In this episode, we discuss the fictions, myths, and hopes that the United States of America produces and depends on. We spoke with Mitchell S. Jackson, author of The Residue Years and Survival Math, about the dream of homeownership and all it contains, and Omar El Akkad, author of American War and What Strange Paradise, about the self-evident truths we claim to hold within this nation's borders.
Mitchell S. Jackson is a Pulitzer prize–winning author and essayist and a professor at Arizona State University. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and his books The Residue Years and Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family present a crackling portrait of a Portland you won't get in the New York Times: racially and economically complicated, full of barriers and of opportunities, and above all alive in language, ambition, and strong human connection.
- Watch our full conversation with Mitchell S. Jackson from October 2021.
- Read "What it Means to Say Portland," from the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Oregon Humanities magazine.
Omar El Akkad is an author and journalist. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Guernica, GQ, and many other outlets, and he has written two powerful and celebrated novels, American War and What Strange Paradise. He was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, moved to Canada as a teenager, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He has reported from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and many other locations around the world.
- Watch our full conversation with Omar El Akkad from January 2022.
- Watch a previous conversation with El Akkad from 2019.
- Read "Faster Than We Thought: What Stories will Survive Climate Change?" in Lit Hub.
Other writing on race, home, and the American Dream from Oregon Humanities:
Adam Davis: Hello, and welcome to The Detour. I'm Adam Davis. Right here at the start of this episode, I've got a question for you. What do you think or feel when you hear the phrase "the American Dream"? Do you chuckle skeptically, or tense up with anger, or maybe, in private, do you feel nostalgic? Even just a little bit inspired?
Of course the American Dream is a cliche, but it's a cliche that does a lot of work. And plenty of that work seems worthwhile. The more we can say America falls short of the dream, the more we can hold America to account. And the more we can point to lots of American dreams instead of just one, the more likely we are to be talking about this country in all its actual complexity and variety. But still, there's something about the cliched and outdated and overburdened and sometimes infuriating phrase "the American Dream" that sticks.
In this episode of The Detour, we talk with Omar, El Akkad and Mitchell S. Jackson, two thinkers and authors who explore the American Dream in vivid, wrenching, and challenging ways. They both get at core parts of the American Dream and, in doing so, they get at core parts of this nation, at the United States of America and the myths, fictions, and hopes it produces and depends on.
If you had to boil down the American Dream, you might end up with the idea that you could own your own home: a quiet house on a corner, a white picket fence, evenings where you and your family and your neighbors hang out on the porch. Or you might see that scripted word equality somewhere in your head, or freedom to be who you are to be left alone. Mitchell and Omar go deep on these ideas: Mitchell on the dream of home- owning and all it contains, Omar on the self-evident truths we claim to hold within this nation's borders.
Mitchell S. Jackson is a Pulitzer prize–winning author and essayist and a professor at Arizona State University. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and his books The Residue Years and Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family present a crackling portrait of a Portland you won't get in the New York Times: racially and economically complicated, full of barriers and of opportunities, and above all alive in language, ambition, and strong human connection. And it's also worth saying that, in all his writing, Mitchell is thinking about dreams, which for him are wrapped up in what it means to be a man and a Black man in particular. In his novel, The Residue Years, Mitchell writes about a character ,Champ, who dreams of buying back a home on Sixth and Mason in Northeast Portland that he lived in briefly as a kid with his grandmother.
I asked him about that home when we talked in October 2021.
Mitchell S. Jackson: I'm glad you asked about that home, because it's an actual home. I won't hand out addresses for someone to go by there, but it was the home of my great grandmother. And for me it was a touchstone, because she and my grandfather who lived nearby, owned homes for all of my, really all of my life.
So from the time I was born until they passed, they owned those homes. And so we were a little nomadic or itinerant in our living sometimes, but I always knew that I could go back to sixth and Mason. And some of my fondest memories are there. She was a religious woman. She was from the deep South— she was from Alabama. She would gather up all the kids, cousins, uncles, and make us read Bible verses. She would set us outside and let us pick plums from the tree. It was just a great time. And also the house was the biggest house on the block as well. So I think, even though it was tacitly, it was a source of pride to be living in the big white house on the corner.
