Books·Q&A

How being disciplined helped CBC Short Story Prize juror Omar El Akkad write better short stories

The Scotiabank Giller Prize-shortlisted author and 2022 CBC Short Story Prize juror shares what he looks for when reading a short story.

‘You have to know exactly what it is you’re trying to say'

What Strange Paradise is a novel by Omar El Akkad. (Kateshia Pendergrass, McClelland & Stewart)

Omar El Akkad's new novel What Strange Paradise won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He's also one of the jurors for the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize. His debut novel, American War, was translated into 13 languages and won the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. American War was defended by Tahmoh Penikett on Canada Reads 2018.

The CBC Short Story Prize recognizes original, unpublished fiction up to 2,500 words. The winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2021. The finalists will be announced in spring 2022.

El Akkad's What Strange Paradise tells the story of a global refugee crisis through the eyes of nine-year-old Amir. He is the only survivor from a ship full of refugees coming to a small island nation. He ends up with a teenage girl named Vanna, who lives on the island. Even though they don't share a common language or culture, Vanna becomes determined to keep Amir safe.

Akkad spoke to Faith Fundal on Up To Speed about the inspiration behind his new novel and how he learned to write better short stories.

How would you describe your newest novel What Strange Paradise?

What Strange Paradise is a repurposed fable of sorts. I took the original Peter Pan fable and reinterpreted it into a story of a child refugee crossing the Mediterranean. It's very different from my first novel, American War, which came out a few years ago. 

It's a book about home, what home means, the privilege of having one and the privilege about not having to think too much about people who don't.

It's a book about home, what home means, the privilege of having one and the privilege about not having to think too much about people who don't.

What was it about that particular topic that made you want to explore this? 

It was written and conceived during a time when I was still a journalist at the Globe and Mail. I was in Egypt, covering the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I was driving around with an old friend who was complaining about the rent being too high. 

At one point, I asked him, "What was the price of an apartment in your building?" He said, "Do you mean the local's price or the Syrian's price?" I said, "What is the Syrian's price?" He said, "Well, we had these refugees come in and they don't have any choice. You can charge them three times as much. What are they gonna do, go somewhere else?" 

This sentiment of how willing people were to exploit the most vulnerable members of their society stuck with me and prompted what eventually came to be this book. 

You've also written multiple short stories. How is short story writing different from writing a novel?

I find short stories to be much more difficult as a form. I've written a few good short stories in my life. I've written many more very bad short stories. 

What made your short stories so bad? 

In my case, it's a lack of discipline. One of the things about writing a novel is that you have a little bit of room for self-indulgence. You can go on tangents. You can be sprawling. 

With a short story, not so much. You have to know exactly what it is you're trying to say and you have a very limited amount of space to say it.

With a short story, you have to know exactly what it is you're trying to say and you have a very limited amount of space to say it. 

That discipline — and writers who can exercise that discipline consistently — I'm just in awe of. It's an incredible talent to have.

LISTEN | Omar El Akkad and Margaret Atwood discuss dystopian fiction:

Dystopian versus utopian. Description versus prescription. Ideology versus art. As geopolitical and climate crises deepen, what role should writers play? A conversation with novelists Margaret Atwood and Omar El Akkad as part of the first annual PEN Graeme Gibson Talk.

Do you pull from your former journalist years to write succinct short stories that make sense? 

I remember the very first thing that happened on my first day at the Globe and Mail as an intern, this legendary editor Greg O'Neill sat me down and said, "There's something you need to know about this newsroom. Over here, reporters are gods and all the editors are atheists." 

What he was trying to explain to me was what they were about to do to my copy if I had one extra adjective or one superfluous line in there. They were going to axe it. 

So, 10 years of that kind of education really helped.

As a juror for the short story prize, what will you be looking for when judging the entries?

As a reader of short stories, I am very much a sucker for stories with beautiful writing, at the sentence level. I am a sucker for originality, stories that go places and do things I don't expect. 

I know there are some readers who look for a kind of confidence in the work. I'm not one of those readers. I'm happy with uncertainty. I am happy with doubt. 

I am very much a sucker for stories with beautiful writing, at the sentence level. I am a sucker for originality, stories that go places and do things I don't expect.

What I need is a sense of necessity. I want to know that the writer needed to say everything that is on the page. If I have that, I'm happy.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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