Futureverse Podcast
Ep. 3. Omar El Akkad: A Story of Climate Change Refugees, Assimilation, and Identity

Ep. 3. Omar El Akkad: A Story of Climate Change Refugees, Assimilation, and Identity

Molly and Ramanan speak with Omar El Akkad, the author of What Strange Paradise.

In the latest episode of Futureverse, we interview Omar El Akkad, an award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist and author.

Omar’s most recent novel, What Strange Paradise, tells the story of those at the core of the refugee crisis. It explores themes including assimilation, identity, inequality, empathy, and the impact of climate change on society. In our conversation, Omar also delves into how his journalism career has influenced his fiction writing and the themes explored in What Strange Paradise.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Thanks for listening to Futureverse! Subscribe here for more episodes.

Show Notes

[00:02:29] Life and Career Path

[00:05:30] Influence of Journalism on Literature

[00:09:17] What Strange Paradise

[00:10:52] Hyperindividualism and Existential Problems

[00:18:36] Assimilation and Intersectional Power Dynamics

[00:24:42] Cruelty via Palatable Means

[00:28:08] Climate Refugees

[00:32:26] Empathy and Collective Action

[00:36:49] Omar’s Fiction Recommendations

[00:44:38] Hope as Prologue

[00:47:12] Omar’s New Podcast

Omar (00:00:00) -  Climate change doesn't care about borders. If you want to see one of the worst things that climate change is currently doing to the world, you do not have to leave the United States. You can go down to southernmost Louisiana, where the land is disappearing at the rate of about a football field every half hour.

Molly (00:00:17) - Welcome back to Futureverse, a podcast centered on climate fiction and how it helps us imagine our way forward through climate uncertainty. 

Molly (00:00:26) - If you've heard our previous two episodes with James Bradley and Ruthanna Emrys, you'll be familiar with what Ramanan and I do. We invest in technology companies with a climate focus, but outside of work, we discovered that we are both avid readers of climate fiction, and this podcast is where we get to geek out and talk about it and hear from brilliant climate fiction authors.

Ramanan (00:00:46) - And let me state here and think it's especially pertinent today. Molly and I concluded a while ago that all fiction written in the modern age is climate fiction. So when we say climate fiction, it doesn't always have climate tattooed on the forehead. And we're going to get to that in a bit. But this kind of storytelling does help us visualize our planet's future.

It allows us to understand realities that many of us, particularly those worst hit by the climate crisis, which is often not in the West but many of us face today. And these might be relegated to the far ends of our consciousness, but are crucial for us to pay attention to.

Molly (00:01:24) - Today, we are thrilled to have with us Omar El Akkad, an Egyptian Canadian journalist and author whose novel What Strange Paradise, tells the story of people who are effectively climate refugees. Omar is now based in the US but started his journalism career during the war on terror, as they call it, and over the following decade has reported from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and many other locations around the world. His work has earned him a National Newspaper Award for Investigative journalism and the Gulf Penny Award for young journalists.

Ramanan (00:01:52) - He is also a talented fiction and nonfiction writer, and his work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and GQ. He has also won and been nominated for numerous awards for his debut novel, American War.

Omar, thank you for coming on our show and it is a pleasure to speak with you about your work.

Omar (00:02:12) - Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Ramanan (00:02:14) - Thank you. And I'll kick us off with the biographical question. You graduated from Queens University in Canada with a degree in computer science and then went on to start an incredibly successful journalism career. Not unlike my co-host, Molly.

What motivated you to go into journalism and then pursue fiction writing that, among other things, touches on climate?

Omar (00:02:36) - Um, I needed to pay rent. Uh, no, That's a horrible, that's a horrible answer.

Ramanan (00:02:42) - No, say it. Say it.

Molly (00:02:44) - I mean, listen, I started college as a creative writing major and quickly realized that journalism pays the rent. So I am right there with you with that answer.

Omar (00:02:52) - Yeah. I mean, the only thing I've ever been halfway good at is writing. By which I mean that a). I'm terrible at everything else, but that writing is the only thing that even when it kicks my ass, I keep coming back to it, which is, you know, the example I give is that a few years ago I tried taking up guitar playing.

I was like, I'm going to learn how to play the guitar. I learned two and a half chords. I learned A minor and E minor, and it was just too difficult. And I gave up almost immediately. And there's a guitar collecting dust in my closet. Now. Writing is the only thing where even when it kicks my ass, I go back to it. So I knew that from an early age, this was all I wanted to do with my life.

But I come from a particular cultural background where, and I'm sure many kids of immigrants know this, you don't become a writer, you don't become a painter, you don't become a musician, you become an engineer. You become a lawyer, you become a doctor. There's a particular kind of expectation as to what it is you are going to do with your life. And if you enjoy that other stuff, that stuff you do in your spare time. you know, Egypt's most successful author, the guy who has sold more books than anyone else alive in Egypt right now is a dentist and he's a practicing dentist.

