Contemporary American and Canadian border fiction

A short introduction in American War (2017)

Scientific Essay, 2018

34 Pages


Table of Contents:



I. Introduction

II. American and English War Literature – a short Survey

III. Border Fiction – a short Survey

IV. Border and Borderline in the face of 9/11

V. The literary background of American War or the American South as a Border

VI. Conclusion

VII. Outlook


VIII. Bibliography


It’s like stepping into a dream, isn’t it? The same place, but an entirely different America without war. It’s hard to digest. You get so used to the fighting, it kind of creeps into your bones, after a while, you can’t imagine a world without it. America’s at war, all right. We’re just fighting it here. Not yet, anyway.

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark, 2008


The traditional literary coverage of border and frontier in American and Canadian literature has always been closely linked to war, survival, trauma, trauma time, immigration as well as exile and has re-gained interest of many contemporary writers and critics after 9/11.

Since that date both terms have been discussed on a collective, national or individual level thus throwing light on the manifold consequences of this new interpretation of the complex term border which is of special interest here.

The literary dealing with border and its consequences in El Akkad's novel American War (2017) must yet be seen in a close relationship between border and war. The war which El Akkad describes is a mix between classical elements of war such as battles between armies, fights between man and man or terrorist attacks and a modern concept of war which is known as a 'hybrid war' where black propaganda, an increase in intelligence service activities, false information and cyber attacks are common means to fight an enemy.

The incorporation of war into English speaking literature itself has a long tradition since wars as such form ideal literary backgrounds for plot, character development or political criticism. In times of civil uproar, political insecurity, outer enemies or ongoing wars this incorporation of war as a literary means has·always been present. This is recently perhaps best shown by the events of 9/11. They have not only taken American literature out from its long involvement in local matters such as family, village or town but pushed it into new directions which formed completely new types of novels such as the 9/11 Novel, the· post-9/11 Novel or Ground Zero Fiction where war gained a new dimension which is so different from war literature of the First World War, the Second World War or the Vietnam War.

In many cases this literary coverage of 9/11 has mostly remained in American families or matters and it lacked an appropriate coverage of foreign perspectives.

EI Akkad's novel American War (2017) exactly fits into this background not only because it is written by an author originating from a Muslim background it also brings the topic war back to America to discuss it here.[1] This is new and radical in the sense that readers suddenly are confronted with problems such as war, terrorism, suicide bombers or chemical warfare which so far have been placed on foreign battlegrounds.

It is now the USA which is used to discuss matters which were formerly used under American Presidents such as G.W. Bush with slogans such as 'Crusade' or 'Holy War'.

El Akkad combines two main trends of Muslim writing which are characterized by bringing the narration into the West or by taking it back into the former colonies. By choosing a civil war as the setting for his novel he mixes both trends while importing terror back to the USA which is to blame for it.

American War is a novel which contains several types of narration thus being an important representative of contemporary English speaking literature.

In parts it is speculative fiction, it also disposes of a dystopian setting and it reflects natural catastrophes such as environment pollution or biological warfare which the author places in an American frame marked by a civil war emerging from the present status quo of the USA which he includes historically. The reader is reminded of Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake (2003) not only from the stylistic point of view but also from the political message both books contain and which makes them an important read.

I. Introduction

From their early beginnings all national literatures have been accompanied by war as a literary topic simply because wars had always been part of human and national existence and were thus logically followed by literary reactions.

One can prove this with the early Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek or Roman sources (Homer's Ilias, Tacitus ' Bellum Gallicum), as well as many Asian writings (e.g. Sunzi The Way of War).

The literary energy of which war disposed down the years became a fixed and constant companion of all national literatures and has never lost its grip on literature. In short wars, descriptions of battles lost or won, conquest, destruction or death soon gained a central literary position since they could not only be used for political aims but also for character analysis or plot.

A change of the treatment of war matters did, however, set in after World War I since its warfare were followed by new literary developments such a existentialism, modernism or the importance of psychology.

Suddenly it was not the heroic battle which was at the centre of narration but death, loss and trauma which again were shown as ordinary and not as something special.

Williams (2009) here talks about a literary presentation which can be described as a 'post­Christian version of Dante '.

