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Stories Not Yet Told
by Stephen Smith

M.G. VASSANJI wants to know where home is. Not in the sense of address - no, he knows well enough here he lives, indeed he's sitting there, in his front room, this Toronto morning in April. This is no question, his physical home. Here he lives with his wife and seven-year-old. This is his sofa he's sitting on; outside his window, the recycling truck is feeding out of his blue box; and nearer still, noises of human activity in other rooms suggest a whole houseful of unseen home.

"Toronto," Vassanji agrees, "is the place I've lived the most in the last 20 years, so it's a home. But there's a contradiction, a spiritual exile. The spirit is less easy to nail down - especially when you've come from so many countries and you've lived in so many."

The need to discover what the connections - and the contradictions are between address and spirit runs through Vassanji's work, the published record of which now stands at two novels and a collection of short stories. How much are we defined by where we live? How much do we create it? Vassanji doesn't always have the answers, but he's quickly established a reputation as a writer full of unerring questions.

That may be because his need is so personal, It's not a need to know where in the world he belongs as an East African Indian who has since 1985 been a Canadian citizen; rather it's the need to find out about what sustains the sense of community among people with an ancestry, and a history of displacement, like his.

"Nations," he says, gesturing toward his coffee cup, "are very abstract things, as we are finding out now more and more. It's the sense of community and people that survives."

That sense of community, the wandering spirit, and the understanding that it's an often arbitrary fate that decides where in the world it alights - for many East African Asians (and especially those now living outside Africa), these have in the last three years become Vassanji's special responsibility as a storyteller.

It's not something he set about to claim, any more than he had it in mind to have the laziest of CanLiterates try to put him in a pigeon-hole as a (merely) multicultural writer. But these things happen when a writer of Vassanji's breadth of ability describes, with wit and unblinking attention, a community of people, their obstinate survival, the deep conflicts they live with, and their pleasures and values.

Values and history and immigration, community and nation, colonialism and multiculturalism (or "multivulturalism," as the characters in his novel No New Land [McClelland & Stewart] know it): these are the larger themes that move in Vassanji's work, but what makes him a storyteller and not a historian is the fact that they all hinge on individual lives. The sting in the social satire of No New Land, for instance, is not administered by public policy, or trends in immigration, but by Vassanji's hapless hero Nurdin Lalani, for whom Canada, Land of Promise, is all insults, accusations, and temptations of the flesh. What Vassanji does so deftly is what those writers for whom he feels a special affinity excel at: whatever their individual styles, he says, William Faulkner and the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o "write about a small group of people and make their experience into something universal."

In Vassanji's first novel, The Gunny Sack (originally published in England by Heinemann in 1989), he tracked a history that could have been his own, following through a 100-year period a family that comes from India in the late 19th century to settle on the shores of East Africa. It was an attempt to chronicle history by gathering oral remembrance and traditional lore, but it was not meant to pull the past whole and gleaming into the present. "I am very much interested in the fact that there's no complete past, it's full of holes. I see it as ellipses and then a few things here and there. That to me makes it not only more real, but more mysterious and more important."

In No New Land he carried a new company of characters on to the next leg of what seems like a grand generational pattern of restlessness. This time the shores were Canadian, and Vassanji perched his narrator where he could overlook an Indian family emigrating from Tanzania to a Toronto suburb, where they try to reconcile the demands of this new culture with the whispers of the old. In the stories of Uhuru Street, just published by McClelland & Stewart, Vassanji doubled back to Africa, to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, to dig deeper into the rootbed of the Asian community in the city in which he grew up.

Three books, each one widely acclaimed, in four years: here is, perhaps, a writer trying to catch up with his stories. But then Vassanji only started writing full time in 1989. "Writing was always seen as a luxury," he says with a low rumble of laughter.

"I kept a journal, and reading was a passion, but I never imagined myself as a professional writer. It seemed like an indulgence.

He was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1950. His father was a salesman in a department store catering to Europeans; his mother, after her husband died, opened a clothing store. If Vassanji didn't inherit a gene to tell him that it was family and community that defined home more than geography, he may have learned it early on from their example.

When he was five his father died, and not long after that his mother packed up her five children and moved them en masse to Dar es Salaam. "In those days, borders were very flexible and moving from town to town wasn't really a big problem," he says. "People carried British passports, so we didn't see it in terms of moving from one territory to another. We just moved - for us it was just going from town to town."

His next major move came in 1970 when, having finished secondary school, the time came to move on to university. To hear him tell it, what followed was an unremarkable succession of events. "I finished school and did national service and then I got a scholarship to go to the United States. And I left."

It wasn't as simple as all that, though. In school he had succeeded in science and mathematics - writing, at this point, had perhaps receded to the deepest remove of his mind. "You went to school so that you would have a profession," he explains, "to get a good stable salary and some respect in the community." He applied, accordingly, to study electrical engineering at university - and was pencilled in, despite his protests, for a place in civil engineering.

"People didn't really want to study overseas," he says. "It wasn't that much of an attraction, especially since we had universities locally by then. Nobody really wanted to leave - well, people did, and they left, but they were seen as wanderers and essentially people who were lost, because our home culture was very strong, and anyone who went overseas went with the intention of coming back."

