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Athabasca University

Reconstructing History in Vassanji's The Magic of Saida

Photo of M.G. Vassanji Pivato

Joseph  Pivato,  Athabasca  University

 "Asians have no future in Africa."  (The Magic of  Saida  263)

At Athabasca University the Vassanji novel that I have often included in my literature courses is  No New Land  because it is the most accessible work  for my Canadian students. They can identify with the many immigrant characters and the problems of cultural difference, language difficulties,  assimilation,  ethnic identity,  racial prejudice and  family conflict.  The courses are in Comparative Canadian Literature and include many works by authors of  ethnic minority origins, backgrounds similar to the students themselves. The struggles faced by the characters in No New Land  make us question our complacent views about multiculturalism in Canada.  There is also the suggestion of ethnic self-hatred among some of the characters in the narrative, a topic that today's students are very interested in exploring.

No New Land  is set in the city of Toronto, Canada, but several characters mentally return to their former lives in  Dar es Salaam and  raise many questions about what life would have been like for them if they had remained in Africa. This is also a question in the subtext of  Vassanji's other African novel, The Book of Secrets, which is set in southern Kenya on  the border with German East Africa, later called Tanganyika, now called Tanzania.   In The Book of Secrets we become aware  that when a region changes names this often it indicates changes in political and military power. Who writes the history of such a border region?  What stories are lost with the political changes over time?  The reconstruction of this fragmented, disputed and often lost history in Vassanji's novel The Magic of Saida  is my subject in this paper.

We return to East Africa in The Magic of Saida,  as Canadian medical doctor,  Kamal Punja journeys back  to Tanzania in search of his first love,  the woman Saida.  As Kamal walks around his hometown of  Kilwa he recalls his childhood and relives the events that he witnessed. As he travels around the countryside he remembers the lost history of  the region: the local wars between the tribal groups, the arrival of the Sultans,  the slavery of  his grandmother,  the European wars fought by colonial rivals, the displacements of  thousands of people in East Africa and his own forced departure for Canada when Asians were expelled.  Kamal's life is set against the historical events of  the struggle for independence of former African colonies and so his story can be read in this post-colonial context.

Reconstructing History

In his seminal book, Structural Anthropology  Claude Lévi-Strauss explains that anthropology emphasizes the close relationship between field work and theory, between the description of social phenomena and structural analysis; it must have a concrete almost microscopic character (11).  The term  'reconstructing history'  is usually found in anthropology, the study of human evolution and behavior.  Anthropologists will sometimes reconstruct a specimen and the associated narrative from fragments, bones and other objects found at a dig site. I am applying the idea of this practice to Kamal's search in Tanzania and his reconstruction of a narrative about his family,  and his own life.  As a result of this reconstruction Kamal, his African narrator, Kigoma, and Vassanji are rewriting the history of the region against the other histories of the former colonial powers in Africa. There are often quotations from historical documents taken from French, German, British and American chronicles juxtaposed within his narrative.

Kamal's life is intertwined with the lost history of East Africa. Vassanji is not only writing Kamal's story but  also recreating the history of colonial intervention by Germany and Great Britain.  We are reminded of this turbulent history in every chapter of the novel:  Chapter one begins with these words,

Kilwa was all history, Kamal said. The past haunted from the ruins and graves;     it was there  in the references to the Germans who had ruled there once, and the slaves who were sold    there,  he heard it in his mother's tales and he heard it recited - majestically - by the old poet,   Saida's grandfather. (9)

This old poet, Mzee Omari Tamin, is an important figure throughout the novel and the history of Kilwa and the whole region. The novel begins with Mzee Omari writing his major work, The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age, which is in fact his history of  colonialism in the region from the point of view of the local Africans.  In chapter 13,  Mzee Omari recites short excerpts of his history to the people of Kilwa. The young Kamal is one of the attentive listeners sitting in the dark and trying to understand the German colonial wars against the different local tribes:  the Sadani, the Pagani, the Swahili, and the fierce Hehe. The young Kamal is troubled by the question, “Why would Africans fight fellow Africans on behalf of the Germans ?” (81).  We often get the point of view of the young, naive Kamal as he  asks questions of the adults around him,  questions which are often left unanswered.

