M.G. Vassanji: Interview

by Clarence Reynolds

It comes as no surprise that when M.G. Vassanji’s book  won a regional Commonwealth Writer’s Prize the honor was an auspicious beginning for the first-time novelist.

In 1994, his novel The Book of Secrets received the inaugural Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s prestigious literary award, and further solidified Vassanji as an important literary voice. He has since written seven novels, two short–story collections, a travel memoir about India, and a biography of famed Canadian writer and journalist Mordecai Richler. He also served as editor of The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad, a literary magazine he cofounded in 1981.

At the heart of many of Vassanji’s enthralling and complex works is his examination of racial relations and class distinctions; his stories deal with the lives of East African Indians, like himself (he considers himself, noted on his website, as African Asian Canadian). The tales are often centered on immigrants who may have questions about their own background, and he stated that his own displacement and movements give him the ability to empathize with other people who may be or have been in similar situations.  “The exploration of cultures allows me to explore the personalities and differences based on history and family background,” he added.

Being awarded the first Giller Prize was indeed another sign of good literary fortune for Vassanji, as he went on to receive the esteemed prize again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. The award-winning The Gunny Sack was first published by the African Writers Series, whose first series editor was the late Chinua Achebe. His other awards include the Governor General’s Literary Award; the Harbourfront Festival Prize; and the Bressani Literary Prize. About The Assassin’s Song, he said, “The novel is in a sense about the burden of tradition.” Published in 2007, the book was short-listed for India’s Crossword Book Award.

With a head of wavy, grey hair and a well-trimmed goatee and mustache, Vassanji has a distinguished appearance, and the welcoming smile is representative of his affable character. At a recent reading and conversation at The Center for Fiction, in New York, for his latest book, The Magic of Saida, he greeted the audience in the intimate atmosphere with gentle enthusiasm. Before the program, we began a brief conversation about his newest work and his career; we followed up with an email exchange.

Clarence V. Reynolds: Congratulations on The Magic of Saida. This is a beautiful story with several themes, and one that stands out is that it is a love story, of various kinds. There is the love between a young boy and a young girl; the love between a mother and her son; the bond between two brothers; and the love of poetry. How would you describe the story?
M. G. Vassanji: I would describe it as a love story that in its development and description tells other stories. It is set in Kilwa, the ancient town on the east coast of Africa, which is associated historically with slavery, international (Indian Ocean) trade, and twentieth-century colonialism, as well as Swahili culture and poetry.  This history is manifest in various forms in the lives of the people. The story of Kilwa is therefore also the story of the two childhood sweethearts in the book. Thus, the boy Kamal is mesmerized by the history narrated by the old poet of the town.

Reynolds: You were born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, and now you live in Toronto. Can you recall early literary influences, and did you have any favorite authors or books when you were growing up?
Vassanji: What I read earlier were children’s books from England and later thrillers and potboilers from England and America. I read, listened to on BBC, and was told stories from Charles Dickens. Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales. Our own Indian religious tradition gave us lots of oral poetry, heard everyday and religious stories. I recall staring at volumes of Dostoevsky in the city library shelves and wondering if I should dare pick them up. Later in life, I read almost all of them. In high school, almost arbitrarily, I picked up James Baldwin’s Another Country, and I was balled over. I wrote a composition on it for my English class.

Reynolds: Kamal Punja, the main character in The Magic of Saida, is a physician who leaves his successful career in Canada and returns to his homeland in East Africa in search of childhood love after living abroad for thirty-five years. As his journey unfolds, he seems to ask himself, what is it [life] all about? Is this a question you used as a guide in creating and writing this story?
Vassanji: I didn’t use it as a guide, but it’s a question that was essential to my religious upbringing (I am no longer religious in the conventional sense) and later it occurred in a new form in my readings in existentialism. I’ve been rereading Tolstoy and I’ve been moved to see how he explores this question in some of his stories and novels. It’s not a fashionable subject now.

Reynolds: In The Magic of Saida, as with several of your earlier works, the main characters come from very different ethnic backgrounds and develop strong relationships. Can you share your thoughts about exploring the various cultures such as African, Arab, and Indian in your storytelling?
Vassanji: When I think of my upbringing in coastal East Africa—Dar es Salaam—I am quite amazed to realize how much tolerance there was of differences, and at the same time how much ignorance and discrimination there was among the races and communities. It’s often said that Asians would not marry Africans; actually they did and they didn’t. In the early twentieth century, Indian railway workers married Nandi and Masai women. Asians had taboos against Africans and against each other; the Africans had their own taboos. Often these taboos had to do with religious faith. When one of my cousins wanted to marry a man from another Asian community, the couple had to flee to England, and this was my widowed aunt’s great shame and tragedy. But as a new generation came, changes began to happen. It’s these relationships that I have explored.

