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Listen: Empathy and 'American War'

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Omar El Akkad is no stranger to war. 

As a journalist, he wrote about the war in Afghanistan and covered the Arab Spring.   

Recently, he traded in fact for fiction, and wrote his debut novel "American War."

The story follows the life of one central character: Sarat Chestnut. We meet her as a young girl and follow her for the rest of her life   "She is, in my view, fundamentally evil," Akkad says of Chestnut.  

He wanted to use the challenge of writing about a character that he didn't like to explore ambiguity and empathy. 

"You can understand why somebody does something, and you can explore their reasons for doing it without taking their side... without apologizing for them...without even liking them." 

The reader meets Chestnut in the year 2075 in a dystopian and divided America.   Akkad took the events that have defined the globe in his lifetime—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan War and others—and make them hit closer to home.  

"The reason for doing that was to get at this idea that there is no foreign kind of suffering, you know," Akkad says. "That revenge and suffering are universal languages." 

To hear Omar El Akkad's full conversation with MPR News Host Kerri Miller use the audio player above.