Boy in outer space: Author Omar El Akkad talks adjusting to Canada and success in writing

By Michelle Boon

Posted on February 23, 2022

Photo: Kateshia Pendergrass

November 8, 2021, author and journalist Omar El Akkad won the coveted Giller Prize for his novel, What Strange Paradise. He didn’t expect to win and said as much in his improvised acceptance speech, in addition to thanking his family and honouring his fellow nominees.

What Strange Paradise is the author’s second novel, and begins with a nine-year-old Syrian boy, Amir, the lone survivor of a wrecked migrant ship. He washes up on the shore of an unnamed island, where he knows no one, and doesn’t speak the language.

That’s also where we’ll start El Akkad’s story.

From the Middle East to Montreal

Born in Egypt, and raised in Qatar from the age of five, El Akkad and his family moved to Canada in August of 1998, when the author was 16 years old. “We settled on Montreal for reasons that I do not understand,” he said. His family didn’t speak a word of French.

Prior to settling in Montreal, the author’s only personal connection to Canadian culture was an Our Lady Peace CD. His general understanding of Western culture was through movies and music, mostly American, and this in no way prepared him for living in Canada. “I just felt like I was in outer space. I felt like I was on the moon,” the author said. Thrown into a cold, alien world, he was forced to figure it out as he went.

Photo: Anna Mehler Paperny

“The primary challenge was that the first 16 years of my life became irrelevant overnight. […] I suppose it was somewhat similar to trying to learn a new language, you know, the older you are the harder it gets. I was 16, and I was trying to learn a new cultural language.”

During his final years of high school, which are challenging for any teenager, El Akkad also went through numerous newcomer challenges. He didn’t speak the language, constantly got lost, didn’t know how to order food at restaurants, and tried to pay bus fare with a $20 bill expecting change.

His first two years in Canada felt long, confusing, and lonely. He was doubly alienated attending a private school where his peers were not only Canadian-born, but extremely wealthy, making it difficult to make connections. Few people could understand what he was going through, and the one friend who had also moved from Qatar to Montreal received frequent calls. “That poor guy got six calls a day from me, because who else am I going to talk to?” El Akkad said. He admitted that the numerous calls were not fair to himself nor his friend.

Beyond that, he found solace in writing. He said, “I would write anything; diaries, poetry, fiction, whatever I could, whatever I felt like writing that day. So I retreated into the writing quite a bit. And then the rest of it was just any way to try and keep holding on to the life I had back in Qatar.”

He spent his time frequently calling and messaging his friends back home, or wandering Saint Catherine St. with the friends he eventually made. Canada, however, still felt like a foreign planet in which he had no part.

“I could not fathom ever having an identity in this place. And I hated Canada for about two years, I couldn’t stand it.”

University and reinvention

According to El Akkad, he was extremely reserved when he came to Canada, which did not lend himself to making connections. He said, “I didn’t expect to be part of any social group. I didn’t attempt to be part of any social group. I didn’t expect to fit in.”

When he graduated high school and attended Queen’s University for computer science, he reinvented himself to be more “outward facing.” His reinvention was not a process of becoming, but one of letting go. “It’s not so much that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to be,” the author said. “It’s that I had a very clear idea of what I didn’t want to be, and that was the person that was in Montreal.”

El Akkad’s “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude paid off socially. He had a great time making friends and meeting other writers through creative writing class and campus publications. He did admit, however, that he was not a model student. Each year he attended no more than 10 classes for his computer science degree. Meanwhile, he contributed endlessly to campus publications, including comedy paper, Golden Words; arts publications Ultraviolet and Lake Effect; and even a magazine of his own called Lighthouse Wire. He was also the assistant news editor, and later editor-in-chief, of student newspaper, The Queen’s Journal.

“My entire academic life, and my entire education was writing for these various publications,” El Akkad said.

Being a writer as a newcomer

The author discovered his love for writing at the age of five when he wrote a story about littering for the school newsletter. From there he was hooked. At that young age, he couldn’t articulate feelings of dislocation from Egypt to Qatar, but he could express those feelings in writing. For someone who struggled with the question “Where are you from?” writing was home, both in Qatar and Canada. It then became the whole of his academic life, but he did not consider writing as a career.

“I come from a particular part of the world, and a particular class, and a particular society, where you don’t become a writer of fiction for a living. […] You become an engineer, or a lawyer, or a doctor.” A sentiment that many first and second generation newcomers may relate to.

Luckily, spending all his time writing instead of attending his computer science classes worked out. Throughout his undergrad, he secured internships with journalist Ken Cuthbertson, and the Edmonton Journal. Upon graduating in 2004, he started his internship at the Globe and Mail, where he would work as a reporter for the next decade.

“I had these little lily pads that were my next landing spot,” the author said. “And so long as I had those, as long as I didn’t think more than like, a very short amount of time into the future, I was going to be okay. Beyond that I would have been terrified.”

Photo: Michael Lionstar

After a decade working in journalism, El Akkad transitioned into a full-time career as a fiction author, with the release of his debut novel, American War, in 2017. In doing so, he accomplished something that many newcomers, including his teenage self, couldn’t see as a possibility—success in two creative careers. While humbly proud of his work, El Akkad also recognizes the luck and privilege that attributed to his success. He is Muslim and immigrated from the Middle East, but speaks English with a barely-detectable accent, and can pass for a variety of different ethnicities. Unlike a Muslim woman, for example, who wears a hijab, El Akkad’s faith and cultural identity are ambiguous.

“All of these things had far more to do with that [successful] outcome than any skill or aptitude on my part,” he said. “Vast majority of my trajectory was predicated on luck.”

On success

As a teenager, writing was a tether while he felt like he was floating in outer space. Writing was home when he didn’t know where that was. Now writing is his livelihood. The author’s greatest success is just that—writing for a living where he thought he would never have a place or identity.

“We arrived in this place where I felt like I had nothing, no ground to stand on. And I’m not a hugely successful person, I don’t think. But I’ve managed, in this context, to create a situation where I’m doing with my life the thing I’ve always wanted to do—I’m writing. It’s all I ever want to do.”

When he isn’t writing, El Akkad spends his time with his wife and two young children doing “boring domestic stuff,” cooking, cleaning, and occasionally rock climbing. As for what’s next, the author will return to his alma mater as the 2022 Writer in Residence at Queen’s University, where he will potentially start drafting his third novel.

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