8 books that influenced Canada Reads author M.G. Vassanji

M.G. Vassanji's novel Nostalgia explores a distant future where eternal life is within society's grasp. It's just the latest story from the prolific writer who won the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994. Vassanji is also an avid reader. Below, he describes eight books that are particularly meaningful to him. 

Jody Mitic will champion Nostalgia on Canada Reads, which takes place March 27-30.


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The university read that began a spiritual quest

I discovered Fyodor Dostoevsky in college as a naïve undergraduate in the intellectual hub of Boston, which was then seething with new, alternative ideas and revolutionary possibilities. His complex, contradictory characters were gripping, they challenged you morally and intellectually. I felt awakened, liberated. The Brothers Karamazov became unforgettable in its impact: there was Alyosha, with his simple faith and goodness, whose saintly, spiritual master's body begins to decompose, putting the young man into a spiritual quandary; and the tortured Ivan - who can forget his diatribe against God, which takes an entire chapter? It made sense, even though I came from a religious family! Then there was the impassioned, impetuous Dmitri, accused of murdering his father. This was a book that made me want to go and talk to people. It was the beginning of a spiritual quest.

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The book that appealed to his romantic side

Lawrence Durrell's novel Justine captured the romantic side of the young me. I had recently seen the movie, with the enigmatically beautiful Anouk Aimée as Justine. The novel is poetic and clever in its use of language and structure. I found its ideas about love somewhat disorienting yet pulling. The novel is set in exotic Alexandria at a time of political turmoil in Egypt, and combined with the other three novels of the Alexandria Quartet, it was haunting and irresistible. I read all four novels twice. In retrospect I find them somewhat overwrought in their language and too romantic, and somewhat problematic in other, more political ways. But it introduced me to the Greek poet Cavafy.

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The novel with an irresistible narrator

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. I read this book as a somewhat lonely young man in a far-off land (Boston!) troubled by new ideas and possibilities. Jim is a young English sailor on a ship carrying pilgrims from some Asian port, bound for their Haj in Mecca. The vessel is overcrowded and capsizes in a storm. There seems no possibility of saving it, and goaded on by the dissolute captain and other officers, Jim too abandons ship and climbs onto a life raft. But the ship survives and Jim stands trial. Most of the novel is set in the aftermath, told by that irresistible narrator Marlowe, as Jim does his self-inflicted penance, going from place to place, seeking anonymity, never quite finding it, and ultimately reaching his tragic destiny.

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The memoir of a legendary author

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez. This is the memoir of a writer who remembers with an alarming vividness, who loves to remember and remembers remembering. A man still in love with the home of his childhood in Aracataca, Colombia, which gave him so many stories and shaped his writing. A natural writer influenced by his mother who, as the memoir begins, takes him back to sell the family home, which was the setting for One Hundred Years of SolitudeMárquez recalls human life and nature in all its richness, all its colours. Nothing is trivial. Observing from the old station how the little town has changed, a town upon which he superposes scenes from his childhood, Márquez says he had "an irresistible longing to write so [he] would not die." A book I found easy to identify with in many ways, told in a conversational style yet not simple: Márquez avoids dates, it's all memories.

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The story that encouraged him to tell his own stories

Weep Not, Child is Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's first book, told in the simple style of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. It affirmed for me that even the lives of simple folk from out-of-the-way places like mine can be the stuff of literature; brought up on Western literature in the colonies, one used to forget that. Ngũgĩ's novel inspired and urged me to keep writing, tell my own stories. Although I was born in Kenya, not far from where Ngũgĩ was born, I knew very little about his people, the Kikuyu. Through the conflicts within a family, Weep Not, Child presents before us an African version of the Mau Mau war in Kenya, which was described by the British government at that time as "terrorist." With great feeling, Ngũgĩ  tells the story of a young man, Njoroge, who is caught between two paths: to join the freedom struggle, which, however, is violent, or to accept the safe but humiliating life of compromise under ongoing colonial rule. The middle path, as so often, turns out tragic.

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The autobiography that changed his world

Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru. Written largely in prison by the man who went on to become India's first prime minister, this memoir describes the first part of his life, concluding just 10 years before independence. It was the first book I read by an Indian, picked up casually for a dollar at a university book sale. I found it charming, extremely moving and revelatory. It brought home to me that I was also an Indian.

Nehru came from a very wealthy family, went to school at Harrow in England and to university in Cambridge. As a student of the other Cambridge (Massachusetts), I could easily identify with his feelings of alienness while abroad and his love for his country. Although I was familiar with the African struggles for freedom, from Nehru I learned about the Indian struggle, of which he was a part and for which he was in prison. And finally, in this book Nehru introduced me to another Indian, Mahatma Gandhi. I was never the same again.

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The novel that really spoke to him

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Not only did this novel tell history, it told it in a clever way using a brilliant metaphor. It was, in some sense, my history, freely using my language without italics or excuses. It was bold and arrogant, humourous and told many stories in one story. It came as a revelation just as I was setting out seriously and with purpose on my own literary path.

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The classic book that flouts the rules

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It sounds pretentious naming this book and one often pretends to have read it. I came to it late, only a few years back, never having taken up the challenge to read it in college. I read it in a new translation, and found it surprisingly easy to finish, over two weeks. It's a book that needs to be taken in slowly, because of its pace, its scope. This book reminds us what, aside from the superficial social pretenses and the rat race and the grand designs and ambitions, an authentic life can be, in touch with one's feelings and intuition, and with nature - this while giving us a detailed description of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. It's a life-affirming book and teaches a writer that all is not irony and sarcasm, doom and tragedy; that personal angst is perhaps pure vanity. That actual history is told within a novel is also of special interest to me, because my own work is infused with history. And in this book Tolstoy flouts the sophomoric diktat of "show not tell."

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Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
Nostalgia by MG Vassanji
The Break by Katherena Vermette
The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

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