What Strange Paradise

A refugee boy, the victim of a shipwreck, washes ashore on a Greek resort island. For Omar El Akkad, that’s just the beginning of Amir’s story.

Cover image of What Strange Paradise

Inspired by sources as wide-ranging as today's headlines and the story of Peter Pan, Omar El Akkad tells the story of a Syrian boy rescued by a teenage girl, a native of Kos whose roots to place and family turn out to be surprisingly shallow when tested. The novel unfolds in alternating chapters that tell the story of Amir’s life before and after the shipwreck, following him and Vänna as they try to make their way toward safety.

Like Tell Me How It Ends, the work that kicked off this year’s series, What Strange Paradise reminds us that the phrase “refugee crisis” elides the brutality and suffering of millions of individual beings.

What Strange Paradise is the riveting story of two children navigating a hostile world. But it is also a story of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair—and about the way that each of those can sometimes blind us to reality.

Omar El Akkad headshot

Born in Egypt, Omar El Akkad grew up in Qatar and Canada and now lives in Portland. As a longtime reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, he covered Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, and he was recognized with a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Journalism.

His debut novel, American War, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award, the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. His short story, “Government Slots,” was selected for the 2020 edition of Best Canadian Stories. His second novel, What Strange Paradise, appeared in July.


Order the book now from the Colgate Bookstore.

Meet Omar El Akkad at Colgate on Dec. 2

There are two ways to join us:

  • In person in Love Auditorium, Olin Hall,  4:30 p.m.
  • Via Zoom. No registration required.

Dec. 2 Zoom Registration

Everyone can participate in the audience Q&A following the reading, and there will be a book-signing in the Olin lobby after that. For information on how to purchase a signed book if you're not on campus, see the How to Participate section of the website.

Living Writers events are free and open to the public.

Listen to a 3-question podcast

“I think art in general, and literature in particular, serves a vital human purpose in that it momentarily explodes the unbearable perception that life makes sense.” Here, Omar El Akkad speaks about What Strange Paradise. Listen to this Living Writers podcast to hear more.

Go beyond the book

  • Listen to this podcast for the New York Times, hosted by Pamela Paul, to hear Omar El Akkad’s thoughts on his novel What Strange Paradise: “I wanted to take a comforting story that Westerners have been telling their kids for the last hundred years, and I wanted to invert it, to tell a different kind of story.”
  • Gabino Iglesias writes that What Strange Paradise “manages to push past political talking points and shocking statistics to rehumanize the discussion about migration on a global scale, and it does so with enough heart to be memorable.” Read more in Iglesias’ review for NPR.
  • In her New York Times review of What Strange Paradise, Wendell Steavenson says, “Told from the point of view of two children, on the ground and at sea, the story so astutely unpacks the us-versus-them dynamics of our divided world that it deserves to be an instant classic.” 
  • “Though What Strange Paradise celebrates a few radical acts of compassion, it does so only by placing those moments of moral courage against a vast ocean of cruelty.” In his Washington Post review, Ron Charles details the powerful moral and political implications of What Strange Paradise

Tell us what you think

Join us Monday, Nov. 29, 7-8 p.m., for a faculty roundtable and discussion of What Strange Paradise. Guests will include Arif Camoglu, Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Ellen Kraly, Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty; William R. Kenan Jr. professor of geography and environmental studies, and Chandra Russo, associate professor of sociology. Feel free to participate or simply listen in. If you're interested but can't make the session, the roundtable portion will be available to listen to later in the week.

Nov. 29 Zoom Registration

Follow the discussion on Twitter @ColgateLW using the hashtags #ColgateLivingWriters and #WhatStrangeParadise

There’s no such thing as conflict. There’s only scarcity, there’s only need.

What Strange Paradise
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Living Writers is put on by the Department of English at Colgate University with generous support from the Olive B. O'Connor Fund as well as the President and Provost/Dean of the Faculty. Support from the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program helped make this event possible.