bulu, a railway worker eight years her senior.
She hung up, alarmed. At home, beginning at puberty, she had been prohibited from speaking with any adult man, including her brothers and cousins.
Ten minutes later, Bulu called back and told her that he liked the sound of her voice. “When I hear your voice, it feels like someone of my own,” he said. “I feel like talking to you all the time.”
So she agreed. Every night, she slipped out to the roof of her Bangalore workers’ hostel, where she shares a room with 11 other young women, and spoke to Bulu about mundane things: how their shifts went and what they had eaten that day.
“He’s told me everything that ever happened to him from the time he was a kid,” she said. “I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but I trust him. I know he will not betray me.”
Ms. Huang, the anthropologist, said the women she met in Bangladesh were often happy to engage in telephone courtships with anonymous strangers, and some maintained five or six at once. Phone contact, they told her, was safer because it presupposed physical distance. Also, it forced the men on the other end of the line to listen to them for long stretches.
“It’s one of those boundary-expanding experiences that allow you to think about opportunities that were not previously available,” she said. Young women, she said, described these relationships with “kind of a fearful excitement.”
For the young men, she said, “dialing random numbers is like playing the lottery and seeing what comes up.” Often, she said, they approach it almost as a competitive sport, vying to see “who is more skilled at keeping a woman on the phone for a long time.”
As for Ms. Padhan and her boyfriend, 11 months have passed and they still have not met in person.
Her roommates roll their eyes at her naïveté.
But when their shifts are finished, they, too, retire to stairwells and corners of the rooftop for the covert nightly call. From there, it is possible to look across the rooftops of other boardinghouses and see figures hunched over their cellphones, in all directions, a wide-angle shot of young India in pursuit of love.

''SF was more than books; it was a community of writers and fans, with its own conventions and ‘zines and even a nascent critical tradition (which included Gunn’s own earlier master’s thesis). ''

''SF was more than books; it was a community of writers and fans, with its own conventions and ‘zines and even a nascent critical tradition (which included Gunn’s own earlier master’s thesis).  ''

The first science fiction novels I remember reading were Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son (1952) and Starship on Saddle Mountain (1955), by someone called Atlantis Hallam — apparently a real name, though I’ve been able to find out little else about this author other than that his full name was Samuel Benoni Atlantis Hallam (1915-1987) and that he published a handful of minor stories in Spaceways in the early 1950s.  But the book, which I came across in my little Bradburyesque public library, stuck with me, and along with the Norton it led me to track down other books that could offer something of the same frisson of wonder. (It was probably awful, but I haven’t seen a copy since.) 

The first book I actually bought, I’m pretty sure, was a tattered paperback of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, which cost a dime in a thrift shop that mostly specialized in used shoes. Some of the best places to find cheap used paperbacks, it turned out, were thrift shops with tables full of used shoes (this may have just been a Missouri thing, since no one I’ve met has had the same experience, yet it happened to me in three different towns). 

The first new paperback I bought, from a drugstore spin rack, was an Avon reprint of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear, retitled Cry Horror! and including some of Lovecraft’s most famous stories.  So the first adult authors I knew by name were Bradbury and Lovecraft, and my first adult genre reading was mostly short fiction.
It wasn’t long before I’d joined the SF Book Club, with its terrific introductory offer (I chose Groff Conklin’s Omnibus of Science Fiction, John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, and Harold Kuebler’s Treasury of Science Fiction Classics), all of which offered a kind of crash course in older SF and led me to track down Healy and McComas’s Adventures in Time and Space, which was still available in most bookstores under its Modern Library title Famous Science Fiction Stories

And not long after that, I subscribed to Astounding, since it seemed to be the source of so many of the stories in those anthologies, and read my first serialized novel, Hal Clement’s Close to Critical, which struck me as pretty dense and not nearly as snappy as my favorite stories.  I was twelve, and I guess I was starting to make critical judgments of some sort.  Astounding didn’t seem quite the same magazine as the one that had yielded all those wonderful anthology stories, and at some point I let my subscription lapse and instead subscribed to F&SF, which seemed more to my tastes.
By then those tastes had begun to broaden beyond SF. 