She was one of the few people that owned a home in the family, so it was really important to me, the source of pride.
So source of pride. And, first of all, there's something about that image of the plums, too, that just like lands hard. But why take the step from source of pride, place with good memories, to saying "our slice of the American dream." How would owning that home mean, there we go, we got a slice of that thing.
Mitchell S. Jackson: Yeah. Well, I think it was also in thinking about what happened. it must have been the early two thousands, maybe the late 1990s, possibly late 1980s, when the neighborhood was changing.
I can remember White men in suits walking around asking people if they wanted to sell their land. Or they were doing other things too, selling aluminum siding for your house and filters for the water. But soon enough, they came around asking if people wanted to sell their homes.
Mitchell S. Jackson: We're taught that the American dream is a home: two kids and the picket fence and a home. And so I believed in that because that's what I was taught. And to have a member of my family have that part of the American dream when other members didn't have it, it really seemed important to me.
And then, when I got old and I realized— I didn't have the name gentrification to apply to it, but I did realize that people that didn't look like the people that were occupying the community were coming in and displacing people, that that was a problem. And if the American dream is what they tell us, then we all should own a home.
Adam Davis: If the American dream is what they tell us, we all should own a home. Is the American dream. What they tell us?
Mitchell S. Jackson: Oh, no, absolutely not. But it sounds good. And it creates aspirations. I guess it also creates a lot of disappointment. How do we create, if we think about, like, real estate: Yeah, it's a sound investment for you, but if we think about how real estate is valued, And with what a home, like a home in a depressed neighborhood, which if it's depressed someone depressed, it is worth X amount of dollars, versus if you take that same structure and put it elsewhere in a neighborhood of affluence and it's worth a different amount of money. And when I got to thinking about it, I know I'm jumping ahead, about Survival Math and thinking about the ways in which Northeast Portland was created in the values of homes and who was able to own them and who wasn't, you really start to see how phantasmagoric the American dream is for most of the people and people that look like me. We're told the same things about the American dream, that — meaning people of color, Black people, people who have been disenfranchised— we're sold the same story. If we're talking about storytelling, we're sold the same story. And then we are actively denied the means of realizing that story. So no one tells you about redlining when they say go get a house.
Adam Davis: That's why, I guess Sixth and Mason, thinking about Northeast Portland, here's this dream. Look at the risks that come with your taking that dream seriously. That said you describe yourself in Survival Math as a dreaming dreamer. And you in Residue Years, in Survival Math, and everything I've read of yours, the dream is so alive, explicitly and implicitly. Given the risks of the dream or of dream, why do you think that for you seems like such a palpable part of who you are?
Mitchell S. Jackson: I see it as, there's two options, right? You can give up or you can, for lack of a better term, make something of yourself. And to realize the life that I have now had to involve dreaming, because I didn't recognize, it was not something that was presented to me as a possibility. I never saw an author in my school. I didn't go to readings. I did not own a bookshelf in my house where I was picking books off the shelf. No one was reading to me at bedtime, all of the kind of markers of my peers that I, the stories that I hear them tell about why they love words and books and sentences and why they wanted to be a writer, and even the kind of life that you can obtain from writing, like being a professor — that just wasn't a possibility for me.
But I also knew that I did not want to let the circumstances dictate a life for me that felt really anonymous, I guess is probably the best, like I didn't wanna live anonymous. And so while I didn't have a specific dream when I was young, I knew that I wanted to matter.
Adam Davis: To matter. And you also said you didn't want to remain anonymous. And I guess there are two questions that I have in my head. And the first is about whether you think, is there like one American dream\ that we should think about no matter where we come from, no matter what color we are, no matter what gender we are? Is that a useful thing?
Mitchell S. Jackson: I don't think it's useful to hold up in front of ourselves. I think the purpose of a singular American dream is a master narrative, right? It's the way that White people tell themselves, "we are the best." They make the metrics and then they judge how well they've achieved the metrics. And then everyone else is judged by those same metrics, no matter what kind of access they have to achieving them.
So, yeah I think it serves a purpose, right? It makes us homogeneous, and that serves the people who pull the strings. When I think about conventions and master narratives, I'm like, Who are they benefiting? And oftentimes they don't benefit people that look like me.
