English department hosts Giller Prize Event

Guests celebrated Omar El Akkad’s award-winning novel

Giller Prize Event highlights the power of literature.
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Queen’s English Department hosted their annual Giller Prize Event on Mar. 23, celebrating Queen’s alum and current writer-in-residence Omar El Akkad for his winning novel What Strange Paradise
 
“The event this year has a lot more going on with it for a few different reasons,” Sam McKegney, head of the English department, said in an interview with The Journal. “It’s somewhat down to some glorious serendipity.”
 
El Akkad’s win aligned perfectly with his return to Queen’s as writer-in-residence. “That was wonderful to have him coming back to Queens to be part of this community again, and then bam, he wins the Giller in the very year that’s going to happen,” McKegney said. 
 
“I consider this book to be a profound intervention, both in terms of its precise and meticulous rendering of really horrific aspects of reality, but also in its craft. It’s beautifully written.”
 
Some of the event’s other special guests included Juliana Okot Bitek and Dr. Shobhana Xavier. They sat on the panel alongside El Akkad and ENGL 466 student represenatative Daniel Green. 
 
Professor Carolyn Smart, former director of creative writing at Queen’s, commemorated her former pupil’s accomplishments via a video tribute. 
 
Other virtual appearances included Giller Prize jurors Megan Gail Coles and Joshua Whitehead, as well as two-time winning author Esi Edugyan. 
 
“Virtually everyone we’ve asked to contribute has happily done so,” McKegney said. “It speaks to just how highly the book is thought of in writerly circles, as well as the importance of the issues that it’s dealing with.”
 
The event’s panel discussed literary craft and the issues of forced migrancy and the refugee crisis, which are core topics in What Strange Paradise.
 
“Those who attend the event will experience all of these wonderful artists and scholars thinking together about what we can do to intervene in one of the most significant crises affecting our world today, which is forced migrancy,” McKegney said.
 
The event was primarily planned by ENGL 466 students, a course focused on the Giller Prize-shortlisted novels.
 
“I’ve really handed things over to the students to run with, and they’ve done a fabulous job with that,” McKegney said.
 
McKegney was excited for students to engage in conversation with El Akkad, making the event perfect for those studying literature and literature production. 
 
“It really gives us a chance to showcase literature’s ability to intervene in the most important issues facing our world today,” he said. “To have the opportunity for students and audience members to be engaged in conversations like that, to me, that’s incredibly exciting.”

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