Omar El Akkad has won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel What Strange Paradise.
The $100,000 prize is the richest in Canadian literature.
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.
“I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of winning this … this is by far the greatest honour in my career,” said El Akkad in his acceptance speech. “I’ve had the incredible honour of being mentioned in the same breath as four outstanding authors, any of whom could be standing up here right now.”
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?”
“It’s a repurposed fable. It’s the story of Peter Pan inverted and recast as the story of a contemporary child refugee,” El Akkad said in an interview with CBC Books.
El Akkad’s fellow finalists included Miriam Toews for Fight Night , Angélique Lalonde for Glorious Frazzled Beings, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia for The Son of the House and Jordan Tannahill for The Listeners.
WATCH | Omar El Akkad accepts the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“Tonight, there will be very little celebrating [right now] because I still don’t believe any of this happened. These were exceptional writers on the shortlist. Just to be in their company is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Maybe tomorrow, [I’ll do] a little bit of celebrating, but it’s still very surreal right now,” El Akkad told CBC Books.
“For the past two months, I’ve been mentioned in the same sentence as these authors whose work has meant so much to me over the years — authors who are going to be back up on that stage many, many times in their careers — and authors who have inspired me and continue to inspire me. That’s the long lasting legacy of this for me. I’m thrilled to be in this position, but to be anywhere in the same circle as these folks, this is a privilege.”
The 2021 five-person jury was chaired by Canadian writer Zalika Reid-Benta and also included Canadian writers Megan Gail Coles and Joshua Whitehead, Malaysian writer Tash Aw and American writer Joshua Ferris.
The jury read 132 books, narrowed it down to a longlist of 12 and then a shortlist of five.
“Amid all the anger and confusion surrounding the global refugee crisis, Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise paints a portrait of displacement and belonging that is at once unflinching and tender,” the jury said in a statement.
“In examining the confluence of war, migration and a sense of settlement, it raises questions of indifference and powerlessness and, ultimately, offers clues as to how we might reach out empathetically in a divided world.”
This year’s televised gala in Toronto, co-hosted by poet Rupi Kaur and actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, featured a musical performance by Measha Brueggergosman Lee and the Denzal Sinclaire Quartet. The 2021 event returned to its usual in-person festivities — with attendees having been asked to show proof of vaccination and photo ID upon entry — after hosting a online livestreamed event in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
El Akkad was presented with the $100,000 award by Elana Rabinovitch, the daughter of Jack Rabinovitch, and Scotiabank’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer John Doig.
Jack Rabinovitch founded the prize in honour of his late wife Doris Giller in 1994. Rabinovitch died in 2017 at the age of 87.
Past Giller Prize winners include Souvankham Thammavongsa for How to Pronounce Knife, Esi Edugyan for Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues, Margaret Atwood for Alias Grace, Ian Williams for Reproduction and Alice Munro for Runaway.
WATCH | The 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize broadcast