The wars that followed World War I (World War II, the Vietnam War, the Civil War in Ireland, the Gulf Wars etc.) can be seen as logical consequences of this new trend, a change, however, did set in after the terror attacks of 9/11.

The destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 created new genres which suddenly treated war in a more radical way. The 9/11 Novel, the post-9/11 Novel and Ground Zero Fiction often did not explicitly and directly discuss war as a literary matter but accompanied it with reflection of loss, trauma or mourning time.

For the last seventeen years this treatment was (mostly) in the hands of Western writers such as Lynne Sharon Schwartz , The Writing on the Wall (2005) , Jess Walter , The Zero (2005), Joseph O'Neill, Netherland (2008), Don DeLillo Falling Man (2008) or David Hare Vertical Hour (2008). This - let me call it - Western perspective of 9/11 (and thus war) was only slowly broken up by Muslim writers (writers who live and write in the West but dispose of a Muslim background) who brought in their perspective.

In the past Muslim characters were widely presented in a negative way and thus made way for a new and other radical form which can be summed up in the notion of 'other'. The differences and various forms of otherness emerging from this resulted in Muslims as being anti-Western, anti-female, radical or terrorists. Contemporary English speaking literature has only slowly begun to reject these negative descriptions and - in many cases at least - it was mostly writers disposing of a Muslim background who offered a more positive concept of Muslim characters who are above all human beings. The need for a new form of ethics of literature resulting from this stood for literature's potential engagement with questions of difference, strangeness or otherness simply because 9/11 has failed to bring it back into novels. Indeed, literature since that date has not left ''the preliminary stages of trauma" (Rothberg 2009: 152). This is partly due to the fact that many novelists stuck to this fixed date (9/11) or a fixed location (Ground Zero) from which they unfolded their stories only to constantly return to them.[2]

The post-9/11 Novel to which American War belongs has somehow gone away from stable literary presuppositions to discuss the public and the intimate on a national scale while using the American South (and its role as a borderzone) as a literary platform. It is here where El Akkad makes use of what Gray (2008) in his work Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose at a Time of Crisis calls 'emotional entanglements' which seem to be so typical for the post-9/11 Novel and which he discusses with central matters of identity, citizenship, territory or border. It is exactly at this crossroad where American War reflects political concepts or ideas set in the realm of the sacred and the profane and where the notion of the enemy gains a new dimension in the face of a fixed border (see Updike's novel Terrorist, 2006).[3]

Terror which keeps the narration together is shown as a complex and multifacted term part of which is the notion of border. It is normally connected to the realm of the political and it equals physical force or the intention to achieve political aims, two other elements of this novel. El Akkad here sticks to the historic concept of terror where it is seen as a process from above to below, i.e. from governments and their representatives to the individual. He does this in the character of Sarat's mentor Gaines and the fact that America as a nation is lawless. America in American War resembles nations in the face of The First and Second World War, Faschism, Communism, the Holocaust, 9/11 or Islamic fundamentalism. It is indeed this inability of state order which reminds the reader of the fact that the years from 1914-1945 resemble the 30 year war in Europe (1618- 1648) and the actual wars in Syria and Iraq where laws and the state have simply stopped to exist.

Terror - and this is another idea of the novel - destroys identities, breaks biographies and poses many burdens for upcoming generations. It traumatizes and leads to an inability to transform the experience into a narration. In fact terror normally produces silence and helplessness and it was 9/11 which so far has turned out to be a (negative) highlight of both since the terror attacks of that day symbolized and started a new type of terror of which El Akkad warns. The world since then is confronted with a new form of terror, the irregular led war which embodies so many inhuman options (such as water boarding or psychological torture) all of which are reflected in the novel.

El Akkad must be ranked among those contemporary writers dealing with terror although his novel American War already goes away from a critical reflection of 9/11 to return to war in the classical sense. He does so while linking war to the American South or the role of orphans and war which he places in an America of the future. The result is a mix between traditional elements of war literature and present national and global political issues which make the reader reflect the existence of borders and wars in a new and more radical light.

II. American and English War Literature - a short Survey

Since their early beginnings English and American literatures were influenced and shaped by war as a central element of narration. The first literary highlights following historical examples of writing appeared in the l5th and l6th centuries and have to be connected to authors such as Christopher Marlowe Tambourlaine the Great (1588) or William Shakespeare the latter dealing with war in a vast number of his works (e.g. Macbeth, 1588).

