Not Prophecy but Inversion: Omar El Akkad and Min Hyoung Song

“What matters to me is fidelity to something else entirely, which is how human beings are and how human beings should be and the chasm between those two things, which I think is what literature is for.”

Our partner podcast Novel Dialogue invites a novelist and a literary critic to talk about novels from every angle: how we read them, write them, publish them, and remember them. This season’s signature question is: “What is the first book you remember loving?”

Omar El Akkad joins critic Min Hyoung Song for a gripping conversation that interrogates fiction’s relationship to the real. Before he became a novelist, Omar was a journalist, and his experience reporting on (among other subjects) the war on terror, the Arab Spring, and the Black Lives Matter movement profoundly shapes his fiction. His first novel, American War, follows the protagonist’s radicalization against the backdrop of a fossil fuel–motivated civil war. His second, What Strange Paradise, is a haunting retelling of Peter Pan focused on a young Syrian refugee. But as Omar and Min’s dialogue reveals, literary criticism doesn’t always get the politics of political fiction right. Their conversation moves from the preoccupation with “literal prophecy” which plagues the reception of speculative fiction in general and climate fiction in particular to the multifaceted appeal of the fantastical in writing migration stories. They discuss Omar’s interest not in extrapolation, but in inversion. And they take up the imaginative challenges posed by climate change: the way it fails to fit zero-sum colonial ideologies; the way it relies upon the continued development of “the muscle of forgetting, the muscle of looking away.” Finally, Omar’s answer to the signature question is a case study in the inversion that characterizes his work: Little Women readers, prepare yourselves!






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View a transcript of the episode here.

Mentioned in this Episode

Featured image: Cover design of the 1880 edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.