The idea I am putting forward is that new Canadians bring their storiesM.G. Vassanji, Am I a Canadian writer? in Canadian Literature. Number 190, Fall 2006, South Asian Diaspora.
with them, and these stories then become Canadian stories. Canada’s past
lies not only in the native stories of the land itself, but also in Europe, and
now in Africa and Asia; Canadians have fought not only in the World Wars,
but also in the wars of liberation of Africa, Asia, and South America. We
have veterans and heroes not only of those European wars, but also of wars
elsewhere. Our children, however much they sometimes pretend that our
past does not matter to them, also demand that. The stories of the Jewish
Holocaust, the holocausts in Rwanda, the Partition of India, and the massacres of Cambodia are also Canadian stories.
I first read a book from M.G. Vassanji in 2017 prior to my initial visit to Tanzania which included a stop in Uganda. Mary Fisher, a colleague at Seneca College and fellow Canadian literature enthusiast, directed me to his 2012 novel, The Magic of Saida. The story takes place in the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda so I was able to connect some of the content to my travels. I had been purchasing faithfully every book he has published since the mid 1990’s but had yet to read any of them. Vassanji’s last novel, A Delhi Obsession, was released in Fall 2019 immediately before our trip to India. I read it during that time and better understood the story because of a visit to Amritsar and the Partition Museum. ( https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/137 )
M.G. Vassanji is an accomplished and decorated author, winner of two Giller prizes for fiction and the Governor General’s award for non-fiction along with numerous others; yet, his name draws blanks to the large majority of people when they inquire as to my recent reading material. My sudden interest stems from the locations as they coincide with recent travel destinations and with my continuing exploration into to the life of my Uncle Kees in Uganda ( https://henrydecock.org/category/dikoko/ ). The work of M.G. Vassanji, therefore, became the source of my reading for the month of July.
I began with his fourth book and third novel, The Book of Secrets published in 1994, honoured with the distinction of being the inaugural winner of the prestigious Giller Prize. The new award was valued at $25,000, the highest in Canada, and has become the most recognized prize in the country, raising the profile and book sales of winners and nominees alike. I had only just begun collecting Canadian literature and purchased a post-prize 3rd printing version of the book complete with a sticker announcing the award on the cover. (All my subsequent books are first printing, although I have yet to acquire one with his signature.)
The story transports the reader to a fictional town in Kenya, bordering German East Africa, present day Tanzania, in 1910. The book chronicles the story and discovery of a lost diary from the British Assistant Director which purportedly documents Alfred Corbin’s scandalous liaison with a beautiful, local girl, Mariamu, who is betrothed to marry Pipa, an aspiring entrepreneur. We follow the lives of the families and delve into the mind of the historian Pius Fernandez through World War I and into the 1980’s as the secrets are slowly revealed.
The books of M.G. Vassanji always include a lesson in history and an understanding of the times. The account of the fighting in East Africa during the first World War certainly helped me to understand the change of colonial powers as a result, filling in gaps of my knowledge about the African country. The perspective is always from that of the Asians, how they settled and lived in East Africa, their relationship to the indigenous population and with the Europeans. The story itself is compelling, slowly revealing itself in chapters looking backward in the pursuit of the owner and content of this so-called book of secrets.
The reader is totally immersed into the place and time with a litany of names and locations in the language of the protagonists, both Indian and African. At times the information is overwhelming and I found myself constantly referring to the four page Glossary in the back and to the map at the front. Each enabled me to situate the story and capture more deeply the meaning behind the words. After the first hundred pages, I became accustomed and simply intuited the meaning from the context, allowing the characters and situations to inform my understanding.
The Book of Secrets also struck a chord for me as an amateur historian attempting to uncover the world of a missionary Uncle in an unknown part of the globe. How do you write about a time or a person or a place about which the knowledge is limited or incomplete, “as incomplete as any book must be. A book of half lives, partial truths, conjecture, interpretation, and perhaps even mistakes. What better homage to the past than to acknowledge it thus, rescue it and recreate it, without presumption of judgement, and as honestly as we know ourselves, as part of the life of which we all are a part?”
The story, the insight and the writing made for a pleasurable read.
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is M. G. Vassanji’s sixth book and the eventual winner of the 2003 Giller Prize. Vassanji thereby became the very first writer to win the coveted prize twice, an accomplishment not attained by the likes of Michael Ondaatje or Margaret Atwood or Lawrence Hill or Miriam Toews. Subsequent two time winners would be Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro and most recently, the internationally renowned, Esi Edugyan.
The story begins with the protagonist introducing himself and stating, “I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame.” Vikram Lall proceeds to detail his life growing up in an Asian family in Kenya beginning in 1952, through the country’s underground insurgency fighting for eventual independence in 1963 and into the increasingly corrupt government which collapsed following the death of its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The politics are infused with the personal as the reader witnesses the impossibility of inter-racial love and the realities of growing up Asian in East Africa. “Here I was, a young Asian graduate in an African country with neither the prestige of whiteness or Europeanness behind me nor the influence and numbers of a local tribe to back me, but carrying instead the stigma from generalized recent memory of an exclusive race of brown ‘Shylocks’ who had collaborated with the colonizers… Black chauvinism and reverse racism were the order of the day against Asians.” The book helped inform me about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda during the regime of Ida Amin and the reaction of my uncle to these actions. For all readers, the novel provides a fictional account of an historic period in the birth and development of fledgling African states.
