by Omar El Akkad
“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”
When Syria is torn apart by civil war, Amir and his family flee to Egypt. But while his mother tries to rebuild their life, his uncle is still looking for a way out, a promise of better things. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.
What Strange Paradise is broken into alternating Before chapters, which tell of Amir’s life prior to the events on the island, and After chapters, which follow his adventures with Vanna on the island. One final chapter is entitled Now. In the Before chapters, we learn about how Amir’s family lost their home in Syria, took refuge in Egypt, and then tried to escape across the sea. In the After chapters, Vanna tries to conceal Amir from the authorities and—with the help of the local refugee camp coordinator who does not want to see the little boy dragged into that system—tries to get him to an old dock on the far side of the island where a ferryman will smuggle him across the water.
What Strange Paradise is short but powerful. I read it quickly, and then wished I had spent more time absorbing it as I sat with the ending. The book is open-ended and invites a wide range of possible interpretations. The opening image of a boy’s body washing up on the beach has clear echoes of the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015. But this little boy, Amir Utu, opens his eyes, and the story continues. How that continuation is interpreted is in the hands of the reader, but it is a haunting ending that more than one reader has found frustrating.
The villain of the piece is Colonel Kethros, a broken man who used to be a peacekeeper, only to realize that “peace keeping” meant watching a genocide and being able to do nothing to stop it. He lost not just his leg, but a piece of his humanity on that mission. The same man who will save a small girl from drowning will also throw a little boy into a refugee camp that lacks fresh water without a moment’s hesitation. His duality embodies the limitations and fickleness of human empathy, and the lines that we draw between “us” and “them.”
What Strange Paradise was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by entrepreneur Tareq Hadhad, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2015 with his family. Hadhad drew on that history in his pitch for why it is the one book that all of Canada should read this year. With millions of people just like Amir on the news every day, Hadhad argued that What Strange Paradise is the timely book Canada needs right now to foster empathy and compassion for refugees. Many of his fellow panelists seemed to agree that the book was effective at fostering this empathy, and several called out particular scenes from the Before chapters on the boat that spoke to them and highlighted the humanity of all the passengers, even that of Mohammed the smuggler.
The ending of What Strange Paradise repeatedly came under fire from Canada Reads panelists, an angle of attack which the book’s champion Tareq Hadhad indicated that he had expected. Mark Tewksbury in particular called it out several times, and even Malia Baker, who said that she likes a subjective ending, felt this one might go too far. Hadhad argued that the open conclusion is part of the power of the book, and pointed out that this is a feature it shares with Washington Black, the book Tewksbury is defending. The alternating chapters were also unpopular with some of the panelists, including Malia Baker and Christian Allaire. Baker noted that the character of the antagonist, Colonel Kethros, is much better developed than either Vanna or Amir, and we have much better insight into his motivations than anyone else’s.
The hopefulness of the book was also a point of contention that came up for discussion on the second day of the debates. Tareq Hadhad described What Strange Paradise as hopeful in his argument, and certainly it is a book about the hopes and dreams of immigrants and refugees, but none of the panelists seemed to agree that the book’s ending was hopeful. Some of the panelists, including Mark Tewksbury and Christian Allaire, questioned Vanna’s motivations and believability in her decision to aid Amir despite the serious potential consequences to herself and her family. In response, Hadhad noted that he had found his own Vanna in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and argued that kindness does not need a reason.
When the ballots were cast at the end of Day Two, Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against What Strange Paradise, while Christian Allaire cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez and defender Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In the after show, free agent Suzanne Simard noted that she struggled with her vote but felt that while the book had a Canadian face in many ways, it was the only book that did not have a Canadian setting. Her deciding ballot made What Strange Paradise the second book eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.
Catch up on Day One of Canada Reads 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water
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