‘What Strange Paradise’ is timely & powerful

Omar El Akkad’s masterpiece preaches compassion over privilege

The novel won the 2021 Giller Prize.
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Omar El Akkad’s Giller-prize winning novel What Strange Paradise is a moving tale of friendship prevailing in the face of racism, hatred, and cynicism. 
 
El Akkad, who The Journal interviewed back in January, is a Queen’s graduate who spent a year as Journal Editor in Chief before becoming a professional writer. He’s spent the Winter 2022 semester as the university’s writer-in-residence. 
 
All the praise is well-deserved: protagonist Amir’s journey in What Strange Paradise is an incredibly poignant and timely deconstruction of privilege. 
 
The story starts with nine-year-old Amir washing ashore. 
 
We quickly learn he was one of many who escaped from their country aboard a smuggler’s dilapidated boat. It sunk under the collective weight of a group of Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, and Palestinians seeking a better life on foreign land. 
 
He stumbles upon fifteen-year-old Vänna, one of the island’s residents, who takes him in instead of turning him over to soldiers hunting for undocumented immigrants. 
 
The two quickly form a friendship built on actions and loyalty. Vänna is compelled to help reunite young Amir with his lost uncle, despite their lack of common language, and also withstanding mounting pressure from Colonel Kethros and his troops. 
 
This tense adventure unfolds in the chapters titled “After,” while those labelled “Before” show Amir’s brutal journey to the island on the smuggler’s boat with his uncle. El Akkad’s use of divided time builds the story’s central critique of an idealized Western life. 
 
Much to the distaste of their cynical smuggler, Mohammed, many of the immigrants escaping on the rickety boat have their sights set on North American freedom. He adamantly believes no amount of posturing will lead them to prosperity among racist white people. 
 
Mohammed calls Americans “engines” and claims immigrants are the fuel, relegated to doing privileged society’s dirty work. Unfortunately, real-life political and social climates in North America reveal the disturbing truth in his words. 
 
Through his constant cynicism and mistreatment of the boat’s vulnerable passengers, Mohammed reminds Amir and the reader that racism and greed are universal. Vänna’s unwarranted kindness starkly contrasts Mohammed’s hopelessness—she throws away her comfortable life to help Amir and take a much-needed stand against injustice. 
 
What Strange Paradise is a call for change. Its scathing critiques of Western privilege and elitism are only overpowered by the values it preaches.  
 
Compassion—it’s the basic human emotion that drives Vänna to protect Amir when everyone else is unwilling to put their differences aside. The global refugee crisis this novel explores might not exist if more people were willing to treat people like people. 
 
You could easily write your own book about What Strange Paradise and come away feeling as though you didn’t say everything that needed saying. The book is that deep. 
 
Read El Akkad with an open heart and mind. His incredible novel is thematically challenging, beautifully moving, and inspiringly excellent.

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