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Vassanji, M.G. 1950- (Moyez G. Vassanji)

Vassanji, M.G. 1950- (Moyez G. Vassanji)

PERSONAL:

Born May 30, 1950, in Nairobi, Kenya; immigrated to United States, 1970; immigrated to Canada, 1978; son of Gulamhussein Vassanji and Daulatkhanu Nanji; married Nurjehan Aziz (a laboratory researcher), July 14, 1979; children: Anil. Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B.S., 1974; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D., 1978.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent—Westwood Creative Artists Ltd., 94 Harbord St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 1G6, Canada.

CAREER:

Affiliated with Atomic Energy of Canada at Chalk River power station, 1978-80; University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, research associate and lecturer in physics, 1980-89; full-time writer, 1989—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book in the African region, Book Trust (England), 1990, for The Gunny Sack; Giller Prize, 1994, for The Book of Secrets, and 2003, for The In-between World of Vikram Lall; Bressani Literary Prize; Harbourfront Festival Prize; made a Member of the Order of Canada, 2005.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

The Gunny Sack, Heinemann International (London, England), 1989, Doubleday Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005.

No New Land, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1991.

The Book of Secrets, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, Picador (New York, NY), 1996.

Amriika, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.

The In-between World of Vikram Lall, Doubleday Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

The Assassin's Song, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

SHORT STORIES

Uhuru Street, Heinemann International (London, England), 1991, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.

Elvis, Raja, Penguin (New York, NY), 2005.

When She Was Queen, Doubleday Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005.

OTHER

(Editor) A Meeting of Streams: South Asian Canadian Literature (essays), TSAR Publications (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985.

(Editor) Kwai-yun Li, The Palm Leaf Fan & Other Stories, TSAR Publications (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2006.

Founder and editor of Toronto South Asian Review (renamed Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad), 1980—. Work represented in anthologies, including Journey Prize Anthology, McClelland & Stewart, 1989. Contributor to periodicals, including Canadian Literature and New Internationalist.

SIDELIGHTS:

M.G. Vassanji is the author of several acclaimed works of fiction, including The Book of Secrets and The In-between World of Vikram Lall, both of which garnered Canada's prestigious Giller Prize. Raised in Kenya and Tanzania, Vassanji came to America in 1970 without any intention of ultimately writing for a living. After eight years of higher education en route to becoming a physicist, he moved to Canada. His literary interests were fueled by studies of Sanskrit that he began in 1977. Eventually, Vassanji channeled his efforts toward writing fiction. His works included characters who, like the author, are of South Asian ancestry and have come to North America after living through periods of political instability in East Africa. Vassanji's first novel, The Gunny Sack, took eight years to complete and was published in 1989.

In The Gunny Sack Vassanji's narrator receives a bag filled with mementos from his great-aunt. These objects prompt a series of stories that encompass four generations of his family and speak of his ancestors' journey from India to Africa and finally to Canada. In surveying the contents of the sack, the protagonist discovers that his Islamic great-grandfather married twice, once to a fellow Muslim and then later to his black great-grandmother. He follows the course of his family's life in East Africa from a time when the territory was under European rule to the period when it was shifting from colonial to independent status. The novel also focuses on the narrator's own background at a school that teaches its students to behave as English gentlemen and in a black military in which he serves as an Asian-blooded minority. In World Literature Today Uma Parameswaran praised The Gunny Sack as "one of the best novels to appear on the contemporary Canadian literary scene."

Vassanji again explores the subject of South Asian migration from Africa to Canada in his second novel, No New Land. Its protagonist, Nurdin Lalani, is compelled, by revolution, to move his family from East Africa to Don Mills, a part of metropolitan Toronto, Ontario. In Canada, the Lalanis live in a deteriorating apartment building with fellow East-African Asians. Throughout the story Vassanji shows how adjusting to the new environment proves difficult for the community. They are regularly discriminated against by native-born Canadians and swarmed by secular temptations. Nurdin, in particular, must support his family with a succession of low-paying jobs and later ponders having an affair with a childhood acquaintance whom he accidentally meets again in Canada. His attempt to adjust to life in North America is further exacerbated when a woman erroneously accuses him of rape. According to Victor Dwyer of Maclean's, Vassanji tells the Lalanis' story "with forceful eloquence." Books in Canada reviewer Janice Kulyk Keefer further praised the work, saying that "at its best, No New Land … redefines and extends our sense of the possibilities … of Canadian writing."

Vassanji next completed The Book of Secrets, "at once a story of the British Empire in Africa and a very postmodern meditation on the allures and pitfalls of narrative," observed a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. The novel concerns the diary of Alfred Corbin, an English colonial administrator stationed in British East Africa in 1913. Some seventy years later, the diary comes into the possession of Pius Fernandes, an Indian-born retired schoolteacher who decides to unlock its mysteries and, in doing so, discovers an unlikely link from Corbin's life to his own. In the words of Podium critic Ray Deonandan, The Book of Secrets "is an encompassing tale that meanders through lives, but makes its way back to the centre thread like improvisational jazz, as soothing and emotion-provoking. Beyond the obligatory travails of forbidden love and a dabbling in magic realism are explored truths of life, its organic qualities and tones—no implausible characters or dismissively unlikely events." Writing in Booklist, Thomas Gaughan described the novel as a "knowing meditation on storytelling, the condition of exile, and what can't be fully known."

