Author tells the story of a life lived and a dream followed

An award-winning author who has attained eminence in his field in a remarkably brief space of time, Moyez .G. Vassanji’s contribution to literature was celebrated at the June 18 convocation for graduates of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

Vassanji, who has collected three prestigious awards over a short time, was introduced by Atkinson Dean Rhonda Lenton. “Of his six books, his first novel, The Gunny Sack, won a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, and his two most recent novels – The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall – have both won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize,” noted Lenton.

Vassanji’s other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land, Amriika, and Uhuru Street, a collection of stories. In addition to his writing, he has contributed to the literary and South Asian communities, including co-founding and editing the Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad.

Right: Author M.G. Vassanji (left) accepts his honorary doctor of letters from York Chancellor Peter Cory (centre) and Lorna R. Marsden, president and vice-chancellor of York University

A former nuclear physicist, Vassanji worked at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory. Following the success of The Gunny Sack, he began to work on his writing full time. “His books are populated with characters who, like the author, are of South Asian ancestry,” said Lenton. “His characters belong to many worlds and to none.”

In accepting the honour, Vassanji gave a strong and motivational speech. “Thank you for this honour that you confer upon me, I am deeply touched,” said Vassanji. “This is the first convocation I have ever attended.”

He spoke about his life growing up in the East African Asian community and of the people who had influenced his early love of learning and his motivation to be the best he could be. After coming to Canada, Vassanji developed deep emotional and cultural roots in the country, which he described as having a “great” society.

“I am not one to carry around a flag to exhibit my patriotism…I have come to believe that we live in a great society. Such a word is not easy to use precisely because it is so easy to use. I looked in my dictionary for a more modest, precise or lesser-used word, but I could not find one. Our society is exceptional, in my view, because of its willingness to change – attitudes that I believe are needed in our troubled world,” said Vassanji. “On a relative scale, compared to the barbarism set loose in many parts of the world, ours is still an enviable and wonderful place, full of possibilities. Fifteen years ago, to publish a book set in Africa, you had to go to a publisher with a map in your hand and an apology on your lips. Nowadays such books are published and widely read.”

Left: Vassanji flanked by Lorna R. Marsden and Peter Cory

The ability of our current society to think collectively, to practice citizenship and to change for the better are tremendous attributes. “Acts of faith, commitment and hope are demonstrated daily by our citizens,” said Vassanji.

He then cautioned students not to let time pass because they risk the loss of their dreams. “How soon the student days are finished and life takes over, the beard grows white and time passes. We must grab our opportunities,” he said.

Using his own life as a model, Vassanji urged graduates to follow their own dreams, embrace the qualities of a society that allows change and to work to the best of their ability. He said graduates should judge their success themselves and compare their progress against the great minds and achievers who had walked before them. He asked them to strive for excellence and to cast aside mediocrity and complacence.

“Nothing is impossible if the passion and the calling are there. I started my life in physics and found that I had slipped into a life of routine. I realized gradually that my calling was to write stories,” said Vassanji. “There was a deep yearning in me to write and put a way of life on to the page  to bring history, life and mythology into one concept. After a few hours of formulas and computers, I would bring out my yellow pad and start writing and a collection of stories emerged.”

When he decided to write full-time, putting aside a successful career in nuclear physics, he was chided by some as being “stupid”. Others, he said, called him brave. “You cannot be brave without being a little stupid. You must aspire to the seemingly impossible,” he said. “The mantra that I live with every day when I wake up in the morning is that I will do the best I have ever done. I will write such a sentence that it will shake up the world… Who judges what is truly good? Not reviews… not the money you make. The ultimate judge of one’s achievements is oneself.”