Photo: Ryan Emberley / Scotiabank Giller Prize
Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”
The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel / BY Robert Wiersema / November 9th, 2021
Omar El Akkad has been awarded the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for What Strange Paradise, a novel rooted in the global refugee crisis. The book opens with Amir, a young Syrian boy, awakening face down at the edge of a beach, the only survivor from a crammed migrant boat that sank near a Greek Island. The novel, which the New York Times said “deserves to be an instant classic,” explains how and why Amir snuck onto the boat and the bleak fate that awaits him on the island, where border guards pursue him and a teenage girl helps the boy evade them. The author won $100,000 for the book, the largest prize in Canadian fiction.
“I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of this,” El Akkad, 39, said after his name was announced. “So I’m making the speech up as I go along.” The former Globe and Mail reporter, who was born in Cairo, grew up in Qatar and moved to Canada as a teenager, thanked his fellow nominees, and said the Giller Prize was “by far the greatest honour of my career.”
The Giller jury was effusive in its citation for the winning novel: “Amid all the anger and confusion surrounding the global refugee crisis, Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise paints a portrait of displacement and belonging that is at once unflinching and tender. In examining the confluence of war, migration and a sense of settlement, it raises questions of indifference and powerlessness and, ultimately, offers clues as to how we might reach out empathetically in a divided world.”
In addition to being the richest prize in Canadian fiction, the Gillers are traditionally one of the most glamorous nights of the literary year. After last year’s virtual event, hosted by actor Eric McCormack, the prize returned to Toronto’s Park Hyatt hotel for an evening of glitz and celebration, with a few significant changes. In addition to the usual red carpet, guests were asked to show proof of vaccination, and the already tight guest list (usually between 400 to 500 people) was slashed to around 200. Featured guests included Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Rick Mercer, and CBC Radio’s Q host Tom Power. Also in attendance were recent Giller winners Ian Williams, who won in 2019 for his novel Reproduction, and Souvankham Thammavongsa, who accepted last year’s prize for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife at the door of her condo in Toronto.
The event was hosted by poet Rupi Kaur and actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee of Kim’s Convenience. Each of the nominees introduced their own books on stage, as well as presenting home-made “mini-documentaries” chronicling their writing spaces, neighbourhoods, and inspirations.
“What Strange Paradise is an inverted fairy tale of sorts,” El Akkad said in his introduction to the book, “the Peter Pan fable reinterpreted as the tale of a child refugee.” He worked on the novel “in one form or another for the better part of 10 years.”
The 2021 jury – made up of Canadian authors Zalika Reid-Benta (who chaired the jury), Megan Gail Coles and Joshua Whitehead, as well as American author Joshua Ferris and Malaysian novelist Tash Aw – read 132 submitted works to create a long list of a dozen titles and, finally, the five shortlisted books. The other four finalists, who receive a $10,000 prize, included Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia for her novel The Son of The House, Jordan Tannahill for his novel The Listeners, Miriam Toews for her novel Fight Night, and Angélique Lalonde for her short-story collection Glorious Frazzled Beings.