Reynolds: And consider Kamal’s ethnic and racial identity, his father was Indian and his mother African. He has hard time figuring out just where he belongs.
Vassanji: We had a number of people called chotara, who were half-African and half-Indian. They tended to be poor, though in some cases they simply were adopted by some relation or family friend and grew up like anybody else. In my Indian community, the fundamental differentiating factor was religious faith.  Last year, when I visited Dar es Salaam, I was asked to see some early education kids, and when I stood in front of them I was amazed to see Asians (Indians), half-Asians, and total Africans (using these descriptions to describe their features).  All this is not to say there are never any problems. There are always problems when races mix, and poverty is around. Race is an easy fault line, and life for most people is hard.

Reynolds: How important is language in your stories? For example, how did incorporating Swahili in The Magic of Saida come about? Was it a natural part of the storytelling?
Vassanji: For me it is natural and easy. I use Swahili-like inflexions for Swahili dialogue; sometimes I insert something completely in Swahili; the meaning is evident in the context or is suggested by the rest of the text without being intrusive. The same thing when I insert a dialogue or speech in an Indian language. These techniques have been used by Jewish writers.

Reynolds: As with any story that engages the reader, your latest book is a multilayered tale with several themes and plot lines. There are also several conflicts that take place. And one that occurs in the story is the conflict of whether a person has to become a collaborator in order to survive or is it best to remain an idealist and face struggles. This is such a realistic truth. Can you comment about this kind of conflict in life and in your book?
Vassanji: In day-to-day life, for example, one may believe in greater equality among people, yet to survive we still put money in banks and investment accounts. Or we do not say exactly what we think all the time for fear of reprisals. I think [Noam] Chomsky mentions something similar in a recent interview. In the colonial situation, the colonists always depended on a local cadre of policemen and soldiers to impose their rule—in India, South Africa, German East Africa, Kenya. But what about a poet? In my book, the choice faced is to collaborate but then be able to write and thus bear witness; or to be idealistic and perish.

Reynolds: From your first book, The Book of Secrets, to your latest, you present illuminating historical details. What was the research like for this book in which you create an insurrection and resistance against a European power in East Africa in the early twentieth century?
Vassanji: I had to research details of the resistances to German colonialism in Tanganyika; Islam in the country, including the populist version known as Sufism or tarika; the Swahili poetry tradition, and how the utenzi long form was used to write history; and I had to research the practice of magic. I also consulted the newspaper archives in the library at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and I visited Kilwa in Tanzania (where I saw some old graves and met a medicine man). I ordered quite a number of books over the Internet.

Reynolds: Can you share a little about the process in which you approach a literary project, what comes first: the story or a particular character you want to convey a message through? Are the intriguing subplots there at the beginning and how much of a challenge is it to find a way to bring them all together?
Vassanji: Sometimes, it’s hard to remember. I think I had the town of Kilwa in mind, having read about it. It has a certain romance to it, being ancient. It’s one of the oldest urban settlements in sub-Saharan Africa. The Arab traveler Ibn Batuta mentions it in the fourteenth century; the English poet John Milton mentions it. It’s older than Delhi. Its descriptions in old Portuguese texts are fantastic. Then there was the mystique of magic—which is very strong in Tanzania. I got fascinated by Swahili culture, and the people we used to call half-caste or chotara. And I needed someone to return to his hometown and examine what happens to him. There are many wealthy doctors in Canada, I sent one of them back.

Reynolds: How important of a role can contemporary literature play as a vehicle for exploring the history of people of mixed racial identity and ethnic culture that were—and still may be—prominent in Africa and the Caribbean, as opposed to that history being chronicled in nonfiction text?
Vassanji: Nonfiction can give us important data and firsthand descriptions (which need not always be accurate!). Fiction has its own logic, I believe, and I believe can get to a deeper truth about people, revealing inner lives, ambiguities, the conflicts, the grey areas. In this book, Kamal’s Indian uncle is a racist in statements; yet he takes pride in his ancestor having fought alongside Africans in their resistance to colonialism and having been hanged for it; and he gets the best tutor for Kamal, who goes on to become a doctor. How would a social scientist’s clean categories handle him?

Reynolds: Before you became an acclaimed novelist, you were a nuclear physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Talk about shifting gears. How long were you a scientist and did you always have the desire to become a writer?
Vassanji: I did my bachelor’s at MIT and my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. I worked as a physicist for ten years in Canada. During that time, I began to write short stories and my first novel. I always read a lot, and I enjoyed writing. The actual decision was to begin to write seriously—to finish something, and start something new. I gave myself that purpose.

Reynolds: You mentioned that one of the things you learned as a scientist that carried over to your being a writer was the sense of discipline. Can you further explain?
Vassanji: Scientists work hard and don’t give up once the pursuit for something starts. I also don’t give up. I give myself a purpose, and however long the writing takes, and however many twists and turns it takes, I finish it.

Clarence V. Reynolds, an independent journalist, is the assistant director at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and a contributing writer for The Network Journal.

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