As he gets older, Kamal eventually becomes aware that there are differences between the actual historical event, the varying perceptions of the event and the histories about the event. Vassanji uses fiction and history together as if they were seamless to challenge this very notion.  As Linda Hutcheon explains:

It foregrounds and thus contests the assumptions of seamlessness and asks its readers to question the process by which we represent our  selves and our world to ourselves and to become aware of the means by which we make sense of and construct order out of experience in our particular culture.  We cannot avoid representation. (italics in original, 53-54)

African  Links

In The Magic of Saida  Kamal Punja returns to East Africa in search of his origins.  Much like re-reading  Conrad's  Heart of Darkness  students can reinterpret this return journey to Africa in  particular literary and anthropological contexts.  In 1961 Robert Ardrey published African Genesis in which he argued that modern humans evolved from primitive ancestors in East Africa rather than Asia, and that the human species survived because its members were aggressive and developed communal hunting techniques. Along with Desmond Morris' book, The Naked Ape (1967), African Genesis stimulated much discourse about the origins and nature of human behaviour in the 1960s and 1970s. Both these authors were influenced by the discoveries  and publications of  paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakeywho in the 1950s and '60s conducted excavations in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania and uncovered fossils of the earliest humans as well as crude stone tools and  animal bones with tool markings. This area of  north-eastern Tanzania is across the border from Kenya and north of the setting of The Magic of Saida. Like the Leakeys in their dusty excavations Kamal must piece together his family history from fragments and in this way the narrative can be read as a symbolic  evocation of our own early African origins. Since Vassanji was born and grew up in this region and was trained as a scientist  in the USA he would be aware of the rich prehistoric fossils found in Tanzania, evidence of the first human beings.

At various points in the novel the narrator evokes associations with ancient spirits from Africa. On the first page there is a reference to a djinn, a spirit from Arabic mythology. The old poet Mzee Omari calls on his djinn as his muse when he beings to write (10). In English the translation for djinn is often genie.  At other times there are references to atavistic beliefs in the spirits of ancient ancestors.  Kamal's mother, Hamida often makes references to ancestors. There is the suggestion that the area is haunted by the spirits of dead slaves, but also by much older inhabitants of this ancient place. The scene in Minazi Minne seems to be haunted by ancient African spirits (296-300).

For Canadian readers there are other literary links to Africa. Margaret Laurence lived in Africa with her husband from 1950 to '57 and  published several books from this formative experience. Her first novel, This Side Jordan (1960) is set in Ghana at the time that this British colony is about to gain independence. Her collection of stories, The Tomorrow-Tamers (1963) is inspired by African tales, myths and her own observations. Her years in Somaliland are recorded in her memoir, The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963) and her studies of Nigerian writers are collected in Long Drums and Canons (1968). We should remember that Margaret Laurence, one of the major women novelists in Canadian literature, devoted her first books not to the prairies, but to Africa. 

Quebec writer Jacques Godbout spent three years teaching in Ethiopia in the late 1950s which inspired his first novel, L'Aquarium (1962) set in East Africa. Vancouver Island writer Dave Godfrey taught in Ghana in 1963-65 and published The New Ancestors (1970). This novel set in west Africa evokes our many cultural, linguistic and blood ties with the people of Africa. Thus when Canadians read  Vassanji's African novels, The Book of Secrets, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall  and The Magic of Saida , I would argue that they are able to interpret  them in the context of our Canadian-African links.

Narrative  Framing

At the outset of the novel,  Kamal is telling his story to  Martin Kigoma, an African he met while in hospital in Kilwa.  Martin is in fact the narrator of the novel. The story of Kamal’s return to East Africa after 35 years in Canada is the narrative frame for the history of the region as lived and told by the old poet  Mzee Omari. Kamal has returned in search of Saida, the old poet's granddaughter,  and has great difficulty finding her. In his search he also finds that there is little material evidence left of  Mzee Omari’s writing.  So in recalling the events in his early life in Kilwa, his memories of  Saida,  Kamal also tries to reconstruct the life and writing of  Mzee Omari, and by extention, the history of the region.