The In-between World of Vikram Lall examines the turbulent history of postcolonial Africa through the eyes of its narrator, a Kenyan-born Indian who now lives in exile in Canada. Opening in 1953, the work focuses on the complex relationship between Vikram, his sister, Deepa, and their African friend, Njoroge. The trio's idyllic childhood is shattered when their English neighbors are slaughtered by Mau Mau rebels, who seek independence from British rule. Later, after moving to Nairobi, Vikram serves as a middleman in the new Kenyan government headed by Jomo Kenyatta, a Mau Mau sympathizer, while Njoroge, who is courting Deepa, becomes involved with the political opposition. According to Peter Gordon, writing in the Asian Review of Books, The In-between World of Vikram Lall "has something for just about everyone: a sweeping multi-generational saga of the birth of a nation, a Romeo-and-Juliet love story between an Indian girl and an African boy, political commentary, the degradation of idealism and hope to corruption and hypocrisy." A contributor in African Business also praised the novel, calling it "a profound and careful examination of one man's search for his place in the world; it also takes up themes that have run through Vassanji's work, such as the nature of community in a volatile society, the relations between colony and colonizer, and the inescapable presence of the past."

A number of reviewers also complimented the tone of the author's narrative. The In-between World of VikramLall "is a good example of how the post-colonial novel should be written, dispassionately, avoiding the easy pitfalls of nostalgia and essentialism," Helon Habila stated in the Guardian. Craig Taylor, writing in Quill & Quire, similarly noted: "The prose of Vassanji's fifth novel tumbles out so easily it looks effortless. It's the style of no style; instead of pyrotechnics and cheap suspense Vassanji favours a long fuse." A contributor in Publishers Weekly stated that Vassanji writes "with a deftness and evenhandedness that distinguish him as a diligent student of political and historical complexities and a riveting storyteller."

Set in the 1960s, The Assassin's Song details the life of Karsan Dargawalla, the reluctant successor to the role of the protector of Pirbaag, a small village in the troubled Indian state of Gujarat. When he is accepted into Harvard, Karsan escapes to the United States, where he revels in his freedom. Decades later, following the death of his parents, Karsan returns to his homeland to find Pirbaag in ruins, destroyed during the region's deadly 2002 riots, which prompts him to reexamine his spiritual beliefs. Vassanji "crafts an intense and haunting work of fiction," noted Terry Hong in the Christian Science Monitor. Timothy Peters, reviewing The Assassin's Song in the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked that the author "has succeeded in creating a complex, multifaceted drama, one that interweaves history, religion and politics with a vibrant personal story. Like most such novels, it is the personal story that resonates the most, and in this case, the personal story is that of Karsan, his struggle for independence and, in the end, redemption."

Vassanji once told CA: "I feel as much African as Asian, and I have lived in the United States as well as Canada; labels based on nationality are a convenience and always slippery."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

African Business, January, 2005, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall, p. 65.

Booklist, February 1, 1996, Thomas Gaughan, review of The Book of Secrets, p. 918; September 1, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall, p. 66; August 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of The Assassin's Song, p. 32.

Books in Canada, April, 1991, Janice Kulyk Keefer, review of No New Land, p. 42.

Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, spring, 2004, Nicholas Birns, review of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, p. 144.

Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 2007, Terry Hong, "In The Assassin's Song, a Young Indian Seeks to Flee His Past."

Guardian (London, England), September 18, 2004, Helon Habila, "Memories of Mau Mau," review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2004, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall, p. 713; July 15, 2007, review of The Assassin's Song.

Library Journal, August 1, 2004, Marc Kloszewski, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall, p. 71; August 1, 2007, Leslie Patterson, review of The Assassin's Song, p. 75.

Maclean's, April 15, 1991, Victor Dwyer, review of No New Land, p. 64.

New Statesman, December 6, 2004, Jason Cowley, "Half and Half," review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall, p. 55.

New Yorker, August 20, 2007, review of The Assassin's Song, p. 83.

Publishers Weekly, December 11, 1995, review of The Book of Secrets, p. 56; November 10, 2003, "Giller Prize Goes to Vassanji," p. 16; July 26, 2004, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall, p. 37; June 18, 2007, review of The Assassin's Song, p. 35.

Quill & Quire, February, 1991, review of No New Land, p. 32; December, 1999, Gerald Hannon, review of Amriika; November, 2003, Craig Taylor, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall; January, 2006, Laurel Smith, review of When She Was Queen; October, 2007, Tara Lee, review of The Assassin's Song.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 28, 2007, Timothy Peters, review of The Assassin's Song, p. E2.

Saturday Night, June, 1991, review of No New Land, p. 44.

Time International, October 15, 2007, Simon Robinson, "Tangled Roots," review of The Assassin's Song, p. 52.

World Literature Today, winter, 1991, Uma Parameswaran, review of The Gunny Sack, p. 177; winter, 1995, Michael Thorpe, review of The Book of Secrets, p. 210; September-December, 2005, Charles P. Sarvan, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall.

ONLINE

Asian Review of Books Online,http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/ (August 14, 2004), Peter Gordon, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall.

Blog Critics,http://blogcritics.org/ (August 21, 2007), Richard Marcus, review of The Assassin's Song.

DesiJournal.com,http://www.desijournal.com/ (August 14, 2004), Poornima Apte, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall.

M.G. Vassanji Home Page,http://www.mgvassanji.com (July 1, 2008).

Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (October 12, 2004), Mary Whipple, review of The In-between World of Vikram Lall; (September 20, 2007), Poornima Apte, review of The Assassin's Song.

Podium Online,http://www.podium.on.ca/ (September 6, 1999), Ray Deonandan, review of The Book of Secrets.

OTHER

In-between World of M.G. Vassanji (documentary), Cogent-Benger Productions, 2006.

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