Visiting Canadian author Moyez G Vassanji held a masterclass for writers at the Safaricom Michael Joseph Centre on Saturday.
Born in Kenya but raised in Tanzania and currently living in Canada, Vassanji has seven titles to his name and recently launched, in Kenya, his current novel, The Magic of Saida, which revolves around Kamal, a middle-aged man who travels back home to Tanzania to look for his childhood sweetheart Saida, but comes to learn of the truths that had escaped him all through the years.
Vassanji specialised in theoretical nuclear physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania and a was a post-doctoral fellow at the Atomic Energy of Canada and a research associate at University of Toronto. It was at this time that he became interested in medieval Indian history and literature. His interest in literature saw him co-found and edit the Toronto South Asian Review, renamed The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad. Upon publication of Gunny Sack in 1998, he was invited for the International Writing Programme at University of Iowa. That was his final year as a nuclear physicist.
Vassanji's inspiration comes from the compulsion to write a story.
“The compulsion to write stories is what inspires me to write. You write what you think is beautiful but at the same time it's depressing," he says, adding that novels take him about three years or more to complete.
As a writer, he believes that rules are meant to be broken, as they limit a writer. According to him, the aim of the writer is to tell the story, and to tell it honestly, as everything else is secondary. Writers should not really be bothered by actors such as overloading their work with metaphors or current trends as the main theme of their stories.
“Current trends should be implicit in the story or else you'll end up being loyal to the trend and not the story.”
About his writing strategy, Vassanji says he does not have one, but the thing he does not do is discuss his stories. Only two people have had a look at his stories before. He encourages the young writers to look for people they really trust to send their stories to if it is really necessary.
Since history plays an import role in his stories, Vassanji encourages writers to make history a background to the story. To him, blending history in fiction gives a book the timelessness it needs.
“You need to be careful so that the narrative trend not to be broken, and to present old information in a new way.”
History is what connects him to his 'ground zero,' as it gives him a sense of richness and understanding to his complexities. He added that using memory to write stories is usually not enough and imagination allows a writer to know their characters, and research helps the writer place the story within a context and this is where history comes in handy.
While encouraging the writers to write, he cautions against writing specifically for competitions, terming it as a business trading.“It is like winning a lottery. How many people can win a lottery at a time?”
Vassanji's first book The Gunny Sack was published as part of the African Writer's series under Chinua Achebe. The book looks into the history of Asians in East Africa using the story of Dhanji Govindji, as narrated by Kala, who witnesses the events before African nationalism. Not only is it a story of coming to age but also a memoir that reflects on the past.
His collection of short stories When She Was Queen and Uhuru Street also tackles a variety of issues. To Vassanji, short stories provide him with the space to try out and experiment on a number of things, and he usually dabbled in them when in-between novels.
In his fifth novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Vassanji tackes the issue of love and betrayal. Vikram Lall is a lawyer who is trying to reconcile his different worlds as he is seen as an outsider both in his Indian family and his Kenyan homeland. In the end he becomes a money broker and one of the most corrupt people in the country.
It is in this novel that the aspect of characterisation comes up. To him, no character is completely good or completely bad, and it is the author's responsibility to capture the complexity of such characters and to avoid passing their own agenda through their characters.
One thing that stands out with Vassanji is his distaste for labels.
“I do not like putting labels on myself,” he says, adding that it is wrongful attempt to pigeonhole him.
Most of his writing is a mixture of cultures but he concentrates on human experience and makes the reader connect with the characters in each story. His is not a man to look at life with a black and white lens, but to focus on the complexities of everyday life.
Speaking about his experience when he first visited India, he terms it as both thrilling and traumatic, because it was familiar and he sensed this spiritual feeling of belonging.
As a writer who started writing relatively late, Vassanji advises writers to know their style and develop their voice, something that a writer will come to realise at one point, and they will be able to find the language that is just right.
His other novels include No New Land (1991), about an Asian immigrant who has been accused of rape, and how tradition plays an important part in questioning his thoughts; Amriika (1999), about a young student who travels to the US and gets into circumstances that come to haunt him in the future; The Assassin's Song (2007) about Karsan, a young indian boy that wishes to escape from the religious legacy of the family but is called back after a tragedy strikes years later. It was shortlisted for India's Crossword Prize.
MG Vassanji has won a number of awards and accolades for his writing, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1990 for Gunny Sack, The Giller Prize for Book of Secrets in 1994 and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall in 2003, making him the first writer to win this prize twice. His memoir, A Place Within: Rediscovering India, won the 2009 Governor-General's Prize for Non-Fiction. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2005.