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December 8, 1999


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Ramji's Amrika

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Gene Carey in Toronto

M G Vassanji The United States is the canvas for M G Vassanji's new book, Amrika, the variation in spelling referring to the way many Indians pronounce the name.

Though Vassanji has placed the novel's main character in the US, he has Ramji tied with an umbilical cord to Dar es Salaam, the African city that was Vassanji's home till 1970.

Vassanji has also inevitably woven his newest tale around the issues of exile, longing, displacement and, ultimately, acceptance. The world of the 1960s form the backdrop -- a world of "changing values and sexual freedom, of peace marches, religious cults, and protest bombings". That is the world that Ramji inherits and shapes to make his own.

Asked why East Africa is always the part of his novels, Vassanji replies that in Amrika the main character is from East Africa but the novel is largely based on America.

"It is anchored in the United States and it deals with issues that Americans faced during the 60s. Ramji is taken over by events. He longs to go back to Tanzania to join in the political struggle but he is trapped in his ideals," he says.

Vassanji says the character is not semi-autobiographical though Ramji comes to the United States as an academic in search of higher learning just as Vassanji came to study physics, earning a Ph D.

Moyez Vassanji, born in 1950, left Dar es Salaam in 1970 to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and went on to earn a Ph D in nuclear physics from the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1978, he went to Canada and began work at the Chalk River atomic power station. In 1980 Vassanji moved to Toronto and began writing his first novel, The Gunny Sack, which was published in 1989. After quitting his job at the power station, Vassanji also taught at the University of Toronto.

After the publication of The Gunny Sack Vassanji began writing full time and ended his career in physics. Studying Sanskrit and Indian philology prompted his career change.

In an interview with Chelva Kanaganayakam, Vassanji said this of his decision to leave the field of physics:

'It is the kind of thing you can keep on doing. I had reached a point when I could just churn out things. Unless you are at MIT or Harvard, or a place like that, you are not really at the forefront. Sometimes I miss that life because of the way of thinking it demands. My writing, however, is much more important. It seems to be the mission in life that I finally achieved.'

He and his wife Nurjehan Aziz founded and edited the first issue of The Toronto South Asian Review, which is now known as The Toronto Review for Contemporary Writing.

"Once you come here, cross the oceans, there's no going back," he says, talking of his career -- and of his roots. "There's a psychological belonging to East Africa, particularly Tanzania. You need something to hold on.

"In the case of Ramji, it is an extreme situation. He breaks away. He goes to an ashram to isolate himself. To me, it is a personal statement."

Ramji arrives in America during the anti-Vietnam War movement, getting caught in the radicalism of the time. Ironically, Ramji learns about radicalism in America.

"He has guilt feelings about not returning back to channel his knowledge into politics but the idea remains at the back of his mind. If learning about radicalism is the first irony in the book, the second one is realization that in America he is still considered a colored person, a Third World person," says Vassanji.

Vassanji, who has also won the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994 for his book, The Book of Secrets, which like his first book, The Gunny Sack, is based in Dar es Salaam, says the place still means a lot to him.

"I went back to Tanzania in 1989 after 19 years. It is a part of my soul. The other part is India, which I visited for the first time in 1993. My father has never been to India, the land of my forefathers. After that, I have visited India a couple of more times," he says with a deep thoughtful smile.

As for his birthplace Kenya, Vassanji says he may visit it for gathering historical material for his next book based on Kenya in 1953.

"If I had never left Tanzania I would have never become a writer. Once I came to the United States I had a fear of losing my link with Tanzania. Then I feared going back because if I went back I feared losing the new world one had discovered," he says.

He thinks his own Ismaili community is "politically screwed up.

"They have never stood up for a cause. They respect authority. In a way it's a positive trait but it is also negative when they never stand up for justice. During the British rule, they paid homage to the British. After Julius Nyerere came to power, they bowed to him," he says nonchalantly.

When Rohinton Mistry won the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Such a Long Journey and, later, the Giller Award for A Fine Balance, critics said they were not "Canadian novels".

Similar criticism is directed at Vassanji's The Book of Secrets.

Vassanji defends the books by saying that even Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is not a Canadian novel; neither are some of Margaret Atwood's novels.

"I have been called a Canadian novelist, an African writer and a south Asian writer," he says.

"My second book, No New Land, is based on a place in Toronto. I write about subjects that are familiar to me. I have just finished a collection of short stories based on Toronto, Africa and India. One story tells about an African who buys land to build a mosque. The cultural industry in the United States and Canada look at you twice. In Canada there are many south Asian writers now, and so we can't be ignored.

"At my reading at the Harbourfront (in Toronto) recently there were more people from the mainstream community than south Asians. I have been accepted now as part of the literary circle," he says.

Vassanji hopes the new generation of south Asians will produce more writers.

"This generation thinks it's easy. But it's lot of hard work and lot of effort. Even after growing up in this place, kids face identity crisis," he says.

Asked if exile will be the recurring theme of his books, Vassanji admits that it's not deliberate but it's something that is inescapable.

"I put a lot of my emotional baggage in The Gunny Sack. In No New Land, I provided the experiences of lot of people in the place that I describe.

"I didn't live there but I was familiar with lot of people who lived there. I create characters in the head, make something up. Some things does not have to happen but you imagine," he says.

Vassanji admits that Amrika took a long time in writing. He started it even before his other books, finally completing it five years after his The Book of Secrets won him the Giller Prize and became a national bestseller. It also earned him a prestigious place in the roll of honour of Canadian newsweekly Maclean.

What are his working habits?

"I write at night but I think about it all the time," he has said. "I like to have the theme and the characters inside me for a while. So far it hasn't hurt. Of course, I'm always observing. I always work like that. I feel the pressure build up, up, up in my head, then I just let it explode."

Writing for him has always been a quest to know himself.

"I never know how my stories are going to end, so even when I'm writing I'm wondering what's going to happen," he added. "And partly the question is, 'What am I going to discover about myself?'."

Arthur J Pais contributed to the feature

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