Mr Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and lived in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. He later moved to America where he studied Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained a PhD. Moving to Canada in 1978, he continued his career in physics until his first novel, The Gunny Sack, was published in 1989. Since then, he has published a number of novels, including The Book of Secrets (1993) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003), both of which won the Giller Prize. His books deal with history and memory as well as immigration and diaspora between three continents, Asia, Africa and America.


Like many East African Ismailis of Indian heritage, Mr. Vassanji’s knowledge of India was based on stories told by his parents, religious hymns, including Ismaili Ginans and later, Bollywood films. None of this prepared him for his visit to India itself, which, he said, changed him completely. He found that he could not simply write about India objectively, but rather that he had to write about himself and his own responses to the country.


The evening began with Mr. Vassanji reading selections from A Place Within (2008), including his reflections on India before his visit, a description of the shrine of Amir Khusraw, a humorous account of a visit to a temple of a local Devi and his impressions on first visiting Gujarat, the land of his ancestors. The beauty of Mr. Vassanji’s prose was apparent in the reading. The extracts contained subtle and often surprising transitions between humour, tragedy and the sublime.


Dr Farouk Mitha and Mr Vassanji in discussionThe reading was followed by an interview with the author, led by Dr Farouk Mitha,  Course Director of the Secondary Teacher Education Programme. This became a wide-ranging conversation, taking in the nature of writing, the complex nature of identity and the current political situation in India; issues which Mr. Vassanji has dealt with in his writing.


Mr Vassanji signing books after the eventMr Vassanji’s comments on the act of writing; which for him is like eating or breathing rather than being the product of analytical thought, shed light on the differences between writer and critic. He also commented on the way in which people are shaped by historical events and the integration of these events into his writing. His books are concerned with the interaction between public and personal histories. Mr. Vassanji ended on a stirring note when he stated, “If you don’t write about yourself then you don’t know yourself, and others will write about you and they will stereotype you.”