'We can't afford not to be hopeful': Omar El Akkad's What Strange Paradise is on the Canada Reads longlist

The novel What Strange Paradise is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist. The panellists and their selected books will be revealed on Jan. 26, 2022.

What Strange Paradise is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist

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

Omar El Akkad is a Canadian journalist and author who currently lives in Portland. He is also the author of the novel American War, which was defended on Canada Reads 2018 by actor Tahmoh Penikett.

His latest, What Strange Paradise, is a novel that tells the story of a global refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. Nine-year-old Amir 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. 

What Strange Paradise tells both their stories and how they each reached this moment, while asking the questions, "How did we get here?" and "What are we going to do about it?" 

What Strange Paradise won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was named one of the best books of 2021 by CBC Books.

What Strange Paradise is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist. The five panellists and the five books they choose to champion will be revealed on Jan. 26, 2022. The debates will take place March 28-31, 2022.

El Akkad spoke with CBC Books about writing the novel.

What is What Strange Paradise about?

It's a fable, or at least a repurposed fable. It's the story of Peter Pan inverted and recast as the story of a contemporary child refugee. It opens with the scene of a shipwreck on an unnamed western island. There's a small boy named Amir, who's the sole survivor of the shipwreck. From that moment onwards, the book splits into two halves alternating chapters. The chapters alternate between what happens once he arrives on the island and everything that led up to him being on the island in the first place. It is, in my mind, a repurposed fairy tale, and it is very much based on Peter Pan. But unless you have a very intimate familiarity with Peter Pan as a story, it doesn't come out overtly. A lot of the stuff is beneath the surface. 

80 million people were displaced worldwide by mid-2020 — and as novelist Omar El Akkad sees it, that number will grow as climate change worsens. He joins Piya Chattopadhyay to discuss his latest novel What Strange Paradise.

Compared to American War, the writing style feels a bit more arm's length in style and scope. Is this an intentional decision, if this is in fact the case?

I remember being on a panel once with David Chariandy. He was talking about Brother and how, every time he edited that book, it got a little bit shorter. And how, if he kept editing it, he suspects he would have kept getting shorter and shorter. I had a similar relationship with What Strange Paradise. With American War, for better or worse, it was a bit of a kitchen sink book. It had so many different components, structural and otherwise. With What Strange Paradise, I knew from the get go that I needed it to be much quieter and to do whatever it was going to do beneath the surface rather than overtly. 

It's the story of Peter Pan inverted and recast as the story of a contemporary child refugee.

That's not because I'm some kind of misunderstood literary genius. It's just the way that I think it had to work for this particular story, particularly with the way the narrative is structured. 

Without getting into spoilers, the conclusion of this novel is something that can be the subject of much debate. 

With American War, I thought that people would would understand what I was trying to do, that I was trying to commit this kind of inversion, taking things that are happening to people who are far away from this part of the world and make them happen in the heart of empire and so on and so forth. I always go back to this little blurb I got from an indie bookseller in Texas, and the blurb was something like, "American War shows why a second civil war would be bloody and brutal and why it is necessary." And I thought, "Really? That's what you took from this book, that I was advocating for a second civil war?" So I learned early on that what I intend the book to be, versus what readers take from it are two entirely different things.

I thought that wouldn't be the case with this novel. I thought what I was doing was relatively clear, particularly if you look at the epigraphs of the book, I think it would hint at exactly what it is I'm trying to do. But the first four people who read the manuscript had four entirely different interpretations of what was going on in this book.

I write about what makes me angry, but me being angry about it is not enough.

It was something that used to confound and upset me — and now I find it very comforting. I think if you're in the business of doing this kind of work, you're creating things that by definition are going to outlive you. And if these things are going to outlive me, I'm happy that they have as many different lives as possible. I don't think my interpretation of the book is any more important than anybody else's. 

How intentional are you about theme and meaning with What Strange Paradise in that case?

It's a very good question. I'm extremely intentional about what I'm trying to do. For the duration of my 10 years as a journalist, and now my second career as an author, I have been overwhelmingly a tourist in someone else's misery. And I have the fundamental privilege of being able to step away afterwards. 

I'm extremely intentional about what I'm trying to do.

I write about what makes me angry, but me being angry about it is not enough. I rarely know what the hell I'm doing, but I know why. So long as I have that to be tethered to, I can float out into space and I can go to strange places. 

Omar El Akkad, author, CBC Short Story Prize juror and Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist shares with host Faith Fundal why you should try your hand at writing short stories.

What's your perspective on hope and optimism — both in What Strange Paradise and in the real world?

Every now and then at a book event, I get nervous. I get nervous at all my book events. But in order to try and sort of counteract that, I'll make a joke. Maybe it's because I'm deeply unfunny, but most of the time I'll get no response. 

But I think it's at least partially because they expect me to be as depressing as my books are, and it kind of throws them off when I'm not.  For a certain subset of human beings, hope is not an optional thing. Hope is a fundamental fabric of survival. 

We can't afford not to be hopeful, because the moment we let go of that particular anchor, we have then fully acquiesced to a world where many of the entities and agents of power would rather we not exist. That is not conducive to survival. So when people talk about hope. The act of writing the story is hope.

The act of writing the story is hope.

It implies a conversation that may well never happen. What I'm not going to do, what I don't think I'm ever going to do, is feel an obligation to tidy things up at the end of the story so that the person reading it can have access to that very comforting but essentially vaporous notion of hope. It's a given in this part of the world that, no matter how bad things get, everything gets tied up at the end. Otherwise you're just being pessimistic or you're just being cynical. 

I don't support or subscribe to that notion of hope. I subscribe to hope as an innate function of survival, and it will always be present in that form.

Omar El Akkad's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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