Even though he's made millions and millions of dollars off of his books, it was hammered into him from a very young age that writing is this thing you do in your spare time. And he's internalized that to the point where the guy could quit tomorrow and it would make absolutely no difference in his life. But you don't do that. So anyway, when I got to Canada, I was 16. We moved from the Middle East to Canada, and I thought of computer science when I was applying for university as this thing that might be able to split the difference, where programming seemed creative enough and would allow me to flex that muscle in a way that would still meet the obligations that my parents and my sort of upbringing had sort of imposed on me.

And within about two classes, you know. SISK 100, which was the class you take if you were too dumb to take SISK 101, which was the introductory class within about two classes, I realized that I was useless at this, but I was too lazy to change majors.

So I just stopped going to class and instead spent all of my time at the student newspaper. That's where I got my education at university. And I was fortunate enough when I graduated to land an internship at the Globe and Mail, which is the biggest newspaper in Canada and I stayed there. It's the only real job I've ever had. Stayed there for ten years. So I got very, very lucky in that regard because there was no way I was ever going to land a job in computer science. That was never going to happen.

Molly (00:05:30) -

Talk about the influence of the sort of journalist style of thinking on this book in particular, What Strange Paradise, because it really feels like it walks a very fine line between fiction and nonfiction.

It is a fictionalized version of something that feels so real that it's almost like the most upsetting documentary experience to read it in some ways.

Omar (00:05:53) - Yeah, absolutely. I mean, almost everything I've written in my sort of published fiction age has been influenced in one way or another by my journalism career, not just in the sense of the storylines.

You know, the storylines themselves obviously are very much based on things I experienced while covering various stories. In fact, What Strange Paradise was initially inspired by a 2012 assignment that I was on. I was in Egypt covering the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and my friend was driving me around town and he was complaining about the rent, the rent’s too high, the rent’s too high. And at one point I said, Well, okay, what's the price for an apartment in your building, for example? And he said, Well, do you mean the locals’ price or do you mean the Syrians’ price?

And I was like, Hold on a second. What the hell's the Syrians’ price? What are you talking about? They said, Well, we've had this influx of people come in recently and you can charge them three times as much. I mean, what are they going to do? Go somewhere else? And just the casualness of that cruelty was the instigating moment for the things that ended up congealing into What Strange Paradise many years later, but not just on that level, also on a very technical level.

My very first day at the Globe and Mail, this guy, Greg O'Neil, who used to be the dean of the back desk editors, he was the guy who ran the editing operation throughout most of the globe. He sat me down and he said, Listen, kid, I'm going to tell you what I tell every reporter who comes into this building in The Globe and Mail. All reporters are gods and all editors are atheists. And it was his way of explaining to me what was about to happen to my copy. You know, one adjective too many. You try and get a little bit purple with that, and then we're going to slash the hell out of it.

And so you read, for example, my first novel, this book called American War. That's a deeply purple book. Like it's got way too much of that, too much description of what the sky is doing at any given moment. And that's after ten years of having those people beat the purpleness out of me, you know, So you can imagine what I was like at the beginning of that process, right? So just as a writing education, journalism had a huge influence on me.

And also the idea of what the first draft of history looks like. You know, being there on the spot and knowing that a historian is going to make so much more sense of this in a few decades time, but that's not your job. Your job is not to make sense of it in some kind of holistic way. I've had 20 years to think about this kind of sense, but rather to get it down on paper because it's important to get that first draft down.

That's influenced the way I think about a novel, which is almost the exact opposite. So in a weird way, it's like the antagonistic muscle I built up, the antagonistic muscle of reflex, immediate reflex. And it has allowed me to be, I think, much better at the other muscle of the long term, deep thinking approach to something. So I think without journalism, I would have still been writing just as much, but I think it would have not been nearly as useful. The writing would not have been nearly as useful without my journalism education.

Ramanan (00:09:06) - I'm going to dig us into the book. And, you know, before I do that, just to elevate up a little bit, you know, I could describe the book for our audience, but I think they want to hear the author describe it.

Do you want to summarize in three or four lines, the story of What Strange Paradise?

Omar (00:09:21) - Yeah, What Strange Paradise is a story of a child refugee who washes up on an unnamed western island somewhere off the coast of Europe. I think of it as a repurposed Peter Pan. That's the story of Peter Pan reinterpreted as the story of a contemporary child refugee. And it's very much about the idea of what we do to the people we consider to be subhuman and how necessary it is in contemporary society to have a growing class of human beings that we consider to be subhuman. But at its core, I think of it as a reinterpreted fairy tale. The story of Peter Pan retold as the story of a contemporary child refugee.