In high school I got an after-school job in a used bookstore, which meant I could borrow overnight just about any SF book I wanted, but there were so many other intriguing books coming into the store that I started borrowing them, too—from historical writers like Harold Lamb and Edison Marshall to Faulkner and Joyce, both of whom absolutely hypnotized me. 

For some reason I fell in love with Dante through the Ciardi translation (I must have thought he was a kind of horror writer, which he was), and even did a term paper on his La Vita Nuova. I discovered weird new kinds of writers like William Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a few years later was delighted to find some of these techniques being imported into SF when I encountered the New Wave through Judith Merril’s excruciatingly titled England Swings SF

I discovered fantasy through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which became the first book I reread annually for three or four years.
The reading assignments involved in being an English major at the University of Kansas put a serious dent in my SF reading, but when it came time to write a senior honors thesis I asked to work with James Gunn, who at the time was the university’s PR director, to supervise my thesis on Bradbury.  Gunn not only put me in touch with Bradbury (who cheerfully answered my dumb letters), but opened all sorts of doors: 

''SF was more than books; it was a community of writers and fans, with its own conventions and ‘zines and even a nascent critical tradition (which included Gunn’s own earlier master’s thesis).  ''

I started tracking down some of this nonfiction—first Moskowitz, then Blish and Knight—and looking for what seemed to me to be real criticism in the book review columns of magazines, which I found in the F&SF reviews of Joanna Russ and Algis Budrys. 

I made contact with Budrys after moving to Chicago for graduate school (which put yet another serious dent in my SF reading), and he became my second mentor in the field, helping me develop a critical voice, working through problems and conundrums in essays and reviews that I was now beginning to publish, offering an entrée into the world of fan conventions. 

With his real-world SF perspective, and the more scholarly perspective I was getting from a handful of non-judgmental University of Chicago professors—notably John Cawelti, Michael Murrin, and Wayne C. Booth—I began to figure out what I wanted to do.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Cat Sparks' cli-fi novel LOTUS BLUE set in Australia


Gary K. Wolfe reviews Cat Sparks' cli-fi novel LOTUS BLUE set in Australia

 23 March 2017
Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks

The post-apocalyptic desert wasteland was a staple of SF long before the Mad Max films – think of Zelazny, Ellison, Walter M. Miller, Jr. – but I suppose anyone invoking such a setting these days is fated for the ‘‘Mad Max meets so-and-so’’ treatment, just as anyone invok­ing a rainy, overcrowded dystopolis is likely to get Bladerunnerized.

 This is probably even more the case for an Australian writer such as Cat Sparks, although her fine first novel Lotus Blue, set in a far future Australian wasteland, is as evocative of Terry Dowling’s Rynosseros stories, with their neat sandships, or even of David R. Bunch’s surreal Moderan stories, as it is of George Miller’s monster truck rallies.

The setting, in fact, is violent and inventive enough that it almost serves as an additional character, and it would make a terrific template for a video game of some sort, with its weaponized super­storms, vast tracts of obsidian from melted and fused cities, and long-buried giant war machines stirring awake.

While there are suggestions of a climate change theme – ‘‘Once this was all green pasture and rolling hills, filled with animals and plants and other things that were not trying to kill you’’ – the main source of devastation is a series of ancient wars lasting for centuries (we’re only given one brief clue as to dates, and it places the narrative sometime after the 24th century).

The story begins with the main character Star and her sister Nene making their way across the bleached landscape called the Sand Road as part of a caravan of solar-powered wagons. Things begin to seem odd when they witness a ‘‘fallen Angel’’ – apparently an ancient satellite being brought down from orbit – and not long after­ward another anomaly, an enormous sandstorm, destroys the caravan, leaving Star largely on her own to make her way to a remote city called Fallow Heel, where Nene tells Star a long-held secret that will eventually lead Star to question not only her identity, but even her humanity. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of other point-of-view characters, including an old woman named Marianthe who maintains a kind of refuge at the Temple of the Dish (an apparent reference to the Parkes Observatory, though there are likely several other references to actual Australian landmarks that outsiders like me aren’t getting); the cyborg supersoldier or ‘‘Templar’’ Quarrel, who believes himself to be the last of his kind; the street-kid grifter Tully; the well-to-do antiquities merchant Mo­handas and his spoiled daughter Allegra; and, perhaps most fearsomely, the newly awakened General, its once-human mind uploaded into an enormous war machine, one of only a handful of color-coded ‘‘Lotus Generals’’ created prior to the 24th-century Lotus Wars and thought to have disappeared long ago. His old designation was Lotus Blue, and he means trouble for just about everyone else in the book.