The narrative framing of history is clear in Part Two of the novel, entitled, "of the coming of the modern age." (121) Here Kamal reconstructs the history of his Indian great grandfather,  Punja Devraj, and his migration from India to Zanzibar and then Kilwa. When the Germans annex East Africa, many tribes resist and are put down. There is a rebel group in Kilwa that the Germans capture and Punja Devraj and four Africans are hanged in Kilwa. These people are hanged from the large mango tree in the central square of Kilwa, the same mango tree that Mzee Omari uses to hang himself in the 1960s.  We can interpret the reappearance of this mango tree as a sign that Kamal's reconstruction of the history of his family is a frame and a substitute for the missing and unfinished history by the old poet, Mzee Omari.

Problems  With  Writing  History

Similar to situations in The Book of Secrets and The Assassin's Song, by the middle of  the narrative Kamal recognizes the many problems he has in
trying to reconstruct this history:

That so much of our history lies scattered in fragments in the most diverse places and  forms--fading memories,  brief asides or incidentals in a book and in archives--is lamentable,  but at least they exist.  All we need do is call up the fragments, reconfigure the past. (131)

Kamal's  search for Saida is connected to his uncovering the fragments of his family's past and the history of Kilwa.  Every chapter has a clue to these missing people, and their stories.

In Chapter 3 we read,

There were actually three Kilwas: the Island, called Kisiwani, the ancient stone city now in  ruins; Kamal’s Kilwa, which saw its heyday in the nineteenth century trade in ivory and   slaves; and Masoko, the markets…scattered about the main road to the harbour. (16)

In Chapter 4 we learn that Kamal has been haunted all his life by the history of slavery in his mother’s family. “All those years while he practiced [medicine] in Edmonton, Kamal had collected a small library on the subject of Kilwa….” (29)  Kamal’s plan is to write a family history so that “ his children would know where they came from, who their ancestors were.”(29) But he is troubled by the contradictions he encounters and the paradox of his privileged position in Canada in contrast to Africa. In her discussion about the theory of representation  in narratives Linda Hutcheon explains that

There is an urge to foreground, by means of contradiction, the paradox of the desire for and the suspicion of narrative mastery - and the master narrative.  Historiography too is no longer considered the objective and disinterested recording of the past; it is more an attempt to comprehend and master it by means of some working (narrative/explanatory) model that, in fact, is precisely what grants a particular meaning to the past. (64)

In Chapter 5 we read  more about the history of Kilwa, the rich Sultan  of  Kilwa with the castle on the island,  the German colony, and later under  British rule Tanganyika’s struggle for self-government. Just as German East Africa, Deutsch-Ostafrika, becomes Tanganyika and later Tanzania, so too Kamal changes identities several times in his life.

Changing  Identities

Intertwined with this lost and disputed history,  a history with many versions,  is Kamal's own changing identity.  At the end of Chapter 7 the young Kamal learns about his grandmother’s slavery and that Kilwa was the center of East African slave trade long  before the arrival of Europeans. (50)  The young Kamal grows up in Kilwa identifying as a Black African since his mother is African. But he is slowly  made aware that he is different.  His father is a medical doctor from India and has left his mother in Kilwa while he has returned to India.  Nevertheless his father’s family consider Kamal to be an Indian and later claim him in order to raise him as an Indian and send him to school. So when Kamal is 13 his mother sends him to Dar es Salaam to his uncle, Jaffu Ali Punja and his Indian family.  Kamal eventually becomes Indian, a Mhindi. Kamal also becomes a very good student and because of his high marks is admitted to university to study medicine. With a local Indian student, a young woman named Shamim,  he travels to Makerere University  in Kampala, Uganda.  After Kamal completes two years of medical school in Uganda, General Idi Amin leads a military coup, becomes president of Uganda and later expels 80,000 Asians from the country.  In fear for their safety,  Kamal and his girlfriend,  Shamim, decide to go to Canada. This migration is encouraged by his uncle Jaffu and his whole family. So Kamal spends the rest of his life in Canada.  He thinks he identifies as Canadian, but upon his return to Kilwa, Tanzania he becomes confused about who he is, and what he is.  He explains his dilemma to a local doctor in Kilwa,

