M.G. Vassanji, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
M.G. Vassanji's seventh novel, The Magic of Saida, centers on an African/Indian doctor who returns from his adopted country, Canada, to the country of his birth, Tanzania. There he searches for the girl he once loved and for his own deeper identity. Vassanji himself was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, and now lives in Toronto.
The two-time Giller Prize winner answers questions about travel and exile, unfashionable subjects, and the moral responsibility to tell the truth.
There’s a beautiful sentence in The Magic of Saida (well, one of many, many beautiful sentences): “The pleasure—or ache—of travelling was this feeling of being precisely nowhere.” That line seems to resonate with the experience not only of the traveler but also of the immigrant and, for that matter, the writer, as outsider. I suppose it’s the word “precisely” that makes me love that sentence—the tension inherent in “precisely nowhere” and the fact that your work is marked by such precision. Do you feel that to be an immigrant writer is to be doubly displaced? Can you talk a little about the pleasure and the ache?
The pleasure of travel (or exile) comes to me from the sense of freedom and the excitement of discovery and renewal. Since I left Tanzania I've been constantly discovering myself. It's been thrilling. I suppose writing fiction is always discovering; each book is a journey. The ache of travel or exile is the feeling of not belonging entirely to any place. Not being entirely rooted, as many people one meets, for example in India or Europe, are.
I have a problem with the term “immigrant,” especially to describe a writer. Of course I am literally an immigrant, but one’s sensibility, inspiration, and memories do not immigrate, they keep evolving, of course. I’ve recently described myself and (many) people like me as belonging in several places (Africa, India, Canada) and therefore nowhere precisely.
Joyce Carol Oates once said that she writes from a sense of homesickness, even loneliness. Does that apply to you?
Not homesickness as wishing to go back to the past—except through the imagination, and then one visits it wiser and older (and more comfortable). I often go back to Tanzania or Kenya, but I know they have changed and so have I, but they are still, in a sense, home.
Your work has been viewed as being about the immigrant experience, and about Africa, and racial identity, and politics, and certainly, too, love and regret. I’m wondering whether you feel that a novelist has a moral responsibility, and if so, what is it?
I think first and foremost there is simply the need to write, and to write well, to tell stories. The moral responsibility is to the truth. This sounds trite and overworked, but I take it seriously and consciously—because even in writing there are the pressures of fashions, politics, the market, and so on. By choosing to write about what I have to write—Africa, Asians in Africa, minorities in India or Canada—unfashionable and nonmainstream subjects—I’m being true to myself, and I take on a moral responsibility.
You were a nuclear physicist until the publication of your first novel in 1989. Does that work in any way inform your writing?
Not directly or consciously, though I’m sure one might find observations or metaphors that are informed by a deeper awareness of science. Recently I find myself moving toward subjects related to science and scientists. I’m not sure what will come of that.
You’ve written six previous novels and two story collections, but you also wrote a biography of Mordecai Richler. What prompted that?
For some reason I found myself committed to contributing a volume to Penguin’s Eminent Canadians Series. The only people I could think of were Pierre Trudeau and Mordecai Richler. My French is poor, so Trudeau was out; someone else was doing him, anyway. Richler always intrigued me. I wanted to understand the man behind the grumpy exterior; and I wanted to know how he dealt with his Jewishness. Although our backgrounds are vastly different, there are significant similarities in our lives—close family, close religious community, devotion to a single city, writing as a minority. Richler was there, I believe, even before Philip Roth was (by one or two years). He struggled with his Orthodox Jewishness just as I struggled with my religious upbringing.
You’ve been writing for a long time. What keeps it compelling and necessary for you?
I think it’s simply like a drug or like breathing. Sometimes I feel I want to give it up, but there I am again fiddling with the keyboard.
Photo by Derek Shapton
M. G. Vassanji's new novel is The Magic of Saida. He is the author of six previous novels: The Gunny Sack, which won a regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize; No New Land; The Book of Secrets, which won the very first Giller Prize; Amriika; The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which also received the Giller Prize; and, most recently, The Assassin's Song. He has also written two short-story collections, a travel memoir about India, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.