While there may be much that seems familiar in this scenario, with echoes not only of the Mad Max films but of Robocops, Terminators, and doomsday machines, there’s also a good deal that’s original – I especially enjoyed those bilious, churning green storm clouds that chase everyone with their own terrifying version of acid rain.

While this exuberance of invention is what initially draws us in to Sparks’s world, her narrative energy builds admirably as we learn more about the characters’ true identities and secrets (pretty much everyone has at least one) and of past connections between many of them. Eventually, the various viewpoints overlap and converge, with (needless to say) the very survival of these hardscrabble communities at stake in a climactic confrontation.

At the same time, there are tantalizing hints of other parts of this world, such as the fortified underground city of Axa or the ‘‘Risen Sea,’’ which suggest Sparks may not be quite done with this set­ting. In the end, though, the fierce landscapes can only take us so far, and it’s the engagingly flawed characters like the teenage Star or the aging Marianthe and Quarrel – both refreshing reminders that adventure tales can also feature older characters with actual memories – that will keep us coming back.

In ''American War'', a ''cli-fi'' novel by Omar El Akkad, ''The author attempts a cross-section of the conflict much as in Max Brooks’ ''World War Z'', but unlike that work of science-fiction, adhering to dour realism gives Mr. El Akkad no space for imagination, delight, or surprise. ''

INTRO: how the book came to be:
[On November 4, 2016, the USA book industry noted:
Award-winning journalist, Omar El Akkad’s ''AMERICAN WAR,'' an audacious and powerful debut novel about 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, has been sold to Knopf, US, M&S, Canada, Picador, UK, Fischer Verlag, Germany, Flammarion, France, Rizzoli, Italy, and De Geus, Holland. The deal to Knopf, US, was arranged by Anne McDermid at The McDermid Agency.]

Anne McDermid founded this agency in Toronto in January 1996. She had previously been a senior partner in the distinguished British agency Curtis Brown for several years. In 2010, Chris Bucci and Martha Webb became Directors in the agency, and in 2012 joined Anne as full partners. Associate agent Monica Pacheco joined the agency in 2008.
The agency represents literary novelists and commercial novelists of high quality, and also writers of a broad range of non-fiction including investigative journalism, popular science, politics, natural history, popular culture, lifestyle memoir, biography, history, and literary travel. We also represent a certain number of children’s and YA writers and writers in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. We are a full service agency and are active in advising our clients in advancing their careers through all forms of digital media, as well as through traditional methods of publishing and promotion.

NOTE: Picador has pre-empted UK and Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada) to America War, the  novel by Omar El Akkad.
Associate publisher Ravi Mirchandani struck the deal with Knopf’s Suzanne Smith, whose colleague Sonny Mehta acquired world rights from Toronto agent Anne McDermid.

Omar El Akkad’s debut novel American War envisions a dystopian future in the midst of a second American Civil War. It is eerie and alarming and, in these divided times, I couldn’t stop talking about it. I’m excited for a wider audience to read it this spring.”
—Sara Eagle, Publicist at Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher, another inhouse ''fervent evangelist''~!

American War:  by Omar El Akkad in 2017 is PR'd this way by a book buyer in St. Paul. It is not a book review. It is PR hype.

“Omar El Akkad has delivered a stunning debut. He imagines a world in a not-too-distant future where Americans are at war with each other once again. The characters in this story are fully developed and individual, yet their histories — their stories — extend into the histories of all those displaced and affected by the forces of war. The title, American War, is a shape-shifter. At once, it means that America is again at war, but at times reflects the ways in which the true, actual wars that America has perpetrated on Earth have affected the lives of millions of people. This will be one of the most discussed books of the year, and I cannot wait to put it in the hands of all readers looking to be changed.”  [This comment makes him a fervent evangelist for the novel, as the New York Times reporter Alexandra Alter says below? WTF?]