Well. I am here and these are my people, and yet I have a life and a family elsewhere.  In Canada I've thought of myself as African--though not African Canadian or   African  American--attractive illusions for a while.  It becomes difficult to say   precisely what one  is anymore.  Isn't that a common condition nowadays? (222)

It is a common condition among immigrants to Canada who, ironically,  may feel more African when they are here than when they visit their homelands. Once back in Tanazania Kamal begins to question how African he really is and his physical sickness compounds the confusion about identity changes.  I have observed these  contradictions with Italian immigrants in Toronto, Greek immigrants in Sydney, Australia, and Korean immigrants in Calgary. Literary examples of this identity confusion can be found in several stories in the anthology, Making a Difference edited by Smaro Kamboureli.

Speaking  For  A  Scattered  People

In my years of reading authors who explore cultural diversity in Canada I have often found  that they try to recreate the lost history of their people from the fragments of texts,  stories of dislocation, exile, and migration. (Pivato, 1994).   Many of these writers of diversity work in the conventions of the realist tradition as they try to find the truth about the social movements and historical events of their people.  They are  sometimes criticised for being so concerned with the social history of a period or of a place.  These writers are often trying to put together some lost story from hearsay or old letters. They become a voice for an exiled people who have been uprooted and scattered to different parts of the world. The Asians  expelled from  East Africa are such a people. Vassanji in writing about them gives them a voice. Since slavery moved thousands of Africans to the New World, we now call this the African Diaspora, the great scattering of peoples. Kamal is now part of this massive movement of peoples (Sayed 5-15). It is an allusion to the great Jewish Diaspora, the scattering of the twelve tribes across Europe and Asia during and after the Roman  Empire.

Whenever I make these observations about a writer speaking for an ethnic minority group I get into trouble with the scholars and students of post-colonial theory.  The appropriation of voice controversy will always emerge in these discussions.  Does a writer, or a group of writers who self-identify with a particular minority group have the right to speak for that group? Against some opposition from my academic colleagues  I have argued that these writers have a duty to speak for the marginalized. (Pivato, 1998).  Thus I  continue to read and interpret  the original work of authors like Vassanji  before the theory.  My study of Italian-Canadian writers has taught me to listen to their voices unmediated by abstract European theories. (Pivato, 1994)
In a 2013 interview in the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail,   Vassanji explained what he sees as his  role in writing the history of  his people:

There are people who feel their histories, their stories - they would like them to be told. And when you do that in your writing, they feel that you have done something for them,  and that puts a burden on you.  (Bland R5)

History and  Lies

In The Magic of Saida  there are varying versions of every story. The young, naive Kamal is easily persuaded by the words of the old poet, Mzee Omari,  a much admired man in Kilwa. But as he grows older Kamal begins to question the stories. He realizes that nobody, not even his mother, gives him all the information when he asks questions. It is when Mzee Omari hangs himself on the same mango tree that the Germans used to execute the rebels in Kilwa, that Kamal realizes that Omari may have  been  implicated in the suppression of the rebellion. (107, 177).  Omari  in composing and reciting his great work on the history of colonialism in Tanzania is trying to rewrite the versions published by the European powers.  But Omari cannot overcome the guilt of his part in the German capture of the rebels (145), and later the death of his older brother, Abdelkarim (163).  Omari's other great sin is that he often stole his dead brother's poetry  and passed it off as his own to build up his reputation as an original writer in the region.

Kamal recalls when, as a boy, he last spoke to Omari and read some of his verses about the suppression of the rebellion. (103)  Soon after this meeting Omari stopped  writing; is as if he could not face the truth about himself.  With his death Omari leaves his great work of history unfinished.

