Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Omar El Akkad has walked away with a cheque for $100,000 after being named the winner of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller prize for their book “What Strange Paradise.” The announcement was made at a gala event at Toronto’s Park Hyatt hotel Monday evening.

“It’s good to be back,” the prize’s executive director Elana Rabinovitch said as she introduced the awards before the show went live to air on the CBC.

And the crowd agreed. It was smaller than other years — down to 200 from 400 — but broke out the sparkles to celebrate the 28th iteration of the prize.

John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Bob Rae, along with a host of other celebrities and the audience were, as co-host Paul Sun-Hyung Lee described, “vaccinated, tested, excited.” Co-host Rupi Kaur was resplendent in a chartreuse number “that’s not a dress, it’s a gown,” someone at my table quipped.

The other four finalists were each awarded a prize of $10,000. They were: Angélique Lalonde for her story collection “Glorious Frazzled Beings”; Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia for her novel “The Son of The House”; Miriam Toews for her novel “Fight Night”; and Jordan Tannahill for his novel “The Listeners.”

Even chatting minutes before his name was announced, El Akkad was convinced he wasn’t going to win. His tablemates and his mother, who accompanied him, might have thought otherwise.

When he took the stage, choking back tears, he thanked his mom, Nivin, holding up the prize and saying “Mom, this is yours; everything’s yours.” He also thanked his wife, Theresa, who is at their home in Portland, Ore. “taking care of our two kids so I can run around playing boy author.” Finally he thanked his father, saying he was “honoured to accept the prize in my father’s memory.”

“What Strange Paradise” (McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada) is El Akkad’s second novel, and delves into the experience of refugees. The Star’s reviewer said it “succeeds at what one senses might be El Akkad’s goal — to deepen our engagement with the world around us and with others’ stories.” This was the first Giller nod for the Egyptian-born writer, who moved to Canada as a teenager and now lives in the United States.

The winner was chosen from a list of five finalists, which itself was whittled down from a long list of 12 books by writers including Casey Plett, Kim Thuy and Katherena Vermette. In all, the jury, chaired by Toronto author Zalika Reid-Benta, included Canadian writers Megan Gail Coles and Joshua Whitehead, Malaysian novelist Tash Aw and American author Joshua Ferris, chose from 132 titles submitted by publishers large and small from across the country.

The night marked a return to an in-person — albeit much smaller — awards gala, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year’s gala was entirely virtual for the first time in its history. In previous years, in a tradition begun by Giller Prize founder, businessman and philanthropist Jack Rabinovitch, books were celebrated in a ballroom crowded with writers and publishers and politicians and businesspeople — friends and supporters of the man and the arts.

Rabinovitch founded the prize in 1994 to honour his wife, Doris Giller, a former books editor at the Toronto Star, who died of cancer in 1993. The prize then was $25,000. Rabinovitch, who passed in 2017, would always famously say about the shortlist: “For the price of a dinner in this town you can buy all the nominated books. So eat at home and buy the books.”

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

Leave a Comment

Advertise