MG Vassanji prides himself in his contradictions

DESI MG VASSANJI. Giller and Governor General award winner M G Vassanji for story and interview in Desi Life. ATTN SHREE B. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star) rpj

A novelist and non-fiction writer, a person of Indian origin who feels at home on three continents, MG Vassanji, 65, prides himself on his contradictions. These have served him well in his writing, which has won him numerous awards, including a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his first novel The Gunny Sack (1989).

Through his eight novels, two short story collections and two travel memoirs, Vassanji has made a signal contribution to the literature of the Indian diaspora, acquainting several generations of readers in Canada, the US and India as well with his magical yet little-known corner of East Africa. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q. One of the themes in your work is the invisible boundaries that divide people, such as caste, faith, and race. How did that come about?
Because I existed on the edges of all of them, being brought up in Africa among Asians, blacks, and whites. Those interactions leave a deep impact on you while growing up. There were a lot of things that went unsaid but which you felt as a child, and which you then want to explore as an adult—as a novelist, it’s automatic to try and explore those phenomena.

Q. Where, or what, is home today?
Home is many places. Toronto is where I come back to, where I have the security of a bank account and a house. When I’m in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I feel at home, I speak the language and people don’t think I’m from elsewhere. It’s the same in India, there is an ease of communication and I feel that these are my people.

Q. Would you say that your own history is the primary influence on your work?
I am writing about people who live on the margins of global culture, and that requires a lot of work. You can’t look at my writing the way you look at [that of] a white Canadian writer. The problem for many of us is that we are pioneers, telling stories that have never been told, naming things that have never been named—even the names themselves are hard to pronounce!— and all of those things are on my mind.

Q. What is the reward for all that hard work?
To reach an audience whom you never thought in your imagination that you might reacH, that is satisfying.

Q. Do you feel you’ve been received as an Indian writer by Indian audiences?
Indians in India have a very dual relationship with the West: On one hand, they emulate it, and on the other hand, they put it down. Indian writers who live abroad face that too. The level of serious criticism is a bit low; people don’t engage with the writing as such.

Q. Is there a particular message you want to add to the public conversation around literature in general?
Stories are important. We have to be part of a global culture. You cannot be a nobody. That creates an insecurity that turns into problems for the following generations. When I speak in Africa this is what I say: If you don’t write about yourself, someone else will write about you and you will not like it.

The interview was first published at