Omar El Akkad leans against a tree in a grassy park wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, hands in pockets

Omar El Akkad hadn't planned on teaching. The Egyptian-Canadian writer began his career as a journalist covering the war on terror, filing from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and other international locations. 

El Akkad is also a celebrated novelist with an international bestseller under his belt. He calls his latest book, What Strange Paradise, "a repurposed fable of sorts" that reinterprets the story of Peter Pan as a tale of a contemporary child refugee. The novel was released earlier this year and made the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. 

To El Akkad's surprise, his CV also includes 'teacher.' He is a Humber School for Writers mentor and works one-on-one with a student in Humber's Creative Writing graduate program. 

Learning from the masters 

In 2020, Humber College's Humber School for Writers partnered with the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) to present the TIFA/Humber Creative Writing Master Class Series featuring classes led by the school's mentors. 

In October, El Akkad taught a class called What a Powerful Sentence Looks Like, exploring the construction of unforgettable sentences. 

Master class students also had the opportunity to learn from another 2021 Giller Prize-shortlisted author, Jordan Tannahill. 

Tannahill is a playwright, author and director whose plays have won Governor General's Literary Awards for Drama. He released his acclaimed debut novel in 2018, and his second, The Listeners, is up for the prize. Tannahill's playwriting master class, Writing for Time and Space, focused on "how to craft texts imbued with liveliness," he writes. 

The craft of teaching 

El Akkad's decision to work with Humber students was a bit of a leap of faith. 

"I always have an issue trying to translate the ability to write to the ability to teach writing but working with one of the students entirely changed my perception of the craft of teaching. So now I'm comfortable with it," he said. 

El Akkad's diverse writing background comes in handy at Humber. First, he examines his mentee's text line-by-line, a skill learned from ruthless – and excellent – newsroom editors over the years. Then, he asks the author about what they're trying to accomplish. 

"Nonfiction for me was always about finding answers. If you don't have a who, what, when, where and why, you don't have a piece of journalism," he said. 

"Fiction is where I go to explore questions to which I don't have answers. I dwell on the questions rather than the answers." 

El Akkad admits he could still stand to learn a thing or two. He's having a hard time processing the possibility of winning the 2021 Giller Prize.  

"I tried my best not to think about it ahead of time and just assumed the ride was over with the longlist. I had no skill set to deal with that! But it's an incredible honour," he said. 

The 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize will be broadcast on November 8th at 9 p.m. on CBC. 

Learn more about the Humber School for Writers here