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meet M.G. Vassanji the internationally acclaimed author

The internationally acclaimed author, M.G. Vassanji

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH M. G. VASSANJI WITH WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM


WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM was recently privileged to be granted an interview by an internationally acclaimed fiction author, one Tanzanians can claim as their own, who was raised in the heart of Dar-es-Salaam where he attended local schools before studying nuclear physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania in the United States and eventually settling in Canada to become a prolific and successful author. Vassanji will be making one of many trips back home to Dar early in the new-year.


WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Thank you for granting us this interview and it would be natural to start by asking you to tell us about yourself and your Tanzanian connection.

VASSANJI: It is not simply a connection, it goes deep. My mother was born in Zanzibar and my father in Kibwezi in Kenya. My paternal grandparents were also born in Kenya. I was born Nairobi and raised in Dar es Salaam on Uhuru Street. I studied at Tambaza, then called Aga Khan Boys’ School, before leaving for the US to study nuclear physics at MIT and U of Pennsylvania. It proved to be an interesting academic life which I enjoyed enormously and was good at. I eventually moved to Toronto, Canada for a mix of reasons.
WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: To many it would seem a dramatic and unexpected change- from nuclear physics to fiction. How did it happen?
VASSANJI: I simply felt compelled to write stories that reflected my experiences--and therefore the experiences of many--in Dar; then Kenya, and so on as I began to travel widely.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: So when did yo
you start writing and how many books have you written so far?

VASSANJI: It is hard to say when one starts writing. In school for one thing, where I enjoyed the "composition" period. In university I started keeping a journal for a writing class. But I seriously started writing--expecting to finish and hopefully to publish-- in 1980 in Toronto, beginning with the stories for Uhuru Street and beginning to think about The Gunny Sack.
I started looking at memoirs of the European explorers in East Africa and the British colonial administrators, which took me back to East Africa of the late nineteenth century. So far I have written10 books--6 novels, two collections of stories, 2 works of non-fiction. Winner of Giller Prize 2 times for best work of fiction in Canada, and Governor General's Award for best work of nonfiction. I write full-time. A complete list of my books, and other information can be gathered on www.mgvassanji.com and also on facebook.
WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Which was your first book and what was it about and also tell us about some of your other books?

VASSANJI: My first book was The Gunny Sack, about the Indian -or Asian- experience in Tanzania; The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is set in Nakuru and Nairobi, beginning with the Mau Mau period, which I experienced as a child of 4. Uhuru Street is a collection of stories set on Uhuru Street. My latest work is a work of nonfiction, a memoir of my travels in India over 15 years; it is called A Place Within, Rediscovering India. I visited the villages that my ancestors came from; I also met some African Indians and visited one of their villages. These are East Africans who arrived in India several centuries ago. The temptation was to speak to them in Kiswahili, but of course they only speak Kihindi. One of them looked like Abdulrahman Babu…

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: So you must be Aloo in the story ‘Leaving’ in your collection Uhuru Street- the bright young chap who ends up at University in America after his mother’s initial scepticism that he could make it? How much of that is true and how much made up? Is the part about Aloo’s mother asking him to promise not to marry a ‘mzungu’ true? What was the reason for that?

VASSANJI Aloo is only partly based on me. I took my own experiences and split them to fit too characters. But it is a story. As for not marrying a mzungu: This was simply the requirement to marry your own kind. It was true among Africans too, I have been told.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: So you got married eventually. Tell us about your wife and family.

VASSANJI: My wife Nurjehan was born in Dar es Salaam, but her parents came from India. On one of my visits to India she was with me and we went to visit her family’s ancestral home, now demolished.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Do you have a best author or a favourite author?

VASSANJI: I do not have a best author--a best anything is for young people. Life is too complex.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Okay, who was your favourite as a young man? Aloo in ‘Leaving’ is portrayed as an avid reader, what did Aloo read and to what extent and how did Aloo’s reading influence Vassanji’s acclaimed writing?

VASSANJI: I used to read mostly “light reading”—everything coming from abroad: Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, etc. We really had no guides to introduce us to literature. But I remember discovering James Baldwin in high school, which affected me profoundly. We also had a good dramatic society in our school. And one of our headmasters, Peter Palangyo, was a novelist, though we didn’t know it at the time; now I understand why he brought African authors to speak to us in school—one of them was Chinua Achebe. So that also affected me.
WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: To what do you attribute your success as a writer?

VASSANJI: I am an obsessive writer and I write whenever I can. I am obsessed because I have stories to tell; these stories, the people and places I write about have not been written about. As I said before, all we read were books about other people, other places. I wanted to write about Uhuru Street, Dar es Salaam, the shopkeepers and the fundis and the thieves and the crazies. As I often say, whenever I get the chance, for most of the world, Africa is a place of HIV, wars, and corruption. In my books, I negate that—not that I write political treatises; I write about ordinary life where I grew up. My generation, including those who left due to the restrictions of Ujamaa, have deep ties to Tanzania; we are the children of Nyerere; we went to the maandamano and sang; we did national service and marched and sang…

I attribute my success to the fact that I write and work hard; then comes a bit of luck. Would I have written had I stayed in Tanzania? I don’t know. Life in the eighties, I understand was very very hard. And you need distance from which to look back.
WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: What are you working on now, what is your current project?

