A Marine Embraces His Outsider Status With Latest Novel

Elliot Ackerman's "Red Dress in Black and White" echoes some recent developments in American politics

June 1, 2020 7:00 am
The cover of Elliot Ackerman's new novel
Elliot Ackerman's new novel is set in Istanbul

Elliot Ackerman knows what it’s like to be an outsider. And he likes it that way.

The author and decorated Marine, whose new novel, Red Dress in Black and White, was published last week, found it difficult to fit in from an early age. Ackerman was born in Los Angeles, and raised there as well as in London and Washington, D.C.

“I’ve always felt a little bit like an outsider,” Ackerman tells InsideHook via telephone. “I feel fairly comfortable that way. You’re raised with a bit of objective distance.”

Ackerman has used that perspective to great effect in his critically acclaimed novels like Green on Blue, Waiting for Edenand Dark at the Crossing, the latter of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. His novels are informed by the years he spent serving in the Middle East and Afghanistan as a Marine.

“I signed up in 1998, but was commissioned as a lieutenant in 2003,” Ackerman says. “Obviously, the world changed a lot in those years with September 11. I signed up into this peacetime military and graduated into a wartime one.”

He credits his upbringing overseas with his decision to join the Marine Corps.

“It gave me an outsider’s view of what it meant to be an American, having been one abroad,” he says. “That sort of made me want to give something back and serve. And I was that kid that never stopped playing with his GI Joes, so I just always had this interest in the military.”

Ackerman served eight years in active duty, earning a Bronze Star for Valor, a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. The latter decoration came in recognition of his actions in a battle in Fallujah in 2004. 

“With complete disregard for his own safety, Second Lieutenant Ackerman twice exposed himself to vicious enemy fire as he pulled wounded Marines out of the open into shelter,” reads the citation for Ackerman’s award. “Throughout the battle and despite his own painful shrapnel wounds, he simultaneously directed tank fires, coordinated four separate medical evacuations, and continually attacked with his platoon directly into the heart of the enemy with extreme tenacity.”

After resigning his commission, Ackerman, who has a master’s degree in international relations, worked as a White House Fellow under President Obama. But he ultimately decided to make a career out of writing, releasing his first novel, Green on Blue, in 2015. The novel is told from the point of view of Aziz, a young Afghan man who joins an American-backed militia.

“Aziz is someone who straddles two worlds,” Ackerman says. “He’s working for the Americans and coalition forces, but he’s also working for the Taliban and criminal elements that exist in Afghanistan. I wanted to see if I could create a character who felt realized in that way, where after reading the book, you might not agree with him, but you could at least understand his choices.”

Ackerman followed his debut up with the novels Waiting for Eden, about a gravely injured Marine, and Dark at the Crossing, about an Arab American man who wants to go to Syria to fight against the Assad dictatorship. Last year, he published Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning, a memoir of his time in the Marine Corps and his experiences as a journalist reporting from Syria.

For his latest, Red Dress in Black and White, Ackerman turned to Istanbul, where he lived for three years. The novel, which takes place in 24 hours, follows Catherine, an American woman who wants to leave her Turkish husband and return to the United States with their young son.

“I’m divorced, I’ve been through interpersonal crises,” Ackerman explains. “Those happen at really, oftentimes breakneck speed. But they are of course laden with everything that’s come before, and you can only understand people’s decisions if you understand the weeks and months and years of history people have with one another, and how that all can come to a head.”

Although it’s set in Turkey, Ackerman says the book echoes some recent developments in American politics.

“Istanbul is one of the oldest, truly cosmopolitan cities that exists in the world,” he says. “And I think that a lot of what was going on in Turkey around the time that that book was written bears similarities to things that have gone on in the United States politically over the last handful of years.”

Ackerman still works as a journalist, and he says that his reporting and his fiction are two different means to the same end. 

“What I think fiction can do, and what I try to do in my books, is to give people personal stories that engage with some of these political things, and make them more accessible and less sterile as they can sometimes seem in the newspapers,” he says.

He’s doing his reporting from home these days, of course, while quarantining in Delaware at a country house, in between New York and Washington D.C., where he usually spends his time. A planned book tour was scrapped for obvious reasons, but he’s still scheduled to make some virtual appearances, which he doesn’t seem to mind. 

“I’ve got to tell you, it’s easy on me,” Ackerman says. “I don’t have to pack up my suitcase and hit the road for two months.”

The pandemic, he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, brings back memories of his tours of duty across the world: “My wars were Iraq and Afghanistan, and life during the coronavirus pandemic does keep reminding me of them. The way each day bleeds into the next. The threat that stalks outside. The surrealness of it all.”

Despite the painful memories, Ackerman says he remains optimistic about the country’s ability to stay strong in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think that one of the great things Americans do is, we’re inherently an optimistic people, who come together in times of crisis,” he says. “We’re a good people. I really do believe that. I think it’s been very fashionable to stick your head in the sand in recent years and to moan about all the things that are horrible and wrong with America. But I still think America is a pretty good place.”

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