Ramanan (00:10:04) - That explains the puzzling epigraph. So we would note that. An observation, you know, both Molly and I obviously read the book, loved the book, would encourage everyone listening to this podcast to read it for multiple reasons. But you know, we can start with it's just great writing. An observation from the book is, you know, the individual characters seem they just seem very autonomous in an isolated way, unhappy, a sense of emptiness, a longing for something more, not just in a concrete material sense. And we connected this with American ideals around individualism and the damage that can cause.

I know we're getting esoteric here, but was that part of your intention and how does it fold?

You know, the book's not climate.

Omar (00:11:00) - Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for that. I don't get nearly as esoteric as I like about this book, so that's a welcome change. I appreciate it. Yeah, I mean, for me, I think. As far as sort of overarching existential dread. The biggest single thing that scares me the most about the coming decades is that particularly in this part of the world, particularly in the West, we've created hyper-individualistic societies, societies where every societal vector is pointed away from the communal good and towards the individual good.

And we are about to and we are currently facing, but more so we are about to face our biggest existential problems that require solutions pointed in the exact opposite direction. You know, climate change doesn't care about borders. If you want to see one of the worst things that climate change is currently doing to the world, you do not have to leave the United States.

You can go down to southernmost Louisiana, where the land is disappearing at the rate of about a football field every half hour. That's how quickly southern Louisiana is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico. You can go to a place like Florida where a one metre sea level rise would essentially inundate the water table and with saltwater and destroy that state's capacity for drinking water.

And where there are hucksters going around selling blueprints for multimillion-dollar mansions that are designed to float in the case of flooding. And there is your collision between our problems that require incredibly communal solutions and are incredibly individualistic, quote unquote, solutions. So that book and almost everything I write, not just What Strange Paradise, are very much about that idea of that collision between the communal and the individualistic, what we owe to one another colliding with what we feel we are owed individually.

So you have these refugees on a boat and a lot of them have come from these conflict zones. But in the case of, for example, one of the Syrians talking about, yeah, there's a civil war, but what predated that civil war was a drought. And so one of the shifts that has happened in my writing is that I started out, you see this in American War in particular, thinking very much about the idea of what happens when somebody is driven from their land.

And more and more, I'm thinking about what happens when the land is driven from people, which is a slightly different shift, I think, in thinking about a very similar problem. So to me, What Strange Paradise is very much a climate novel, but like you said, and I'm in full agreement here, I don't think it's possible to write contemporary fiction and not in some way be writing climate fiction. I don't think—I think that ship has sailed.

Molly (00:13:58) - That's remarkable that you say that, because the exact quote that I have pulled up or the exact passage from the book is, “It started with a drought”.

And this line, you know, “Don't call this a conflict. There's no such thing as a conflict. There's only scarcity and need.” And we are, there's so much about—and it's, I think you mentioned the drought, I did a search through the whole book, I think, three times. But it is this foundational layer behind the movement of so many of the people who are referenced in this book and also a thing that we are staring down really obliviously, it seems, across the world right now.

Omar (00:14:41) - Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think sometimes. So what happened with American War, my first book, because it's much more overtly sort of climate-focused. It very quickly got dumped into this category of cli-fi, climate fiction. And I think that, you know, that's obviously, it's been great for book sales. If you can put something in a genre, it helps and all the rest of that and that's fine. But I do think that that term is a very temporary term.

I don't think, you know, we're going to term things climate fiction in the same way that we don't term things love fiction or grief fiction. There are particular facets of being human that are intertwined with the act of constructing literature. And that's generally how I think of the climate in my work these days. You know, American War starts with a map of the United States circa 2075, and the Eastern seaboard is underwater and Florida is gone. And all of this stuff has happened. And I move away from that a little bit and then I rubber band and go right into it and write like, you know, dystopian climate fiction again.

But I'm comfortable on any end of that spectrum because I think of it in the same way that I write about grief or I write about loss or I write about memory. It is a load-bearing beam of being human. And that's why it's not sort of, it's not taken in siloed as a standalone thing in What Strange Paradise it runs through it in the most minor.

The migration of these birds across the island, the strange species of flora and fauna and how they're changing all of that stuff to me is more in line with what I'm thinking about these days, which is the sort of the minor chords of climate as opposed to the overarching, you know, hey, California's underwater kind of thing, which I find there's a place for that. It's just not always the place I'm going to go to.

Ramanan (00:16:44) - I'm gonna wander off the climate reservation in that spirit for a second. But before I do that, I do want to say one thing, which is in the book, at one point you make reference to an Amr Diab song. I think the song you're thinking of is Nour El Ein, which I hear all the time and I'm now going to hear very differently. Thanks for having read the book.

Molly (00:17:06) - I can confirm I got a late-night text about this and he was like, No, I can't listen to the song ever again.

Omar (00:17:12) - This is the second time anyone's ever asked me about this. I can't tell you how thrilling this is for me.

