Queen’s Journal alum Omar El Akkad talks upcoming novel 'What Strange Paradise'

El Akkad was published in the first Queen’s Creative Writing Anthology Lake Effect

‘What Strange Paradise’ comes out July 20, 2021.
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On July 20, Omar El Akkad’s second novel What Strange Paradise will debut. But El Akkad’s creative writing career began on a different day: September 11, 2001, in Professor Carolyn Smart’s creative writing class. 
 
“Our first class was Tuesday September 11, 2001. It was a few hours after the planes crashed into the towers. It was the first creative writing class I ever did, the first time I met Carolyn Smart. That was a day where there were a lot of terrified kids in that class and Carolyn did a herculean job of calming us all down,” El Akkad, CompSci ’04, told The Journal. 
 
After his first class with Professor Smart, El Akkad was accepted into Advanced Creative Writing and become part of the first ever anthology Lake Effect, which publishes the work of Smart’s advanced students. 
 
“We sat there arguing about a name. One of the other guys in the class really wanted to call it Olive. So, it could have been called the Olive Anthology if we hadn’t overruled that and finally decided to call it Lake Effect,” El Akkad said. 
 
“For me personally, and a lot of others in the class, it was the first time we had ever been published in a book. 
 
El Akkad’s first day as a student of Smart’s was overshadowed by the tragic events of 9/11. Since then, American imperialism, unrest in the Middle East, and the global refugee crisis have defined El Akkad’s career in journalism and fiction. 
 
“Everything I learned, I basically learned at The Journal. My entire education at Queen’s basically came down to Carolyn Smart’s creative writing class and The Queen’s Journal.” 
 
When he graduated from Queen’s, El Akkad ended up at the Edmonton Journal and then The Globe and Mail where he still writes the occasional article. 
 
“When you’re coming from The Queen’s Journal there is this sense of, okay, sure the assignments are higher stakes and, obviously, more people read what you write, but at least I don’t have to put the paper together myself afterwards. At least, I don’t have to sit there and lay it out until 2 a.m. in the morning,” El Akkad said.
 
“In a sense The Queen’s Journal was a more difficult job in terms of what you were required to do to get the thing out the door. It was an amazing education in how to exist as a journalist that I still think is a better one than I would have gotten if I had gone to journalism school.” 
 
While he cherishes his time at The Journal, El Akkad said he identifies more as a novelist than a journalist. 
 
“I was never particularly good at it, but I spent 10 years at The Globe, and I still do the occasional article every now and then.”
 
Born in Egypt, El Akkad came to Canada for the first time when he was 16. 
 
He reflected on arriving at Queen’s for the first time.  “I was coming off of two years of fairly extreme culture shock,” he said. 
 
“Where I grew up, we didn’t have public transit, we didn’t have taxes, we didn’t really have sidewalks. It’s difficult to overstate what leaving Qatar in August when it’s 50 degrees outside and coming to Montreal where three months later it’s minus 40 outside—it’s hard to overstate how much of a jarring experience that was. College was an opportunity to reset and see what type of person I was going to be.”
 
What Strange Paradise is El Akkad’s second book after American War. 
 
What Strange Paradise is a repurposed fable,” he said. “It’s the story of Peter Pan repurposed as the story of a contemporary child refugee.”
 
The idea for the novel was prompted by his coverage of the Arab Spring for The Globe. While living in Egypt, he noticed that rent prices for refugees were much higher than the normal rate. He began thinking about how Syria and Egypt used to be one country, but now the idea of Arabs helping Arabs seemed like “bullshit.” 
 
“I started sketching out this idea of repurposing a fable because when I was writing this, there had been this migrant crisis of ships sinking across the Mediterranean, and no honest accounting of the dead. These people fell to the bottom of the sea and they were never given an honest accounting of their lives, their names were never written anywhere, they just became ghosts. It’s an incredibly cruel abdication of  human responsibility.”
 
The true origins of the Peter Pan fable reminded El Akkad of the lives lost due to the refugee crisis. 
 
“When we talk about peter pan syndrome, we usually talk about the man who won’t stop being a boy, the man who won’t grow up, but the original roots of that fable are related to [creator] J.M. Barrie’s brother who died as a child. He never got the chance to become old. It’s not a man who won’t stop acting like a child, it’s a child who never got the chance to become a man,” he said. 
 
“I wanted to reinterpret that fable in the context of what is called the migrant crisis but is in in fact a crisis of institutional cruelty.”
 
El Akkad is unsure of how his book will be received but noted that it’s a very different book than American War. 
 
“The first four people I sent the manuscript to, had four differ interpretations of what happened in the novel, which was very surreal to me because I thought it was a fairly straightforward narrative.”
 
El Akkad’s contemporary fable What Strange Paradise will be published on July 20, 2021. 

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