Fiction has enormous power to impart truth. You can read fact after fact about current events, but a made-up story might be the thing that carries those events under your skin and into your soul. Omar El Akkad’s new novel, What Strange Paradise, does this kind of work.
Anyone who has read news articles about the migrant crisis will have absorbed many facts. They will know about the terrible conditions on the boats, the huge risks of a clandestine crossing in such a vessel, the deep desperation that leads people to take that life-and-death gamble. The many, many deaths.
El Akkad’s novel, like his first, American War, offers a different kind of perspective to even a well-informed reader. At the same time, it is very much informed by his work as a journalist – at this newspaper, for the most part.
“I think probably for the rest of my life the residual experiences and memories from my decade in journalism are going to worm their way into my fiction,” says El Akkad, 39, from Portland, Ore., where he now lives.
“Those 10 years at The Globe and Mail were my education. I had a front row seat to so much of history. Which is not to say that I got it right or that I have any right to continue writing fiction based on the things that I used to write non-fiction about,” he says. “But those experiences constituted a kind of writing education that otherwise I don’t think I would have ever gotten. … And I’ll take that over any MFA in the world any day.”
The novel tells of the shipwreck of a rickety boat, its passengers from Africa and the Middle East on a desperate, dangerous trip to the Greek Island of Kos – and it tells of freedom.
The story is presented in alternating chapters marked “Before” and “After.” “Before” describes nine-year-old Amir’s life as a Syrian refugee – the family settles in Alexandria, Egypt – and what happens on the doomed boat. “After” is set on the Greek island where the bodies of those on the boat wash up. Amir, apparently the only survivor, is helped by a local 15-year-old girl – whose own grandparents, presumably Scandinavian, performed a different sort of migration to the island – buying a property there in their retirement.
The opening paragraphs will bring something else to mind for many readers: the photograph of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose Syrian refugee family had also been heading for Kos, ultimately hoping for a better life in Canada.
“The child lies on the shore,” the novel begins. He is facedown, with his arms outstretched. From a distance it looks like he could be playing at flight.
The photo of Kurdi was seared in El Akkad’s mind as he wrote this book, he says, along with another photograph, of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his not-quite-two-year-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned together in the Rio Grande trying to cross from Mexico into the United States in 2019.
It wasn’t simply the images that motivated El Akkad, but what happened – or didn’t – afterward.
“They provoked immense outrage for what felt like a very short amount of time. And eventually people moved on to whatever it is they were going to be outraged about next. And more than almost anything, that sense and that privilege of temporary outrage and instantaneous forgetting is the thing that I was writing against,” El Akkad says over the phone this week.
“But that sense of how much of a privilege it is to be temporarily outraged by injustice and then immediately move on is the thing that drove the writing of this book.”
El Akkad began writing the book in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, and it is inspired as much by the refugee crisis at the southern U.S. border as it is about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
It is also, as El Akkad describes it, a repurposed fable: Peter Pan reinterpreted as a contemporary child refugee.
Born in Cairo, El Akkad grew up in Qatar and moved to Canada with his family when he was 16, settling in Montreal. “I’ve been a guest on someone else’s land since I was five years old,” he says. “And I’ve always found that fiction, where you can alter the contours of your invented world to fit whatever reality is like, always felt more like home to me than any real place.”
There’s something else about fiction. While El Akkad is aware of the power of journalism – “you change the world for the better simply by telling the truth; that’s an incredible mission statement” – he believes that fiction also has the power to effect change.
“It’s one of the few things that I carried with me from my journalistic career into my fiction-writing career: this iron-clad belief that there must be a chance that the work you’re doing is going to cause some kind of positive change in the world. I don’t think it’s possible to do the work we do otherwise. You have to believe a fundamentally irrational thing: a kind of alchemy where by stepping away from reality and by altering reality you can somehow cause a change in that reality. At its core, it’s a fundamentally irrational thing to believe. But at times it’s the only load-bearing beam holding up a very flimsy house.”
El Akkad, 39, says joining The Globe was the second-best decision he ever made. The best decision, he says, was knowing it was time to leave, to focus on being a novelist.
His first published novel, American War – written on weekends and in the middle of the night while he was still a full-time journalist – is a terrifying work of speculative fiction. Amid the brutal effects of climate change, a second American civil war breaks out in 2074. American War won awards, was an international bestseller and has been translated into 13 languages.
The manuscript was acquired by legendary Alfred A. Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta, to whom What Strange Paradise is dedicated. In an appreciation El Akkad wrote for The Globe after Mehta’s death in late 2019, the novelist recalled his first conversation with Mehta about American War; within five minutes on the phone, El Akkad knew that Mehta understood exactly what he was trying to do. “You think you’re reading one thing, but you’re really reading another,” Mehta told El Akkad.
This sentence also applies to What Strange Paradise – in a number of ways. It is so gripping a page-turner that its brutal message feels organic and never lecture-ish. Through wisdom imparted by various characters, the reader receives new perspectives; the privileged Western reader in particular is confronted with him- or herself in an uncomfortable way.
The hotel guests on the Greek Island who grumble that they can’t use the beach because of the shipwreck. The disdain with which tourists in Alexandria treat a young boy hocking t-shirts. The canister of powdered milk in Amir’s home: he could tell how high-quality the product was by how Western the people on the packaging looked. The explanation Amir’s father gives him for the hellish situation in Syria: it did not start with bombs or bullets or revolutionary graffiti. It started with a drought. “Don’t call this a conflict,” he tells his son. “There’s no such thing as conflict. There’s only scarcity, there’s only need.”
The novel, published this week, is already receiving raves. The New York Times said it “deserves to be an instant classic.” The reviewer said she hadn’t loved a book this much in a long time.
El Akkad jokes that it’s unclear what else the reviewer has been reading; perhaps a string of bad books. There’s more to this than El Akkad’s genuine-seeming humility. He feels uncomfortable celebrating anything to do with this book – its launch, the rave.
“I am by disposition drawn to writing about the things that make me angry in this world. And whether that’s a good or bad thing or whether I have any right to write about the topics that I choose, I find the entire process difficult and it makes it difficult to talk about the resulting work in any kind of celebratory way,” he says, before modestly referencing what he called “a fairly decent” New York Times review.
“I can’t celebrate these books. It’s not how I think about them. I want to exist in a world where I didn’t feel compelled to write about what I write about. So it’s a difficult place to inhabit as a writer and I don’t know how long I can keep doing it, or if me doing it is valuable enough or is doing anything to change the things I’m concerned about. Those are all open questions for me.”
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