Ramanan (00:17:17) - I love that song. So. And now I don't think I can bring myself to watch the video because I just look at, I'm going to look at him and assume years of plastic surgery. So that's another issue moving away from Amr Diab, but staying with sort of non-overtly climatic themes and looking at a couple of other themes, one of the aspects of the book that I thought was worth discussing and that rung home with me was assimilation.

There's a section in chapter four that reads, “Sometimes when Amir would listen to his mother talk with other women, with the other women who live nearby, women who had fled from the same place she had, he heard them say that what really mattered were other things – the color of one's skin, the country of one's birth, the size of one's inheritance. But his mother always argued that what mattered most was to speak in a way that mimicked the majority tongue to sound exactly like them. And even if those other things mattered more, this was all she could change.”

You know, I'm an assimilated immigrant. So are you, Omar. And you know, this just raised issues in my head about the levels of delusion embedded within the American dream and the dreams of making it to the West.

How much was that kind of a thematic foundation to some of your writing here?

Omar (00:18:42) - Quite possibly the single most influential thing I was thinking about personally when I was writing the book. I mean, one of the very weird things about living in this part of the world and thinking about, you know, colonialism or even something not as sort of grand as that, even cultural appropriation which you think of as sort of a much less big thing. Right? Is that the way it's thought about here versus the way it's thought about in the old country? So, you know, you see these, and they're hard to talk about, these phenomena because they put you in a strange place ideologically. They put me in a really uncomfortable place to talk about some of these things.

So, for example, you might have someone come over from a place like Egypt and they come to the West and they realize that there's a particular set of terminology that if you use, you will endear yourself to the right people and you will simultaneously insulate yourself from criticism. And so you'll see someone come over here and they'll be out talking about, you know, the microaggressions against the racialized people have got to end the thing.

You're like, buddy, your dad runs a torture program out of the Ministry of Defense in Egypt. I know this, like you live in a mansion based on brutalizing, but you've come here and you've realized that as a function of who you are and what you look like and what your name is, there is a particular arsenal that you can wrap around yourself and you can pretend to be someone else entirely. And it's a very difficult thing to think about because it runs immediately against the walls of actual racism in this country. And sort of these pockets of strangeness are really fascinating to me because my parents and grandparents have their version of that.

So there's a sense in the sort of anti-colonial narrative that these bad people showed up and there was resistance against them. They brutalized people. And a lot of that is true. But there's also a side narrative of like, these bad people showed up and the people who were brutalized by them thought, oh, those must be the winners. And so we better put our kid in an American school, for example. We better put our kid in a British school, because that's the winner's language. And that's what happened to me. Right? And that's not a safe, comfortable narrative.

The reason I sound the way I do and the reason if I called you up and told you my name was John Smith, you believe me is because from the age of five, my parents have been sending me to Western schools. They sent me to American and British schools because that was considered the way that you win in the world. And for the longest time, I was incredibly proud of this because empirically it works.

I know this because I've gone through TSA and I've had cousins who look exactly like me and have the same names go through TSA and why do I have a much easier time than them? Because I sound like this and because I can make jokes about Arrested Development or whatever the hell the guys are into, you know, like I can, I'm their culture, right?

And so for the longest time, this was a point of pride for me because if you think that you have to agree with the corollary, which is that my own culture is lesser than. Right? If this is the winners' culture, then my own has to be the losers’ culture.

And it wasn't until my mid-30s where I started seeing the negative space of the route that I had chosen or had been chosen for me. I knew very little about Arabic literature. I've been spending the better part of a decade trying to catch up, trying to catch up on this culture that I had abandoned because it had been internalized in me that I got to get on the winners’ side.

And every empirical fact has been that that has worked. So it's a very difficult place. And for me, the reason I retreat into fiction when I think about it is because there are no easy answers. There's no like, bow you can tie around this and have it be ideologically pristine. It's a very messy thing, which is why I explore it almost exclusively within fiction.

Ramanan (00:22:56) - As you can imagine, I could not agree more with everything you've said, and it is a very uncomfortable place for all the reasons you articulated. But what really hit home with me is what you just said about, you know, people like you and I get to occupy these two identities in a way not everyone does. And we may come back to that. I think Molly has a question.

Molly (00:23:19) - I have a question very much related to that, actually, because I think it seems like that – awareness of that negative space. It clearly leads to these really powerful moments all throughout the book where it would be easy to flatten these groups of characters into monoliths on either side, and that doesn't really happen.

And so you have moments on the boat where Muhammad says this is about business, it's not about race, and also gives this absolutely chilling line that will stick with me until I die. “The two kinds of people in the world aren't good and bad. They’re engines and fuel. And you can go ahead and change your country, change your name, change your accent. In their eyes, you will always be, they will always be engines and you will always be fuel.”