Although matters of war were mostly connected to character development or to push the action it was novels like The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) written by Thomas Nashe who first used war as a fixed element of the narration. Although English speaking literature developed its own use of war as a mode of narration it was coming of age novels such as Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus (1668) which showed the full range of war on people's development and which paved the way for topics such as orphans and war or trauma and war which have stayed essential parts of war literature until today.

Down the years, however, matters of war were closely attached to the plot and mostly used on a secondary level. The novel as the leading type of narration in the l8th, l9th and 20th century did not yet treat war in an independent form of the novel, such as the war novel.

It was the terror of the First and the Second World War which first used poetry and then the novel to deal with war. 'War Poets' such as Owen or Sassoon paved the way for many authors to come for whom war became a central matter of writing. Fighting, dying, terror and trauma were suddenly picked up by many different groups of writers coming from England's former colonies such as Australia, New Zealand or Canada, the latter forming an interesting group. It was here the Canadian group of writers such as Timothy Findely (The Wars, 1977), Robert McNeil (Burden of Desire, 1992) or Joseph Boyden, (Three Day Road, 2005) who have kept war as a topic alive in Canadian lit.

A closer presentation of war must, however, been seen in the events of 1914-1918 since the literary description of World War I started a dealing with matters related to war unknown so far. It was -strictly speaking- the group of the 'War Poets' around writers like Owen, Graves, Gurney, Rosenberg or Sassoon who revolutionized war as a literary topic.[4] Authors like Hemingway, Miller, Orwell, Huxley or Vonnegut also embedded war into their novels and installed the war novel as a fixed literary genre. Another group of war poets also developed in Australia (Leon Gellert) or Canada (John McCrae and Robert W. Service). It was the merit of these 'War Poets' to describe war and its terror as a personal experience and as an individual protest which were now discussed in society. The radical consequence emerging from here meant a loss of all kinds of romanticism or any idealisation of war and went along with a protest which could also be embedded in new literary concepts such as modernism whose impact is now seen as “impressive” (Haslam, 2013: 47).

War here was often fought away from the mother country and it was the task of writers from East and West to import matters of war into the mother country after 9/11. The results were new forms of novels such as the 9/11 Novel, the post-9/11 Novel or Ground Zero Fiction which suddenly discussed matters of war not only on a local or domestic scene but rather on a global one as well.[5]

On the whole the reflection of war or trauma during the 20th century must not be seen as an isolated phenomenon but rather as a dealing of war as a response to actual topics such as the terror attacks of 9/11.

9/11 stands for a radical break with the traditional treatment of war which had been influenced by writers such as Kipling. Kipling himself was a radical defender of the Empire and war for him was some sort of adventure or "military romanticism" (Höglund, 1997: 83 ) which often glorified war in British colonies as "little wars" (ibid: 84).

War for Kipling or authors such as Haggard, Hamilton-Browne, A.E.W. Mason or even Joyce Cary was a necessary consequence of Great Britain's imperial power and thus a logical continuation of sports events such as cricket or rugby attached to some heroic attitude. Critics here differ between two types of novels, the colonial novel and the invasion novel. Both can, however, be traced back to the movement of social Darwinism which includes a (seeming) superiority of the white race, culture and religion.[6]

It was this stereotyped, short–sighted and dangerous concept of war which made many young people join the First World War where they died in the trenches or due to horrible mutilations of body and soul.

This (negative) attitude to war is also seen by Randall (2014) when he states on the moral responsibility of these authors that "... it was saturation in the literature and imagery of militarism over several decades that helped prepare the youth of England for enthusiastic participation in World War I" (ibid.: 81).

Isolation, loss, death or trauma suddenly obtained key roles in war literature and it was the psychological background of these matters which created a new approach to war itself. This breaking away from this idealisation and romanticism of war went along with protest and a literary provocation which was “impressive” (Haslam, 2013: 47).

It was Freud, Bataille, Guattari or Hardt / Negri who had a tremendous influence in this development. The most sophisticated and radical form can here be seen in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) which must, however, be related to the time when it was written (Hippie movement, anti-war attitude in America due to the Vietnam War etc.).