Vassanji himself, for instance. Just what happened when he found out he was being urged in a direction not of his own choosing, Vassanji has put, slightly recast, into the Uhuru Street story "Leaving." Its protagonist, Aloo - like Vassanji - has had a magnificent high school career. He applies to study medicine; he's put in agriculture instead.

Then the offer of a scholarship comes from an American university. In the story, Aloo's mother asks the advice of an elderly man known for wise counsel. "Well, it would be good for his education," the old man tells her. "But if you send him you will lose your son."

In the story the mother allows her son to take his scholarship, and so too did Vassanji take the one offered him by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. He went, fully expecting to return; but while his mother didn't lose him (she in fact now lives in Calgary), Vassanji never went back to Dar to live. That's something, he says, that he's never satisfactorily resolved for himself. "I'm still trying to figure it out," he says. "I never left, I just went away for my education."

Education at MIT and then Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania took a total of eight years, and he emerged with a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics. If by his choice of career he seemed to be even more decisively ruling out his chances of becoming a writer, his choice of workplace moved him even farther away from Tanzania - to Canada. In 1978, he accepted a post-doctoral fellowship from Atomic Energy of Canada to work on a power station at Chalk River, Ontario, Northwest of Pembroke.

"I had a choice between Chalk River and Berkeley, California," he says. "Berkeley was vacillating about whether they had the money or not, and Chalk River was definite, so I took it. It was just that, to be honest."

In 1980 he took up a position as a research associate and lecturer at the University of Toronto. His intentions of returning to Dar had been by this time almost completely eclipsed. At about this same time, however, and possibly in part to address his absence, he began to write.

There's no instant flash of inspiration to tell of, no sudden visitation of muse. Nothing so outwardly fairytale-like, anyway: it was more that he was gradually putting together a puzzle, the pieces of which he didn't know he'd been collecting. There was a piece to be found, for instance, in what he'd read as a boy. "Garbage - but it's good to have read garbage, because then you can leave it behind. And it also creates a need - you realise you're reading about other people and nobody's describing your street."

It was a long time coming, but that impulse to write what hadn't yet been written about his own people eventually found an outlet. "Over the years in the United States," he says, "I was looking at what was happening to my world, the changes it was going through and what it was doing to us. How it would basically choose our lives for us, did things to us instead of us doing things to it.

"There was a self-realization: it was not a conscious decision to tell other people as much as me trying to understand in my mind what was so rapidly being lost. And of course, the more I wrote, the more I realized that there are so many stories that have not been told."

And who did he have in mind for an audience? As he tells it, almost nobody; but then believing that, he says, probably allowed him to write more freely, unconstrained by what anyone might expect of him. "Before The Gunny Sack was published," he says, "I wasn't sure how it would be accepted. My impression was that Asians would not be interested in the past, they would not be interested in trying to understand their existence in Africa.

"And I thought that this country wouldn't be interested in the immigrant's past, and I think that to a certain extent is true, although the reception of my books has been very generous. But there's still a disappointment when people ask me, 'What's your next novel?' and I tell them, 'It's about Africa."'

He started with short stories - "about Africa" - some of which are in Uhuru Street. There was an early novel, too: "I began one when I was in Chalk River," he smiles. "But the first outburst was bound to be useless; I couldn't do anything with it."

Writing The Gunny Sack, he experienced something like a revelation: he realized that other than glancing descriptions in the imperial accounts of the British and Germans, there was next to no written record of Asians in East Africa. It was as if, while he was reading the narrow columns of those official histories, margins suddenly appeared on the pages for him to fill in. "That made the history much more accessible, more immediate. So what I did was try to write an account of my experience, but taking it back into history 100 years when, I presumed, some ancestor of mine came to Africa. I wanted to write a kind of people's history, but make it personal."

In 1990, The Gunny Sack won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the best first novel in the Africa zone. More important, however, was the fact that its publication gave Vassanji the confidence to give up physics altogether and get down to writing full time.

What that means is that he's now able to probe his past more deeply, and to ask the unresolved questions of home and displacement. "There is still a sense of self-realization in many of my stories," he says. "There is a quest within the story of the writer trying to find answers within the story or the novel, trying to understand. I never know how my stories are going to end, so even when I'm writing I'm wondering what's going to happen. And partly the question is, What am I going to discover about myself?"

One of his immediate projects - and who knows what he could discover here - is a ghost story that he's writing for his son, which will air later this year on CBC Radio. After that, it's back to a new novel, one based on an idea he had while researching The Gunny Sack. Set in both Kenya and Tanzania during the First World War, it will be another of his histories recounted in personal terms.

And like The Gunny Sack, it will be the telling of a story that hasn't yet been told. Both the British and Germans, whose war this was, have their official histories; otherwise, there is only Vassanji. "It's fascinating, because I know that a people of whom I'm a part were there when the war was fought; some of them were implicated in it.

"But for the majority of the people actually living there today, the fact that this war happened doesn't matter. Tens of thousands of people died. What went on? It seemed to me that someone has to write about that past; it has to be captured before it disappears into the sunlight."


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