Is it possible to boil down what you think the sort of story of what manhood is?
Mitchell S. Jackson: I was just rereading a little bit of Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks. And he has that line that I had highlighted. What is it? "The Black man wants to be White and the White man desperately wants to achieve the rank of man."
And I think that when we think about manhood, again, we all have similar metrics because we've been indoctrinated to think of manhood in a certain way: that you can provide, that you can safeguard your loved ones, that you have some standing in the world. And then, what happens when you can't provide, or you can't keep your people safe, or your standing in the world as diminished?
And so really I think manhood, or if we're really talking specifically about Black manhood, it's the dissonance between those standards that everyone has accepted or many have accepted and the actual possibilities of what we can achieve. And which makes me think that's why the idea of respect, something that's intangible, but the idea of respect is so integral to Black manhood.
Adam Davis: Earlier Mitchell talked about not having examples of writers in front of him at home and at school. In Survival Math, he talked about men in his life who are engaged in things that are considered criminal: in some cases, selling drugs, some sex, prostitution, and violence that threatens to catch him on either side. He writes that he doesn't know how he came out of it without either killing or being killed. I wanted to know how he, now a writing professor, understands that journey
Mitchell S. Jackson: before I figured it out, I had figured out some things about myself: one,it was hard to make me feel affronted. So my sense of respect was, I think, a little more malleable than a lot of my peers. So that governed the kind of reactions I would have or the way that I would deal with situations of conflict, where manhood became an aspect that was in question. I also am fortunate that I had people. When I was very young, I can remember my third grade teacher, Ms. Peterson, telling me that I was smart. And this is a small thing, but actually here I am, forty-six years old, recalling when Ms. Peterson called me smart in third grade at King School. So it did have an effect on me, and I held onto that as part of my identity. I didn't let go of that in sixth grade, like some people like, "oh, school's not cool anymore." There was never a point in my life when I thought school was uncool.
I was also very fortunate when I got into my teens to have a group of men around me, some of whom I just wrote about in a story, who all were athletes, and our identity became that of athletes versus other identities that we could have assumed. And even if some of us were on the periphery of gang membership or dabbling in street stuff, we all were also basketball players. And the thing about it is, the community was so small that people would refer you by the identity that they knew you by. So they would say, oh, he's, there goes Mitch, he's a hooper. And so at a certain point I started to take pride in that. You know, They could be like, oh, there go Mitch, he's a Crip, and I would've had a lot less pride in that. But then some men or some young men start to take a pride in that as an identity. And once that becomes your identity, well, there's a lot of places you gotta take it to become the best of that.
Adam Davis: Somehow this is making me think of that moment in Residue Years where Champ is in a professor's office, and the professor says, "You'd do great in politics." Feels like this has been a very political conversation. Feels like much of your writing is not explicitly about the political process, but it's deeply political. So can I, like, where does the political stand for you?
Mitchell S. Jackson: The political stands for me and the personal There was a book called Oversold before there was Residue Years, and then there was Survival Math. The Residue Years feels like a personal examination of the circumstances of my intimate family members. So my mom, my two brothers. And it also was when my vision of Northeast Portland was much more myopic. I was concerned with the people who I had contact with. Then when I wrote Survival Math and really thinking about the state constitution and the exclusion of Black people in Oregon state constitution, I started to think more broadly about how Oregon became Oregon. And you couldn't do that without also exploring Whiteness. So then that expanded the scope. So Survival Math has a much broader scope than Residue does. But it's always, to me, if my people aren't at the center of it, then I don't wanna do it.
Cause I'm not a historian. I'm not a journalist, right? I am a writer and a storyteller. And so to me, writing about home, thinking about home, is both a personal act, and I cannot talk about the personal without being political, because the political shapes the circumstances of the people that I love.
Adam Davis: That was a beautiful journey, even in that response. After you observe in Survival Math that you hadn't had conversations about politics with your mom, you ask her, " what's patriotism?" Do you remember what she said?
She said something like, we always think of America as something like a father figure, but she said, "What if America is like our child that we have to protect?" And I probably butchered that, but the idea was that it wasn't above us, that it was an entity or an idea that we had to protect. And the analogy that she gave was like, when your child is wrong, you still defend them, or you still stand by them.