It was especially the treatment with trauma and trauma time which set in here and which had its renaissance in the 9/11 Novel and the post-9/11 Novel.[7]

Down the years, however, this psychological dimension made way for a new approach on war which suddenly discussed the complicated relationship between war and society something familiar since Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) or Kant's work.[8] [9]

The twentieth century on the whole can be seen as a century of war, new technical inventions which changed warfare and radical geopolitical changes pushed forward by the forces of globalisation which suddenly produced a completely new type of authors.

It was writers with a colonial background which suddenly added their point of view to war and the most influential one at present are writers disposing of a Muslim background.

Novels by Leila Abouleila, Tahmima Anam, Nadeem Aslam, Fadia Faquir, Mohsin Hamid or Khaled Hosseini suddenly discussed matters of war from their (Muslim) point of view thus reflecting war differently than their Western counterparts. They did so while presenting war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, lraq, Bangladesh or Sudan next to the mothercountry England or even America.

Almost all major wars led by America or Great Britain in the 19th and 20th century engendered widespread literary and imaginative responses from British and US writers. This also includes the Boer War, the Spanish Civil War, the Troubles in Northern Island, the Korean War, the Vietnam trauma and the many civil wars in Africa or Europe.

The focus of English speaking literature on the Two World Wars since the 1990s has somehow revolutionised the ways contemporary literature, cultural studies and historicist methodologies have impacted on both kinds of literature, the British and the American. Current international military engagements such as the Gulf Wars, the war in Iraq, the civil war in Syria or the 'War on Terror' emerging from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 also stand for this ongoing and significant interest in the wars of the 20th and 21st century and their effects on culture, politics and literature.

The choice to depict war in the future and to place it in an American background can be seen as a radical continuation of war literature since it also goes away from the traditional basis of decolonising conflicts. There is, however, also a positive energy in wars which is often neglected by authors and critics alike. The talk is about wars being motors pushing politics, economy and culture.[10] War in literature also deals with matters of imagination when writers, main characters and readers alike describe or experience nightmares at borders, in trenches, in death camps, in prisons, torture situations, nuclear warfare or - in the case of American War - civil war and biological warfare.

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 have changed and sharpened war literature and modernised classical war topics such as trauma, mourning or revenge. Some of the most important novels in the aftermath of that day after Paul West's The Immensity of the Here and Now: A Novel of 9/11 (2003), Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) or Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007).

American War can be seen as a follower of the post-9/11 Novel since it picks up some central ideas such as an ongoing war, terror or sacrifice which all become a basis for bringing people together and invest them all in further sacrifices thus making war a never ending event. Sarat Chestnut, the novel's main character is never free and she symbolizes which critics like Mishra describe as 'die Wut auf die Moderne' which emerges from the gap between the majority of a country and its elitist thinking leaders. The gap within American society which results in a war between brother and brother is a logical result from this. Sarat is a victim of this development and the existence of borders between nations and the ideologies they stand for. She breaks with traditional value systems of society such as respect and she decides to choose war as her reaction to this. Being emotionally and socially uprooted she despises religious and cultural traditions thus showing that an American society with a border between North and South has lost its spiritual basis. The 'Civil War' depicted in the novel is a logical result from this and at first glance a war fought between two ethnic nations which in the past were one. The principle of this war also follows the traditional consequence of all wars which lies in a control of power and in the statement that the winner takes it all thus showing the North as the seemingly glorious winner. The fact that El Akkad gives a new interpretation of the historical American Civil War (1861-1865) is a reminder of the fact that it was this war where more Americans died than in all other wars to follow and that is might return when a society is lead by politicians who prefer to split a nation rather than to unite it.

III. Border Fiction – a short Survey

In general borders are geopolitical, cultural and religious places and they also include symbolic elements both for nations and their citizens.[11] Border fictions are one form to discuss borders within a literary context and they reflect current discussions of ethnic belonging, identity construction or the effects of globalization and transnationalism. Generally speaking border fictions deal with national, regional, ethnic or cultural belonging. Literature incorporating borders as elements of narration reflects, discusses and negotiates socio-cultural spaces, identities be they ethnic, socio-cultural or political with the result of notions of in-between spaces, borderlands, political conceptualizations or metaphors of home or belonging. Border fiction in the USA and Canada is special in the way that it does not only cover historic and current territory matters of both Natives and Europeans along the option of borders as a utopian space it also reflects post 9/11 security issues, cultural interactions or gender specifics in the light of these attacks.