It was when he first read in the anthology that brief biography of Mzee Omari, together with his eulogy of the German governor, that Kamal  began to grapple with the mystery of Kilwa's poet laureate and the dark side of his career. (103)

From his study in Edmonton and during his travels Kamal spends 35  years researching this lost history of Kilwa. Upon his return to Tanzania he begins to piece together this history. The novel is not just Kamal's search for Saida, but also his reconstruction of this fragmented history. He finds that there is nothing left of Omari's poems or other writing, not even a shred of paper.  "None of them survive except as subjects of hearsay, or in memorized fragments. A few corrupted verses...." (176)

As Kamal proceeds to piece together the events in Kilwa he finds that it is difficult to learn the truth. There are only different versions of the narrative. What is the history of Kilwa?  At one point he reads an old report,

In November 1776, French ship owner Captain Morice arrived at Kilwa and signed a treaty with Sultan Hasan bin Shirazi by which every year he would take away a thousand blacks, for twenty piastres each, men or women; he was granted exclusive rights, and the treaty was valid for a hundred years. (28)

Is this old account accurate?  Kamal is confused by his mother's stories about their family history.  Were the stories true or just appealing tales for a child? (26)

In his own search for Saida he finds that the people around him have deceived him for years. Before he when off to university in Kampala Kamal had gone back to Kilwa to see Saida, the girl he loved, and had promised her he would return to her. Many years later  he learns that while he was in university in Kampala, the young Saida had gone to see his uncle in Dar es Salaam with their baby son. He was never told this. Instead he was urged to go to Canada with his girlfriend,  Shamim.  He escaped from Africa.

Slavery in Africa

Books on African slavery, for the most part, focus on the slave trade across the Atlantic, the  experience of the middle passage of African people being transported to slave markets in North and South America. Paul Gilroy's  The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness (1993) is often found as required reading in university courses. The Portuguese were the first modern Europeans to trade in west African slaves beginning in 1494; however they were actually participating  in  a system of tribal slavery that had already existed in African for many centuries. Warring tribes captured enemy combatants and turned them into slaves who were often sold to other tribes. When the Atlantic slave trade began to grow with slave traders from Spain, England and France, the black African slave traders captured or kidnapped whole villages along the west coast and interior of central Africa. If these captives survived the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic they were sold in  markets in  Jamestown, Virginia, USA, in islands in the West Indies or in the major slave market in Salvador, Brazil.

In The Magic of Saida Vassanji reminds us that a thriving slave trade existed in East Africa for many centuries and long before the arrival of Europeans.  The Swahili-Arab slave traders moved slaves from Nkhotakota on Lake Malawi to Kilwa. The Prazeros were a slave trading tribe along the Zambezi River. In several places in the novel Kamal mentions slavery  as a part of  the history of Kilwa since this is vital for the lost story which he is trying to recover. In one scene the young boy Kamal tells his mother about finding human bones on a hidden beach. She explains to him:

"The sea holds many secrets, you understand?  Kilwa is a old town. Slaves were brought here, from the south. Many died. Others?-sent off to Zanzibar, Bagamoyo, Arabia, India. Know this. Those are the bones of our ancestors." So she told him. Know this. Eyes fixed into him. But before she said "India." she had drawn a long breath. There were African slaves in India? Slaves everywhere?  (49)

The young Kamal is curious about his family background and persists in asking his mother questions about her tribe, the Matumbi. She finally reveals to him that the Yao slave traders

[C]aptured slaves and sold them at the market here in Kilwa. One day his men captured my grandmother, who was Matumbi. Makungnya sold her to an Indian. (50)

While he is proud of his father in Indian,  the grandson of  Punja Devraj, the hero of the resistance who was killed  by the Germans for helping the rebels in Kilwa,  Kamal seems equally proud of  the slave ancestors on his mother's side of the family. He indicates this by taking on  the nick name of 'Golo' when he was in school in Dar es Salaam. The original meaning was servant or slave. Kamal's wife, Shamin is outraged by this, "How can you allow yourself to be called a slave. Where is your pride?" (195)

