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“My father lost my mother one evening in a final round of gambling at the poker table,” writes the narrator of “When She Was Queen,” the title story of a new collection by bestselling novelist and two-time winner of the Giller Prize, M.G. Vassanji. That fateful evening in Kenya becomes “the obsessive and dark centre” of the young man’s existence and leads him, years later in Toronto, to unearth an even darker family secret.
In “The Girl With The Bicycle,” a man witnesses a woman from his hometown of Dar es Salaam spit at a corpse as it lies in state at a Toronto mosque. As he struggles to fathom her strange behaviour, he finds himself prey to memories and images from the past–and to perilous yearnings that could jeopardize his comfortable, middle-aged life.
Still reeling from the impact of his wife’s betrayal, a man decides to stop in on an old college friend in “Elvis, Raja.” But he soon realizes that it’s not always wise to visit the past as he finds himself trapped in a most curious household, where Elvis Presley has replaced the traditional Hindu gods.
The other stories in the collection also feature exceptional lives transplanted. A young man returns to his roots in India, hoping to find his uncle and, perhaps, a bride. Instead, he becomes a reluctant guru to the residents of his ancestral village. A mukhi must choose between granting the final sacrilegious wish of a dying man and abiding by religious custom in a community that considers him a representative of God. A woman is torn between the voice of her dead husband–a cold and grim-natured atheist–and her new, kind and loving husband whose faith nevertheless places constraints on her as a woman. On Halloween night, a scientist lays bare his horrifying plan to seek vengeance on the man who thwarted his career.
Set variously in Kenya, Canada, India, Pakistan, and the American Midwest, these poignant and evocative stories portray migrants negotiating the in-between worlds of east and west, past and present, secular and religious. Richly detailed and full of vivid characters, the stories are worlds unto themselves, just as a dusty African street full of bustling shops is a world, and so is the small matrix of lives enclosed by an intimate Toronto neighbourhood. It is the smells and sentiments and small gestures that constitute life, and of these Vassanji is a master.
Vassanji’s seventh book and his second collection of short stories, When She Was Queen was shortlisted for the 2006 Toronto Book Award. The jury said: "Vassanji's Naipaulian language is like a sharp short knife that cuts through the superficial and gets to the heart and soul of the narrative.”
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M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, and raised in Tanzania. He took a doctorate in physics at M.I.T. and came to Canada in 1978. While working as a research associate and lecturer at the University of Toronto in the 1980s he began to dedicate himself seriously to a longstanding passion, writing.
His first novel, The Gunny Sack, won a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and he was invited to be writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The novel’s success was a spur, Vassanji has commented: “It was translated into several languages. I was confident that this was what I could do, that writing was not just wishful thinking. In 1989 I quit my full-time job and began researching The Book of Secrets.” That celebrated, bestselling novel won the inaugural Giller Prize, in 1994.
Vassanji’s other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land (1991) and Amriika (1999), and Uhuru Street, a collection of stories. His unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant, classical style, his narrative reach, and his interest in characters who are trying to reconcile different worlds within themselves. The subtle relationship of the past and present are also constants in his writing: “When someone asks you where you are from or who you are, there is a whole résumé of who you are. I know very few people who do not have a past to explain. That awareness is part of my work.”
M.G. Vassanji was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994 in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve Canadians on Maclean’s Honour Roll. In 2003 he became the first writer to win the Giller Prize twice, when his bestselling novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall garnered the award. When She Was Queen, his most recent work, was shortlisted for the 2006 Toronto Book Award.
M.G. Vassanji lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.
When She Was Queen
My father lost my mother one evening in a final round of gambling at the poker table. I have often tried to recall that moment, its exact details of scene and mood, though I was not present there, could not have been. I was, if you will, the contingent phenomenon, a potential lurking in the unholy fug of a revelrous night spun out of control. My father’s gesture was not the nail-biting one of a compulsive gambler who, having lost all, imagines with diseased mind he will redeem himself with just that one hand that Lady Luck, his kismet, was bound to throw his way. Nor was there an epic dimension to that fateful moment – ancient enemy seeking ultimate revenge – castration in public. My father was unusual in many ways; but he was also a simple innkeeper, who succumbed in an instant to one gigantic temptation. He had already won a few hundred shillings that night, not a trifling sum for him. But then, in all the whimsical naivety of his nature he let his good sense abandon him. He saw a miraculous vision of more, he desired it to distraction. On the table for him to win was a palatial lakeside residence, which turned Mother heartbreakingly wistful and envious every time she set her eyes on it, and which he could never hope to provide her in a hundred years with his wages. When John Chacha, known otherwise as the Asian King of Kisumu, declared magnanimously, “I am ready to bid what is dearest to me, this alishaan mansion – there, you have a chance to wipe me out and move in with your lovely wife into my castle – ” Father said, “Don’t I only wish I had something of value to match your bid.”
