M(oyez) G Vassanji Biography
Nationality: Canadian (originally Kenyan, emigrated to United State, 1970; emigrated to Canada, 1978). Born: Nairobi, Kenya, 1950. Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B.S. 1974; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D. 1978. Family: Married Nurjehan Aziz; one child. Career: Affiliated with Atomic Energy of Canada at Chalk River power station, 1978-80; research associate and lecturer in physics, 1980-89. Since 1989 full-time writer. Agent: Peter Livingston Associates, Inc., 89 Collier St., Toronto, Ontario M4W 1M2, Canada.
The Gunny Sack. Oxford, Heinemann International, 1989.
No New Land. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1991.
The Book of Secrets. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1994; NewYork, Picador, 1996.
Amriika. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1999.
Uhuru Street. Heinemann International, 1991.
A Meeting of Streams: South Asian Canadian Literature. Toronto, TSAR, 1985.
Editor, The Journey Prize Anthology: Short Fiction from the Best of Canada's New Writers. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1995.
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As a storyteller, M.G. Vassanji is fascinated with the often elliptical forms that stories can take and with the vestiges of experience (tangible and otherwise) that connect individuals and communities to them. And, as is often the case, it is this willingness to explore continually the boundaries of form that is at once the principal strength and weakness of his fiction.
Illustrative of this tension is The Gunny Sack, an episodic generational novel set, like all the strongest of Vassanji's writing, in and against the multicultural panorama of East Africa. Engaging a structure that reflects the randomness of reaching into a bag of treasures, he organizes this narrative around the artifacts that the book's narrator, Salim, recovers from an almost mythical repository passed to him by a great-aunt. Forever being ordered and reordered by the holder of the bag, each wisp of memory elicits any number of stories about one extended family's arrival and existence in this story-rich country. Considered individually, these episodes take many shapes—fables of community, lyrical remembrances of family, and recollections of political events. Considered cumulatively, they intermingle, though not always smoothly, to form a lush polyphony, an exploration of place and character that avoids flat archetypes and the subsumption of individual voices in any grand pattern of history or myth. Indeed, at times the genealogical details that accumulate with each subsequent episode threaten to become frustratingly labyrinthine.
This occasional awkwardness dissipates when Vassanji shifts form for his only short fiction collection, Uhuru Street, the sixteen linked stories that share a number of characters and episodes with The Gunny Sack. More traditional in style than his longer fiction, these are economical, but nonetheless vivid, evocations of the anxious movement of East Africa from the final days of colonial rule to the harsh realities of newfound independence. In the strongest inclusions, "All Worlds Are Possible Now," in which a man endeavors to reclaim a sense of place and self during a trip "home," and the bittersweet remembrances of "The London-returned," Vassanji's control of the story format creates a novelistic collection that moves almost seamlessly across the frontiers of geography and history to speak of stories at once individual and collective, singular and diverse.
Moving from the fluidity of The Gunny Sack and the interdependence that characterizes linked stories, Vassanji finds the form for The Book of Secrets, his most accomplished work of fiction, in a more fixed trace of the past: the 1913 diary of a colonial administrator, Corbin, that is discovered hidden in a shopkeeper's backroom in modern Dares Salaam. Lent to Pius Fernandes, a retired teacher whose own notebook entries also become part of the novel, the diary becomes the centerpiece in a quest to (re)construct the enigmatic family history believed to be concealed in its pages. Although the dual presence of diary and notebook suggests a certain precision to the notation and relationship of the times, places, and events that shape this story, Vassanji reveals both to be versions of the titular book of secrets, necessarily incomplete records of experiences that have no witnesses and of questions that remain unanswered—and perhaps unanswerable. Who exactly is the beautiful Shamsi woman, Mariamu, whom Corbin rescues from a potentially fatal exorcism? And what exactly is the nature of their intensely intimate relationship? Is it passion that inspires her to steal the Englishman's personal journal or something darker? Indeed, such questions accumulate with dazzling frequency.
An intriguing palimpsest of vernacular, historical, and cultural discourses, The Book of Secrets also foregrounds the themes and ideas that recur throughout Vassanji's fiction: notions of history and memory; inquiries into how much one can (and dare) know about the past; ideas of home and community as they extend across time and space; and the insidious legacies of colonialism, war, race prejudice, and religious intolerance. And though these books suggest that a relatively harmonious coexistence of peoples and cultures is at least possible, and at best vital, in the modern world, the potential for conflict is omnipresent. Institutional hypocrisy and racism, family feuds, petty jealousies, and sexual exploitation are never far from the surface of Vassanji's narratives. At times, this undercurrent of discord erupts in viciousness, notably in the violence of the Kurtz-like Maynard (The Book of Secrets), in the frequent convergence of commerce and sexual exploitation ("For a Shilling"), and in the racially motivated murder that symbolizes the changing times in "What Good Times We Had." Indeed, it is the image that ends this story, a tableau of death in which the brutalized victim hangs by her feet from a tree branch, that resonates in a number of subsequent stories in the Uhuru cycle. In The Book of Secrets and in stories like "The Beggar" and "Alzira," though, the immediate threat of confrontation is replaced or diffused by sudden and unexpected acts of kindness, allowing questions of dignity, humanity, and love to be invoked as optimistic counterpoints to the darker shadows that ripple through the lives of his characters and the stories they tell.
A writer whose most evocative works are distinguished by luxurious subtleties and a lightness of touch, Vassanji does allow his narratives to slide, on occasion, toward a heavy-handed characterization and somewhat stilted dialogue. Too often in his more traditionally structured novels—No New Land and the ambitious Amriika—Vassanji sacrifices explorations of nuanced character and story in favor of examining what might be best described as the anthropological or sociological tensions confronting immigrants drawn to the uneasy promise of a future in North America. Tracing the struggles of an idealistic young African who leaves home in 1968 to attend an American college, Amriika, for example, engages the backdrop of three tumultuous decades in American history, a period of anti-war protests, radicalized politics, sexual openness, and spiritual quests. The rich potentialities of setting are unable to sustain a story burdened, in this case, by a narrator whose presence remains nebulous and whose life journeys never lead to the kind of profound introspection that lift the stories of Fernandes, Salim, and others off the page.
Drawing often, as he does, on the specificities of East Africa has led to obvious comparisons with such novelists as Abdulrazak Gurnah, and in a less localized sense, with fellow Canadians Rohinton Mistry and Michael Ondaatje. Although such comparisons do tend to oversimplify the works of each writer, they also point to the fact that Vassanji has established himself as a writer whose novels continue to expand our understanding of stories, of the powers (and dangers) of borders, and of the common threads that connect readers and writers regardless of where they were born or where they reside.
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