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Athabasca University

M.G. Vassanji

Photo of M.G. Vassanji

Moyez J. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1950 and raised in Tanzania. His parents were a part of a wave of Indians who immigrated to Africa. Vassanji studied at the University of Nairobi and then at MIT on a scholarship. He earned a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked at the Chalk River atomic power station and then moved to Toronto in 1980. He and his wife, Nurjehan Aziz, started the Toronto South Asian Review, in 1981, which continues today as Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad.

Vassanji also began writing his first novel in 1980, The Gunny Sack, which was published in 1989. The novel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and established Vassanji as an important voice in the emerging field of immigrant/minority writers. In The Gunny Sack, Vassanji tells the story of four generations of Asians in Tanzania. He examines the themes of identity, displacement and race relations. He also tries to preserve and recreate oral histories and mythologies that have long been silenced.

In 1992, Vassanji published Uhuru Street, a collection of loosely linked short stories that all take place along the same street in Dar es Salaam. Many characters from The Gunny Sack reappear in the short stories. The Book of Secrets (1994), featuring a minor character from a story in Uhuru Street, won Vassanji the first Giller Prize that same year. In The Book of Secrets, Vassanji traces the histories of people who possessed the diary of a British administrator, the book of secrets.

No New Land (1991) is set in Toronto, and portrays a group of Indians from Tanzania trying to adapt to life in a new land. Humorous and tragic all at once, the novel illustrates how the past always haunts the present and the future. The theme is reexamined again in Amriika (1999), Vassanji’s next novel. It is the story of a young student who comes to America from Dar es Salaam, and his subsequent life in North America.

In November 2003 M. G. Vassanji won a second Giller Prize for his novel, The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall. Here Vikram tells us about his own evolution in a world of bribery and corruption that spans 47 years of history in Kenya. In 2007 he published The Assassin’s Song about a Canadian professor who inherits an ancient family responsibility that forces him to confront his familial history in the Indian village of Haripir. The novel was shortlisted for the 2007 Giller Prize. Since he was born in Africa Vassanji has re-established his links with India by means of many trips there. This process of spiritual quest and reverse migration is narrated in his travel book, A Place Within: Rediscovering India (2008). In his novel, The Magic of Saida (2012), the return journey becomes a search for a lost love and a rediscovery of self. In this mysterious story of family secretes and migration Vassanji is at the height of his powers.

In 2005 Vassanji was made a Member of the Order of Canada. He has also won the Bressani Literary Prize, and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. (Lee Skallerup)

Updated July 21 2020 by Student & Academic Services

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