M.G. Vassanji: Essays on His Works

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 13/10/2015
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website: www.johnsibi-okumu.com

Website: johnsibi-okumu.com

Editor: Asma Sayed

Reviewer: Dr Godwin Siundu

This book, published by Guernica Editions of Canada in 2014, brings together: eight essays, an interview with MG, as he is fondly known among his admiring readers in East Africa, a bit of his biography, and one of his lectures, ‘So As Not to Die’, initially delivered as a keynote address at the McGill University in 2010.

All these demonstrate the editor Asma Sayed’s ambition, but also the keen interest that Vassanji’s writing, spanning twenty-six years now, has generated among scholars across the world. Yet, the scholars and their essays demonstrate much more than interest: they reveal a diversity of thematic and theoretical issues that Vassanji’s novels, short stories, essays and memoirs variously confront, all of which reflect a nuanced understanding of the many issues that frame the lives of his characters and, by extension, his primary audiences whose experiences are given a second handle by the characters.

While Vassanji’s lecture comes at the end of the book, I choose to begin with it in this review because it provides the answer to the overarching question of the predominance of history in his works. If other contributors to the book have dealt with the question of history in its various shades – as the motive for writing (Sayed’s Introduction; ‘vagaries of migration’ by Cottier, and so on – Vassanji’s own lecture affirms the centrality of history in his works not just as a context, but also as an important co-text to his writings. In a world of unequal and largely unfair group engagement terms, it is important to persistently declare one’s presence in a manner that rejects the temptingly easy route of accepting minority status. Noting the futility of such a defeatist and fatalistic position of ‘being a minority’, as mainstream historical discourses have tended to label South Asians in the Diaspora, Vassanji’s essay points out the necessity of pronouncing Asian identities outside the context of the minority / dominant binaries, and instead see these as attempts at gaining a grip on the ever elusive understanding of our uniqueness. Since I cannot say this better than MG himself, let him speak: ‘if you don’t let others know about you, they discover you on their own terms: as backward and savage, as dying and diseased, as not having culture and being joyless’ (321). If I get it right, Vassanji views the necessity of history as a subversive tool that aims at turning preconceptions and stereotypes on their heads. For this reason, ‘history becomes a battleground’ (318).

Other contributors to this important book illuminate different spots in this ‘battleground’, including the social and cultural implications of cosmopolitanism to migrant identities (Anne Cottier), Vassanji’s philosophizing in essays (Jonathan Hart), and the socio-political interpretations of geographical spaces (Jonathan Rollins, Warris Vianni, and Nancy Batty). Theory, as a product of historical reflections on interpretation, is also dealt with by Amin Malak and by the editor, Asma Sayed, in her rich introductory chapter.

Sayed’s ‘Introduction: Writing History, Writing Diaspora: the In-Between World of M.G. Vassanji’ borrows from one of MG’s most celebrated novels, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, to offer a panoramic survey of MG’s corpus of writings. Highlighting the thread of history that ties the writings together and to one author, Sayed also shows the theoretical tools – all related to how Diasporic experiences have been encountered and explained – that have been readily applied to attempt unpacking MG’s usually layered and nuanced readings of his subjects. Sayed’s is a fitting and thoroughgoing Introduction that pays homage to the thoroughbred scholar that she undoubtedly is.

Sayed’s Introduction gives way to Anne Cottier’s equally captivating and densely theorized essay, ‘Loss, Belonging and the Vagaries of Migration: Cosmopolitanism in M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song.’ This essay title, while a tad mouth-filling, points to the key concerns that one can read in virtually all of MG’s works. Admittedly, there is not much of critical responses to this particular novel – perhaps because it is a comparatively recent one, or because it addresses the vexed question of communal violence traceable to longwinded histories of grievances and revenge, all calling for a less than the rhythmical narrative choices that characterize his other works – yet the essay left me with the thought that the author took on more than a book chapter can adequately capture. Loss, belonging and cosmopolitanism are each extensive and intensive subjects that have been intensely presented in the novel, and a focus on one or two of these would have created more room for textual analysis but, of course, these are matters of reader’s choices of scope.

