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Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Omar El Akkad

The Giller Prize jury writes, “Amid all the anger and confusion surrounding the global refugee crisis, Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise paints a portrait of displacement and belonging that is at once unflinching and tender. In examining the confluence of war, migration and a sense of settlement, it raises questions of indifference and powerlessness and, ultimately, offers clues as to how we might reach out empathetically in a divided world.”

Omar El Akkad is an author and journalist. His debut novel, American War, was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirteen languages. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

I know this isn’t a particularly interesting answer, but I just sat there for a while, in my writing room, alone. I was cognizant that I may never experience a moment like this again in my career, and I wanted to stay in it a while. Then the phone started beeping with all kinds of notifications, and it was back to the real world.

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The Chat with Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton cr. Mark Raynes Roberts 600 dpi

This week, we’re in conversation with author Steven Heighton. His memoir, Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos, (Biblioasis) was a recent finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The 2020 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction jury says:

"We know Steven Heighton as an award-winning poet and novelist. With Reaching Mithymna, he emerges as an indelible nonfiction writer. Combining his poetic sensibilities and storytelling skills with a documentarian’s eye, he has created a wrenching narrative from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015, Heighton travelled to Greece, his mother’s homeland, equipped with a duffel bag, a notebook, and a conscience. Reaching Mithymna is a heart-rending story of humanity and sacrifice by a writer who put his own life on hold in a desperate and often futile attempt to help shipwrecked strangers find a safe and secure future for themselves and their children.”
Steven Heighton’s most recent books are a novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, which has appeared in French and Ukrainian translations and has been optioned for film, and a poetry collection, The Waking Comes Late, which received the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. His …

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The Chat with Djamila Ibrahim



Djamila Ibrahim has put together a moving and timely debut collection fiction called Things Are Good Now, out this month with House of Anansi Press. This week, she’s our guest on The Chat.

The Toronto Star says “Ibrahim writes with intensity and empathy, drawing believably complex characters who are understandably torn between bleak alternatives. Things Are Good Now feels fresh and raw and real.”

Djamila Ibrahim was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and moved to Canada in 1990. Her stories have been shortlisted for the University of Toronto’s Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction and Briarpatch Magazine’s creative writing contest. She was formerly a senior advisor for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. She lives in Toronto.



Trevor Corkum: Things Are Good Now is your first book. Tell us more about its journey to publication.

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Martina Scholtens: Know What You Don't Know

Book Cover Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist

Our editorial theme for January has been about coziness and notions of home, and Martina Scholtens memoir, Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist, provides a unique twist on this idea. Scholtens' book is about her experiences as a doctor in a Vancouver refugee clinic, treating patients who are distinctly not at home, both literally but also in terms of their connections to the culture around them. And in her role as these patients' doctor, Scholtens, too, is often unsettled, navigating gaps in language and culture, her professional knowledge pitted against so much that she doesn't know and can only guess at.

In this excerpt pulled from the first part of the book, Sholtens writes about the importance of knowing what you don't know, and how a bit of humility and curiosity can go a long way in fostering connection. 


As I drove the kids to school on my way to the clinic, winding along Dollarton Highway with the morning sun glinting off Burrard Inlet, my nine-year-old daughter told me about a mathematics contest she had written earlier in the week. 

“I left one question blank,” Saskia began. It was a confession: a perfect score was off the table. She didn’t add up test scores; she worked back from 100. “But I did that because of how the scoring system worked. Y …

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Stepping Stones: A Transnational Literary Journey

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey, by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr, is one of the most remarkable picture books you will ever encounter, not just in the goodness of the book itself, but in the incredible transnational story of its creation. To make the story even more amazing, the author and publisher are donating a portion of the book's revenue to organizations supporting refugee-based causes, which is part of the reason that I went out and ordered three more copies of Stepping Stones as soon as I read it.

It's nice to be reminded that books can change the world. 

In this post, Margriet Ruurs tells the story of how Stepping Stones came to be.


Image from Stepping Stones

As a children’s book writer I am always on the look-out for unusual, attractive art—even though authors usually have nothing to do with the illustrations of their books. But when I spotted an amazing picture on Facebook by an artist from Syria, I knew that I really wanted this art in a book of mine.

The picture I’d spotted showed a mother tenderly holding her baby. Behind her, a father str …

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Paul Yee: Canada's Lacklustre Response to the Chinese Refugee Crisis

Saltwater City

In Talking History, Canada's foremost historians and history experts show that Canada's history is essential to our understanding of our country and the world today. The series is made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Paul Yee was born in Saskatchewan, grew up in Vancouver and moved to Toronto in 1988. He has written about Chinese Canadians, in fiction and non-fiction, for young readers as well as for adults. His first novel for adults, A Superior Man, was recently published by Arsenal Pulp Press.


Real people                

In 1950, my mother fled China to Hong Kong, fearful of the new Communist regime. She was married to an overseas Chinese, so she would have been labelled a landlord and tortured for crimes against the peasantry.

But she didn’t come to Canada as a refugee. In the view of the United Nations, she failed to qualify as a refugee; the UN did not consider her unable or unwilling to return home and receive state protection. Refugees from China, it was argued, also belonged to the Republic of China (Taiwan), so they could go there. But Taiwan, in the throes of post-war re-building, could only offer limited help.

My mother reached Canada only after this country had repealed its law banning Chinese immi …

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