> Zed Book Club / Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”

Photo: Ryan Emberley / Scotiabank Giller Prize

> Buzz

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.”

Omar El Akkad

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.



Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories

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

South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 

Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.

Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events

Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards

Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde

Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 

Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members

Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations

Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter