Author Miriam Toews poses for a photograph on the red carpet premiere for the film "All My Puny Sorrows" at the Princess of Wales Theatre during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Canada's literary cognoscenti are breaking out their formal attire and brushing up on their small talk as they prepare to reconvene for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Omar El Akkad wins $100K Giller Prize for ‘What Strange Paradise’

Omar El Akkad wins $100K Giller Prize for ‘What Strange Paradise’

TORONTO — Omar El Akkad is this year’s winner of the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The Egyptian-Canadian author and journalist received the honour for “What Strange Paradise” at a televised Toronto gala Monday night.

“For the next couple of minutes that will be very, very awkward, you will realize that I didn’t think I had a chance in hell at this,” El Akkad told the crowd assembled at the Park Hyatt hotel.

“And so I’m making this speech up as I go along.”

He thanked his mother for “everything,” his wife for taking care of his kids while he plays “boy author” and he honoured his father’s memory.

“What Strange Paradise,” published by McClelland & Stewart, is a novel about two children caught in the global refugee crisis.

In their citation, the jury said the book “raises questions of indifference and powerlessness and, ultimately, offers clues as to how we might reach out empathetically in a divided world.”

The story alternates between the perspectives of Amir, a Syrian boy who survives a shipwreck on an unnamed island, and Vänna, the local teenage girl who saves him.

El Akkad, 39, moved to Canada when he was 16, and went to high school in Montreal before attending Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

He lived in Toronto for about a decade, and did a stint in Ottawa as a Parliament Hill reporter.

The Portland, Ore.-based author won critical and commercial success with his debut 2017 novel, “American War,” which won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

Monday night’s black-tie affair reinstated the Giller as the bash of the fall books season after last year’s celebration was held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers slashed the usual guest list by more than half to facilitate social distancing, and attendees were required to show proof of vaccination to take part in the festivities.

Actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and poet Rupi Kaur co-hosted the CBC broadcast, which included performances by jazz artist Denzal Sinclaire and soprano Measha Brueggergosman.

This year’s runners-up, who each received $10,000, were: Angélique Lalonde, nominated for her story collection “Glorious Frazzled Beings,” published by House of Anansi; Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia for her novel “The Son of The House,” published by Dundurn Press; Jordan Tannahill for his novel “The Listeners,” published by HarperCollins Canada; and Miriam Toews for her novel “Fight Night,” published by Knopf Canada.

The short list was culled from 132 books submitted by publishers across Canada, said organizers.

Sitting on this year’s prize jury were Canadian authors Zalika Reid-Benta, Megan Gail Coles and Joshua Whitehead, as well as Malaysian novelist Tash Aw and U.S. author Joshua Ferris.

The Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel, graphic novel or short story collection published in English.

The Giller was established by Jack Rabinovitch in 1994 in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.

Last year’s winner was Souvankham Thammavongsa for “How to Pronounce Knife.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press