In the United States of America border fictions at present reflect a variety of hemispheric perspectives of Latin American, Mexican, Asian American, American Indian and Canadian elements. This is due to the fact that America's two neighbouring countries Mexico and Canada share the two longest borders with the US. Famous authors dealing with contemporary border fiction are Carlos Fuentes, Leslie M. Silko, Alberto Rios, Karen Tei Yamashita, Thomas King, Janette Turner Hospital, Ana Castillo or Graciela Limon.

Basically speaking border fiction analyses and reflects current discussions of ethnicities and borders and the impact of globalization and transnationalism on US borders. The results are characters that are torn between borders and their forces which can reject and displace people or give them hope and promise security and safety.

In their literary coverage borders are often seen as places of attraction, shelter, security and home but also as places of isolation, resistance, subversion or war. In all cases borders are conceptualized in a manifold way as barriers, walls, fences, meeting places, in-between spaces or places of belonging.

For Anglophone Canadians the border to the USA is often seen as a symbol of distinction and national identity in the face of the neighbouring giant America. Here notions of power, identity and citizenship are newly discussed and connected to term such as 'contact zone' (Pratt) , 'hybridity' and 'third space' (Bhabha).

Literature which also integrates history, memory and every day practices into border fiction often uses concepts of deterritorialized borders where matters of ethnicity, race or cultural identity are reflected.


[1] In the following American War will be shortened by AW.

[2] The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra expressed his disappointment of US writers in the Guardian in 2007 who for him have retreated 'to the domestic life ' and since then have struggled 'to define (the) cultural otherness' of Islam and Muslims. Rothberg (2009) fully agrees here when he says that fiction of 9/11 basically demonstrates a failure of the imagination.

[3] The Bush government generated Orwell's and Huxley's literary idea of a 'War on Terror', a 'coalition of the willing', an 'enhanced interrogation', the notion of a 'primitive war' or 'homeland security' along new concepts of terms such as border, state control, surveillance and torture (which are also discussed in AW). This all has reshaped America's political discussion during the last seventeen years and widened the divide" between Red and Blues states" (Duvall/Marzec, 2011: 381) which was picked up by El Akkad as the main conflict in AW.

[4] Border here was often seen in the trenches which marked a combat zone between enemy soldiers and which symbolized the alternative between life and death.

[5] War also re-defines what home is, it takes families' adaptability. American War does the same and poses the question if ghetto life, refugee camps, internal camps, barracks, the membership to a terrorist organisation or the status of an unlawful combatant can stand for what home means.

[6] Any criticism of this only set in after World War II and must be related to the dissolution of the Empire (see works of Conrad, Fanon, Said, Achebe).

[7] Most theories of trauma take their cue from Freud and focus on the compulsion to repeat the experience of the original traumatic event as both a source of the malady and possible road to recovery.

[8] See Hobbes (Leviathan 1651), Kant (Perpetual Peace 1795), Clausewitz (About War 1832), Freud (Totem and Taboo, 1913), Deleuze/Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus 1980), Shaw (The New Western Way of War 2005).

[9] Trumpener (2013) here states: "Great War literature, Montgomery insists, is apocalyptic and visionary, rather than comforting, describing the reconsecration, then breaking of the domestic world" (ibid.: 501) .

[10] Trumpener (2013) says: “Women modernists ... often found world war personally liberating, opening male occupations, opportunities for self-realisation” (ibid.: 501).

[11] The term border includes an interesting semantic avenue to explore the relationship to three closely – related synonyms which must also be seen differently. Borderland, boundary and frontier are all signifiers of division, partition and separation as well as generators of fear, threat, tension, conflict, war or death. Borders in the past and today are fixed places where multiple cultures, languages, values, religions and ideologies meet. Borders were (and are) ideal for a fictional representation which is mostly based on dualisms such as 'Us' versus 'Them' or 'Self' and 'Other'.

Excerpt out of 34 pages


Contemporary American and Canadian border fiction
A short introduction in American War (2017)
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Anglistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
war in literature, second world war, 9/11, Border and Borderlines, American and, English Literature of war
Quote paper
Dr. Matthias Dickert (Author), 2018, Contemporary American and Canadian border fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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