But I think there was so much sort of striking truth and value in the fact that you have inequality on the boat. You have division on the boat, you know. You have all of this kind of like microcosm encapsulated in all the time. And as I think I said offline before we even started, I feel I'm literally like one of the white tourists in a hotel right this second, which is its own kind of awkward. I'm not, I'm not.

But we all had to look at ourselves.

Basically, what I'm saying, is reading this book, you all have to look at yourselves.

Omar (00:24:45) - Yeah. I mean, it's sort of intersecting threads of how people justify their cruelty themselves. This idea of, you know, in that book, the darker your skin is, the more likely you are to end up at the bottom of the boat. And if you're in those, in the bottom deck, you're much more likely to drown if things go bad. But you asked the smugglers, and this is a thing I've pulled out of, a lot of these little tidbits are pulled out of real life. Smugglers will always tell you like, no, this has nothing to do with race. This is purely a money thing, you know? And that ship that went down in the Mediterranean recently, who was at the bottom, the Pakistanis.

And this idea of finding proxy means of inflicting the same kind of cruelty we're always going to inflict is, I think, a fairly universal thing. And one of the first stories I did when I was a US correspondent for the Globe and Mail, which is a Canadian newspaper, is I went to Ferguson the night after they decided not to indict the guy who killed Mike Brown.

Omar (00:25:50) - And as part of my reporting, I was talking with an urban designer in Saint Louis who was talking about some of the neighborhoods that are to this day almost exclusively white. And they started out being overtly white in the sense that when you sold the house or when you bought a house, there was a covenant in the agreement that legally prohibited you from then selling that house to a non-white family. And then that was made illegal. But if you still want to do it, you just had to go through a proxy means, right?

And so to this day, there are neighborhoods around Saint Louis that have opted out of public transit because it's a proxy means of keeping certain people out of your neighborhood. There are neighborhoods in that area where there are minimum lot sizes for each house, and that is to keep the houses at a certain level of price whereby they won't be affordable to folks that, you know, because of generations of racism can't get to that place financially. And so what you're doing is using a financial proxy to accomplish exactly the same goal that at least you used to spell out back in the day.

And so you think about that a lot. Think about accomplishing the same kind of cruelty using more palatable means and how insidious that is and how common that is. Whether you are getting on a boat in North Africa or you're in the suburbs of a midwestern city in the US.

Ramanan (00:27:18) - You know, every time you open your mouth, Omar, I think of 19 other questions I want to ask.

Omar (00:27:22) - Sorry, these are such rambling. I apologize. These answers go on for far too long.

Ramanan (00:27:26) - No, no, they're not rambling at all. And I would, I'm going to use ChatGPT to train myself to also speak in perfectly formed paragraphs. Let me drag us to climate and we'll have 2 or 3 questions on that. So. You know, when thinking about climate debates, you know, I thought this book did an absolutely masterful job, as we've already touched on, humanizing the issue of climate change and highlights how unprepared we are in various ways for climate refugees. And I want to dig into this a bit and get your more extensive – you could argue the book is about it, climate refugees, and we argue that in this conversation.

Do you view that as being one of the most disruptive impacts of climate change and yet one that because we can live in our suburban bubbles here in the United States or Canada, that we're not thinking about as much as we should?

Omar (00:28:27) - Yeah, absolutely. There's this story that I go back to a lot because for me, it encompasses exactly what you just talked about a few years ago when I was still working as a full-time journalist. I went down to Florida. I was doing a story on some of the towns around Miami, sort of southern Florida, where the the mayors of those towns are telling the residents that their grandkids are probably not going to be able to live there.

You know, likely this might still be useful as a shipping port, but it won't be a livable place. And I was talking to this professor who had been sounding the alarm about climate change for the better part of 35 years. And what he does is he will go anywhere that will have him, any community meeting, any group, and he'll give a presentation about this.

Omar (00:29:11) - And he said that what he does generally is whatever area he's in, he'll bring a relief map of that area with various overlays of: this is what it looks like with one meter of sea level rise. This is what it looks like with two meters, just to show people a real-life example of what their part of the world would look like. And he said, almost without fail, at the end of the meeting, somebody would come up and point to the map and say, oh, my house is going to be fine. And he would say, Yeah, you happen to live on a hill. You need a canoe to get to the grocery store.

Like, surely you must understand that we're not just a series of individuals living, and that's not a community, right? But inevitably, we've been ordered to think that way. And he was talking about this notion of how we have a really hard time thinking in non-abstract ways spatially outside the confines of our fence that borders our own property.

Omar (00:30:10) - And in chronologically, in terms of about 30 years, the lifespan of a mortgage that once you move outside of those confines, people can still think about it, but with not nearly the same sense of urgency. And so when you're talking about something like climate change, which is happening geologically in the blink of an eye, but is still happening in human terms a little longer than those time frames, you are in a really difficult spot because people will inevitably not think about it until it happens to them individually. And by the time it's happening to everybody individually, we are all screwed. Right?

