Since Omar El Akkad won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his book What Strange Paradise, he has been flooded with congratulatory well wishes – including from Toronto’s mayor, the Egyptian ambassador to Canada and long-lost friends.
Back home in Portland, Ore., after attending last week’s Toronto gala where he accepted one of the biggest prizes in Canadian literature and the $100,000 that comes with it, he says it still hasn’t registered.
“In three weeks time, it's suddenly going to hit me what actually happened,” El Akkad said in an interview. “I'm still in a bit of a daze and trying to process it. It’s of overwhelming magnitude for someone like me. It's going to be a long time before I properly verbalize how much it means to me.”
The former Globe and Mail journalist and author of American War spoke with Perspectives about how he initially thought What Strange Paradise would derail his career, how he plans to donate a portion of the prize money and how comedy writing is next on his agenda.
Q: In a previous interview, you said you didn't want to think about winning and it would be life-changing if you did. How do you feel now that it has happened?
A: I'm still trying to process it. There was a time when I didn't think this book would be published, let alone have any resonance with anybody. To be in this position, to have my name mentioned alongside so many of my literary heroes, whose works have meant so much to me over the years, is something that's going to take a very long time to process and fully digest. At the same time, I'm cognizant of how incredibly lucky I got. This is the sort of thing that, until now, I could only think about in the abstract. It’s the sort of thing you dream about, and to have it be a reality is just utterly surreal.
Q: Why did you think at a certain point that it wouldn't get published?
A: It's very different from my first novel. American War didn't sell millions of copies, but it had some success, and I think the expectation among the very few people who follow my career is that I would write American War 2 or something very similar. Instead, I went in a very different direction and I was afraid that it would derail my career, that it wouldn't have any traction at all. It was a novel I felt I needed to write. I had no idea what it would do or not do once it went out into the world. Certainly, winning the Prize was not something I would have expected in a million years.
Q: When your name was announced as the winner, what's the first thing that came to your mind?
A: I thought about my dad. I miss him quite a bit. He was the first person to tell me stories, not just to tell me stories, but to tell me stories about storytellers. He would tell me about these cultural luminaries who would show up in his neighbourhood in Cairo and he would tell me things that made the writing life seem very mythical and appealing. He loved literature. He grew up on Arab literature. He memorized Arabic poetry. He was my first thought, which is why my speech is so halting and borderline rambling. I was trying to keep it together as I was thinking about this man who I missed dearly. And, of course, my mom, who is in the audience watching me win an award for the first time in 30 some years. The only other thought was to do right by the moment, when so many of my heroes are in the room. You try your best to not make an ass of yourself when you're afforded this very, very rare privilege that may only come along once in my life.
Q: You have said that writing is lonely work, and even more so during a pandemic. What was it like to be at a gala, in real life?
A: It was like doing yoga after 10 years of not doing yoga. On one hand the stretching feels so good, but on the other hand, you're cognizant that there's a very good chance you're going to pull a muscle. I haven’t socialized in that kind of setting for two years, and even then, it's not like I'm the kind of guy who gets invited to many parties. I was nervous. I was excited. I was exhilarated. I walked in and bumped into John Irving, who rightfully should have no idea who I am. But his books have changed my life and I got a chance to talk to him. I thought, “Oh, right, that's why people like this sort of stuff.” I tried my best to enjoy it despite the incredibly high baseline anxiety because I don't get to do these often at the best of times, and the past two years have not been the best of times.
Q: How did you celebrate or how do you plan to celebrate now that you're home?
A: It's very difficult to celebrate a book that's born of a world that I wish was a better world. The things I write about are not things that are particularly conducive to throwing a party and celebrating in an overt way. What I will be eternally grateful for is the time I got to spend with the shortlisted authors. You get to talk to people who know what it's like — not just being nominated for the Prize, but the process of putting a book together and the loneliness involved in that — and form friendships with them. In three weeks time, it's suddenly going to hit me what actually happened. I'm still in a bit of a daze and trying to process it. It’s of overwhelming magnitude for someone like me. It's going to be a long time before I properly verbalize how much it means to me.
Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from your family, friends, colleagues?