Adam Davis: And so people who are nationalists who know that America's committing these horrible atrocities all over the globe, but still are like, " Red, white, and blue. And, I'm an American through and through." So when she said it, I was like, wow, for someone who hadn't really had those kind of considerations, that seemed a really astute and way to think about america and nationalism and patriotism.
Yeah. It's actually really powerful to hear you say that too. That, that it's like a child we love and know needs some teaching. Yeah. Rather than a parent teaching us towards the beginning of survival math, you talk about Mizraim, Egypt, "the boon of a chance to become."
Which seems related to dreaming this idea of becoming. Seems like you've done a lot of thinking about becoming and a lot of becoming. What do you think it takes to become what you hope to become?
Mitchell S. Jackson: I think ambition, which is probably cold word for hope. I'm trying to imagine a person who was not hopeful and yet ambitious, that doesn't seem like that could exist.
I also think a recognition of possibilities. So the more that you see that's possible for yourself, the greater your ambitions can be. And I also think there was one of the things that I tell my students in class is, it is very helpful for me to point out when you can't write a sentence.
or if you can't create a metaphor well, but it's also important for me to point out your strengths. And so I think that we should also be able. Keep track of our strengths, because I think knowing that can also point you in a direction. I had professors tell me, or teachers tell me that they thought I had an aptitude for writing. It wasn't creative writing. But again, I thought about that when it was time to to apply for graduate school, like maybe what they said was right. Maybe I can do this. Recognizing our strengths. I guess you would also have to recognize your weaknesses. Holding on to hope, which is a kind of ambition.
Mitchell S. Jackson: And I think also we just can't devalue mentorship. At every stage in my life, there was someone who was pointing me in the right direction and giving me encouragement. I just attended my old high school— he was my high school counselor and then my junior college basketball coach— a man named Donald Dixon who retired from Jefferson High School. Either forty-two or forty-four years of service in the Portland public school system. And he was the one that told me to take, apply for a college scholarship that wasn't basketball-related at Portland State, which is a scholarship they held for me while I was in prison. So that changed my life.
There was Tony Hopson and Ray Leary, who created Self Enhancement Incorporated when I was young. I think the first camp was 1984. And so gave me a job when I was in high school, allowed me to go to camp and stay constructive when I could have been, who knows, wandering, doing what else?
There was Gordon Lish when I got out of graduate school and was faltering as a writer in New York. And he would call me late at night and say, "I think you can make it, stick with me. You'll be...." And that encouragement really kept me going. So at every stage there was someone saying, "I think you can do it." And oftentimes I think that might be all that a person needs.
Adam Davis: Mitchell S. Jackson is a Pulitzer prize–winning essayist and author who grew up in Portland, Oregon.
Omar El Akkad is an author and journalist. He was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, moved to Canada as a teenager, and has lived for a good while in the Portland area. The start of his journalism career coincided with the start of the War on Terror, and over the following decade, he reported from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and many other locations around the world.
His fiction and nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Guernica, GQ, and many other newspapers and magazines, and he has written two powerful and celebrated novels, American War and What Strange Paradise.
It takes just a moment of listening to Omar or reading him to know that you'll be moved, challenged, and inspired. And in this conversation he's especially good at exploring national myths. The stories we tell ourselves and cling to and revise as we try, alone and with each other, to make our way through the world.
Omar El Akkad: I got to know this country from a distance. So I was born in Egypt, but I left Egypt— my father had to get out of the country— and I grew up in Qatar, just tiny little peninsula sticking out of Saudi Arabia.
Quatar now is, pound for pound, the richest place on earth. They have massive natural gas and oil reserves, but there was no local cultural industry. It's a Bedouin culture historically. And so there was two TV channels when I was growing up: there was Qatar One and Qatar two.
Qatar one was in Arabic, Qatar Two was in English and imported two TV shows from the US: MacGyver and America's Most Wanted. I have no idea why they picked those two. You got a very specific interpretation of what this place over there might be like. I understood America as a piece of mythology long before I understood it as anything concrete.
