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OK, so an English professor, 20 prison inmates and a bestselling author walk into a classroom. Have you heard this one? Don’t feel bad — neither had we. Not until last month when Merced College facilitated our unlikely meeting of the minds.

As “state-mandated residents” of Chowchilla’s barbed-wire resort, a few of us have been given the opportunity to attend Merced College’s face-to-face classes, like the one taught by Professor McBride. Her curriculum includes Omar El Akkad’s “American War,” a bestselling novel about a fictional Second Civil War waged over fossil fuel prohibition. After our class enjoyed several discussions about the novel’s central question — can wartime trauma transform an ordinary person into a terrorist? — Ms. McBride had a crazy idea. 

She emailed El Akkad, describing her “unusual class” and inviting him to speak to us. Not only did he come, he waived his speaking fee, flew out from Portland and chatted with us like colleagues and new friends. “I enjoy much more the give-and-take type of conversation,” he said, “rather than me talking at you.”

One student, Robert Vela, wanted to know about El Akkad’s process, what he draws on to create his stories and characters. “I’m interested,” Vela explained, “because my daughter’s in college studying to become a writer. Do you have any advice for her?”

“Read,” El Akkad said. “Read good books. Read bad books. Read it all. You might read the worst book you can imagine and think, I can write better than this. And that might be just the catalyst you need to become a writer.”

He shared stories about his time as a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan, and how he superimposed its decimated landscape onto the future war-torn South in American War. His idea, he said, was to “flip the script” and show how the world might look with united Arab nations as the world’s sole superpower. This, he hoped, would lend perspective to the misconception that the horrors experienced in the Middle East could never happen here.

“On a national scale, he said, “America is extremely privileged — the privilege to ignore someone else’s suffering and label it ‘exotic.’ I wanted to destroy that.”

The message was received loud and clear by mainstream audiences, as was a message he had not intended. Many reviews lauded the novel as “a view into the future of Donald Trump’s America.” When we broached this subject, El Akkad said, “I submitted the completed manuscript before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy. ‘American War’ had nothing to do with him.” He laughed and added, “It has been good for sales, though.” 

Let’s face it, you would be hard pressed to find a more apt portrait of the disenfranchised than our roomful of convicted felons. To have this accomplished scribe in our presence, sharing his thoughts, triumphs, and frustrations, was a deeply moving experience. We who have grown accustomed to feeling forgotten, invisible even, suddenly felt valued. Seen. Understood.

He took the time to discuss my writing aspirations with me, pointing out that since I’d already been writing poetry, the transition to books was quite doable. 

“Poetry is a deep dive,” he said. “You only have a short while to go deep. A novel, though, is like long-distance swimming. Every stroke doesn’t need to be perfect as long as you’re going in the right direction. In reality, books are messy. You tear them apart and put them back together. If I can write one, it can’t be that hard.”  

I am grateful to Merced College and Professor McBride for inviting the author of our text to sit among us. El Akkad stepped out of his life and into ours. What he offered was not distant sympathy, but real connection and kinship. Canadian-Egyptian author, American prisoner — we are part of the same human family. To borrow his words, “There’s no such thing as a foreign kind of suffering.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Benjamin Frandsen

Benjamin Frandsen is a writer incarcerated in California.