During his years in Canada Kamal spends many weeks researching the history of Kilwa and East Africa. As he uncovers information he tries to share his enthusiasm with his family. In one scene he shows his son, Hanif an old photo,

[H]e had brought out his one and only family photograph, of himself... Mama, and his father. The shock on Hanif's face - he was eleven then - was cataclysmic. "Me, African?  That black woman in the  weird outfit, my grandmother?  You're lying. No way."  Utter rejection by his private-school son.  And Kamal had not brought up the slave ancestors yet.  Who wants to be reminded of that?  (29-30) 

Thus while Kamal is preoccupied with recovering his lost history and with the truth about his African family's  past,  his Canadian family want nothing to do with his African project.

Witnesses  To  History

In his 1994 novel, The Book of Secrets,  Vassanji uses the lost and found journal of  Assistant District Commissioner, Alfred Corbin. This document from 1913 serves as a witness to the events in this vulnerable border region between Kenya and German East Africa. In The Magic of Saida  we find many scenes and references that link it to  The Book of Secrets. In the earlier book we also find different versions of historical event such as the rebellion against the German colonizers and the  African battles during World War I.

In The Magic of Saida  Kamal himself is the main witness to the history of the region. He recalls events, identifies people, now dead, and searches for physical evidence of the past in order to write his story and find Saida.  Throughout the novel Kamal, with the scientifically trained mind of a medical doctor, tries to make a logical narrative out of the chaos of the colonial wars, the confusion of different and conflicting narratives and fragments from the past.  For the most part he succeeds in bringing order. He dismisses superstitions and folk remedies and advises people to go to the hospital when they have health problems. But  Kamal himself is not immune from the diseases of Africa. The book open with him seriously ill in hospital with malaria.  In his delirium his mind begins to play tricks on him. Is it his mind or is it Africa that is playing with his perceptions?  He returns to the naive point of view of the child  he was in Kilwa 50 years earlier.  The naive child seems to be more honest than adult narrators.

The  novel ends with Kamal in a dream or hallucination. In his search for Saida in the jungle hamlet of Minazi Minne he is overwhelmed by the power of Africa. Is his experience a drug-induced hallucination, or does he speak to Saida in a dream ?  His scientifically trained mind is of little help in this scene.  We question Kamal's  dangerous actions at the end of the novel.

The  Return  Journey

In my years of studying authors of cultural diversity I have found that  the problem of the return journey is an important  preoccupation for some writers. (Pivato 1985)  Many are driven to return to the country or region of origin for various reasons: family ties, nostalgia, politics, or spiritual need.  What is less common is the conscious or unconscious return journey for the purpose of dying in the old country.  Kamal demonstrates this death wish on some unconscious level.  He repeatedly puts himself in danger in his travels around Tanzania. At some level he is tortured by guilt at having abandoned Saida many years earlier.  In the final scene of hallucination or dream Kamal seems to accept that he may die. Like the old poet Mzee Omari so many years ago in Kilwa,  Kamal is willing to accept his death as a reparation or punishment for his own betrayal of  Saida.  Here Kamal is not just reconstructing history,  but trying to repeat history.

On another level of interpretation Kamal is putting himself in danger in order to learn the truth about the dead Mzee  Omari and missing Saida. The return journey is a quest for the history he has lost, and he must embrace it with all the hidden horrors. Linda Hutcheon points out,

The issue of representation in both fiction and history has usually been dealt with in epistemological terms, in terms of how we know the past.  The past is not something to be escaped, avoided or controlled - as various forms of modernist art suggests through their implicit view of the 'nightmare' of history.  The past is something with which we must come to terms and such a confrontation involves an acknowledgement of limitation as well as power. We only have access to the past through its traces - its documents, the testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials. In other words, we only have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or explanations. (57-58)

