Nathan Howard / The Globe and Mail
Fiction has tremendous power to convey truth. You can read fact for fact about current events, but a fabricated story could be what gets those events under your skin and into your soul. Omar El Akkad’s new novel What Strange Paradise does this type of work.
Anyone who has read news articles about the migration crisis has taken in many facts. You will know about the terrible conditions on the boats, about the enormous risks of a secret crossing in such a ship, about the deep despair that leads people to take this risk of life and death. The many, many dead.
El Akkad’s novel, like his first American War, offers a different perspective even to a well-informed reader. At the same time, it is strongly influenced by his journalistic activities – especially with this newspaper.
“I think the remaining experiences and memories from my decade in journalism will likely creep into my fiction for the rest of my life,” said El Akkad, 39, of Portland, Oregon, where he now lives.
“Those 10 years at The Globe and Mail were my training. I had a front row seat to so much history. Which doesn’t mean I got it right or that I have the right to keep writing novels based on the things I used to write nonfiction about, ”he says. “But these experiences represented a kind of writing training that I don’t think I would otherwise have received. … And I do that every day for every MFA in the world. “
The novel tells of the shipwreck of a rickety boat, its passengers from Africa and the Middle East on a desperate, dangerous journey to the Greek island of Kos – and of freedom.
The story is presented in alternating chapters marked with “before” and “after”. “Before” describes the life of the nine-year-old Amir as a Syrian refugee – the family settles in Alexandria, Egypt – and what happens on the doomed boat. “After” is set on the Greek island, where the corpses of the ship’s guests were washed up. Amir, apparently the only survivor, is being helped by a 15-year-old local girl whose own grandparents, presumably Scandinavians, carried out a different type of migration to the island, and is buying a retired property there.
The opening paragraphs will remind many readers of something else: the photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose Syrian refugee family had also traveled to Kos in the hope of a better life in Canada.
“The child is lying on the bank,” the novel begins. He lies face down with his arms outstretched. From a distance it looks like he might be playing on the run.
The photo of Kurdi burned into El Akkad while writing this book, he says, along with another photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his not quite two-year-old daughter Valeria, who drowned together in Rio Grande is trying to travel from Mexico to the USA in 2019 reach.
It wasn’t just the images that motivated El Akkad, but what happened afterwards – or not.
“You created an incredible outrage that felt like a very short time. And finally, people moved on to what they would be upset about next. And above all, I wrote against this feeling and this privilege of temporary indignation and immediate oblivion, ”said El Akkad this week on the phone.
“But this feeling of how much privilege it is to be temporarily outraged by injustice and then to move on immediately is what drove the writing of this book.”
El Akkad began writing the book in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency and is just as inspired by the refugee crisis on the US southern border as it is by the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
It is also, as El Akkad describes it, a repurposed fable: Peter Pan reinterpreted as a contemporary child refugee.
El Akkad was born in Cairo, grew up in Qatar and, at the age of 16, moved with his family to Canada, where he settled in Montreal. “I have been a guest in a foreign country since I was five years old,” he says. “And I’ve always found that fictions in which you can adapt the contours of your invented world to any reality always felt more like a home to me than any real place.”
There is something else about fiction. El Akkad is well aware of the power of journalism – “you change the world for the better by simply telling the truth; that is an incredible model ”- he believes that fiction also has the power to bring about change.
“It is one of the few things that I took with me from my journalistic career into my career as a novelist: this iron conviction that there has to be a chance that your work will make a positive change in the world. I don’t think it’s possible to do the work we do differently. You have to believe in a fundamentally irrational thing: a kind of alchemy where by leaving reality and changing reality you can somehow cause a change in that reality. At its core, it is a fundamentally irrational thing to believe. But sometimes it is the only load-bearing beam that supports a very thin house. “
39-year-old El Akkad says it was the second best decision he has ever made. The best decision, he says, was knowing it was time to go and focus on being a novelist.
His first published novel, American War – written on weekends and in the middle of the night when he was still a full-time journalist – is a terrifying work of speculative fiction. Amid the brutal effects of climate change, a second American civil war breaks out in 2074. American War was an award-winning, international best seller, and has been translated into 13 languages.
The manuscript was acquired from the legendary Alfred A. Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta, to whom What Strange Paradise is dedicated. In a tribute that El Akkad wrote for The Globe after Mehta’s death in late 2019, the writer recalled his first conversation with Mehta about the American war; Within five minutes on the phone, El Akkad knew Mehta understood exactly what he was up to. “You think you read one thing, but you really read another,” Mehta said to El Akkad.
This sentence also applies to What Strange Paradise – in several ways. It’s so compelling a page turner that its brutal message feels organic and never instructive. The wisdom conveyed by different characters gives the reader new perspectives; especially the privileged western reader is confronted with himself in an uncomfortable way.
The hotel guests on the Greek island who complain that they cannot use the beach because of the shipwreck. The contempt with which tourists in Alexandria treat a boy crouching on t-shirts. The canister with milk powder at Amir’s home: he could tell how high quality the product was from how western the people looked on the packaging. Amir’s father’s explanation of the hellish situation in Syria: It didn’t start with bombs or bullets or revolutionary graffiti. It started with a drought. “Don’t call that a conflict,” he says to his son. “There is no such thing as conflict. There is only scarcity, there is only need. “
The novel, which was published this week, is already being received enthusiastically. The New York Times said it “deserves to be an instant classic”. The reviewer said he hadn’t loved a book like this in a long time.
El Akkad jokes that it is unclear what else the reviewer read; maybe a number of bad books. There is more to this than El Akkad’s genuine-looking humility. He’s uncomfortable celebrating everything that has to do with this book – its release, the rave.
“I’m naturally drawn to write about the things that make me angry in this world. And whether that is good or bad, or whether I have a right to write about the subjects I have chosen, I find the whole process difficult and it is difficult to talk about the resulting work in any solemn way, “he says hey, before modestly referring to a “pretty decent” New York Times review.
“I can’t celebrate these books. That’s not how I think of her. I want to exist in a world where I didn’t feel compelled to write about what I write about. So it’s a difficult place to live as a writer and I don’t know how long I can do this, or if it’s valuable enough or does something to change the things that worry me. These are all open questions for me. “
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