When you’re a stranger: Omar El Akkad follows up his bestselling debut with a novel that represents a stark departure in form and subject

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Omar El Akkad never expected American War to be published. His 2017 debut novel about a dystopian America in the near future suffering the ravages of a second Civil War became an international bestseller, was compared to the work of Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, and was a contender on the 2018 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads. But its Egyptian-Canadian author, at the time a journalist with The Globe and Mail who already had three unpublished manuscripts under his belt, was ready to write off what would become his breakthrough novel. “It was just sitting on the hard drive until I had a bad day at the Globe and I decided, to hell with this, I’ll try my luck,” El Akkad says on the phone from his home in Oregon. “I got very, very lucky.”

Partly as a result of four years under the previous White House administration in the U.S., which coincided with increasing political polarization both online and off, the themes and subject matter in American War have retained their relevance in the years since the book first appeared. The ongoing interest in the novel has primed El Akkad’s audience for the follow-up, which is being released this week by McClelland & Stewart in Canada and Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S.

Anyone who imagined El Akkad would follow his dark debut with something more cheerful involving lighter subject matter can disabuse themselves of that notion right away. The new work, titled What Strange Paradise, addresses equally fraught political and social material: the ongoing civil war in Syria and the consequent refugee crisis that found its apogee in 2015. Clocking in at just more than 200 pages, the novel is a brisk read, but that doesn’t mean it’s a comforting one. Perhaps as a result of El Akkad’s background as a journalist covering war zones and the Middle East, he displays in his second novel a staunch refusal to deny the horrors of the refugee experience; the result is a book that is as propulsive as it is discomfiting. “I churn out stone-cold bummers,” he says ruefully.

That said, What Strange Paradise is a departure from American War in both form and content, though El Akkad suggests the two novels do have points of commonality. “To me, they’re thematically very similar,” he says. Both books deal with what he calls “instantaneous forgetting,” a privilege that allows complacent readers to express momentary dismay at the dire situations faced by refugees and racialized or otherwise marginalized characters, then go on with their lives. There is a particular tendency among Western societies, El Akkad suggests, to slot people deemed outsiders into categories that are easily ignored or considered disposable. “In that sense, the two books are very related. In almost every other sense, they are not.”

El Akkad cites two inspirations for wanting to write What Strange Paradise. The first occurred when he was in Egypt as a journalist covering the aftermath of the Arab Spring almost a decade ago. He was driving around Cairo with a friend, who was complaining about skyrocketing rents in the city. The friend explained to El Akkad that Syrians displaced by the civil war in their home country were being charged as much as three times what locals would pay for rent. “Very quickly, it became apparent that this happened everywhere, it wasn’t just a rent thing,” El Akkad says. “When you went down to get fruits and vegetables from the stall down the street, it was a similar kind of situation.”

What struck El Akkad most was the disconnect between this reality and the polite words of fraternity and support for Syrian refugees often expressed by politicians or other public figures. “In reality, it was all nonsense. It was all a fantasy,” he says. “Anyone who could be exploited would be.”

The second germ for the novel came from an article about a migrant ship that had capsized while traversing the Mediterranean passage. “The details were about as horrific as you’d expect,” El Akkad says. But what was most startling to the author was the flurry of concern and visceral outrage that erupted over the course of two or three news cycles, after which the story more or less vanished and people ceased talking about it.

“I really don’t agree with almost anything any of my characters have to say” (Photo: Kateshia Pendergrass)

With those two thematic spurs in the back of his mind, El Akkad set about writing the story of Amir Utu, a nine-year-old boy who surreptitiously trails his stepfather onto a refugee boat destined for Western shores. The story of Amir’s dangerous passage among smugglers, fellow refugees, and a pregnant woman named Umm Ibrahim – who protects him and becomes a kind of surrogate mother figure – is counterpointed with a story in the narrative present about the boy’s flight across an unnamed European island (which El Akkad based on Crete) in the company of Vänna, a fifteen-year-old local girl determined to get him to a ferry that will provide safe passage to a community of Amir’s fellow country people.

When he started writing, El Akkad was interested in the theme of displacement, the refugee experience, and the response of Western governments, militaries, and bureaucracies – a story he conceived of in a very particular way. What interests him in retrospect is readers’ reactions to what he had written. While he had in his mind a structure that would convey to the novel a very specific meaning and way of reading, he found that his first four readers returned with four completely different interpretations of what happens in the book. “To me, everything you need to know about the structure of the book is in the epigraphs [from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek],” he says. “But a lot of people have not read it that way.”

El Akkad says he is not troubled by readings of the novel that diverge from his understanding of what he was writing. In particular, readings that prioritize a more hopeful or optimistic trajectory for Amir’s story gratify him, since they speak to a fundamentally positive aspect of the human condition. But in the end, El Akkad recognizes it’s not for him to decide how any individual reader will approach the narrative. “I fully subscribe to what Jorge Luis Borges says about the intention of the writer not mattering in the slightest,” he says.

Regardless of how individual readers choose to interpret the book, certain elements of the narrative are undeniable. These include El Akkad’s superb facility for character, including his heroes – Amir, Vänna, and Umm Ibrahim – and villains – the cowardly refugee Walid, the human smuggler Mohamed, and most especially, the Western soldier Colonel Kethros, who functions as a kind of Javert hunting a pint-sized Jean Valjean in the person of Amir. In lesser hands, these figures could easily come across as one-dimensional, but El Akkad’s understanding of human psychology and willingness to place himself in the shoes of a diverse cast of characters renders them fully realized on the page. “There’s a lot of the moral in this book,” he says. “When you’re writing in that mode, there is a temptation to make the villains cartoonishly villainous. And I didn’t want that.”

This is particularly germane given the collision of dichotomies in the novel – between the refugees’ idea of the West as a welcoming paradise and Westerners’ own notion of asylum seekers as a kind of barbarian army at the gates; between people who have suffered war and deprivation and those who have lived a life of relatively insular privilege and wealth. In one breathtakingly cynical moment, the smuggler Mohamed suggests that all of humanity can be reduced to one of two aspects: engines and fuel. The privileged Westerners represent the engines; the indigent refugees, the fuel. “I really don’t agree with almost anything any of my characters have to say,” El Akkad admits. “That line, of everything Mohamed says, is the one I disagree with the least. It’s difficult for me to fully write off that interpretation of the world from the point of view of someone who sees it at the ground level.”

A novel full of such dark material can’t help but take a toll on its author, and El Akkad says that while he was composing the book he was in the grip of the deepest depression he has ever suffered. Trump was still in power and El Akkad had just become a father, an experience that, as an only child, he was completely unprepared for. “On top of all of that, when I wrote American War, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a book deal, I didn’t have any expectations that it would see the light of day. And there was a real liberating aspect to that. You could just write.”

He is also cognizant of how divergent What Strange Paradise is from the earlier book and the extent to which he is challenging his established readership to accept a very different story told in a very different mode. With all of that, he is proud of having produced the novel, which he says is the one he had to write at the time. And if it allows readers to better understand his subject matter through an exposure to this fictional world and experience, so much the better. “Any story, any work of literature, any storytelling endeavour has to be both lighthouse and storm,” he says. “You put people in the place that is difficult for them to be in. But you also shed light on it.”

When you’re a stranger: Omar El Akkad follows up his bestselling debut with a novel that represents a stark departure in form and subject
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