One of the most fascinating essays in this book is Jonathan Hart’s ‘M.G. Vassanji and the Essay of Life’, which not only targets the essay, a genre of Vassanji’s writing that hardly invites critical responses, but does so by surfacing a remarkably close stylistic analysis that shows the close proximity between Vassanji’s subject areas and stylistic choices. Importantly, Hart shows how Vassanji deploys distancing irony – by use of conditionals – to make profound statements regarding his major themes in his essays. By analyzing Vassanji’s artistic use of passive and active constructions appropriately, Hart emphasizes Vassanji’s ingenuity in manipulating form even when dealing with content whose regular presence in his writings has given it the authority of common sense – something based on what we know, and which we need not question, or should we?

Hart’s correct interpretation of Vassanji’s caution against accepting the given, the commonsensical, is pursued from a different yet related trajectory by Jonathan Rollins’ ‘Picturing Canada: Narratives of Home and the (Trans-)National Imaginary in the Work of M.G. Vassanji’, an essay that mobilizes diverse theoretical concepts and their implications to highlight the intersection between Tanzanian immigrants in Canada and the dominant spatial representations of the new country that Vassanji, in No New Land, designates ‘a place to lay down your head’ (34, Rollins 109). Accordingly, Canada, like Africa, has for long been known for its vast emptiness – implying a subtle invitation to visitors to come, occupy and open it up – but, unlike Africa, it occupies traditional American imaginaries as a land where cold winds endlessly blow. Vassanji, in borrowing these tropes in No New Land is, as Rollins suggests, dramatizes ‘the emptiness of Canada [… as] an emotional emptiness and detachment’ (129), thus using an extended metaphor to capture not just ‘a hostile natural environment’ but also a ‘hostile social environment’ (141, original italics). The point, made by both Vassanji and Rollins, is that we are all potential victims of (mis)representation, and that our sociology could be rooted to our geography, and that a question of the one may lead us to a better understanding of the other. This is also Warris Vianni’s point in ‘In Search of a Place’, which argues that geographical exclusivity can be harmful, because ‘distance and separation can induce much ignorance and silliness’ (180).

Amin Malak’s ‘Ambivalent Affiliations and the Postcolonial Condition: The Fiction of M.G. Vassanji’ is easily one of the most read essay in this book, because the essay was first published in World Literature Today way back in 1993. Why this essay was, in its original form, reproduced in this collection beats me: it is not reworked to capture the new developments in Vassanji’s career, or even to give the reader the impression that Malak has revisited his earlier position or come by new knowledge on Vassanji’s writing. Instead, we have sentences like the ‘saga of global uprootedness and unstable migration is dramatized in the three works to date of Vassanji’s fiction…’ (183). I do not think the caveat at the end of the essay – acknowledging the essay as an earlier publication – adequately undoes the damage of including an article – and the same argument applies to Nancy Batty’s essay immediately after – that was already in wide circulation. In fact, if we follow the view that journal articles travel faster and farther than books and book chapters, it becomes more difficult to find a persuasive reason for their inclusion in this otherwise good collection of essays. But this is not to say that the two essays are any weaker in their substance; they make profound arguments which, given their earlier circulation in the community of scholars, rehashing or summarizing them here is neither helpful nor necessary. Indeed, the two essays would have fitted better as bibliographic entries that Sayed thoughtfully includes under the section entitled ‘Bibliography: Works by and about M.G. Vassanji.’ If reprints of this book are planned, the editor should have a chance to correct what seems to be a question-answer mismatch (last Q&A, p 246) which, to be fair, is a slippage that may happen when one processes the amount of information that Sayed did when editing this book. Overall, this is a worthwhile book with well written essays that should attract not just scholars of M.G. Vassanji’s writings, but those in the wider field of postcolonial, area and cultural studies.


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