Omar El Akkad, author of American War, on reading and the radical act of empathy

Our guest blogger Omar El Akkad has been garnering rave reviews for his powerful, thought-provoking debut novel, American War. Set during the Second American Civil War of 2075, American War lays bare our own fractured cultural and political existence in a dystopian fantasy that rings all too true for many others struggling in war-torn places of the world. Today he shares three books you probably haven’t read, and why you should. El Akkad will be appearing on Monday, April 17 at the Elliott Bay Book Company. Catch his recent NPR Interview.

Empathy, which these days feels more and more like a radical act, has become as of late the primary criterion for inclusion in my reading list. More than beautiful writing or technical merit or imaginative flair, I find myself most urgently in need of fiction’s ability to transpose, to immerse me in the thick of strangers’ lives. In this isolationist era, run and overrun by men whose worldview relies on exclusion and deliberate unknowing, it seems an obligation to seek out writing that chronicles other cultures, other histories, other lives.

I want to tell you about three of the books I’ve read this year. All three are fairly obscure, small-press titles, all three are translations, and all three are written by authors from countries covered by the Trump administration’s various travel bans.

Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpe.
I’m sometimes reluctant to recommend poetry in translation, but what Wolpe does here with the work of Iranian modernist master Farrokhzad is mesmerizing in its own right. In her short life – she was only 32 when she died in a car accident – Farrokhzad revolutionized Iranian poetry, and suffered greatly for her trouble. Writing in the 1950s and 60s, she scandalized some segments of Iranian society with her unblinking meditations on sexuality. Many of the country’s well-established poets shunned her work. But there’s a ferocity to Farrokhzad’s poetry that has outlived her critics. My favorite of these poems, an incendiary indictment titled “O Bejeweled Realm…,” is an Iranian analog to Ginsberg’s “America,” and dangerous in a way that only fearless verse can be. I wonder what Farrokhzad would have thought of the irony of it all –fighting so hard to earn the respect she so richly deserved only to have her work banned by Iran’s Islamist government a few years after her death.

They Die Strangers by Mohammad Abdul-Wali, translated by Abubaker Bagader and Deborah Akers.
This book is composed of one short story, after which the collection is named, and a dozen or so micro-stories, each only a couple of pages long. They are, for the most part, stories of exile, concerned with what it means to come from one place, live in another, and feel at home in neither. In this way, these are the stories of Abdul-Wali himself, whose background is Yemeni but who grew up the child of migrants in Ethiopia. Like Farrokhzad, he died far too young, at age 33 in a plane crash.

Many of the male characters in Abdul-Wali’s stories are boorish, and often his female characters lack agency, but there is a kind of quiet longing that imbues his work with an unexpected sensitivity. The titular story follows the life of Abdou Sa’id, a Yemeni merchant living in Ethiopia. There is a kind of aimlessness that haunts Sa’id; he wants desperately to return to his ancestral home but has been gone from it so long he fears he might not belong there anymore. They Die Strangers is a fascinating autopsy of identity, hypocrisy and that fundamentally human affliction of rootlessness.

No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price.
Khalifa’s saga of a single Syrian family, told over the span of more than 40 years, is the most beautiful, brilliant book I’ve read this year. It is, for many reasons, a difficult read – the author does no hand-holding, the narrative is scattered in time, and the focus shifts frequently among dozens of characters. But the result is something absolutely stunning – a plainspoken, unflinching dissection of desire in a society that fears and criminalizes desire. Khalifa’s characters, under emotional siege in a country run by a joyless, fascist government, oscillate between repression and rebellion, yearning and yielding. There is a little of Dostoyevsky crossed with Orwell here, and certainly the story of a family suffering in Aleppo will be seen by many readers in the light of the ongoing humanitarian nightmare that threatens to consume that city and so much of Syria. But this is a novel about something else entirely – about the simple human need to feel fulfilled, and the rot that sets in the soul when fulfillment is denied. No Knives in the Kitchens of this City is a difficult, sometimes brutal read, a hard book to love, but I loved it.

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