The Nostalgia  Question

The Magic of Saida is a very evocative novel, a story of loss. Kamal returns to Tanzania primarily to seek out his lost love, Saida, but is there also some nostalgia for his idyllic childhood in Kilwa?  I would argue that he is motivated by guilt over his abandonment of Saida, more than  by any nostalgia. Kamal recalls how he was abandoned by his African mother and later learns that he was lied to by his Indian uncle and his whole family.  Kamal willingly left Africa as a young man and abandoned Saida. But he also abandoned East Africa, a region in great need of his skills as a doctor on medicine.  At some level his return quest for Saida is a way of trying to come to terms with his obsession, his betrayal and guilt. By the end of the narrative Kamal demonstrates a subconscious desire for self-punishment to the point of endangering his life.   Africa too is a place which can betray your love and punish you for it;  his mother disappears out of his life, his uncle Jaffu deceives him  and Saida tries to punish Kamal at the end of the novel.  He really cannot go home again. As Kamal tries to reconstruct the history of  his home region, he finally realizes that he has a love-hate relationship with Africa.

The author's own love-hate relationship with Africa  is explored in some of the articles collected in M.G. Vassanj: Essays on His Works  edited by Asma Sayed.  I have found that a comparative literature approach is the best way to read Vassanji's novels and  it is often useful to draw parallels with other African works, other South Asian works and other Canadian works which deal with cultural differences. Canadian writing itself has had a troubled relationship with the colonial condition of a former British colony. (Pivato, 2011)  In his book, And  Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa (2014)  Vassanji  explores his own relationship with the land of his birth and the social and political problems that we are left to observe as outsiders from Canada.  In India the book's subtitle is   Memoir of An Indian African, so identity can be fluid. Is this later volume a continuation of  Vassanji's  A Place Within: Rediscovering India (2008) ?

I  will end with some words  by Vassanji himself from the 2013 interview in the Globe and Mail  in which he explains some of  his motivation in writing history,

For me, I come from a culture where there's no writing about ourselves as such. There are a lot of oral tales, and  so for the first time to write something about people who've not been written about at an intimate level, there's a big hurdle. I overcame it, for some reason, I found the guts to do it.  But living here [in Canada]  I  thought,  'They'll never read it anyway!'

There is always the risk when a novelist like Vassanji, Ondaatje, Rushdie or Anita Rau Badami  reconstruct history that  it will be rejected  by a community of readers.  There will always be different perspectives on the events of history. As Linda Hutcheon points out,

Among the consequences of the postmodern desire to denaturalize history is a new self-consciousness about the distinction between the brute events of the past and the historical facts we construct out of them.  Facts are events to which we have given meaning. Different historical perspectives therefore derive different facts from the same events.  (italics in the original, 57).

Note: In this paper I use the terms "writers of diversity" and  "authors of cultural diversity" rather than the term  ethnic minority writers.  For the past 20 years I have used the term ethnic minority writers to refer to writers who self-identify as such. This follows the practice initiated  in 1991 by Enoch Padolsky of Carleton University who  argued that mainstream English and French authors of Canada can be referred to as ethnic majority writers and that those of non-English and non-French origins can be referred to as ethnic minority writers. I see no derogatory implication in the term ethnic minority writers and have used it for years to describe Italian-Canadian authors, a group of over 100 active authors who work in English, French, Italian or an Italian dialect.  Yes, I have read M.G. Vassanji's essay "Am I a Canadian Writer?" (2006).

In 2016 Vassanji published the futuristic novel, Nostalgia, in which the characters deal with the problem of nostalgia because it interferes with their long lives in the future.

Works  Cited

Ardrey, Robert. African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and the Nature of Man. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

Bland, Jared. "The Write Stuff." (interview) The Globe and Mail (Toronto) Sat. Oct. 5, 2013. p. R5.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Godfrey, Dave. The New Ancestors. Toronto: New Press, 1970.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Kamboureli, Smaro. ed. Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature in English. second edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Laurence, Margaret. This Side Jordan. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

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Updated October 18 2016 by Student & Academic Services

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