Because by that point, it's not just some random forest fire that took over. Everything's on fire at that point. And that to me again, is one of the most terrifying things about this particular crisis, is that our problem-solving tactics as a society are not at all calibrated for this sort of thing. They are calibrated for things that happen along a hierarchy.

And that's why the quintessential action movie crisis moment is always somebody in a very war-torn place running towards the American embassy with their passport held out because that's the shit that's going to save them as the eagle and the pet is going to you know, they're going to get through the gates and it'll be fine.

Omar (00:31:35) - What if the thing doesn't care about the stamp on the passport? Then we're in trouble. So, yeah, think about that a lot because it's really terrifying to me.

Molly (00:31:46) - One of the things that you wrote in a different piece has really stuck with me, too. You talk about how the future is and always will be thought salvageable. We think that we can sort of still control the future, which I think gets to this idea that it, you know, when the water is at the individual's feet is when they'll deal with it.

It seems to me that this book is full of really hard truths about empathy and lies. We want to tell ourselves about empathy and a thing that people often say about climate when frankly, I think they're trying to avoid individual action, is this is not an individual problem. It's a collective problem. To which I always respond: What do you think collectives are made of?

But at the same time, how do we start to train ourselves to think as a collective? And is it possible?

I mean, this is sort of a, this is a fairly direct question to you, but like, certainly this book at least does not give me the impression that you think that humans have a lot of empathy to spare. Even the empathy in the book turns out to be a fantasy.

Omar (00:32:51) - Yeah, one of my favorite essays in the last few years was this very short essay on Dostoevsky, and there were little tidbits. It was written in these little fragments about what happened to him. But also it veered off into all kinds of tangents. And one of those tangents was about the history of the word empathy, which is fairly juvenile in the English language. It's only about 100 years old, and it comes from the German Einfühlung, which I'm sure I'm horribly mispronouncing. But the literal translation of that word is “to feel into”, which I think of as a very powerful thing.

A lot of my contemporaries and a lot of writers who are much smarter than me have recently turned on the idea of empathy as being a functional goal of literature, because they think of it as imposing a kind of artificial obligation on the writer whose job as an artist is to observe and to tell the world as it is and to try to say something true.

And I can see that point of view, and I don't fully disagree with it, but I also think it's been influenced by, again, how individualistic the part of the world we live in is and how much that individualism has bled into influencing a word like empathy, which then imposes on it this idea of, Oh, I need to feel someone else's pain and if I feel it well enough, I can singlehandedly make things better, which I think is the addendum to empathy.

Where I hop off the bus, right, is when we get to that place where you go back again to this idea of like I, by having a clear enough vision board and by manifesting destiny enough, I will individually solve this problem. I think that from the perspective of what I do for a living, I think of literature as a prerequisite to a solution, not as a solution, which is to say whatever it is we turn this world into in order to have a more fair, more just world, whatever that means.

A prerequisite is engaging with each other's stories. And so that's generally where I work as a writer, not in solutions, but into what I think is a prerequisite for a solution if we are talking politically. I think I'm very much of the opinion that we have an asymmetrical society where millions of people suffer and toil so that one guy can have a $500 million yacht. And I understand that, you know, like by the rest of the world’s standards, I guess I'm left-leaning. By American standards, I'm a hardcore communist. That's because the Overton Window in the US is so jarringly sort of right-facing.

But I'm very much of the opinion that we can make the world a lot better for a huge portion of the population by making the world a little bit worse for people who probably wouldn't even notice if the yacht was only a $490 million yacht instead of a 500. So in that sense, I'm very much a class warrior politically. I'm a class warrior artistically. I'm very much engaged with the idea of empathy as a sharing of stories rather than the beginnings of you single-handedly feeling hard enough to fix something.

Ramanan (00:36:14) - I mean, once again, there's just so much there to parse. You know, one of the things that popped into my head as you were speaking and we were talking about hyper-individualism is, related to that, is this running theme in American public life, political life, if you wish, a running theme from pre-revolutionary times of cruelty, which is, you know, the mirror image in some ways of empathy. And I see that cruelty every day in our public discourse. But that'll be for episode number next, when we interview you on just those things.

Back to climate, what are some of your favorite fiction pieces that touch on climate? Did they influence any of your writing in What Strange Paradise?

We are always on the hunt for new folks to interview. So whether in that arena or your favorite modern Egyptian writers tell us.

Omar (00:37:10) - Yeah, absolutely. So weirdly enough, What Strange Paradise was not influenced by too much climate fiction. In fact, American War, which again is like overtly climate fiction, wasn't also influenced by that much climate fiction, even though I was reading quite a bit.

So maybe subconsciously it was, and I'm just sort of denying it. But I'm a huge fan of a lot of work in that genre. I generally veer towards the quieter end of the spectrum, although I have, excuse me, I have recommendations on the other end of the spectrum to Neal Stephenson’s new one, which I think was called Termination Shock. I'm going to sort of quietly Google this as I finish my answer.

