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Q&A: Giller Prize-winning author Omar El Akkad

Novelist discusses his award-winning new book, his time as a Queen’s student, and his upcoming role as the 2022 Writer in Residence in the Department of English.

Giller Prize-winning author Omar El Akkad (Photo by: Anna Mehler Paperny)
Giller Prize-winning author Omar El Akkad. (Photo by: Anna Mehler Paperny)

Earlier this month, Egyptian-Canadian author and Queen’s alumnus Omar El Akkad was awarded the coveted Scotiabank Giller Prize for his latest book What Strange Paradise. The book marks El Akkad’s second major fiction release — following his lauded 2017 debut American War — and centres on a young Syrian boy’s survival amidst the global refugee crisis.

El Akkad spoke to the Gazette about his book and its reception, about his experiences of learning and mentorship while a student at Queen’s, and about his upcoming role as 2022 Writer in Residence with the English Department’s Creative Writing program.

Congratulations on being awarded this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize for your book What Strange Paradise! How does it feel to have your work recognized in this way?

It’s a surreal thing, an honour I never thought about except in the abstract. Writing is a pretty lonely existence, and you never really know when you’re putting the book together if it’ll have any resonance at all. To be in this position, where a book I thought might never be published in the first place is now being mentioned alongside so many of my literary heroes on the Giller longlist and shortlist, isn’t something I’ve been able to fully process yet.

In What Strange Paradise, the main character, Amir, is caught in the throes of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. While his story is fictionalized, it is certainly representative of the true dangers faced by displaced people. As real-world social, political, economic, and environmental challenges grow to impact more and more people, what do you hope readers come to understand or feel through their engagement with Amir’s struggle?

I used to have a much more confident answer to this sort of question. I used to have a very specific set of hopes and expectations about what I want readers to take from my books, the ways in which I hoped the work might change them. But in truth, those expectations are indistinguishable from delusion. The book the reader reads is a million lives removed from the one I wrote, and that’s something to be celebrated. If any piece of literature, mine or otherwise, does anything to expand a reader’s conception of what it is to be human, that’s more than enough. I certainly hope people will come to see the need for a more humane and just approach to global refugee policy, but that’s something I hoped well before I wrote this book.

In an interview on CBC’s Q you said that, upon learning of your win, one of the first calls you made was to Carolyn Smart, a creative writing professor you had here at Queen’s. Why was she one of your first calls, and what about her mentorship — and mentorship generally — contributed to your growth as a writer?

A very long time ago, Carolyn decided to admit me to her prose class, which ended up changing my life. It was the first time I was being taught by a writer, surrounded by other student writers. It made this sort of life seem like something I could actually do. She was also my first publisher, when she put together an anthology of student writing called Lake Effect. I say without hyperbole that there are more than 30 years’ worth of Canadian writers who owe her an incredible debt. People don’t usually associate Queen’s with a robust creative writing program, but over the years, Carolyn did more for Canadian literature on her own than almost anyone I’ve ever met.

In an August 2021 profile in the Queen’s Alumni Review, you touched on some of the notable inflection points along your early path toward becoming a novelist. You enrolled in (and ultimately graduated from) computer science at Queen’s mostly out of feelings of familial expectation, and instead honed your writing through elective or extracurricular means — reporting for the student newspaper and connecting with the creative writing course. Along the way, did you learn anything that may encourage current Queen’s students as they seek to identify and nurture the things for which they are passionate?

I think for me, Queen’s served two invaluable purposes. First, it allowed me to fail, repeatedly and consistently, in relative safety. I had so many terrible, uninformed opinions and I screwed up in every conceivable sense and I learned, from my teachers but also from my peers, how to be better. The other thing my time at Queen’s afforded me was the opportunity to dabble in a million different pursuits, to try things out and see if they made for a good fit. You don’t get that kind of opportunity many times in life, a million doors flinging open all at once, and what I’d encourage all students to do is walk through at least some of those doors; the thing you end up making your life’s work could be on the other side.

Queen’s students may soon have a chance to garner your advice and mentorship directly, as you were recently welcomed by the Department of English as its Creative Writing 2022 Writer in Residence. What about this role do you most look forward to? How does it feel to return to Queen’s in a mentorship capacity?

I’m looking forward to some dedicated writing time and to meeting students. It’s been more than 20 years since I first showed up as a frosh, and I suspect I’m going to feel old as dirt as soon as I set foot on campus, but that little stretch of land from the water up to Morris Hall was the site of so many of the best memories of my life. It’ll be bittersweet to come back, but I think more sweet than bitter.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Queen’s community before we close out our chat?

I’ll be camped out in a little office in the English building at all hours of the day and night, wrestling with an absolute mess of a novel manuscript, from mid-January to mid-March. If you’ve got time, come by and say hi.