M.G. VASSANJI: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
A prestigious literary member of Indian diaspora and recipient of several literary awards, M.G. Vassanji is Canada's latest literary golden boy. Like many others, he is an Indian expatriate separated from the subcontinent by generations. As a commonwealth literary hero, he must be ranked alongside Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Nigerian legend Chinua Achebe.
M.G. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya on 30th May 1950 to Gulamhussein Vassanji and Daulatkhanu Nanji. His family was a part of community of Indians who had immigrated to Africa. As we know that emigration from India did not cease after the abolition of indenture and other systems of organised export of labour. Emigrations to East African countries namely Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania during the late 19th century present a new pattern: ‘free’ or ‘passage’ emigration. Under this pattern trader, petty contractors, artisans, bankers, clerks and professionals of India immigrated to East African countries. This is the pattern under which Vassanji's ancestors came to Kenya from the Gujarat region in northwestern India.
When Vassanji was five, his father died and his mother ran a clothing store to support her five children. His family moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There were some reasons behind this move. During the colonial era, thousands of British and European settlers had obtained land seized from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe. Determined to get their land back and drive out the foreigners, Kikuyu fighters took to the forests and swore vengeance against all who opposed their Mau-Mau crusade. In the 1950s Kikuyu resentment against the Asians, who dominated trade and the middle levels of colonial service, was on the rise. After independence in 1963 many Asian business were taken over by Africans. Asians were forced to leave Kenya. Vassanji's family thus moved to Dar es Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania.
While attending the University of Nairobi, Vassanji won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study nuclear physics. He went to the United States to join MIT in 1970. In 1978 he earned a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics at the University of Pennsylvania. In the same year he immigrated to Canada to work at the Chalk River nuclear power laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario. In 1980, he moved to Toronto and began writing. He joined the University of Toronto, where he worked as a research associate and lecturer in physics from 1980 and 1989 and published widely.
In 1980s Vassanji began to dedicate himself seriously to a longstanding passion, writing. His path to this profession is a surprising one. After completing his doctorate in nuclear physics, he felt that nothing would make him so happy as writing. He felt that he had too many stories to tell. Thus he abandoned academia to pursue the unpredictable writer's life full time. In an interview with Chelva Kanaganayakam, Vassanji said of his decision to leave the field of physics:
It is the kind of thing you can keep on doing. I had reached a point when I could just churn out things. Unless you are at MIT or Harvard, or a place like that, you are not really at the forefront. Sometimes I miss that life because of the way of the thinking it demands. My writing, however, is much more important. It seems to be the mission in life that I finally achieved.1
This decision coincided with the critical success of his 1989 novel, The Gunny Sack. In the same year he, with his wife Nurjehan Aziz, founded and edited the first issue of the Toronto South Asian Review [TSAR], which became the Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad in 1993. At present he lives in Toronto with his wife, Nurjehan Aziz, and has two children, Anil and Kabir.
M. G. Vassanji has published five novels, The Gunny Sack (1989), No New Land (1991), The Book of Secrets (1994), Amriika (1999) and The In-Between World Of Vikram Lall (2003). His other books include a collection of short stories named Uhuru Street (1992) as well as a collection of essays, A Meeting of Streams: South Asian Canadian Literature (1985).
Vassanji's literary career was launched with the publication of The Gunny Sack, the saga of an Asian African family in East Africa told through the contents of a magic gunnysack. It was his first attempt at fiction. In this novel Vassanji tells the story of four generations of Asians in East Africa. He examines the theme of identity, displacement and race relations. This novel is both the story of one extended family's existence in East Africa and a repository for the collective memory and oral history of many other African Asians. The Gunny Sack received considerable critical acclaim. In 1990 the book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book in African region. In that same year Vassanji was invited to be writer in residence at the University of Iowa.
No New Land is Vassanji's second novel. It is a poignant story of the immigrant experience. It creates a rich portrait of a transplanted community. Vassanji's third novel The Book of Secrets is primarily set in East Africa and deals with the ambiguous situation of South Asians in East Africa. The story of this novel is based on a diary kept by a junior British colonial administrator. Here the novelist focuses on the interaction between the Shamsi (Indian) community and the native Africans, as well as the colonial administration. Even though none of the characters ever returned to India, the country's presence looms throughout the novel. This book was a national best seller and it won the 1994 inaugural Giller Prize, Canada's richest literary award for a work of fiction. In 1994 Vassanji was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters and in that same year was chosen as one of the twelve Canadians on MacLean's Honour Roll.
Vassanji's fourth novel Amriika is a remarkable novel of personal and political awakening that spans three decades and explores the eternal quest for home. It is set in the North America. Vassanji won the Giller Prize for the second time for his fifth novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. This novel tells the story of the in-between life of a man.
Diasporic articulation is evident in the novels of M.G. Vassanji. They are concerned with exile, memory, diasporic consciousness, longing for return, nostalgia, search for identity and sense of belonging. They deal with Indians living in East Africa. Some members of this immigrant community later undergo a second migration to Europe, Canada, or the United States. Vassanji is then concerned with how these migrations affect the lives and identities of his characters, an issue that is personal to him as well:
“[The Indian diaspora] is very important... Once I went to the U.S., suddenly the Indian connection became very important: the sense of origins, trying to understand the roots of India that we had inside us.”2
How much are we defined by where we live? How much do you create it? Vassanji's fiction is full of such questions. The need to find connections and contradiction between address and spirit runs through his work. Vassanji's presentation of the past is never cut and dried. He has attempted to explore his own past. Thus another major concern of Vassanji is “how history affects the present and how personal and public histories can overlap."3 He believes that reclamation of the past is first serious act of writing.
Vassanji's unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant classical style, his narrative reach, and his characters trying to reconcile different worlds within. For Vassanji, who has experienced displacement from more than one continent, nation is an abstract thing. It is the sense of community and people that survives.
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01. Chelva Kanaganayakam, “‘Broadening the Substrata’: An Interview with M. G. Vassanji”, World Literature Written in English 31. 2 (1991), p. 34.
02. Ibid., p. 21.
03. Amin Malak, “Ambivalent Affiliations and the Post- Colonial Condition: The Fiction of M. G. Vassanji”, World Literature Today 67. 2. (spring 1993), p. 279.
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