Former Globe and Mail journalist Omar El Akkad has won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for What Strange Paradise, his second novel.
“I was talking to my mom earlier. The last time she was in a room watching me win an award was 31 years ago, which is distressing by anyone’s standards. Mom, this is yours,” Mr. El Akkad said moments after being announced as the winner of the $100,000 award – Canada’s richest fiction prize – Monday night.
He told The Globe that the first thing he thought about when he heard his name called was his father. “I was stunned, and then I thought about my dad, who I miss very, very much, and who I wish was there,” he said. His father died in 2010.
“And then I tried my best to remember what it was to walk and put one foot in front of the other. And I went up to the stage and gave what I’m sure was a completely mangled speech.”
Mr. El Akkad, 39, was born in Cairo, grew up in Qatar, came to Canada as a teenager and now lives in Portland, Ore.
“Fiction was always my first home,” he said in an earlier interview. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t have a very good answer to the question ‘where are you from.’ I’ve been a guest on someone else’s land since I was five years old. And I’ve always found that fiction – where you can sort of alter the contours of your invented world to fit whatever reality you’d like – always felt more like home to me than any real place.”
What Strange Paradise is published by McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. It begins with a shipwreck off a Greek island. The boat is filled with refugees from Africa and the Middle East. One of them, Amir, is nine years old. The chapters are marked “Before” and “After.” In the “Before” chapters, the reader learns of Amir’s life as a Syrian refugee, how he came to be on the boat, and the terrible conditions aboard. In the “After” chapters, Amir, the only apparent survivor, is helped by a 15-year-old girl who lives on the island.
Mr. El Akkad has said that his time working for The Globe was key in writing both this book and his debut novel, American War. “Those 10 years at The Globe and Mail were my education. I had a front row seat to so much of history,” he said in an earlier interview.
He also said in that interview that What Strange Paradise was inspired not just by the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, but also by what was happening in the U.S. under then-president Donald Trump.
“Daily as I was writing, I was seeing this immense and systemic cruelty along the borders of the country that I live in now. And it heavily informed the way that I thought about the kind of universality of that cruelty.”
“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,” the Giller jury wrote in its citation. “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.”
The other books shortlisted for this year’s Giller were: Angélique Lalonde’s debut short story collection, Glorious Frazzled Beings; Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut novel, The Son of the House; The Listeners, by Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill; and Fight Night, by Governor General’s Award-winning and Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize-winning author Miriam Toews. Each finalist receives $10,000.
It was the third time Ms. Toews, 57, had made the Giller shortlist but was passed over for the award. She was shortlisted for A Complicated Kindness in 2004 and All My Puny Sorrows in 2014. Fight Night had also been shortlisted for this year’s Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, but the prize was awarded last week to Katherena Vermette for her novel The Strangers.
This year marked the return of an in-person ceremony after a completely virtual event in 2020. Hosted by Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and bestselling poet Rupi Kaur, the live broadcast (complete with some technical glitches) included video scrapbooks in which each shortlisted author shared information about their home and writing spaces and routines: Mr. El Akkad’s homemade climbing wall; Ms. Lalonde’s 5 a.m. wake-ups; Ms. Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s practice of listening to the TV while she writes; Mr. Tannahill’s habit of working out dialogue while walking in a park near his East London home; Ms. Toews’s preference for writing in the morning, after coffee – at the kitchen table, or even on the stove, or her lap, while holding a grandbaby.
The scaled-down event still offered plenty of glitz and glamour, with a red carpet and gala dinner. Those in attendance included former Giller winners such as Margaret Atwood, Souvankham Thammavongsa and Ian Williams, as well as CBC talent such as Rick Mercer and Sort Of star Bilal Baig.
After the ceremony, Mr. El Akkad told The Globe that the award his mother had seen him win decades ago was the Presidential Academic Fitness Award, which he won at grade school.
“I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I was alongside these incredible authors and I was genuinely making the speech up as I was going along.”
With a report from Aruna Dutt.
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