Omar El Akkad's Canada Reads novel What Strange Paradise was inspired by Peter Pan and a refugee crisis
Entrepreneur and former refugee Tareq Hadhad is championing What Strange Paradise on Canada Reads 2022
This interview originally aired on Oct. 30, 2021.
When El Akkad wrote American War, he was a relative newcomer to the United States. As an Egypt-born, Middle East-raised Canadian man, he'd never felt more alien. His background gave him a particular lens through which to view his new home and its starkly divisive political ideologies. American War is an observant look at violence, devastation and enormous displacement.
His latest novel, What Strange Paradise, 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?"
El Akkad spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the novel.
You open the story with a long shot — a look at bodies that are swathed in life jackets washed up on a beach, and then you zoom in on one boy and the story of this boy and the girl who tries to rescue him. How, and maybe even why, did you go from the long shot to the close-up to tell your story?
A lot of the book is, for better or worse, about dwelling. I talk about this idea of the privilege of "instantaneous forgetting," which is almost a kind of self-defence mechanism. It became acceptable to become temporarily outraged about a particular injustice one day, and then move on and completely forget about it — and become outraged about a different injustice the next day and moving along from one to the other.
I talk about this idea of the privilege of 'instantaneous forgetting,' which is almost as a kind of self-defence mechanism.
What I wanted to do was the opposite of that — I wanted to dwell. The story begins with this scene of a shipwreck. But the structure of the book is such that it sort of spoils itself: you know that there's been a shipwreck and then it goes back in time and explains how this came to be and circles back on itself a few times. But I wanted the anchor of all that circling back to be the boy and the girl, Amir and Vanna, and their relationship.
The circumstances are terrifying and unimaginable, but so amazingly explored in your novel. But there's this almost magical and roguish quality to the children's escape. What did you look to for inspiration?
So the book "steals" from a lot of places. It steals from The Odyssey, it steals from Paradise Lost, it steals from The Gospel of Nicodemus. But the two central places where, structurally and thematically, it does the most theft is from the two works that are cited in the epigraph. There's a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, but the other one is J. M. Barrie's original Peter Pan. There's a lecture in which Jorge Luis Borges talks about how all literature is tricks, and no matter how clever your tricks are, they eventually get discovered.
My tricks are not particularly clever. My central trick is inversion: I flip things around. With What Strange Paradise, I wanted to take a comforting fable that Westerners have been telling their kids for 100 years. I wanted to flip it on its head and use it to tell a different kind of story.
So when we think about Peter Pan today, we usually think about something like Peter Pan syndrome — the man who refuses to stop acting like a child. The origins of that particular fable are the exact opposite. Jim Barrie's older brother died as a child in an accident. It wrecked the family. His mother never got over it. One of the ways in which she tried to comfort herself was to say, "Well, at least you would never grow old." So that's the origin of the fable: it is the idea not of a man who refuses to stop acting like a child, but a child who never gets a chance to become a man.
And so I wanted to take that and repurpose it for the telling of this kind of story. I tend to think of What Strange Paradise as a kind of repurposed Peter Pan, but it's very much underneath the surface. Unless you're intimately familiar with Jim Barrie and Peter Pan, it's not something that sort of screams out to you from the page.
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Amir's father says to Amir, "Don't call this a conflict. There's no such thing as conflict. There's only scarcity. There's only need." What did he mean? What was he telling Amir?
When I first started thinking about the things that eventually became this novel was in 2012, I was still working at the Globe and Mail at the time. I was driving around [in Egypt] with an old high school buddy who was complaining about the most universal thing you can complain about: rent. The rent is too high. And at one point I asked him, "Well, what's the rent for your apartment?" And he said, "Well, do you mean the locals' price or do you mean the Syrians' price?"
It was indicative of just how readily a society can exploit its most vulnerable — and how necessary it is for the society to function. This wasn't an arbitrary thing that was happening. At the time I was there to cover the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and if you were walking around in Egypt, people were chanting, "Freedom, equality, bread."
And people say, "Really? Bread? That's your third thing?" What they were really talking about was the price of bread — the idea that this most basic staple of existence, this basic food, had become unaffordable for so many people.
So I was thinking a lot about how, by the time we see the overt violence, by the time we see people killed in the street, there has always been a prologue of need. There's always been a prologue of scarcity of people not having enough to get by to survive. That's where that character was coming from.
Amir and Vanna are a wonderful couple. Of course, they can't speak to each other — they don't know each other's language — and yet they communicate as kids do, and they try to outrun the soldiers who are chasing them. At one point, they end up at a luxury resort. You describe it as "inoffensive luxury," but in the context of your story, it does feel offensive. What are the questions we should be asking about places like that, in times like this?
I grew up in Qatar. My father worked as an accountant at a hotel. At the time, it was the only luxury hotel in Qatar. It was such an odd place to experience the "manyness" of the world. There was a fitness centre attached to the hotel, and I spent a lot of my time there. This was the early '90s. These two guys walk in, dressed in khaki shorts. Immediately we recognize that these are the first Americans we've seen in real life. The U.S. had just established a base because it's the Gulf War and these are definitely army guys from the base that have shown up. It's like seeing someone from outer space. We all grew up on American culture, but we've never met these people.
By virtue of having enough money, some people get to experience a sanitized version of the world.
We're just kids and they're humouring us by playing basketball with us. Suddenly, one of these guys collapses. He'd had a heat stroke. He was not used to the heat in Qatar. As kids, we grew up in this. It didn't even factor in our heads and this guy just goes down. So much of my childhood is full of these experiences, of these little collisions with human beings from the other side of the planet taking place in the context of this weird luxury resort in the middle of nowhere.
By virtue of having enough money, some people get to experience a sanitized version of the world. I'm sure there exists an entire class of human beings for whom that is all of existence.
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In the book, Mohammed is one of the human smugglers. He seems intent on dashing all the hopes of a better life that the migrants carry with them on the boat. But he's the realist, I guess. How do you see hope in your life for you and your family?
I think of it along two different axes: hope as privilege and hope as a kind of survival mechanism. Sometimes I get the question, "What is hope in your novels?" — which, when you write almost exclusively stone-cold bummers, is a very difficult question to answer. They ask, "Where's the hope in American War?" The book where 100 million people die?
Sometimes I want to say that the hope is that the book was written — that's the hopeful thing, that I tried to have this communication.
Hope as privilege demands a neat wrapping-up of things that always ends on the sort of happiest possible note. Which I understand as a function of human goodness — I'm not criticizing people who want that. It's just not an axis that I tend to follow when I write my stories. The one I tend to follow is hope as a survival mechanism, which is to say I need to believe that better than this is possible.
Hope as privilege demands a neat wrapping up of things that always ends on the sort of happiest possible note.
I have two young kids now. I have to believe in a better world than this for them. That's not an optional thing for me. I feel no obligation to have an overt sense of hope in anything I write. But that sense of needing hope at the core of it to survive is always going to be there.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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