In November 2021, Queen’s graduate Omar El Akkad took home the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel What Strange Paradise.
It’s been a long journey for El Akkad, ArtSci ’05, born in Egypt and moved to Canada at sixteen. He fondly looks back on the time he spent at Queen’s—most of which he spent working at The Journal and honing his skills in Carolyn Smart’s creative writing classes.
“Queen’s was probably the defining stretch of my life leading up to the work I do now, just not in the way I thought it would be,” El Akkad said in an interview.
El Akkad majored in computer science—something he claimed to have known very little about at the time of his studies. He struggled and admitted to skipping class but explained how stumbling upon an opportunity at The Journal helped turn things around.
“I thought, ‘Well, the only thing I’m halfway good at is writing, maybe these people will let me write?’ So I went and interviewed for the job [of Assistant News Editor],” El Akkad said.
Despite being in “bad shape” after eating too many chicken wings before the interview, El Akkad got the position. He later returned to The Journal as the Production Manager, then as Editor in Chief. These experiences paved the way for his ten-year tenure at The Globe and Mail.
After selling his debut novel, American War, El Akkad quit his journalism gig to focus on writing novels full time—a decision that has undoubtedly panned out.
“That was the moment where I had to decide. [I told myself,] ‘If you’re not going to jump off the cliff and hope there’s water at the bottom under these conditions, then you’re never going to do it.’”
El Akkad remains thankful and indebted to those who helped him—and continue to help him—become the best writer he can be. He spoke graciously about Carolyn Smart.
“I saw [her class], and it said you had to submit a writing sample to get in, so I wrote this horrible short story that’s still sitting on my hard drive all these years later,” El Akkad said.
“[When I got accepted], it was one of the happiest days of my life. I never thought my writing could get me into anything. So even before I met Carolyn, she did something sort of fundamental for my confidence level.”
However, their first-class together proved memorable for the wrong reasons because it took place on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Everybody walked into that class about as shaken as you’d expect,” El Akkad explained.
“We had never met each other before, and many of us had never met Carolyn before. We were kids in a very tumultuous moment, and Carolyn walked in and calmed us all down—and has [remained] that calming presence in my life ever since.”
El Akkad has since grown into one of Smart’s most accomplished pupils.
El Akkad has loved writing from a young age. He wrote his first short story at age six for a school newsletter. Nonetheless, he’s surprised himself more than anyone else by reaching such a monumental peak last November with What Strange Paradise.
“It was life-changing, but it was life-changing from the moment the [Giller Prize] longlist was announced,” he said. “It completely alters what I can do as a writer.”
El Akkad is currently serving as Queen’s Writer-in-Residence.
Giller Prize, Writer in Residence, writing
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