VASSANJI: My current project is a novel about a chotara in Tanzania.
WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Tell us a little more about that. What themes does it explore? Is there another in-between world of a different sort in the making here?
VASSANJI: I am still exploring, so I cannot say more…


WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: You are planning a visit to Tanzania in January 2010, what are you planning to do during your visit?

VASSANJI: Yes, I will be making one of many trips I have made to Tanzania since leaving as a young man. I will give a reading at Novel Idea at The Slip Way on 21 January 2010. I also intend to give a writing workshop for young or developing writers who want to discuss their work with me and others like them. The last time I read in Dar, I met some young people who seemed desperate for advice and encouragement. I thought then it would be a good idea to have a workshop. It would be from 22 Jan to 26 Jan. (roughly) It is absolutely free. The venue is still to be confirmed.
I will also be travelling. I plan to go down the coast and see the Maji Maji sites, for one thing. I am interested in the tarika movements and utenzi poetry; so I will be visiting tarika centres and picking up books. I would also like to meet some waganga.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Research on a project rather than consultation on your soaring literary fortunes motivates your planned meetings with the waganga presumably?!

VASSANJI: Of course!

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Could these workshops be held regularly or even annually do you think? Could this give impetus to encouraging a culture of reading and promote literacy? If so, have you any plans to make it more regular?

VASSANJI: I think so. This has been on my mind for a very long time. You do not find African books here. The other day I had a huge and unfortunate quarrel here with the head of a writers’ festival, questioning him why African writers were not invited to Toronto. Twice in Dar I have volunteered free workshops at the University; but as we used to say, Tanzania is the land of bado kidogo. I also volunteered in Nairobi. So, yes, regular writing workshops and literary publications are a good idea.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Do you write in languages other than English?

VASSANJI: I can’t. But I speak and understand and can read (not very fluently) two Indian languages and Kiswahili.

WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: There seems to be an accessibility problem of your work in some of the places you write about. Uhuru Street is not available in Tanzania for example- a title that might appeal and get Dar readers curious simply because of its title, if you see what I mean. Then also there is the question of language, a good number of readers in Tanzania might not be so comfortable reading English. Do you have any plans to get at least some of your writing especially those set in Dar or East Africa translated into Swahili as a way of making your work based on your experience in the region more accessible here?

VASSANJI: I think it would be wonderful to have some of my works translated into Kiswahili. Again, it’s a question of bado kidogo. Someone has translated quite a few of the stories of Uhuru Street, which might get published, hopefully.


WWW.ISSAMICHUZI. BLOGSPOT.COM: Thank you for sparing time to spend with WWW.ISSAMICHUZI.BLOGSPOT.COM

VASSANJI: Thank you.


Kuna Maoni 6 mpaka sasa.

  1. Anonymous Anasema:

    WE NEED PEOPLE LIKE THIS MAN SO OPEN MINDED FULL OF LOVE. NOVEL WRITING IS JUST A BIG CAREER AS ANY OTHER CAREER ONE TO FOLLOW. THANK YOU VERY MUCH INDEED FOR SHARING YOUR STORY WITH US, UNFORTUNATELY I AM IN LONDON BUT I COULD ATTEND IF I WAS IN TANZANIA, FOR LONG TIME NOW I HAVE SOME INTEREST IN STARTING WRITING STORY BOOKS

  2. Anonymous Anasema:

    An interesting story, Michuzi usiache kutuambia venue ya workshop yake akiwa Dar

  3. Anonymous Anasema:

    I was on a subway from Scarborough to Downtown Toronto. I saw a lady who looks like an Indian by complexion reading a book titled "Uhuru Street". I was immediately curious and attrated to it.

    All my eyes were on the book and the lady on the other side of train must have noticed that I was pipping throuh the commuter crowd to see what she was reading. I could see her slightly raising the back of the book as if she wanted me to read the cover.

    I immediately took the note of the Author and the title and I aimed to approach the lady as soon as the crowd in the subway train has subsided. Unfortunately she got off at Yonge/Bloor and I lost her. Next day I went to bookshop and I got my copy. I enjoyed it in many ways...Thanks

  4. Anonymous Anasema:

    Vassanji ni mwandishi anayeaminika na kukubalika kweli. Ninawaomba mutazame kitabu changu kidogo kinachozingatia uchambuzi wa riwaya zake zilizozungumzia hali, historia na maisha ya Wahindi wa Afrika Mashariki. Kitabu chenyewe chaitwa:
    "Reading M. G. Vassanji: A Contextual Approach to Asian African Fiction (2009)".

    Mw. Makokha (au ukipenda Shemeji Paulo Kamau)

  5. Anonymous Anasema:

    We Paulo Kamau hivi kwa nini unapenda kujiita title ya shemeji? Wewe ni shemeji wa kaka na dada zake mkeo na sio wa wanablogu ya jamii! Hujaoa dadangu mimi!

  6. Eni Anasema:

    Vassanji,
    Congratulations upon your success as a writer growing up roughly in the same neighborhood(in my case Uganda. Like you, I consumed a lot of Enid Blyton during my childhood, which explains why I decided to write a book on the author, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com,www.amazon.com).
    Stephen Isabirye