"The [NYT] reporter [Alter] talked to [Matt] the bookseller, who works at an indie store, [SubText Books]," a tweeter told this blog. [And that makes him 'a fervent evangelist' is her book!]

— Matt Keliher, book buyer, SubText Books, St. Paul, MN

BIO: Matt Keliher started at Subtext Books in August of 2013, after having graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a double major in History and Philosophy. In the fall of 2012, he studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He loves to travel and revels in new experiences. Matt has helped develop our social media relations, as well as design our website. Three of his favorite books are Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (because picking just one is far too hard), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Ask him to recommend you anything non-fiction, historical, or one of the classics.

NOTE: Alexandra Alter at NYT said: ''Mr. Keliher has become a fervent evangelist for “American War,” which he predicts will be one of the spring's most widely discussed novels." 

FERVENT? EVANGELIST? Is there some inside story and inside connection going on here between the NYT reporter and the publisher's PR people and the book industry which she covers as an insider and therefore needs to play up to everyone involved, acting more like a PR person herself than a true reporter or critic or observer of trends.

Alexandra, who are you working for? The corporate book industry entertainment bottom line complex system of capitalism or the journalism profession?

NOTE: Alter got that info based on his PR hype in a trade magazine, here:

Not everyone is so into the novel. Two reviews mildy criticized it for not really holding the reader's attention or getting readers to suspend belief to believe in what the author was writing about.

''Whereas a surrealist or fabulist novel can substitute signs and symbols, or psychological truths, for some kinds of explanation— case in point, April’s “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch — “American War” is very much in a realist mode and must meet a much different set of criteria for suspending reader disbelief.Despite these flaws — which may register to some readers as quibbles"......

Michiko Kakutani's review in the NYT says similarly: ''There are considerable flaws in “American War” — from badly melodramatic dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — .....''

A positive review here:

Then there's this thumbs up interview by a fan:

Mary: That goes along with my next question. One reason I wanted to interview you is that eco-fiction studies, in part, how authors deal with global warming in fiction. Climate change is not a novel concept anymore, and it is a subject that one day will probably be in the least at the backdrop of most stories. Out of all the novels written in the world, however, relatively few currently address environmental issues head on in fiction—those that do justifiably include the subject in a cultural prism (where environment, technology, economy, sociology, policy, and ideology are closely tied). What inspired you to write this debut novel? And in your background experience of war reporting, how often is the environment at the root of instability and socio-economic crises?

Omar: I started writing American War because I wanted to write about the universal nature of revenge, the way any of us, exposed to enough injustice, can be made evil or wrathful. From that premise, I began to build a world. I knew what I wanted to do was take the conflicts that have defined the world during my lifetime and recast them as elements of an American Civil War. It was when I was trying to determine what the precipitating factors of a second civil war would be that environmental calamity first became a fundamental part of the story. In the book, the war breaks out because a number of southern states refuse to abide by a federal prohibition on fossil fuels. I had to show what the country might look like toward the second half of this century as a result of climate change caused in large part by the use of those fuels – in the novel, sea levels have risen dramatically, the coastal cities are underwater, and there’s been a massive inland migration that has radically altered the country’s demographics. In my experience covering conflict, the environment is rarely discussed as a root source of any conflict. But I have little doubt that climate change and its impact on everything from food production to migration patterns will be one of the primary drivers of war in the coming decades.

Omar: I’m adamant that I never set out to write a book about the future. I realize how that sounds, given that American War is set about 50 years from now, but at its core I think it’s a book about what has happened and what is happening now, not what will or might happen. I finished the first draft of the manuscript in the early summer of 2015, and I would have never guessed back then that the world would look the way it does two years later.

Omar: .....When I started writing American War, I had no literary agent, no publisher and no expectation that the book would ever see the light of day – let alone end up on anybody’s must-read list. I’m certainly grateful some of the novel’s early readers have found it enjoyable or worthwhile, but I can’t say I was at all prepared for the magnitude of the response the book has generated so far.

    1. The Editor of the NYT Book Review tweets: "How about some doomsday fiction to go along with your doomsday reality?" in linking to the thumbs up yet also somewhat critical Kakutani review of Americn War....