John Chacha, with his impressive, oversized head and abundant white mane, beamed at my father across the table.
“You have,” he said. “You have exactly such a thing.”
The few people standing around the table followed the big man’s wolfish leer and smiled in nervous anticipation. And my fair and beautiful mother, with her stylishly modern, short brown hair and shimmering olive-green sari, on whom that eye fell as she stood watching behind her red-faced husband: Why did she choose to remain silent?
I have gleaned this story from whatever my mother Shirin, and my two elder sisters Razia and Habibeh, who were then seven and nine years old, have relinquished to my queries. We all live in Toronto now, far from Kisumu by Lake Victoria, and my father Rashid has been dead twenty years. Let us say that over the years enough allusion to that eventful night had flown past me, uncomprehended, that finally I decided to uncover all the mystery surrounding it.
In the mid-1960s my family were settled in Kisumu, down from the western ridge of the Great Rift Valley, in the cosy equatorial embrace of the Lake Victoria shoreline. It was soon after the independence of Kenya, life in this new sunshine was freer and livelier than it had ever been before; the Indians were emerging from the former mingy, scrappy existence of their neighbourhoods. There was money around, and there was life to be lived. I recall a happy childhood from those days, and legends about the hardships and migrations of a distant past. My father Rashid, who had tried his hand as a salesman at a hunting store in Nairobi, as a safari rally driver and navigator, and as manager of a timber mill and later a tea plantation, had been enticed when the plantation was sold by its owners to manage one Rose Hotel in Kisumu. Rashid Jafar was an outsider in Kisumu, but because of having worked with Europeans and acquired certain mannerisms and habits as a result, and due to his brush with glory when he and his co-driver came close to beating the Swedish aces Erikson and Erikson in the East African Safari rally (their Peugeot 404 overturned on the home stretch outside Nairobi), he was welcomed by the rich Asians of that town.
Every Friday night a certain rambunctious group among this elite would meet at the Rose Hotel for a late dinner from its renowned menu. The kitchen at the Rose was famous from Nairobi to Kampala for its rich spicy dishes – the chicken tikka, the lamb biryani, the coconut and coriander fish, and the naans and parathas; tourist handbooks raved about its tantalizing aromas and rich tastes, and airline pilots were known to hitch rides with each other to eat there. This glory of the Rose was a creation of my father.
He would say his hero was the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley – whose name was more apt to draw scorn and contempt in independent East Africa for his reputed cruelty, but what Rashid admired about that American was his pure gumption, the fact that he, a foreigner, simply arrived on the scene one day and started up the Congo River on foot and on boat and wound up ultimately not far from our town in the heart of the continent. Rashid’s spirit was not of the outdoors type, but he too was a mover, a migrant. Kisumu, he would say, was his final stop.
I loved him. There was never a time when, if you put your hand in his jacket pocket, you would not come out with a Trebor or Bluebird candy, a box of Smarties, a cylinder of Rolo chocolate, a packet of Pez awaiting your grasping child’s hand. Mother said he had a hole in his pocket, but for me that pocket was Ali Baba’s cave. John Chacha would tell him, Your staff eats better than me.
I recall a man slim of build, not very tall, and rather dark, with a narrow face and sparse hair; the face smelling deliciously of Old Spice aftershave and stale cigarette. He had a peculiar habit, when posed to listen to anyone, of facing away, with a tilt of the head downward, lending them his ear, so to speak. Always in a light grey or blue suit, he could be found at the hotel reception, or in the kitchen, or striding along a corridor somewhere in between those two destinations; in the evenings he sat in the bar or the dining room among his patrons. Mother supervised housekeeping and shopping for the kitchen.
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Book Description Doubleday Canada, 2005. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0385661762