M G Vassanji


Books by MG Vassanji

Novels               Short Stories               Nonfiction

The Novels

The Magic of Saida

In historic Kilwa, on the coast of Tanzania, Kamal Punja is the "dark Indian" boy, son of an Indian father who absconded and an African mother; his playmate Saida is the granddaughter of a famous Swahili poet who narrates the history of the country through his epic verses. Kamal teaches English and arithmetic to Saida, she teaches him the Arabic script and poetry. They seem destined for each other, until Kamal is sent away to Dar es Salaam to take up his Indian heritage. Now a successful Edmonton doctor, in middle age Kamal returns to his native Kilwa to search for his childhood sweetheart. What he finds is a nightmarish legacy of his broken promise. A story of love, exile and return, embedded in a culture where history is all around, and magic and poetry are the stuff of everyday life.

A gripping narrative...[Vassanji's] material is so compelling that he needs little more than to adopt the role of a chronicler... A humble village, in the imagination of this chronicler, becomes a vortex of varying belief systems and ways of life. THE NATIONAL POST (Toronto)

Mysterious and haunting.... The seductive power of Vassanji's prose mesmerizes.... Conrad would approve.

The Magic of Saida is the sort of novel that, upon finishing, one wants to immediately read again, to examine, to study just how Vassanji works his narrative magic, and to allow oneself to savour it just that little bit longer. THE GLOBE & MAIL

An ambitious, passionate work about racial identity, deracination and the unsolvable mysteries of the human heart. KIRKUS REVIEWS

A sensitive examination of love, loss, and homelessness...It's impossible not to feel enormous sympathy for a man who overcomes so many hurdles except that of his own humanity. For creating this character, MG Vassanji must be thanked. THE VANCOUVER SUN



The Assassin's Song

In the aftermath of the Gujarat violence of 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag--the shrine of a mysterious medieval sufi--begins to tell the story of his family. Growing up in the 1960s, Karsan is next in line after his father to assume the lordship of shrine. But he desires to be "just ordinary." Against his father's wishes he leaves home to study at Harvard, eventually marries and settles in Vancouver. Not until the tragedy strikes, in Canada and at Pirbaag during the violence, is he drawn back across thirty years of estrangement to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India

A beautiful book, not to mention brave.... Vassanji's new novel is nothing if not timely. But this novel also feels timeless, partly because of the vast history it spans.... At a time when fanatical fundamentalism in both East and West derides the idea of gentle, simple faith, Vassanji confirms the significance of the spirit--and, honestly, the soul is altered. THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Toronto)

Making a general virtue of its own exceptionalism, The Assassin's Song  is both particular and universal, which is one of the marks of great literature. Historical novel, bildungsroman and terrorist thriller all rolled into one, it is above all a celebration of religious tolerance, which is more necessary now than ever in Gujarat and elsewhere. THE GUARDIAN (UK)

A deeply affecting story, full of contemplation and mystery...Vassanji has given us an exceedingly relevant novel that should be required reading in our divided times. THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A resplendent novel. THE NEW YORKER




The In-between World of Vikram Lall

Vikram Lall, the grandchild of an Indian railroad worker, comes of age in 1950s Kenya. Against the unsettling backdrop of Mau Mau violence and the country's struggle for independence, Vic and his sister Deepa search for their place in a world sharply divided between Kenyans and the British.

Tautly written.... Admirably captures the tenor of the postcolonial period: the predicament of the Asian minority, the corruption that marred Kenya's fledgling independence, and the individual tragedies that were the cost of the revolution. THE NEW YORKER

Brilliantly written and deeply felt.... This beautiful novel...is proof that fictional truth can illuminate an epoch in history like nothing else. THE BOSTON GLOBE

Brilliant.... Visceral.... wrestles passionately and intelligently with big intractable questions. Belonging in a category with Tolstoy's War and Peace, Vassanji's saga is sweeping in scope. THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Toronto)

Glorious.... Both a gripping story and an enduring historical document. THE NATIONAL POST (Toronto)

A good example of how the postcolonial novel should be written.... This is the work of a writer at the top of his form. THE GUARDIAN (London)



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Ramji, a gifted student from Dar goes to America on a scholarship. There, though conservative by nature and deeply religious, he gets drawn away from his beliefs and into the radical student politics and counterculture of the sixties. Many years later, feeling that he has sold out on his left-wing politics, he abandons his middle-class life to join a radical publishing outfit in Los Angeles--only to discover in the ensuing tragedy that the line between radical politics and acts of terrorism can be thin and elusive. Written just before 9/11, this novel turns out to be strangely foreboding, while providing a graphic description of the sixties' student counterculture from an "outsider" perspective.




The Book of Secrets

Pius Fernandes, a retired schoolteacher in modern-day Dar es Salaam, is given a recently discovered diary of a British colonial administrator from 1913-14. Set at the dawn of the First World War, the diary tells an intriguing secret about a liaison in the past, while describing an early Asian immigrant community in a border town. Pursuing the story of the diary and its secret, Fernandes discovers that it is as much the untold history of East Africa he is unravelling as his own self. 