    Andrew Campbell rated it two stars at goodreads       


    ''The author attempts a cross-section of the conflict much as in Max Brooks’ ''World War Z'', but unlike that work of science-fiction, adhering to dour realism gives Mr. El Akkad no space for imagination, delight, or surprise. ''


    Charles at goodreads also gave it two stars:


    ''With an opening line of "THE SUN BROKE THROUGH a pilgrimage of clouds and cast its unblinking eye upon the Mississippi Sea," yah, I'll take on this dystopian dilemma. Ready, set, go!

    I stopped at a little over half way through. ''

    ''Too many liberties taken with possibilities and accuracies after environmental, global, and militarized disaster. I could see what he was trying to set up here in the dystopian work, but I found the novel to be a struggle as I impatiently waded through searching for something like suspense. Many details meandering through the course of a fictional future.''

    Omar El AkkadVerified account @omarelakkad 9 Dec 2016
    You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories. American War Spring, 2017



     “American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.”
    Emily St. John Mandel author of Stations Eleven, mentioned in the NYT PR hype by Alexandra Alter re she wrote: ''“You don’t like to imagine the endpoint of extreme partisanship, but that’s exactly what Omar’s done in this book,” said Emily St. John Mandel, author of the postapocalyptic novel “Station Eleven.”."

    Michiko Kakutani in her review also compares and mentions  that "El Akkad has fashioned a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in “The Road” (2006),...''

    The sun broke through a pilgrimage of clouds and cast its unblinking eye upon the Mississippi Sea.
    The coastal waters were brown and still. The sea’s mouth opened wide over ruined marshland, and every year grew wider, the water picking away at the silt and sand and clay, until the old riverside plantations and plastics factories and marine railways became unstable. Before the buildings slid into the water for good, they were stripped of their usable parts by the delta’s last holdout residents. The water swallowed the land. To the southeast, the once glorious city of New Orleans became a well within the walls of its levees. The baptismal rites of a new America.
    A little girl, six years old, sat on the porch of her family’s home under a clapboard awning. She held a plastic container of honey, which was made in the shape of a bear. From the top of its head golden liquid slid out onto the cheap pine floorboard.
    The girl poured the honey into the wood’s deep knots and watched the serpentine manner in which the liquid took to the contours of its new surroundings. This is her earliest memory, the moment she begins.
    And this is how, in those moments when the bitterness subsides, I choose to remember her. A child.
    I wish I had known her then, in those years when she was still unbroken.
    Excerpted from American War. Copyright © 2017 by Omar El Akkad. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
    “When you’re reading it, it’s pretty difficult not to project yourself 70 years into the future and imagine that this has happened,” Mr. Keliher the fervent evangelist said to the NYTimes reporter.

    ''His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel'' opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnu.

    World-building is difficult in novels like these, in which the author must catch the reader up on the mind-bending events of the past fifty or so years. But author Omar El Akkad uses an effective cheat: interspersed with Sarat’s story are excerpts from historical documents like newspaper stories and oral history outtakes and memoirs and diary entries that help us envision a specific time in history without too much other exposition. - Marisa Weizman


    SARAT is speaking

    ''When I was young, I collected postcards. I kept them in a shoebox under my bed in the orphanage.
    Later, when I moved into my first home in New Anchorage, I stored the shoebox at the bottom of an old oil drum in my crumbling tool-shed. Having spent most of my life studying the history of war, I found some sense of balance in collecting snapshots of the world that was, idealized and serene. Sometimes I thought about getting rid of the oil drum. I worried someone, a colleague from the university perhaps, would see it and think it a kind of petulant political statement, like the occasional copperhead flag or gutted muscle car outside houses in the old Red country—impotent trinkets of rebellion, touchstones of a ruined and ruinous past. I am, after all, a Southerner by birth. And even though I arrived in neutral country at the age of six and never spoke to anyone about my life before then, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that some of my colleagues secretly believed I still had a little bit of rebel Red in my blood. My favorite postcards are from the 2030s and 2040s, the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself. They featured pictures of the great ocean beaches before rising waters took them; images of the southwest before it turned to embers; photographs of the Midwestern plains, endless and empty under bluest sky, before the Inland Exodus filled them with the coastal displaced. A visual reminder of America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious. I remember the first postcard I bought. It was a photo of old Anchorage. The city’s waterfront is thick with fresh snowfall, the water speckled with shelves of ice, the sun lowstrung behind the mountains. I was six years old when I saw my first real Alaskan sunset. I stood on the deck of the smuggler’s skiff, a sun-bitten Georgia boy, a refugee. I remember feeling the strange white flakes on my eyelashes, the involuntary rattle of my teeth—feeling, for the first time in my life, cold. I saw near the tops of the mountains that frozen yolk suspended in sky and thought I had reached the very terminus of the living world. The very end of movement. I belong to what they call the Miraculous Generation: those born in the years between the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074 and its end in 2093. Some extend the definition further, including those born during the decade-long plague that followed the end of the war. This country has a long history of defining its generations by the conflicts that should have killed them, and my generation is no exception. We are the few who escaped the wrath of the homicide bombers and the warring Birds; the few who were spirited into well-stocked cellars or tornado shelters before ..

