Category Archives: Canadian Asian Pacific American

Norman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson, illustrated by Qin Leng

Norman, Speak!When Norman and his parents go to the animal shelter, they return home with a brown-and-white dog with a stump for a tail because he’s the “saddest.” “‘No one knows his real name,’” the shelter employee explains, “‘Norman is what we call him.’” As soon as his cage door is opened, Norman begins to wag until “his whole rump swung from side to side. His wag was a hula dance of happiness.”

Wagging proves to be the only communication between boy and dog. “Norman didn’t understand a word we said … after a few days with Norman, we knew the truth. He just wasn’t very smart.” And yet Norman’s energetic glee is just irresistible and “[w]e loved Norman anyway.”

One day at the park, Norman’s family learns quite the language lesson: a man and his playful canine companion show that Norman is actually fluent in Chinese (!), which prompts Mom, Dad, and the boy to sign up for Saturday morning Chinese classes. In spite of the difficult challenge (“‘More effort. Fewer jokes,’” Teacher Wang warns airplane-throwing Dad), the boy works hard to speak to his new best friend. Oh, the many languages of love …

Caroline Adderson, an internationally lauded Canadian writer for adults as well as older readers, debuts her first picture book which arrives south of the border already prized with the 2012 Helen Isobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Story Award. Adderson’s thought-provoking, diversity-celebrating (oh, so cleverly so!) tale is superlatively enhanced by Qin Leng‘s whimsical, humorous illustrations. Most noteworthy are the expressions Leng imbues on both her canine and human subjects – from the quizzical head tilt to classroom giggles. Get ready to join in on that “hula dance of happiness.”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American

King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer

King for a DayWith the arrival of the spring festival in Lahore, Pakistan, no one is more excited than Malik who is ready for the upcoming kite-flying battles armed with Falcon. “‘How can you be king of Basant with only one kite?’” his sister teases. “‘Insha Allah, it will be fast enough,’” he happily insists.

Directing from his wheelchair on the family’s rooftop, Malik sends his brother “downwind so he can catch the kites I will set free.” His sister remains nearby, carefully following his instructions. Together, the children take on the bully next door, whose hurtful words and powerful kites are no match for Falcon. Once he’s defeated the enemy, Falcon continues to pluck kite after kite from the sky: “When they land, they’ll belong to whoever finds them. But at least they will have tasted freedom.”

Malik is not only king of Basant for his aerial prowess, but even more so for his earthbound kindness as he manages – anonymously! – to stop the tears of a little girl who becomes the bully’s next victim. Joyfully, he’s already planning for next year: “And tomorrow I will start designing a new kite … for next Basant when, Insha Allah, I will be king again.” By highlighting Malik’s many other strengths and talents, author Rukhsana Khan seamlessly presents a hero who is much more than his physical challenges: His patience and skill prove stronger than any bully’s cruelty and greed.

Christiane Krömer, who “specializes in illustrating stories that feature cultures from around the world,” uses multi-layered, mixed-media collages to enhance Khan’s caring story: unexpected combinations of delicate embroidery and rougher textures add depth, carefully placed architectural specifics ground the narrative, while the depiction of a teeny-tiny black cat who is the sole witness to Malik’s secret thoughtfulness turns out to be the perfect ‘show-don’t-tell’ detail.

In the endnote “About Basant,” Canada-based Khan gives a cultural and historical overview of Basant in her birthcountry of Pakistan. She explains in the final paragraph how “kite flying and the celebration of Basant in Lahore were banned for safety reasons and for security concerns due to orthodox religious opposition.” According to a recent Pakistani media article, “Hundreds have died in Basant related accidents in the past decade”! Khan mentions that 2013 was supposed to bring a return of Basant to Lahore, but activities remained cancelled until this year. At least in Lahore, Basant officially returns February 21 until March 5, 2014. Here’s to the promise to lofty adventures ahead!