I didn't move to this country until I was in my thirties. But you come to think of it as a certain set of possibilities. The primary one, the one at the top of the list, is that this is a place where you will be left alone to think what you want, to say what you want, to do what you want, which for someone growing up in my part of the planet is a huge deal.
Because you can't do that back in Egypt, you can't do that in Qatar. You say the wrong thing, and there are very real consequences, ranging from deportation to secret prisons and torture and never being heard from again. In my head, I assumed that America was oriented around that and that, no matter what else I learned about America, it was always subservient to that.
And of course, many years later, I came here and realized that A), I don't understand this country in the slightest, and B), that interpretation of life here is constantly colliding against the reality that you're not gonna be left alone. If you have the wrong skin color and you're pulled over, things might go very, very differently from what the mythology teaches you about the freedom to be in this part of the world. Or in my case, if you have the wrong ethnicity and you're walking through TSA, you're walking through security, and you say the wrong thing, you're gonna get a very different interpretation.
And yet that mythology, that idea that you can be left alone, is so strong that it still resonates in my head. And it's still the first thing that I associate with America, even though I'm shown repeatedly that's not the case.
Adam Davis: That's interesting, 'cause the way you started talking about the mythology that you wrote, "Americans prize above all else" was in a way, from your perspective as someone who was not here. And I guess I wonder now that you've been here for a while, does it feel like the mythology that you see, say, generated here in some deliberate or accidental way? Does it depart from, is it different from the kind of, you're gonna be left alone, the one that you saw from Egypt or Qatar?
Omar El Akkad: Oh, absolutely. When I first moved to Portland my buddy Donnie and I wanted to go hiking. And we heard about this abandoned railroad track that sort of just runs into the forest and that sounded like a really great hike.
So we're driving through these back roads to try and get to it. And we're horribly lost from the go from the get go. And at one point we're on this dirt road in the middle of nowhere and we just hear gunfire, like we just hear-- and for some reason, we're like, Hey, we should find out what's going on. Instead of the rational thing to do, which is just throw this thing into reverse and get the hell out of there. And eventually we come into a clearing on the side of the road where there is a makeshift firing range, and it's just a bunch of guys with guns and they're just firing into, I don't know, plywood or whatever it is. And a couple of the sort of fake body, you know, those things from the movies. I don't, I have no idea what they're called, but have printouts of Hillary Clinton's face on them.
And you think about it, and in a way that's part of the mythology of America being a place where you can do whatever you want. You can go out into the forest and shoot pictures of Hillary Clinton with your rifle. Congratulations. But it's so far removed from looking at this place from a distance where it's land of the free, where it's, it has a veneer of goodness that is implicit. But then you come here and realize that it's not guaranteed at all. It's an incredibly powerful cultural tool set for both good and bad.
Adam Davis: In Canada, do you have to do that sort of reading of how you're gonna be slotted or categorized, or do you find that that has been more the case here?
Omar El Akkad: There's certainly overlaps, at least from my very limited experience. But there's also certain load-bearing beams of the mythology that are fundamentally different. So in Canada, it's the mosaic, the idea that Canada is a mosaic of different cultures. And you go to a place like Toronto and you see that, you see this idea, whereas in the us the default sort of metaphor is the melting pot. You come here and, yeah, there's different cultures, but you melt into something called American and you become that. And that's a pretty key difference. There's tons of overlap in the sense of like, where you feel like you belong and where you feel like you don't belong. There's certainly that, but there's also something distinctly American that I haven't seen that flavor anywhere else.
Adam Davis: And so if there's some push towards the melt or the melting pot, again, in What Strange Paradise, there's a mention of the sort of story as a story about all men being equal. And as you're talking, I'm thinking, what are the things that people would say are core to the American Dream? And I think one at least aspirational piece of it is something like, everybody has an equal opportunity, something like that. And I guess first I wonder, does that seem like it's core, at least to the dream part of it, to you as you've gotten to know this place and this dream as it came to you in different...
Omar El Akkad: Foundationally it's contradicted by the history of the country. I know that we have this debate ongoing right now, but it isn't really a debate. The economic expansion of this country was predicated on the enslavement of a group of human beings. And the geographic expansion of this country was predicated on the massacre of a group of human beings.