Once again the reader is immersed in the country and the languages, this time without a glossary or a map, because as Vassanji writes in the end notes, “My usages of Kiswahili (or Swahili), Kikuyu, Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati should be self-explanatory in their contexts.” When in doubt I popped a word into Google or consulted it for the geographic location of places. I could relate more easily to the time period and the unravelling of the story to explain the opening quote made for a compelling, highly satisfactory read.
M.G. Vassanji’s 2007 follow-up novel, The Assassin’s Song, was nominated for the trifecta of Canadian awards; the newly named Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Literature and the previously titled Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize. This story takes place in western India, told in the aftermath of 2002 religious violence in Gujarat, by Karsan Dargawalla, anointed spiritual heir to become the next sufi of the Shrine of the Wanderer. Karsan, however, desperately wants to be ordinary with dreams of being a cricket star, an aspiration resolutely quashed by his father, the reigning leader, who succeeded his own father’s role. Neither Hindu nor Muslim, the followers of Pirbaag were caught in between the growing tension between the two religions: “Why do Hindus and Muslims hate each other?” He became quiet, looked away, and for a moment I thought he was going to say, I don’t know. Instead, he said, “They don’t hate each other. They’re only sometimes afraid of each other . . . and there are those among them who exploit that fear.”
Karsan learns of the world beyond his village through the newspapers provided by his truck driving friend, and with clandestine visits to the nearby city where he applied for university in the United States aided by the recommendation of a favoured book dealer. With a full scholarship, Karsan moves to Cambridge, gaining knowledge beyond the classroom, building a career and a life, returning thirty years later amidst political and personal tragedy.
Understanding the terminology of religious sects and spiritual followings was more of a challenge for me, especially given the author’s style of complete immersion into the world of the story. Vassanji does provide a glossary this time, explaining the evolution of literary proprieties of fiction in English reflecting the diversity of a growing body of writers: “There used to be a time when non-English terms appearing in fiction were necessarily italicized to denote their foreignness, or adorned with super-script to provide their meanings. Happily this is not the case any more, for the meaning of a term should be apparent in a novel of story wherever it occurs. However, to shun a glossary or even a hint of a meaning merely on principle risks becoming another orthodoxy, a posture which I would like to avoid.” There are moments of simplicity in the writing, applicable across languages, which evoke the raw emotion of the moment: “We had a life together, we had love and friendship and a child, we had some great times; but now there is nothing but pain and I have gone away. Hug and kiss understood. We did love each other, with our own brand of passion. We laughed. But that last long cry killed us.”
The attraction of the story was less about the clash of spirituality with the material, contemporary world and more with story of families, their bonds and influences, the lifelong impact of parents as exhibited by the propensity for children to follow subconsciously their parents in actions or ideas. This message will resonate more with those who reflect honestly on themselves and that of the lives of their children.
M.G. Vassanji is the author, as well, of three pieces of non-fiction, of which his travelogue A Place Within: Rediscovering India won the 2009 Governor General’s prize. I chose to read the 2014 And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa in hopes of gaining insight to support my other writing project. The Preface, however, quoted here in part, provides the most compelling reason for the curious. “From abroad, I often see Africa perceived merely as a place of war, disease, and hunger, a sick entity deserving pity and sustenance and all help possible. … Over the years I have often revisited East Africa, where I was born and raised, as were my parents and one grandfather. From the inside, the place is actually very different, and the world looking out also seems very different. … Every place is a universe in itself; I saw a diversity in a varied and teeming country. There was life, there were people. There was the geography. ” The words captured my very brief experience and I wanted to read how Vassanji would write this memoir, a genre about which I would like to learn more.
I have managed only to get halfway through the 370 pages at the time of this writing. The book is a combination of history lessons and personal reflection. The history is both about “discovering” the eastern side of the continent as well as the establishment of the Asian community in Africa. Vassanji utilizes numerous historic documentation, although, frustratingly, the quotes are not cited and all reference material is found in the back of the book organized only by chapter, somewhat inconsistently.
The best writing occurs when he reflects on his personal responses to the scenes of old stomping grounds or historic outposts of the Asian community: “As I stand here in the noisy clamorous heat and dust taking photos, I think I could fill all the apartment around this crossroads with people and stories. No amount of photography could replace the memories of a life lived, of lives observed and known, of lives elaborated in the mind and on the page.” ; and when Vassanji discusses the writing of history, who writes, and for whom: “We can hardly blame the others for celebrating their own heroes, writing their own stories; the question is, why did ‘we’ not produce our own stories?” I will finish the book and hope the balance of writing leans more towards the personal.
M.G. Vassanji is among the best Canadian writers, recognized with awards for both his fiction and non-fiction, here and internationally. And yet, he remains somewhat unknown. Vassanji’s African birth, Indian heritage and personal experiences form the basis and location of his work and always includes some connection to Canada. I would certainly recommend the books I have completed and hope you will agree. More information about M.G. Vassanji can be found below, reproduced from his website.
Until next month, happy reading.
From the website: M G Vassanji is the author of nine novels, two collections of short stories, a travel memoir about India, a memoir of East Africa, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. He is twice winner of the Giller Prize (1994, 2003) for best work of fiction in Canada; the Governor General’s Prize (2009) for best work of nonfiction; the Harbourfront Festival Prize; the Commonwealth First Book Prize (Africa, 1990); and the Bressani Prize.The Assassin’s Song was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Prize, the Writers Trust Award, and India’s Crossword Prize. His work has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Swahili. Vassanji has given lectures worldwide and written many essays, including introductions to the works of Robertson Davies, Anita Desai, and Mordecai Richler, and the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. In June 2015, MG Vassanji was awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts. (Photo: Mark Reynolds)
M G Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He received a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, before going to live in Canada. He is a member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto, and visits East Africa and India often.