Click here to see Khan’s other titles on BookDragon.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Pakistani, Pakistani American, South Asian American

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

Dogs at the PerimeterAbove all else, Janie is a survivor. She escaped the horrifying deaths that took her entire family in her native Cambodia. She’s outlived her adoptive Canadian mother who passed away just last year. She’s built a fulfilling career as a scientist specializing in brain research. She’s the wife of a kind, gentle husband, and the mother to an adorable 7-year-old boy whose name in Khmer means “mountain.”

And then her colleague and good friend Hiroji disappears without warning – literally just walks out of his own life. And, Janie, too, begins to unravel as she can no longer contain the haunting memories of her never-faded past. Janie knows of Hiroji’s connections to her native country: his older brother James left Canada in 1970 to work as a Red Cross doctor for the victims of that heinous war, married a local woman, then just vanished. Hiroji’s repeated journeys produced no answers about his brother’s fate.

Now decades later, Janie realizes Hiroji’s need to finally know what happened has catapulted him from all that is comfortable and familiar; she knows that she, too, must do the same and confront her brutal past in order that she might reclaim her uncertain future. Both have lost a father, mother, brother. Both will need to face long suppressed memories literally trapped in their brains with which they are both so scientifically familiar, yet so emotionally detached.

In breathtaking elliptical prose that suggests more than it divulges, Madeleine Thien presents a tragic history in search of hope. Connecting elusive glimpses with disappeared moments and fractured pieces, Dogs at the Perimeter proves to be an exquisite story of redemption and recovery.

An award-winning Canadian writer of Malaysian and Chinese descent, Thien’s first two titles – her novel Certainty and short story collection Simple Recipes – found U.S. publishers after their Canadian debuts. Ironically (sadly), Dogs pubbed in Canada then in the U.K. (from highbrow Granta Books) to excellent reviews, but has yet to find an American home south of the border. U.S. publishers, take note: surely it’s time to move these Dogs at the Perimeter into the spotlight.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011 (Canada), 2012 (UK)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Cambodian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

One Step at a Time : A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

One Step at a TimeIntroduced to U.S. readers by award-winning Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in last year’s Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Son Thi Ahn Tuyet’s story continues – literally one step at a time. Now that Tuyet has a real home with her own real family – Dad, Mom, sisters Beth and Lara, and baby brother Aaron – she’s learning to finally feel safe. Nighttime still remains a bit scary when memories of war and tragedy return to haunt her dreams; no matter how nice her own room is, for now, Tuyet prefers to sleep safely “burrowed into her nest of pillows and covers on the throw rug between Beth and Lara’s beds.”

In addition to adapting to her new family and struggling to understand a culture so different from the one she left in a language she hasn’t yet learned, Tuyet prepares for some of the greatest physical challenges of her young life. The beautiful new red shoe and soft red slipper Mom bought for her polio-damaged feet and legs have already filled Tuyet’s heart with joyful smiles. Now Tuyet faces the first of multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. In the 1970s, hospital rules did not allow for constant parental interaction as is today’s accepted norm; remarkably, Tuyet endured her surgeries virtually alone.

Thankfully, recovery proved to a full family affair: the whole Morris family not only made Tuyet physically comfortable, but each ensured that she was emotionally buoyed as well. From learning to blow out birthday “fire” and realizing that the beautiful wrapping paper is meant to be torn, to not grabbing her baby brother and seeking shelter at the sound of an airplane, to being able to balance well enough on her own two legs to kick a soccer ball, Tuyet takes her new life – and her steadily recovering legs – one glorious, triumphant step at a time.

“Thank you, Tuyet,” Skrypuch writes in her ending “Author’s Note,” “for allowing me to share your story.” Readers, too – especially younger readers who might be facing any sort of adversity – will surely appreciate Tuyet’s inspiring experiences. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own very best hero.

Tidbit: Here’s an update (with pictures!) from Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch herself!

