First Up

In the details

Omar El Akkad with hands folded over each other touching his chin

Photograph by The Canadian Press/Chris Young

Omar El Akkad always wanted to tell stories, but when he was growing up in Qatar, fiction writing was not seen as a viable career. He moved to Canada as a teenager, and studied computer science at Queen’s, but it was his work at the university’s student newspaper that set him on the path toward becoming an acclaimed novelist. El Akkad won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his most recent book, What Strange Paradise.

Whatever the opposite of natural salesmanship is, I have that. When I was 16, I got a job at a call centre in Montreal. We sat around all day making cold calls, trying to get businesses to pay to be part of a directory. The whole thing was almost certainly a scam, and I lasted exactly one afternoon before I quit. It didn’t take long to realize I was not going to be any good at it.

The first job that actually stuck was at the Queen’s Journal. One day, I was wandering around campus and saw a job advertisement for an assistant news editor. I had no idea what an assistant news editor does, but I knew it would involve writing, so I applied. For some reason, they decided to give me the gig. As soon as I walked into the building, I felt like I was part of something. I ended up spending my entire university career there, and worked my way up to editor-in-chief. The Journal gave me access to a community – a place where I felt at home.

On a technical level, I got an education in computer science. But I never went to class, and I was very bad at it. The student paper was where I really got an education. The experience helped me get journalism jobs at the Edmonton Journal and the Globe and Mail, and that let me witness the first draft of history. I went to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay; I was in Egypt during the Arab Spring. I don’t think I would have seen history being made first-hand in any other context. The residual experiences from my time as a journalist have shaped me as a novelist in almost every respect.

I learned to observe details by being around other writers. The first time I ever found myself in that context was in Professor Carolyn Smart’s creative writing class at Queen’s. We were all young, so we were writing about the same things. Very few of us had gone anywhere or done anything interesting. And you see what other writers are picking up on, what they notice that you did not.

Once I got into journalism, I was at the bottom of the ladder, and found myself covering stories that weren’t particularly ground-breaking. And you have to figure out how to differentiate yourself from the 10 other journalists covering the same story. One way to do that is to have an eye for detail – to try and pick up on the small things that might otherwise go unnoticed. That creative writing class really hammered home the importance of small details.

I remember going to Guantanamo Bay, and walking the shoreline of the naval base. There were iguanas everywhere, and you start to wonder why. Then you realize this species is protected by the base, and inevitably end up comparing their protections to the ones the detainees have. After a while, you stop thinking about the stories in terms of a headline, and start thinking about the smaller pieces beneath that headline. War is this giant, all-encompassing term, but if you are going to write about the human side of it, you will inevitably find yourself gravitating towards the fine details of the place and of what it means to live through something like this.

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