That's not me freelancing opinions. That's a matter of historical record. And the fact that we're having these debates now about so-called critical race theory and what books Texas wants to ban and all the rest of that is a side show. It's a side show relative to the historical record. So in a sense, the notion that it is written in one of the founding documents is all well and good, but it is contradicted by the history of the country. That doesn't mean that the entirety of the endeavor is hopeless, but it means that you have to acknowledge what the reality is. So I think that in certain ways, and there's the Fox News model of thinking about America, where if you say the slogan, the slogan becomes reality. It doesn't.
And that I think is one of the things that scares me the most about the institutional integrity of this thing called America, which is this notion that there is a significant part of the culture, with its load-bearing beams, being the Fox Newses of the world and the Republican parties and those entities, that firmly believes that if you say a thing loudly enough and often enough , it will be indistinguishable from the truth, that there is a frictionless overlap between the truth and what you'd like the truth to be.
And that terrifies me because it leads to these situations where you can just throw the headline "all men are created equal," or "this is a place," and somehow use that to wash over the reality and the nuances of how the country actually functions. That's a really scary place to be.
Adam Davis: So when you started using the word scared and then came back to it at the end, I started thinking about your book American War, which feels so different from What Strange Paradise in that there are certainly overlaps but, American War you're looking forward about fifty, seventy years and envisioning the second world war, sorry, the second Civil War. And it's a thoroughly different America in some ways and a thoroughly recognizable America in others. Now that book came out about five years ago now. In that time, a lot of people are talking about civil war or the prospect of civil war and about how we are different countries within one country. I guess I wonder, when you think about that book now, do you remember what drove the writing of that book and the envisioning of a second civil war?
Omar El Akkad: I remember the genesis moment of American War. I often go back to this, which is, I was watching an American TV news, I don't remember if it was CNN or one of the other networks, but it was-- this was many years ago, in the early days of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan. And they were interviewing this foreign affairs expert, this talking head. And a few days earlier there had been these protests in Afghanistan, villagers were protesting against the US military presence. And the question that was put to this gentleman was, Why do they hate us so much? And in his answer, he said, " Sometimes the special forces have to go into these villages and conduct nighttime raids looking for insurgents. And when they do this, they will often ransack the houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint." And then he very helpfully Added, And you know, in Afghan culture, that sort of thing is considered very offensive."
And I still remember that. It's it betrays a sense of, these people belong on a different planet, look at their bizarre customs of getting offended when armed men come into their house. And I wanted to attack that as much as possible. So that was the thinking behind American War. What happened was, I finished writing the first draft in the summer of 2015. And about three weeks later, Donald Trump announced he was running for president. The book comes out, ends up coming out four months into the Trump administration in 2017 and is immediately slotted on all these article lists of the first books of the Trump era and the books you need to understand to learn about [it].
Even to this day. Recently, somebody posted this thing on Twitter, calling it "utter trash" becausethis person had read it as a piece of pro-Trump propaganda, because the states that, that secede in the book are, what is it? Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. And it's called the MAG. And he was like, " MAG, MAGA, this person's pro-Trump."
And I couldn't, you're not gonna reach out to everybody on Twitter and be like, "I swear to God, I wrote this book before any of this happened." I don't think that I predicted anything. I don't think I intruded on reality. I think reality started to intrude on the fictional, and that's why that book has had a strange kind of life and a strange kind of resonance in whatever America has become since it came out.
Adam Davis: It's interesting. What you say about the funny MAG, almost MAGA, because I think that book, my guess is one of the reasons that book resonates is because. It's kind of the American nightmare. I think it touches on like America losing its international power. So ceasing to be an empire. Our trouble with natural resources, turning into trouble with each other, where it starts with fossil fuels no longer being of value. And then pretty soon there's scarcity that drives us to go after each other in ways we maybe had started to, but it elevates it. And then that the country is so split in familiar ways. And I, all of those are detectable currents right now. So that it feels like 2075? Maybe the hopeful part of American War is that it took that long.
Omar El Akkad: I've been criticized for that now, like I'm casting it too far. Yeah. There was an article a couple of days ago, I think in the Washington Post talking about the fashion, how fashionable it's become to write about, civil war scenarios and saying that the least fashionable thing about my book was that really it cast forward fifty years.