But that one is very much if you're into hard cli-fi, I suppose there is a 20-page description of a sulfur gun, which is this giant cannon pointed at the sky and this billionaire's trying to cool the earth. Is that really how a sulfur gun works? I have no idea. I don't even know if this is a real thing. But I was enamored. But I'm more on the sort of quiet end of the spectrum. I'm thinking of books like The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, which I think is still the most resonant piece of climate fiction that I've ever read.

And it's a very short book. You can read it in an hour maybe, and I think it was being turned into something that was being turned into a movie or TV series last time I checked. But the book is brilliant. Megan Hunter is a poet by training. This was, I think, her first novel. And it's about a woman and her newborn trying to escape from London, England. London is now flooded, is underwater, and it's never quite explained how this came to be.

In fact, none of the details are really explained. Instead, you get the story about our connections to one another, and it's written in these tiny, sometimes couplets, sometimes just two sentence little snippets interspersed with prayers from various religious traditions. And it's just such a beautiful book and to me, a really fine example of how it doesn't need to be Star Trek and it doesn't need to be even narratively coherent. You are taking someone to an emotional space and very few books do that as well as The End We Start From.

There's another book which is not I mean, you know, there's the canonical like The Storm, which is considered to be the first ever piece of cli-fi and all of that. But there's another book that isn't at all cli-fi actually and predates the entire idea by many decades but to me is I tend to bring it up a lot when I talk about cli-fi because think of it as having the same kind of mode of intent. And it's this book called Alas, Babylon.

The guy's name will come to me in a second. Pat Frank, I think his name is. Pat Frank was a consultant for the government about 50 or 60 years ago on nuclear related issues, issues related to nuclear warfare. And Alas, Babylon takes place on the eve of a nuclear holocaust. The USSR, Russia and America engage in full on nuclear warfare. Most of the world is destroyed and the vast majority of the novel takes place in a tiny town in Florida that has just barely survived. And it's all about the mechanics of post-apocalyptic life.

Like, how do you drink the water? How do you know if the water – how do you barter? The town square is now just full of like pieces of paper saying, we'll trade one chicken for five eggs or, you know, like this guy was terrified of what nuclear weapons were going to do and he wanted to write about that. He wanted to scare people. And I think of that as being a modality that a lot of writers are going to engage in in the next coming decades, except it won't be nuclear warfare. The book has aged horribly. It's horrible on race and gender and a ton of other issues. But as an example of a writer who was just trying to shake everybody by the collar and say, hey, this terrifying thing is around the corner, let's talk about it. That, to me is one I always bring up, even though it's not cli-fi, per se.

Ramanan (00:41:24) - Anyone in Egypt? Or in the Arabic world, let's not focus it on Egypt.

Omar (00:41:29) - In Egypt, who comes up in Egypt? I read mostly political fiction. So my favorite writers are like, there's a book called The Queue, which came out right after the end of the Arab Spring. Basma Abdel Aziz is the name of the author, and it's about a lineup, a queue outside of a government ministry building. And it's very clearly Egypt and it's very clearly the present-day government. But she's being coy about it.

If you want to get anything done in the society, you have to go line up outside this government building. And so it's, the characters are the people lined up. There's a guy who's been shot and he has to prove that he's been shot to get compensation, you know. And Basma writes these incredibly Kafkaesque novels that challenge the government head-on. And for that reason, it is probably the case that she'll not be able to live in Egypt much longer. But she's an incredibly courageous writer, so she stands out in my head. There's a novel called Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is so, so good.

It's a retelling. It's by, again, his name will come to me. Sorry. Have a horrible memory of his name. Will come to me in a second, Saadawi, Ahmed, I think his name is. And it's a novel about, it's basically a retelling of Frankenstein, except it's set in Baghdad. And the creatures’ limbs are from victims of car bombings and sectarian violence. Ideologically, it's fascinating. It's one of the best books I've read about the absurdity of war and the absurdity of violence. That one stands out in my head.

And then my favorite Arabic novel of the past decade or two is by a Syrian writer, Khaled Khalifa, and the novel is called No Knives in the Kitchens of this City. And it's basically a story about a number of Syrian characters. It's just a family dynamic. There's no real narrative plot to it, but it's just about life in the 40 years leading up. Basically, the novel ends like the day before the Civil War starts. And it's just, it's a brilliant novel about human beings living in an oppressive society, oppressive politically, but also oppressive familiarly.

Those are my standout Arab books of the last few years.

Ramanan (00:43:49) - Well, if we can dream up some kind of tenuous connection to climate, which I'm sure we can, we'll find our way to them. I will never forget myself, interviewing, you know, I do alumni interviews for my university, as do thousands of other people. And I interviewed a kid in Aleppo as the bombings were happening. And it just really brought home to me just A) devastation, but B) one of the themes of your book, which is this looking to the West and all of the issues that arise from it. Molly, you want to wrap us up?