    April 2017

    Omar El Akkad

    From the front lines to fiction

    BookPage interview by Alice Cary

    A sense of necessity drew Omar El Akkad to war reporting, until another sense of necessity compelled him to write his stunning debut novel, American War.
    For 10 years El Akkad led a double life, working as an international war reporter for Canada’s The Globe and Mail and writing fiction between midnight and 5:00 a.m., squeezing in sleep here and there. The grueling schedule allowed him to write three draft novels that never left his hard drive, but his fourth, American War, is not only being published by Knopf, and agented by a Toronto literary agent, but creating significant and well-deserved buzz by fervent evangelists.

    El Akkad’s future dystopian tale begins in 2075 during the second American Civil War, in which Red and Blue states clash over the need for sustainable energy. Climate change has wreaked havoc, with water swallowing Washington, D.C., and Florida, while a new Middle Eastern and North African superpower has emerged: the Bouazizi Empire.

    To keep track of all of this devastation and conflict, the author peppered his upstairs office walls with invented maps, timelines and drawings.
    “I didn’t get many visitors up there, but the ones who did visit certainly had a few questions about what the hell was going on in that room,” he remembers.
    Occasionally, during moments of early morning fog, El Akkad himself momentarily confused fact and fiction. “I’d be groggy because I was up until 5:00 writing,” he says, “and I would mention something stupid and have to catch myself and say nope, South Carolina still exists. Not a real thing.”
    Born in Egypt, raised in Qatar and Canada, El Akkad now writes fiction full time from the home he shares with his American wife near Portland, Oregon. In a multitude of ways, he seems uniquely qualified to have written this remarkable novel.
    American War chronicles the life of Sarat Chestnut, who metamorphoses from an inquisitive 6-year-old living with her family in a shipping container in Louisiana into a radicalized, head-shaven warrior on the prowl in the refugee camp where she and her family end up. El Akkad peppers his page-turning narrative with short excerpts from history books, eyewitness accounts and other imagined documents.
    “[Their inclusion] started as a bit of a crutch,” El Akkad admits. “I didn’t think I had the talent to tell the kind of story that I wanted without making it horribly clunky. So I would write the main narrative and then dream up a document that I thought would be left as sort of an archival echo of what had happened. As I progressed, I found that [these documents] had added an element of texture that I didn’t anticipate.”
    Although set in America, Sarat’s riveting story in many ways transcends politics, with details so impeccable and a plot so tightly woven that the events indeed feel factual. How, I wondered, did El Akkad pull off this feat?
    “The short answer is outright thievery,” he says, laughing. “I stole much of it from my experiences growing up in the Middle East and also from my experiences as a journalist.”
    After moving with his parents from Egypt to Qatar at age 5, and from Qatar to Canada at age 16, El Akkad finished high school in Montreal and studied computer science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “I can’t program my way out of a paper bag for reasons that still baffle me,” he admits, “but I earned a computer science degree.”
    His real passion, however, was the college newspaper, where he spent most of his time. Later, at The Globe and Mail, he covered the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, and the effects of climate change in places like Florida and Louisiana.
    “A lot of the world of the book is based on the things I saw while on those assignments,” El Akkad says. “I like to say that a lot of what happened in this book happened; it just happened to people far away.”
    He points out that Camp Patience, the refugee camp where Sarat’s family lives, is modeled on the NATO airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and on Guantánamo Bay. “A lot of tents in wartime look exactly the same,” he notes.
    The journalist was drawn to war reporting after reading Dispatches, Michael Herr’s classic account of frontline reporting on the Vietnam War. “It seemed to me that war zones combine the ability to write stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told with a sense of necessity—the idea that wars are among the most significant things we do as human beings and deserve the most coverage.”
    On the front lines of Afghanistan in 2007, El Akkad discovered that the adrenaline rush he anticipated never materialized—even though he was in the line of fire during nightly RPG attacks.
    “I never got that sort of strange Hemingway-like fascination with the kinetics of war,” he explains. “I was mostly interested in its effects on the losing side, the way that it moved the losing side backward in time.” In Afghanistan he saw people living in mud huts that “you wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see Jesus walk out of.”
    The tragedies he witnessed as a reporter ultimately drew him back to his first love, fiction. He had no intention of writing a political future dystopian tale; that’s simply what unfolded.
    “It’s called American War,” he says of the novel, “but I never intended to write a book about America or war; I intended to write a book about the universality of revenge. I wanted to explore the idea that when people are broken by war, broken by injustice, broken by mistreatment, they become broken in the same way.”
    He continues: “The notion was to take all of these wars that I’d grown up seeing—the Israeli-­Palestinian conflict, the wars on terror, even cultural events like the Arab Spring—and recast them as something very direct and near to America. The idea being to explore this notion that if it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
    This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.