Last year, Last Airlift won the Red Cedar award in British Columbia and was a [2013] Red Maple Honour Book in Ontario. These awards are readers’ choice awards, where kids do the voting. For the Red Maple award, the Ontario Library Association hosts a huge event at Harbourfront in Toronto, with thousands of kids bussed in. I arranged for Tuyet to stand on the stage with me, and for her daughter to hold the sign and her son to introduce the book. We had long snaking line-ups for autographs, and many of the kids wanted Bria and Luke to sign their books in addition to me and Tuyet signing them. I’ve got some photos on my website. Check it out here:
♦   Last Airlift signing with Tuyet and her kids
♦   Red Maple Day at Harbourfront
♦   Tuyet and Red Maple Day

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013 (United States)


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

Author Interview: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy is one tough writer to get to, although she declares in our first email exchange when I finally track her down, “I am not at all the kind who plays hard to get :-) .” Attempts to contact her included pleas to both her Canadian and U.S. publishers and publicists (multiple times, ahem!), as well as to her Canadian literary agent’s office. Two months had already passed since my feature piece on Kim Thúy had been filed, edited, and readied for publication.

So, I got personal. I sent random emails to friends who happened to be Canadian writers. How hard could six degrees of separation be, right? I asked an Israeli Canadian buddy and an American ex-pat-now-Canadian professor. Nothing. And then I remembered a Nepali Canadian journalist author friend, who quickly replied she didn’t know Kim Thúy personally, but she thought of two friends who might. The connection that finally came through was a missive from Shanghai from a novelist on her way to a Vancouver residency! Talk about searching the ends of the world!

Kim Thúy insisted on a Skype chat: “… my English is weak [it’s so not!]. Live Skype allows me to use my hands to speak to you.” And she requested an 8:33 call on a Thursday morning, warning “a later time will be interrupted by all kinds of daily stuff: phone calls, people at the door, wild cats … and bears in the garden …” I will add that, regardless, her phone(s!) rang as if on cue every few minutes.

Still, we managed a two-hour session of gesticulating and laughing and outright guffawing.

Okay, so you’ll hear me typing while we talk, and I’m also recording our conversation …
Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve said so many stupid things during interviews, I don’t worry at all anymore! So you can do anything you want with this!

Then I might as well ask you the most selfish question right up front: when’s the next book coming out?
I’ve written two more since Ru! They are already out in French. My second book is with another author, Pascal Janojvak. We met in Monaco because we were both there for a book prize [the Prix Littéraires Prince Pierre de Monaco]. I had not read his book [L'Invisible] and he had not read mine. Pascal is half-French, his father is Slovak, and his parents met in Switzerland where he was born. But now he is living in Ramallah, in Palestine. And I wondered why a Swiss would be living in Ramallah! He had been there for five years, he had his kids there. And I thought, there must be a love story! He met his Italian wife in Beirut at the Institut Français. They lived in Bangladesh, then worked in Jordan, then got jobs in Ramallah. Their children have many passports! We first met for only one-and-a-half hours, but something just clicked. We exchanged our first email, and the story was right there. So we started writing this book, going back and forth. It’s called À toi.

Since it’s not translated into English yet, can you tell us about it?
When we met, first I talked about French colonization, about the Vietnamese people’s love/hate relationship with the dominant culture. For the Vietnamese, we want the French to leave our country, but then we also wish we had French features. We still wish to be French, even though we despise them, because we wish to be like those who have the power.

Then Pascal came back with a great story about Palestine, about what the kids are playing in the streets. He noticed that when they had a choice, the Palestinian children chose to be an Israeli soldier, because that’s the closest they had to a hero! When they played with planes, they wanted the supersonic models from Israel, not the Palestinian versions. Israeli products are always thought of as better than the Palestinian. That was very interesting to me. I knew so little about Palestine – beyond explosions, smoke, guns. But Pascal told me about how when a pot of soup is made by someone’s mother, she shares it with her friends. I don’t have that sort of image – of mothers, fathers, their children living their daily lives. But of course, they have the same daily lives as everyone else!

Pascal told me about all the stress in Gaza that has led to a big controversy with black market sleeping pills and Viagra. The men can’t sleep. They’re too tense and not relaxed enough for that. When he told me this story, I finally realized how they must always live under such pressure all the time. The body is always reacting, the body has to keep changing and adapting. But by being under stress always, we are just muting ourselves.

I wanted to continue this conversation with him, so we did that through writing the book.