A: I got a note from my first girlfriend who has not spoken to me, and with good reason, for more than a quarter-century. I've gotten notes from people I haven't heard from in years and from writers who, again, should have no idea who I am. I got a congratulatory note from the Egyptian ambassador to Canada, and from the Mayor of Toronto. For the first time in my life, I’m unable to keep up with my Twitter mentions. Prior to this week, I averaged one or two a day and they're now in the thousands. Usually, I'm pretty good about responding to people, but I physically can't keep up. Rupi Kaur mentioned me on Instagram, which I think is quite the achievement because I have 2.5 followers on Instagram. I'm cognizant of how temporary these kinds of reactions are in the world we live in, but the past 48 hours have been overwhelming.
Q: How did you make the jump from journalist to author?
A: I was writing fiction long before I became a journalist; since I was a kid. Journalism gave me an education, in terms of a technical writing, but also it allowed me to view a first draft of history. I got to be in these places as history was happening, so it was invaluable. During my 10 years at the Globe, I wrote three novels in my spare time. They weren't good. I'm never going to try to publish them, but I was working those muscles. The fourth one I wrote was American War. I'm cognizant of how much of my journey I owe to luck. Running into a literary agent named Anne McDermid eight years prior to writing American War and being able to call her eight years later and say, “Hey, can you take a look at this novel?” was pure utter luck. I don't like giving people advice as though my trajectory was a function of manifest destiny in my own agency, but one thing I advise everyone to do is get the reps in. Write as much as you can, read as much as you can and be kind to yourself, because it's hard work and that moment when you finish a novel and realize instinctively that it's not going to work can be debilitating. The only way you get past that and keep at it is if you're kind to yourself.
Q: Now that you’ve won this Prize, following in the footsteps of Canada’s literary legends, do you feel like as a writer you’ve “made it”?
A: A huge part of my process of self-reflection is driven by a voice in my head that is composed almost entirely of insecurity. When I was writing American War, that voice kept saying, “What are you doing? You're wasting your time. This is never going to get published. You're not good enough.” And once American War came out, that voice instinctively shifted to, “OK, you got lucky once. You're a one-hit wonder, you're not going to do it again.” When What Strange Paradise came out, it was, “OK, they feel sorry for you. They published a second novel. This is the end of it.” For the past 48 hours, that voice has been having a real hard time coming up with something. I know in a day or two it will, but this is one of the few times in my life where there's silence in my head, and I don't know what to do with it.
Q: This Prize will introduce more readers to your book. What does it mean to you to potentially be someone else’s favourite author, to have written someone else’s favourite book?
A: I have never conceived of the kind of person for whom I would be their favourite author. My first book is dedicated to my dad who died long before it got published. The reason that I always knew I would dedicate my first novel to him is because the men in my family, we don't last very long. I come from a long line of malfunctioning hearts. My dad died when he was 56. What I knew for certain about the book is that it would outlive me, even if it sold zero copies, it would be sitting around collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. To have that acknowledgement to my father in something that was going to outlive me was important to me. If somebody picks up this book long after I'm gone and likes it or gets something out of it, that is the highest echelon of what I could hope for as a writer. I have a long list of novels that I can recommend to anybody who thinks that my book is their favourite. If in any way anything I've done makes somebody think a little more deeply about what it means to be human, that's worth the price of admission right there. To change somebody in some way, to reach inside their head and pull the wires around and change the thought process, that's worth the price of admission on its own.
Q: The other obvious benefit of winning this Prize is the $100,000 prize money. What do you plan to do with it?
A: I can't conceive of any universe in which I write about these kinds of topics and not give some of this money to the people who are doing pragmatic real work to stop the problems on which my fiction piggybacks. It would be grotesque of me not to acknowledge this kind of writing owes a debt to very real forms of misery. To be honest, I am a boring person who leads a very boring life. I'm not going to go out and buy a Maserati. I'm not going to go clubbing. It will probably all end up in my kids’ College Savings fund, or something incredibly tedious like that. That's probably how the split is going to go.
Q: What’s next for you? Where do you go from here?
A: I've been gravitating in the past year toward my comedy writing roots. Not comedy writing specifically but trying to work in different forms where I can take joy in the work, as opposed to writing about the things that make me angry, which I think is important. I don't mean it's going to ever be published. This is purely for me. I wrote comedy when I was in my 20s. I also wrote a six-part comedy miniseries for audio. I was obsessed with the audio format. It was so cathartic to go back into that mode. For the past year or so, I've been sketching what I hope my next novel will be, and I'm fortunate enough to be doing the writer-in-residence program at Queens (University) next semester so I'll have a little bit of dedicated writing time for the first time in two years. But, it's a long way before that becomes viable. It's very much just an idea or set of ideas right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.