Jul 19, 2009
M. G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. Before coming to Canada in 1978, he attended MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, where he specialized in theoretical nuclear physics. From 1978-1980 he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Atomic Energy of Canada, and from 1980 to 1989 he was a research associate at the University of Toronto. During this period he developed a keen interest in medieval Indian literature and history, co-founded and edited a literary magazine (The Toronto South Asian Review, later renamed The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad), and began writing stories and a novel. In 1989, with the publication of his first novel, The Gunny Sack, he was invited to spend a season at the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. That year ended his active career in nuclear physics. Vassanji is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. He has won the Giller Prize, twice; the Harbourfront Festival Prize; the Commonwealth First Book Prize (Africa); the Bressani Prize and the Order of Canada. We met at the Blue Met Writers Festival in Montreal to talk about his most brief biography of Mordecai Richler for Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series.The discussion touches on Richler’s outsider status, his struggle with and acceptance of Jewishness, making one person’s story everyone’s story, cities, streets and communities, mothers and fathers, growing out of groups, humble origins, irony, great novels versus journalism, and honesty.