And also, he was very handsome, by the way. And now you know I’m just superficial! I just wanted to talk to him. Anyway, that’s how we started. The book is about the same length as Ru. It’s not yet translated into English but I think soon. [ here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Kim Thúy,” Bloom, September 18, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)


Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Author Profile: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader

Ah, well . . . better start with true confessions: my words appear on the back cover of the U.S. edition (at least the first printing) of Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru. The blurb is excerpted from my starred review in the August 15, 2012 issue of Library Journal: “This extraordinary first novel unfolds like ethereal poetry . . . [an] intricate, mesmerizing narrative.”

So now, you’re fully aware of my publicly admiring bias for the novel. And clearly, I’m not alone. By the time Ru hit U.S. shelves in November 2012 (translated from the original French), it had already earned numerous, important, global accolades for its first-time author. After multiple lives as a refugee, interpreter, translator, lawyer, and restaurateur, Thúy was 41 when she “bloomed” with the initial publication of Ru in Canada in October 2009.

Success came quickly and broadly, with editions that appeared in 20 countries: nationally, Ru was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize; internationally, it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The original French debut won Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, only to reappear two years later on the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation when the English-language edition, translated by the award-winning Sheila Fischman, appeared in 2012. “This is an exemplary autobiographical novel. Never is there the slightest hint of narcissism or self‑pity,” read the Governor General’s Literary Award jury citation upon announcing Ru the 2010 winner. “The major events in the fall of Vietnam are painted in delicate strokes, through the daily existence of a woman who has to reinvent herself elsewhere. A tragic journey described in a keen, sensitive and perfectly understated voice.”

That enigmatic single-word title is as multilayered as the slender novel’s elliptical prose: “Ru” means “a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, blood, of money” in French; in Vietnamese, pronounced quite differently but sharing the same spelling, “ru” is a “lullaby, to lull.” “Ru” is “the most beautiful word in our [Vietnamese] language,” Thúy told Vinh Nguyen in an interview for Diacritics, which named Ru the first-ever Vietnamese Canadian novel.

“I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. . . . The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost,” Ru’s narrator introduces herself.

My name is Nguyễn An Tịnh, my mother’s name is Nguyễn An Tỉnh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, disassociates me from her. . . . With these almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.

The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother’s plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped us our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange. . . . In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.

In just over 140 spare pages, Thúy constructs an intricate mosaic of vignettes that flow through decades, continents, generations, and cultures. The “Reading Group Guide” available at book’s end explains that Ru is “an autobiographical novel based on the author’s real-life experience as a Vietnamese émigré and how she found her way – and her voice – after immigrating to Quebec.”

Written as a series of prose poems that range from a precise few lines to a fleeting few pages, the emerging narrative charts a young girl’s journey from wealthy privilege in Vietnam; her rebirth as a war refugee in Canada; her return to her native country where the locals consider her “too fat to be Vietnamese” – not because of her stature, but because “the American dream had made me more substantial, heavier, weightier”; and eventually her own overwhelming motherhood. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Kim Thuy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader,” Bloom, September 16, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009, 2012 (United States)


Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Kenta and the Big Wave by Ruth Ohi

Kenta and the Big Wave“When Kenta heard the warning siren, he ran to school … far up the hill, where the waves couldn’t reach.” He watches his soccer ball roll away, but thankfully finds his parents in the gym. When the ocean finally “fell back to where it belonged,” the devastation proves shocking: “‘Everything … gone,’” Kenta’s mother says, echoing the thoughts of everyone around them. Kenta manages to fashion a new ball out of scraps, but “[n]ot all things could be fixed so easily.”

Meanwhile, on the shores of the powerful ocean on the other side of the world, Kenta’s ball rolls up on a faraway beach. “[T]he boy could not understand Kenta’s writing,” but he resourcefully finds someone who can. With the help of a librarian, the boy is able to send Kenta’s ball back home.