Yeah. I was thinking a little bit about, when I first started thinking about this conversation, when you first reached out to me about it, of all of the, those kinds of scenarios, and it is fashionable to talk about that right now. And then that's as a result of where the country is.
But the, one of all the ones that come to mind, the one at the very top, the existential threat that scares me more than any, is that you have a society that its every vector is oriented away from the communal good and towards the individual good. And that's a function of capitalism. It's a function of the free market economy. It's a function of the mythology of coming here and being the self-made man and the Rockefellers of the world and all the rest of that. But every vector in terms of institutional, societal, seems oriented away from the communal good and towards the individual good. And we are colliding against the moment in time where the scariest things that are happening to us require a response that orients those vectors in the exact opposite direction, away from the individual good and towards the communal good. Please put on a mask. Yeah. Okay. It's for you maybe, but it's also for all these other people. Please get the vaccine, it'll help you, but also there's a bunch of people here who are more vulnerable than you. Please do it for them. And setting all of that aside, we are, we're in the middle of a pandemic right now where we're talking about these individual actions as opposed to institutional actions or things the government can do.
Omar El Akkad: Same thing with climate change. Hey, we have this thing that could possibly wipe out the species: recycle better and bike more and do those things. there's a bunch of companies over here that are creating, that are contributing to this problem more in a day than you will in several lifetimes, but please go organic or do the thing that you need.
Because, again, we live in this society that has so tailored everything towards the individual good that we, I don't know how we solve these coming problems that are cataclysmic and require a communal effort. They require the exact opposite of so much of culturally, what culturally forms the bedrock of the society we live in.
Adam Davis: And I want to ask you about how constitutive stories get changed. And I ask that question with a couple of the moments in What Strange Paradise in mind, especially the one where there's one guy on the boat who he, who, again, Mohamed says to him, " You can tell how well people are gonna do when they make this crossing, not by anything they say, but by what they bring with them. And you're in trouble, 'cause you're bringing a book, and the people with books they don't do so well. So, I guess I want to ask you, as a storyteller, how do you change the story? Do you have hopes for the possibility of changing the story from an individualistic story to a more collective story?
Omar El Akkad: I sort of have to, to keep doing what I do. And even if it's full on delusion, I have to believe that there's an element of change that's possible. But also I have a kind of statistical and anecdotal evidence base, to look at the stories that I can go into a bookstore right now and pick up that a decade or two ago would've never gotten any sort of institutional traction. They wouldn't have been considered worth telling because the gatekeepers are of a particular worldview and, had that not changed or been diversified, those books would've never come out in the first place. So I have some evidence base to suggest that this is possible.
The problem, again, is that individually, as an individual writer, I'm throwing pebbles into the ocean. And I have to, because of the stuff I write about, I have to convince myself that it is possible that these stories are going to change someone's worldview, or they're going to cause them to think about something in a way they haven't before or consider somebody as human that previously they might have thought of as only scenery. I have to believe that.
So there are two functions of this: one is pure delusion, pure self-delusion that I have to, whether it's real or not, doesn't matter in the slightest, in order for me to keep writing the books I write, I have to believe it. But the other is real, tangible change, in terms of what kind of stories get told.
And I think the other way that you can identify that that is happening is this deranged knee-jerk reaction now, where people are going back to a mode that historically has been associated with the worst crimes that we are capable of a society, which is banning books, getting rid of information. That wouldn't be happening. If this work wasn't having an effect.
Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour with Omar El Akkad.
Omar El Akkad: I'm one of those people who doesn't have a very good answer to that question, where are you from? You know, I was born in one place, I grew up in another, I'm a citizen of two countries now. I just got my American citizenship during a very bizarre citizenship question. I don't know how much you know about these things, but they sit you down and they're like, "So everybody's done a little human smuggling. Have you ever done any human smuggling? It was like twenty minutes of Have you ever kept someone from practicing their religion? Have you ever murdered?" And it was terrifying. It was a very, it was very scary. I answered "no" to all of them, just in case you're second guessing your decision to have me up on stage here.