    Portlander Omar El Akkad’s Debut Novel Is a Dystopian, Antiwar Tale

    Drones. Eco-crisis. Civil strife. American War owes more than a little to the present day.

    Omar El Akkad, an award-winning journalist born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, has filed dispatches from Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri.
    Now living in Portland, El Akkad turns to fiction with American War, a dystopian tale that begins in 2075.
    El Akkad’s debut novel features disaffected Southern states that secede after a ban on fossil fuels, amid rising sea levels. The author says he hopes it’s an antiwar book. 
    Why did you decide to overlay North-South historical tensions with our accelerating environmental calamity and an imagined future energy crisis?
    I went looking for an analogy to the cause of the first Civil War. I knew I wouldn’t find anything that compares with the sheer human cruelty of slavery. But as something many people are happy to accept today because it makes life easier and powers a massive commercial empire, fossil fuel seemed a fitting analog.
    The book does contain disturbingly familiar trappings—combat drones, suicide bombings, and a Guantanamo-esque base. What happens when all this moves to US soil?
    I knew from the beginning that the only way to write the novel I wanted to write was to take the conflicts the United States has been involved in, indirectly or from a great distance, and recast them as elements of something immediate. I think a lot about a news interview I saw a few years ago with a foreign policy expert discussing how American soldiers conduct nighttime raids in Afghanistan—they often barge into villagers’ homes and hold women and children at gunpoint. In Afghan culture, the expert helpfully noted, this sort of thing is considered offensive—as if there exists a single culture on earth that wouldn’t consider this sort of thing offensive. That’s why I had to bring these things here. Most everything in this book is based on something that really happened. It just happened to someone voiceless, someone very far away. 
    Your protagonist, Sarat, becomes radicalized over the course of the book. Do you think your novel’s depiction of an America rent by war might restrain readers flirting with zealotry in today’s politically charged atmosphere?
    I hope so, but I doubt it. My intent was to show that there exists no such thing as a “foreign” kind of suffering. Regardless of ethnicity or culture or religion, war makes us all angry and bitter and vengeful in the same way. The story of Sarat’s transition from a curious, loving young girl to an instrument of violence is, in my mind, the story of how all forms of weaponized hatred end up creating more of the evil they claim to oppose. But will anyone read my novel and decide to change course? I honestly don’t know. I hope I’ve written an antiwar novel, and I hope it resonates.
    No foreign kind of suffering—is that what one character means by saying “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language”?
    That is the closest thing to a thesis statement in the whole book. I don’t care where you’re from, nobody reacts any differently to a bomb falling on their house. The privilege to believe otherwise is just that—privilege.


    Image may contain: 2 people