On Wednesday, March 23rd, the Queens English department hosted an event in honor of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and this year’s winner Omar El Akkad for his novel What Strange Paradise. The Giller Prize was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch in the name of his wife, the great literary journalist Doris Giller. Today, it is the largest literary honor and cash prize for Canadian authors and their works of fiction. To read more about the prize, check out our Online Director Kat’s article from earlier this month. We attended the event along with many excited academics eager to hear Omar’s wise words and join in on the celebration. 

After we heard from previous Giller Prize winners, members of the board, and our Principle Patrick Deane all of whom had nothing but good things to say about Omar and his book, we were introduced to the author himself. 

Omar is a Queen’s Alumni, currently the Writer-in-Residence for the Undergraduate English Department, and his story is unlike most. He was born in Egypt but grew up in Qatar, eventually moving to Canada at 16. Despite his successes, he proclaimed that he was a “horrible student,” barely sneaking into Queen’s. Thanks to his creative writing grades, he graduated from Queen’s with an honours degree in Computer Science.He tried his hand at extracurriculars and even developed a creative magazine somewhat like MUSE, called “Lighthouse Wire,” but it never took off from the ground. Through these stories, among others, Omar brought a warm humbleness to the event. Something that could have felt formal and dry was instead a joyous occasion filled with laughter and smiling faces. 

After graduating, Omar found himself reporting across the world with The Globe and Mail, covering the War in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. However, he once again found himself attracted to fiction, publishing his first novel “American War” in 2017 to critical acclaim. It is remarkable that his second published book, What Strange Paradise, won the prize. However, the novel was really a lifetime in the making, reflecting his past as well as his unique approach to fiction. Omar remarked that it was “a privilege to be able to make reality subservient to what you want reality to be.”

What Strange Paradise assumes an audience of knowing insiders, repurposing classic themes under a modern light. Peter Pan is reimagined as a story of the modern refugee child, stranded at sea and lost in the world. Amir finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck but bonds with a girl on the island, each finding solace in the other.

In retrospect, Omar’s victory makes a lot of sense. The panel revealed his incredibly passionate approach to storytelling, with a strong attention to detail guiding his decision-making. It took seven rewrites for him to tell the story in a way he deemed satisfying, switching up the structure of the book massively along the way. In the novel’s final copy, the story alternates between timelines, skipping before and after a crucial moment: the shipwreck. This device is used repeatedly throughout the story to shed light on the important relationship between our past and future. However, What Strange Paradise was not always this way, at one point told in a single continuous timeline. This is but one example of the care and effort put into this book, as it was a process many years in the making. Omar’s life as a whole led himself to the creation of this story in the manner that it was told, imprinting his own history onto the page.

He admitted in the panel: “I am trying to find out what it is I really write about,” offering two potential answers. One is to reach those who are unanchored in their lives, their own personal history scattered and uneasy. It is those who find it difficult to answer the question of: “where are you from?” Omar relates to these people through his writing, showing the world what it is like to be without a home, or even a good conception of the matter. The other answer he arrived at was luck. Omar seemed puzzled by the idea that, from a young age, his life could have gone in any direction. Instead of growing up in Libya, he grew up in Qatar, a fact that has shaped the way he thinks, processes the world, and is received by others. The reality is that factors completely out of his control led himself to this point, though it is not to take away from his prize. Omar has carved his own space into the world of fiction, in his words: “writing about a world that you think should be a different world.”

What Strange Paradise tells the story of a fictional young boy, but it is truly the story of millions of brave men and women who have remained faceless and nameless for too long. The refugee crisis is often regarded as nothing new and hence, not worth talking about. It is easier for us in the Western World to turn a blind eye, and this is exactly what Omar’s book fights against. During the panel Omar stated, “It is a deeply manipulative book, I’m trying to pull these wires in your head.” By giving a name, a face, and a story to this young boy, we as readers are forced to care, to feel empathy, and mourn the tragedy of his story. We are then forced to come to grips with an uncomfortable yet necessary truth; that this story is true. It has happened, and it continues to happen every day. Novels are good for dwelling, and that is what this book is about. It forces us to look at a world that we wish was a different world. There is no glorification, no making things pretty and pleasing for the sake of the reader’s comfort. 

“With fiction, you have to believe that you can change something in the reader that even they don’t know is being changed. It is deluding yourself, but you have to do it as an author” – Omar El Akkad

Omar went on to say his two goals in writing a story is to tell something that is A) important and B) wouldn’t have been truly heard or given the time it deserves anywhere else 

This event felt like a return to normalcy, a sort of celebration of the Post-Covid world. We had forgotten how much engagement comes from in person energies bouncing off of one another. From the panel, to the reception, to the book signing; it was wonderful to see so many passionate lovers of literature in one room. Omar has inspired an entire community of writers to dive deep into themselves and speak from the heart. His ideas extend well beyond just writing, however. Any creative discipline could do with a more historically based approach. Why do you create, and how does the answer to that question inform what you create? How does it affect your creative process? Where do your ideas stem from, and how can reflection on this knowledge allow you to carve your own niche? Omar, and What Strange Paradise, teach us to harness our emotions and use them to change the world in a positive manner.

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: THE SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE

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