by Ray Deonandan
August 3, 2002
This article originally appeared in India Currents Magazine, in March of 1995, under the title, “Canada’s Literary Golden Boy.” The author retains all rights.
“I grew up in a world in which hard work was rewarded, but gave rise to a sense of elitism,” says Dr. Moyez Vassanji. “If you worked hard, you became successful and were respected. But everyone else was looked down upon.”
Dr. Vassanji speaks of his native Tanzania almost listfully, his subcutaneous passion for the place no doubt drained somewhat from many interviews and from having poured much of his cultural zeal into his novels. The country of his youth had passed into a phase of socialism after the “hard- working” days of which he spoke, causing him to declare in his award-winning novel, The Book Of Secrets: “mediocrity was the new world order.”
Far from mediocre, Vassanji is Canada’s latest literary golden boy. His path to this profession is a surprising one for, after the years in “hard working” Tanzania, he immigrated to North America and completed a doctorate in nuclear physics. Then came the discovery that nothing made him so happy as writing, so he abandoned academia to pursue the unpredictable writer’s life full-time.
This decision coincided with the critical success of his 1990 novel, The Gunny Sack.
“I liked academia, I was good at it,” he tells me. “But I felt that I had too many stories to tell.” He reminds me of other Canadian literary greats: Neil Bisoondath and Booker Prize-winner Michael Ondaatje. Like them, he is an Indian ex-patriate separated from the subcontinent by generations.
“We come from a dense social background,” Vassanji says of the Third World ex-pat experience. “As youths we are surrounded by people: large families, small communities. There are so many characters we observe that we can’t fit them in our heads, so they overflow into stories.”
But what stories! Vassanji’s images are rich and colourful, his characters tangible and unforgettable. As a Commonwealth literary hero, he must be ranked alongside Rushdie, Vikram Seth and the Nigerian legend Chinua Achebe. “I tell stories about marginalized people. All writers do, whether the people in question be a family of Jews in New York or a farming community in Saskatchewan.”
And who are his marginalized people? “My experiences are in East Africa,” he says. “Every writer identifies with a certain experience; it’s a very private experience, but becomes universal when compared with other experiences. The writers who reach a mass market, like Norman Mailer, have simply learned the right lingo [with which to communicate their marginalization].”
One of the most memorable characters in The Book Of Secrets is a fellow who is tormented by the participants of either side of a war. He is forced into a winless situation that he could not have avoided. “When you’re a small person,” Vassanji explains, “you must always choose sides. When you’re a small country, you’re forced to choose sides, too.” He makes reference to the Nehru/Nasser flirtation with non-alignment in the 1960s.
His thoughts are often grounded in such historical context, as are his novels. When researching The Book Of Secrets, he discovered how poorly the British had treated his grandparents and the other Indians of East Africa. “But Indians are fence-sitters,” he declares without judgement. “From this imperialist history, we’ve become the middle-men everywhere we go. Sometimes this is a reason for scorn, but provides a good vantage for observation.”
The Book Of Secrets, like an earlier short story collection titled Uhuru Street, is a grand tale of a community’s evolution. This perhaps is the singular strength of Dr. Vassanji’s approach: the recognition of the engaging potential of a population over that of individuals. He resists this common criticism. “Individuals are always placed within groups,” he insists. “My stories are about individual characters, but they must be seen in the context of their community.”
Even if that community is scattered across the globe? His novel makes frequent reference to the world’s separated pockets of Indian culture –New York, East Africa, Toronto and Dubai. The theme of displacement is pervasive. “It’s not a conscious thing,” he insists. “People who have never crossed the ocean are freaks to me, [even though they are probably in the minority].
“I’ve had people who’ve moved from Nova Scotia to Toronto tell me that they can appreciate my stories because it speaks to them of their experience. And again it’s one of marginalization.”
Moyez Vassanji’s next project is an exploration of the ordeals of (mostly Indian) East African immigrants to North America. Until its publication, he can rest comfortably on the laurels of praise and admiration rendered him by a very grateful world audience.