Skip to main content
book review

M.G. Vassanji: Upending cliches.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa, by two-time Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji, is a complex and wandering attempt to investigate the ideas that have guided his artistic output throughout his 25-year career. It follows his first memoir, 2008's A Place Within: Rediscovering India, which examined the place his ancestors came from, a country he only became familiar with as an adult. And Home Was Kariakoo is Vassanji's story of Kenya, where he was born, and Tanzania, where he largely grew up.

"Whence this sense of place in me, I have often wondered," writes Vassanji early in the first chapter, and this inquiry propels the work. And Home Was Kariakoo is a memoir in the widest sense. There is no straightforward narrative or awakening; instead, the book is composed of memories – Vassanji's scattered travels through East Africa – and tied together with sharp historical perspective. How do the different parts of a person coalesce to create an identity? What does "home" mean and what are our responsibilities to it? The book is imbued with a sense of duality: Vassanji, who has lived in Canada for more than 30 years, is both cut off from Africa and yet always connected to it. Tired of the cliched stories of a poverty- and disease-stricken Africa, told over and over again in the West, Vassanji believes one of his responsibilities is to provide a broader perspective.

And Home Was Kariakoo is most powerful when Vassanji isn't only interested in saccharine slices of nostalgia but their wider context; an interest in history's shrouded moments serves as the fulcrum for many of the memoir's key moments. For instance, a boring bus trip turns into a conversation with a passenger, which then transforms into a remembrance of sighting Mount Kilimanjaro in the town of Moshi, "seen from the main street looming majestically over the town, the smooth, round, snowy peak clear in the pristine morning air, then gradually donning a veil of cloud as the day wore on." After spotting the mountain, Vassanji sees a monument to the East African soldiers of Indian descent who fought in the First World War for their colonial masters. Vassanji flexes the muscle of his hyphened identity here – this tucked away moment of East African history revealed is for his Western audience; adding nobility, context and a sense of place to overlooked colonial lives.

For the most part, Vassanji avoids explicitly autobiographical details, preferring instead to treat the people to whom he speaks as characters playing out his own internal concerns. Vassanji quotes his old friend, Joseph, at length on African perception in the West, education in East Africa, and the country's slow movement away from tradition towards an excitingly modern Kenya, one with changing, equal social customs – concerns that are then interrogated by Vassanji as the memoir continues. It is through moments like these that we gain access to the ideas that drive Vassanji, but this is where his autobiographical impulse stops. Very rarely do we get a look into the personal details of his life.

The book sags when Vassanji misses opportunities to indulge in actual reportage. After providing a history on magicians in East Africa, Vassanji writes, "Babu (grandfather) of Loliondo… claims to cure all illnesses, including AIDS and cancer with his herbal potion.… Hundreds, if not thousands, go to see him every day in hired minibuses from as far away as Nyeri in Kenya. The queues waiting for him are claimed to be miles long." But Vassanji never visits Babu – instead, an easier trip is arranged to see a local sorcerer. The experience feels like something put on to appease the curious foreigner.

And Home Was Kariakoo is not an adventurer's travelogue. Vassanji spends too much time recounting predictably difficult bus trips, itemizing what he ate and, like the prose, which often takes on the style of the gentle academic, he can leave you wanting a little less safety and a little more passion. Too often interviews are with friends, or friends of friends, and here Vassanji has missed a chance to engage with a contemporary East Africa he is not intimately familiar with.

A memoir lives on the vividness of its search and how well its writer can articulate the ways he or she is broken or misshapen. Late in the book, Vassanji breaks into a deeply Canadian tangent: "Living in Toronto has its own insecurities, with a fractured being and an in-betweenness that draws me into thoughts such as these.… In Toronto I would ask myself, Am I a real Canadian? What is such a thing? And I would pull out my hyphens." Throughout And Home Was Kariakoo, Vassanji succeeds in understanding the tension of a bifurcated life and exposing the weight of belonging carried by immigrants like him. After six novels and a long, successful career, Vassanji's search from how he went to Nairobi to Toronto has come to a meaningful reckoning.

Adnan Khan is a writer in Toronto. He has written for Vice, The Awl and Hazlitt.