Author M.G. Vassanji delights York audience

On Thursday, Sept. 23 York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author M.G. Vassanji. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant in the Canadian Writers in Person course, sent the following report to YFile.

“My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning.” Such is the introduction to the title character of M.G. Vassanji’s award-winning novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. On Sept. 23, students and faculty of York were delighted to receive the author, who was preceded by a somewhat less scandalous reputation.

Right: M.G. Vassanji

Vassanji has earned well-deserved critical acclaim for The Book of Secrets (1994) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003) and stands in the first ranks of Canadian fiction writers. He is a two-time Giller Prize winner (1994 and 2003), received the 1990 Commonwealth Writers Prize for The Gunny Sack and was awarded the 2004 Trillium prize for In-Between World, his most recent novel. Vassanji, born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, draws on his background to explore questions of identity and experience in the Arab-Indian culture.

Prior to his reading for the Canadian Writers in Person series, Vassanji attended a reception in the HNES building, accompanied by the Canadian Writers in Person series director, Professor Gail Vanstone. Vassanji, who invited people to address him as Moyez, was reserved and gracious in meeting with the students and faculty in attendance. The York University Foundation and Atkinson Dean Rhonda Lenton hosted the reception.

Introducing the author at the 7pm reading, Vanstone noted that in addition to his literary achievements, Vassanji also has a doctorate in nuclear physics. The author then began to read from the opening chapter of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which introduces five children growing up together in the Kenya of the 1950s. The story describes their innocence transcending the boundaries of their differing African, Indian and European backgrounds. Vassanji described these moments as “gentle as dewdrops, transient and illusory like sunbeams; charming as a butterfly’s dance round a flower.”

He also read passages from later in the novel, when the children, now young adults, struggle to find their place in the newly independent Kenya of the 1960s. “It was a time when there was a lot of hope,” added Vasanji as he recalled this time in his own life. More light-hearted passages amused the audience and included scenes such as Vikram’s mother climbing a ladder to peep on his distraught sister, only to fall to the thorny flowerbed below. There was also the journey down River Road in Nairobi, where “according to local legend, you could come and buy a tire rim or headlight on this street, to replace your stolen article, only to find yourself inspecting your own property in the first place.”

After the reading, Vassanji engaged in a lively Q&A discussion with the audience. Many students were interested in Vassanji’s writing process and asked numerous questions on this topic. He described an intuitive approach: “It’s how the voice comes to you. I don’t structure myself too much.”

When asked about how much research he did for the novel, he said, “I started the novel first. A lot of time researchers just want information, maybe a little detail here and there. However, it makes me feel more complete when I have done research, and looked at a real newspaper story or held an object from those times. It just makes it feel more real. You find that generally when you know the material what you invent is not all that outlandish. It is already there.”

On visiting India for the first time in a number of years, he said, “There was such a familiarity on one hand, with the place, and how the people accepted you. Then there was another element to India. I first went in 1993 and there was a riot, which is basically just violence, a kind of butchery that happens. That’s the kind of thing I knew was not a part of me. It was not part of me in Africa and it was not part of me here, that kind of violence and the casual acceptance of it.”

While his background is different from that of the characters he writes about, Vassanji explains, “Every character you write you make human, so therefore you use your own humanity to understand even the most evil person, because you believe everyone is capable of that. The text itself requires some honesty, some consistency. If you try to put your views where they don’t fit in the story you’ve written, you can get into trouble. I see myself in every character.”

In response to a question about an event in the novel that ties his characters together, he responded, “I think that’s the basic premise in this novel, that in spite of politics, there’s a common humanity at which we touch each other.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. Roo Borson, celebrated poet, will be the next author to read on Oct. 7, 2004.

Chris Cornish recently graduated from the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies with a BA (Honours) in liberal studies. He is currently working on a masters in interdisciplinary studies at York.