Molly (00:44:22) - Well, I know you have a new podcast, speaking of maybe nonfiction, is that right? A new podcast called Without. What can you tell us about that?

Omar (00:44:31) - Yeah, my ongoing attempt to just bum everybody out in as many different media as possible.

Molly (00:44:36) - I mean, I was going to ask you like about hope.

I have this trite question here about hope. And I was like, you know what? Omar's not the guy for this. Or maybe you are.

Actually, that would be unfair. Yes.

Ramanan (00:44:48) - I want to push back on that, even though Omar's right here, so Molly and I can just argue about Omar, but…

Molly (00:44:53) - That seems like a great idea.

Ramanan (00:44:55) - In a very evident way, the book kind of holds out the promise, right? We can imagine whatever we want for the two kids.

Omar (00:45:06) - Yeah. I mean, think of hope as a function of survival. I think I differentiate between hope as prologue and hope as epilogue. Hope as epilogue is of no use to me, which is this notion of no matter what happens, everything's going to work out. I think that's a privileged position that if you live in a certain part of the world you can afford to take, but conveniently turns a blind eye to all of the wreckage that happens before that epilogue. Hope is prologue, I think is vital. Hope is the starting point. You know, in order for us to manifest this hope into something, we need to get down and do some work.

That, to me, is vital. But I think one of the reasons that the book I mean, the stories I write are generally pretty damn depressing. And, you know, I can't sort of hide from that. Um, but I do think that, so recently there's this project I'm working on, which is this audio almost stage play, book thing, and it's a mockumentary. It's kind of like a Spinal Tap comedy, takes place about 50 or 60 years in the future.

And while the world is on fire and everything's going to hell, this one billionaire’s solution is that he's going to colonize Mars. And so the documentary is just interviewing all of the people who are helping make this guy. And it's a complete disaster and everything's falling apart and the whole thing is a farce. But I pitched it to Penguin, my publisher up in Canada, and they were having this meeting. And they were like, you know, it's a bit short right now.

So what we think is we're going to supplement it with samples from your two novels so that we can help. And I was like, No, please do not bring in the –  It's the most depressing things on earth. They can't have them at the end of a comedy. Like that's not... Yeah, I actually got my start writing comedy in college, as astounding as that is to believe and I love it as a form. But I also love depressing, you know, depressing literary fiction as well.

Without was an idea I had a long time ago, three or four years ago.

And I had pitched it to the head of podcasts for this production company out in LA, Hyperobject, which is Adam McKay's production company. Basically every episode considers what the world might look like once we run out of something or stop using something. And so it runs the gamut from what does the world look like when the last glacier melts to things that maybe we should think about getting rid of fossil fuels or cops or, you know, whatever it is to thought experiments.

If the Internet went down tomorrow, how long would we function before everything went to hell? And so it's basically about, I think, the defining emotional position of the next few decades, which is uncertainty. This idea of things we took for granted for a very long time, maybe not being around anymore. And what does that look like? So the first episode was sand. We use up sand more than anything other than air and water. We use it in construction to the point where there's sand mafias.

You go to a place like India and there's literally folks showing up in pickup trucks and don't mess with them. They will beat you up. And it's fascinating to me because we don't think about these things too often. So that's the podcast that has just started. We're in the middle of making the next batch of ten episodes. Um, hopefully people like it. I haven't, uh, it's very, very new. It's like three weeks old now, so we're still, we're still getting our, our sea legs under us.

Molly (00:48:44) - Amazing. Well, Omar, thank you for the time. We definitely encourage everyone to read that. Please listen to Without. Please read What Strange Paradise. You know I would be lying if I told you it will be easy for you. But you must, I think, is what Ramanan and I both came away with, which is I'm devastated. And also, I could not have not done this. So we're really honored that you joined us and glad we got to talk to you about your contribution to this space and your accidental cli-fi.

Omar (00:49:14) - Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.

Ramanan (00:49:17) - And we're going to beg Omar to write a biting satire, which might just navigate that middle ground between wildly hopeful and wildly depressing. This was an amazing book. It was by far the best thing I've read in the last several years. And I want to thank you, Omar, for that. And I want to say this is all for our third episode of Futureverse. We hope you enjoyed this conversation with Omar about his novel What Strange Paradise, but also the role of fiction and exploring and processing the effects of migration, which are further inflected by climate.

You can find Omar on his website at omarelakkad.com. And once again, a big thank you.

Omar El Akkad (00:50:06) - Thank you so much.

Molly (00:50:08) - Thank you for listening. Please email us at futureverse@substack.com with any suggestions or ideas and visit futureverse.earth for the full transcript of this podcast and other information.

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