The winner of the RBC Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 2. In the lead-up to this year's ceremony, we asked each of the five finalists to answer some questions about non-fiction writing. Today, M.G. Vassanji discusses the subject he'd never write about, his weaknesses as a writer, and the inspiration for his book And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa.
What inspired your book?
I had travelled to Tanzania many times to do research for my novels; I had also done a lot of reading about the history of the country. And I was fed up of Africa being portrayed by the media as a continent of starving, sick, and poor people; I knew my part of Africa as something different. It had Life. More than anything else, I saw people in all their diversity. I was also frustrated at modern-day travelers, Bugs Bunny-like, flitting from place to place writing about them for us. So instead of throwing books around in my home, or at the TV, or driving my family nuts with my complaints, why not write about the Africa I knew. And I did just that. I also wanted to see all those places in the country which I had heard about, knew about, and though I'd never see, living in Toronto. This was my chance.
What's your favourite work of non-fiction? Why?
I don't have a favourite. I read all the time. I enjoy reading the Times Literary Supplement. It informs, is broad in its coverage, and the articles don't keep going on endlessly. I also read the New Yorker, just to keep up with modern trends! And to tell myself what I would be watching if I was in New York.
What was the most challenging part of writing your book?
Writing to inform while staying interesting, staying honest and consistent (if possible), while all the time struggling to write as well as I can.
Is there a subject you'd never write about?
My most intimate life.
What are your weaknesses are a writer?
I'm unable to give myself a break after finishing a work.
An excerpt from And Home Was Kariakoo:
The new Dodoma University, apparently the previous president's legacy, where we arrive in the afternoon also looks impressive – it's stunning, actually, consisting of a number of white buildings gleaming under the open skies, scattered across a vast plain. Each is a separate department. You can imagine the parking lots of the future, playing fields, commuter buses. The student body has already expanded to 20,000, but Natasha, our host, tells us there are not enough lecturers or books, and there is no easy access to the Internet as yet. Students have to rely on photocopies of texts. Lunch has just been served in the cafeteria of the department where she teaches – History – and the sweet vapours of ubwabwa – steaming local rice – greet us warmly as we enter. We have tea. My lecture has been advertised as "Burton and Spekeand the Kutchi Bhatia (and others): The Importance of Telling Stories." The subject of my talk came to mind when I saw a small but lively controversy about the two explorers in the pages of a well-known literary journal, following the publication of a book on John Speke, and I began to wonder about the African angle to the story. In my lecture I make the point that while we have been told so much about the European explorers who passed here, we know little about the local Indians and Africans who made their journeys possible; we have so little recorded history, so few personal accounts from those times. I expand on that: we read over and over about the great men of Europe and America – there must be hundreds of books on Lincoln, not to mention films – yet we know little about our own. We should be telling our own stories. One lecturer reminds me that Tippu Tip, the nineteenth-century slave and ivory trader, did write a biography; another reminds me of the Kilwa Chronicle from the sixteenth century. These exceptions only serve to prove the point. The Chronicle is only a fragment in Arabic, its author unknown; Tippu Tip's is the only Life from these parts and from his time. I produce UN statistics comparing the number of books published in the U.S., U.K., and Tanzania: 206,000, 172,000, and 179. Even though the number for Tanzania is for 1990, whereas the other two are from the mid-2000s, the disparity and its implications are staggering.
When I finish and look around the room, I get the sinking feeling that the students, some fifty in number, have all the time been staring blankly at me. They don't know what I've been talking about. The problem is partly language. They come to university, especially here in rural Dodoma, with only a rudimentary knowledge of English, from places which have not seen libraries – and here I was, speaking of literary journals and the latest books published in England and America. They are here for a degree with a minimum of fuss, in order to get jobs afterwards. They would rather hear of accounting, computers, business. Abstract issues such as history and culture are not as relevant to them as they were for an older – my – generation, better educated and bred on the rhetoric of idealism – which, these young people would argue, was what held the country back in the first place and why they don't have sufficient English. But surely it should matter to them what the world reads, and especially what it reads about Africa and how it sees Africa on its screens?
Natasha my host is different. Hers is the only Asian face in the hall besides mine, but that's not what makes her seem alien. From Dar es Salaam, the daughter of a university professor and one of the country's leading intellectuals, she went to high school in Botswana and university in Canada. She's small and strikingly delicate-featured, but a sophisticate, earnest and serious, though perhaps with a tendency to trip into jargon. She's young yet. I imagine her scaling her chosen mountain: teaching with passion, poring over books she's ordered with her own money, copying chapters for her students to give them the latest and best in political and historical theory, organizing seminars. She lives by herself in a university-supplied apartment. She was on the same bus as us coming in from Dar, her father having come to drop her off. It was a touching sight. She could have taken a plane. While she teaches she's waiting to join a doctoral program somewhere, her proposed subject the traditional modes of conflict resolution in Somalia. All this enthusiasm in a world in turmoil makes one want to be young again, until I recall the silent phalanx of students I had just spoken to.
Excerpted from And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa by M.G. Vassanji. Copyright © 2014 M.G. Vassanji. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a Penguin Random House company. All rights reserved