Part generational history, part detective story, part social chronicle, the novel is a living tapestry to join the past to the present, a continuing commentary on the act of storytelling, which is being dramatized as we read.  ALICE MUNRO, MORDECAI RICHLER, DAVID STAINES (citation from Giller Jury).

By turns detective story, family saga [and] national history... A rich, evocative meditation on how and why stories are written... A wonderfully ambitious and absorbing novel. SUNDAY TIMES (London)

...a chillingly accurate novel. THE TIMES (London)

A love affair with the past...an exquisite, tender, and possibly great novel. THE NEW YORKER

A testament to the almost mystical power of written words, Pius Fernandes's search for the truth is also a celebration of storytelling. THE NEW YORK TIMES

M G Vassanji masterfully weaves an extraordinarily colourful and richly complicated carpet.... The Book of Secrets  is a big book in every sense. It contains both love and forgiveness. And at its heart is an enormous generosity. THE TORONTO STAR




No New Land

Nurdin Lalani and his family, Asian immigrants from Dar es Salaam, have come to the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, only to find that the old world and its values pursue them. A genial orderly at a downtown hospital, Nurdin has been accused of sexually assaulting a girl. Although he is innocent, traditional propriety prompts him to question his own thoughts. Ultimately his friendship with the enigmatic Sushila offers him an alluring freedom from the past...

It is part of Vassanji's great talent to demonstrate that the minor changes...unexpected love, sex, accusations...in the life of a very modest man are, in fact, transformations of history. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A rich portrait of a transplanted community. CALGARY HERALD

A novel of considerable charm and intelligence, informed by a delightful sense of irony. MORDECAI RICHLER



The Gunny Sack

Far away from the coastal Dar es Salaam of his childhood, Salim Juma inherits his great-aunt Ji Bai's gunny sack. It hides the forgotten relics of her past and for Salim turns into a veritable Scherezade, releasing tantalizing pieces of the history of his Indian immigrant family in a changing, modernizing East Africa.





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Short Stories

When She Was Queen

M G Vassanji weaves haunting tales of lives transplanted, of the traumas small and large of migration, of the bitterness of memory, and the unexpected consequences of hope. Ranging from the suburbs of Toronto to the Indian community of Kenya, from drought-stricken Gujarat to small-town Midwest, When She Was Queen  is quiet and composed, penetrating and often startling. It is a portrait of an increasingly modern condition, of lives caught in our swiftly changing and contradictory world.



Uhuru Street

Dar es Salaam's bustling Uhuru Street comes alive in these stories set in the colonial 1950s and the post-independence '60s  and '70s. Meet Pipa the miserly shopkeeper with his secret; the ideal servant Ali who turns out to be a peeping-tom; the Goan dress-maker Alzira and her secret agony; the demented fiance called Two-elephants-lost; the London-returned, back for the holidays, who falls wildly in love...








And Home Was Kariakoo:
a memoir of East Africa

In this travel memoir the author revisits the cities of his birth and growing up and over several journeys travels the length and breadth of the land--from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, Zanzibar to Nairobi, Kilwa to Kigoma... "For a long time it seemed to me that I would never visit those lost dimensions, experience the land in its variety, experience the diversity of its people. I was wrong. All it required was the will to do just that... There were moments when the thrill of travel and discovery were such that I felt I could go on and on, from place to place, and never stop.

Interview in Macleans:



A Place Within: Rediscovering India

For MG Vassanji, India was a place alive only in the stories of his ancestors. Mysterious and exotic, it brimmed with wonder and tradition, a place welcoming and vibrant, yet still cruel and distant. An African by birth, it is only as an adult that he finally journeys to India for the first time, and in an instant the land that once existed in his imagination comes to life.

In a reverant portrait of words and images that spans the length of India, crossing the busiest city streets, the richest countrysindes, and introducing unforgettable characters, A Place Within is more than a travelogue--it is a true homecoming to a world that has always lived inside.

Strikingly written...filled with myths, stories, legends, history, journal entries, and family narratives... One is grateful, in the end, for Vassanji's company as for his wonderful book. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A lovely, deeply personal book--one entirely worthy of Canada's top-shelf talents. EDMONTON JOURNAL

An utterly brilliant, evocative memoir that ranges across landscapes of culture, memory, identity and history.... A Place Within  is the resonant chronicle of a sage, a traveler, a pilgrim. GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD CITATION



Mordecai Richler


Both Mordecai Richler and MG Vassanji are award-winning novelists who regarded themselves as outsiders in their respective societies--one a Jew in Quebec, the other an Indian from Africa who emigrated to Canada. In this biography Vassanji follows Richler's literary and personal trajectory from a rebellious childhood in Montreal's Orthodox Jewish community to agonized apprentice in Paris and finally to a major literary figure in the world. 

Respectful yet probing, [Vassanji] creates a solid and intriguing biography of one of the most private yet profound writers of the Canadian scene. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Sympathetic and distinguished. WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Elegantly compact...Vassanji deliberately reads against the grain of the well-known Richlerian 'gruff caricature'. CANADIAN LITERATURE

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