Veteran Canadian author/illustrator Ruth Ohi explains in her ending “Author’s Note” that Kenta is “based on the true stories reported in the news following the [Tōhoku, Japan] tsunami of 2011, about objects (some as large as motorcycles!) being swept away in the storm’s waves and washing up on the shore all the way on the other side of the world.” Another Ruth – Ozeki – published an engrossing adult novel earlier this year, A Tale for the Time Being, also about what the waves washed up, bridging unlikely connections across thousands of miles. Both Ruths’ titles are important, necessary reminders that in spite of tragedies of such unfathomable magnitude, the world turns out to be not so vast, and the smallest shared moments can bind unknown individuals together in the most compassionate, tender ways.

One minor quibble: the single character visible on the ball is only the first kanji of Kenta’s name – 健 (meaning ‘healthy,’ ‘strong’) – and written a bit too widely spaced to be fully accurate. The -ta (太, meaning ‘large,’ ‘big’) is never visible, making the name always incomplete. I can’t figure out if this was an inexplicable stylistic choice or an actual error. That said, one tiny flaw can’t spoil this whole hopeful story. The more important message of connection and caring  – a young man carrying an elderly woman on his back as the wind gains greater force, survivors huddling to comfort one another in the colossal wreckage, children somehow finding the ability to laugh and play even in tragedy – rings loudly throughout Ohi’s soft, gentle illustrations on every page.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Japanese

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Fine BalanceReading four novels, each set in a major Indian city, one after another over a single week or so, has made the stories feel as if they might overlap, dovetail, conflate, creating quite the enriching literary experience. In the midst of A Fine Balance, I also read (oh so blessedly because it was assigned for review) Jhumpa Lahiri’s upcoming The Lowland, then continued with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (interview upcoming) on the page, and Jeet Thayil’s Narcoplis (finally!) stuck in the ears. Both Lowland and Oleander happen mostly in Calcutta; Balance is centered on an unnamed city not unlike Bombay, which is where Narcoplis is setRead together, the four titles formed a quatrain that intently examines the last half-century of Indian political, socioeconomic, and even literary history.

But I’ve digressed (again …). Back to Mistry’s “City by the Sea,” where four lonely souls create an unlikely family-of-sorts when circumstances eventually gather them under a single shared roof, in spite of the political, social, and religious boundaries working relentlessly to keep them separately isolated. India in the 1970s is in the midst of violent upheaval, in a state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Dina Dalal, whose apartment will finally become a home, has been a widow exponentially longer than she was a wife. With her eyesight failing and her options diminishing as she enters middle age, she welcomes a college student, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a childhood schoolfriend, as a paying guest. He arrives on Dina’s doorstep at the same time as Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle-and-nephew tailors who have come in answer to her employment request.

Dina and Maneck are Parsi, of ‘good’ families with long histories, whose lives are forced to change rapidly as their country metamorphosizes around them. Since her father’s sudden death when she was a young child, Dina has tried to escape her conservative older brother’s demanding control. Maneck, a beloved only child, mistakes his parents’ desire to ensure him a future of multiple choices (in spite of his father’s ironic unwillingness to change even to save the family’s business) for rejection and abandonment. Ishvar and Omprakash, both born of the Untouchable caste, are the only survivors in their Hindu family of a heinous religiously-fueled purging, and attempt to find new lives in the big city.

The ‘fine balance’ of these four lives – with a vivid cast of many others around them – are revealed over 600 intimate pages (or 24.5 hours stuck in the ears as read by John Lee who, as Orhan Pamuk’s usual narrator, takes a couple of hours to get used to here, I must admit). That said, please do not let those numbers deter or distract you in any way … once begun, you’ll quickly realize that you’ll want nothing more than to go through such committed lengths in order to finally (bittersweetly) finish.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Beyond the Moongate: True Stories of 1920s China by Elizabeth Quan

Beyond the Moongate“Moongates dotted the landscape of Old China,” the second of artist Elizabeth Quan’s two-part childhood memoir begins. “Stepping through one of these doorways was to enter a world of peace and happiness …”

Almost a century ago, Quan, her five siblings – “aged ten months to seven years” – together with their parents traveled “one full cycle of the moon” as depicted in Once Upon a Full Moon (2007) from their home in Canada to China. In Moongate, Quan presents the two years the family spent in her father’s ancestral southern Chinese village in 17 single-page vignettes, each accompanied by a vibrant watercolor memory; Quan’s biography notes that she “was the last protégée of Jack Pollock.” The children help raise a piglet, celebrate holidays, attend the Chinese school their father establishes, avoid pirates, and welcome a new baby brother.