But anyway, this notion of not being able to point to any geography, Any set of cultural lineage, and say, " this is mine" runs through a lot of the characters in my stories. And that has to do with your question about loyalty. I have never once thought of my loyalties as having anything remotely to do with the nation state. I don't care in the slightest about borders. I consider my relationship with the nation state to be purely a business relationship. There's a certain set of rules I have to follow, and this is what I get in return, and so on and so forth. I've never had that kind of nationalism, patriotism. It's just not me. And that's not a criticism of somebody who bases their entire worldview on that. And some of my favorite writers are people who marinated in one spot and they told the story of that place to a certain depth that I will never be able to reach because of the kind of life I've had. So when you talk about the word loyalty, it's a really interesting question to me. I don't have the prerequisite life to think of loyalty as a stable thing, anchored to anything unchanging, let alone a nation.
When I think of home, when I think of what home is, I very rarely think of a place. Home for me is relational. I think of relationships as designating what home is, where I feel most comfortable. I'm thinking of something like Naguib Mahfouz's famous phrase about home: "Home isn't necessarily where you were born, home is where your attempts to escape cease."
And so my attempts to escape cease on relational terms. There's never been a place I've lived in that some part of my head wasn't thinking about getting out of, and that's probably gonna stick with me for the rest of my life. And so these characters, when they think of loyalty, it's a relational thing because, in large part, home is becoming a relational thing. In some cases it's physically taken away from you. In some of these stories, you have situations where you can't live in the place you used to live. You're forced out. In other places you feel ill at ease in your environment. You feel like, something about me doesn't fit with this place.
And so you end up developing a relationship with a negative space, the absence of a home. And that's certainly been my experience. It's not the right one. It's not the wrong one. It's just the function of the kind of life I've had, that when I think of home, I think of particular situations, I think of particular relationships. I think of particular memories that, taken together, constitute home for me. I certainly don't think of a location.
Adam Davis: And primarily interpersonal relationships. It sounds like. So now I'm thinking about another character on the boat, in What Strange Paradise. The character, and again, I'm gonna ask about pronouncing his name, Maher. And I'm gonna read it: he's arguing with Mohamed who, again, Mohammad seems like the voice of crude reality, often, and Maher says, "One should try to believe in things." And again, he's a literature student and he's from Gaza, so these words, in this man's mouth: "One should try to believe in things," he said, "even if they let you down afterward."
So I read that sentence a bunch of times, "one should try to believe in things, even if they let you down afterward." And I wanted to ask you, maybe, as we move towards a close of this first part of the program: Is America something one should try to believe in, even knowing we're likely to be let down?
Omar El Akkad: So that conversation in the book, he says that line and then Mohamed says, "What the hell are you talking about?" And Maher says, "Oh, it's something my favorite writer once said," and then Mohamed says, "Your favorite writer is wrong." We've been sitting here for an hour and I've said pretty well everything that's on my mind about America without a second thought: the criticism, the flaws I see in this country, the places that terrify me.
If we had been doing this version of this conversation, but in Cairo, and I was saying the same things about Egypt and the Egyptian government and Egyptian society, there's a very good chance that the lights would've gone down about halfway through, and nobody would've ever heard from me again.
So I don't want to veer into this very lazy space of the everything is equal across the board with respect to, oh, they have one kind of repression here and they have one kind. That's not true. That's not true. James Baldwin talks about, one of many famous quotes of Baldwin's, about about this notion that it is precisely because you love this country that you insist on your right to criticize her.
. I don't know if I love this country or any other country, but many, many years ago I was indoctrinated with a particular story about what this country could be. And my belief in that story and its negation of the kind of intellectual and psychological and emotional corsetting that I felt growing up on the other side of the planet, this sense of not being able to say, that is of such overwhelming power for me that I will believe in what this country could be to my dying day. Even though every morning I wake up and I'm faced with evidence that the exact opposite country exists.
Adam Davis: Omar El Akkad is a journalist and award-winning author of American War and What Strange Paradise.
You can find the full conversations with Mitchell and Omar in our show notes at oregonhumanities.org. The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Keiren bond is our producer. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Our assistant producers are Alexandra Powell Bugden, Karina Briski, and Ben Waterhouse. Thanks for being with us. See you next time.