At the heart of the family’s extended visit is Quan’s paternal grandmother, an “extraordinary woman” who the children call “Popo,” who begins the book with “her face lit up with joy” at the family’s arrival, and ends with her “waving bravely, tears streaming down her wrinkled brown face.” As idyllic as their stay has been, the family’s parting is especially bittersweet: they must leave two children behind – the newborn son who “could not legally be brought back to Canada,” and the youngest daughter to help their elderly grandmother care for her new grandson. While Canada’s anti-Asian immigration laws (with parallel restrictive legislation in the U.S.) are never directly mentioned, the “Afterword” reveals that the family’s reunion eight years later was made possible only with “special dispensation” via a Canadian government official.

In today’s era of ‘reverse’ immigration – new generations of Asian Pacific Americans seeking economic and cultural opportunities in their ancestral homelands, especially in China and India – Moongate provides an enthralling, contrasting view of returning ‘home,’ a century apart. Quan’s China then was “a land not yet touched by technology.” That China of “long lazy days … [is] a China forever gone.” Oh, were she to repeat the journey now …

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Chinese

The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji

Magic of SaidaPoisoned and hallucinating, a Canadian doctor lies in a hospital in the remote town of Kilwa in Tanzania. A stranger happens to hear a few brief details of the man’s outrageous story, and decides to introduce himself to this doctor with an Indian name – Kamal Punja – but an African appearance. From that chance encounter unravels a fantastical tale that covers multiple generations and continents … and begs an answer to the question, “Do you believe in magic?”

Kamal is the only child of an African woman whose Indian husband disappeared from their lives. His favorite childhood playmate is a young girl named Saida whose ancestors include a poet and warrior, a traitor and patriot in whose lives reflect the violent, tumultuous history of a repeatedly colonized land. At 11, Kamal is suddenly, wrenchingly separated from his mother and everything familiar when he’s sent to live with a paternal uncle in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. There he learns to be Indian first, eliding his African origins. That he never forgives his mother for what he considers betrayal and abandonment remains a disturbing, haunting element throughout.

Kamal grows into an educated young man of relative privilege, sent to university in neighboring Uganda, and yet he never loses sight of Saida’s presence so far away, certain that they will one day be united. Caught in the latest political upheavals overtaking his country and continent, Kamal lands in Canada where he becomes a successful doctor. Now solidly in middle age with a highly successful practice, married with two grown (completely Westernized) children, Kamal’s longing for his past brings him ‘home’ to Kilwa, desperately in search of answers about his beloved Saida.

M.G. Vassanji, who has twice won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize (the inaugural 1994 award for The Book of Secrets, and again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall – my personal favorite), surely draws on personal experience: born in Africa of Indian descent and Canada-domiciled, “If pressed, Vassanji considers himself African Asian Canadian,” his biography states on his personal website. “[A]ttempts to pigeonhole him along communal (religious) or other lines, however, he considers narrow-minded, malicious, and oppressive,” his biography also warns!

As much as Saida is a sweeping epic, it also proves to be a clever allegory of returning to the past to catch a glimpse of alternate versions of the present: had Kamal stayed in Kilwa, he could have been Lateef; had he pursued a literary degree, he could have been Martin; had he been trapped in some sort of colonial service, he could have been Markham; had he chosen to become a local doctor, he could have been (the ironically named) Dr. Engineer. The many ‘what-if’s of his life beg the ultimate question, who might have Saida been had she lived the life Kamal once promised her …?

Tidbit: If you’ve read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, you might be struck by some uncanny similarities – I certainly was! Saida is the better-written novel; Heartbeats arrived Stateside last year with a decade-plus of international bestseller status … choices, choices.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, African, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Indian African, South Asian American