Books·My Life in Books

The literature that inspired novelist and playwright Anosh Irani

The finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for drama shares some poetry and novels he's loved reading.
Anosh Irani is a Vancouver-based novelist and playwright. (Glen D'Mello)

While based in Vancouver, the work of novelist and playwright Anosh Irani often transcends borders as he merges his Indian heritage and experiences with the hard truths faced by many immigrants to North America. Irani's novel The Song of Kahunsha was a Canada Reads 2007 selection and his novel The Parcel was shortlisted for the 2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction. 

His latest work, the play The Men in Whiteis about a struggling Canadian cricket team and is a sobering look at racism and intolerance through the eyes of youth. The play, currently running at Toronto's Factory Theatre, is on the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award shortlist for drama.

Below, Irani shares the literary works he has loved reading over the years.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry won the 1995 Giller Prize. (New Canadian Library/F. Mistry)

"I was in my early 20s when I first read A Fine Balance. The 800-plus pages seemed daunting, but I was already familiar with Rohinton Mistry's work. His first book, a collection of stories, was set in a Parsi colony, and I lived in a real-life version of 'Firozsha Baag' in Bombay.

"It was the ease of the writing, the simplicity and gentleness of the prose, that allowed me to enter the story. Before I knew it, I simply could not put the book down. I was tense and anxious because the characters I was reading about weren't just characters in a novel anymore; they felt so damn real. I cared about them deeply. I had no control over their fates, but wished, with an almost religious fervour, that I did. 

"By the end of the novel, I felt someone had punched me in the gut: it was beautiful. I remember thinking, 'So this is what literature can do.' A Fine Balance was perhaps my first encounter with the awesome power of literature — its ability to disturb, to move, to find inspiration in the most ordinary of lives."

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

Mordecai Richler's Barney’s Version won in 1997. (Vintage Canada/Jillian Edelstein)

"What I love about Mordecai Richler's work is that it is so alive, it has a pulse, and it is throbbing with ambition. And when we read him, we always lose our equilibrium. We are terribly moved, but always imbalanced. And that is his gift. 

"As the critic Edwin Bjorkman said about Hamsun: His was a 'violent, defiant deviation from everything average and ordinary.' He might as well have been talking about Mordecai Richler."

Collected Stories by Naiyer Masud

Naiyer Masud was an Urdu scholar and Urdu-language short story writer. (Penguin)

"It is impossible to describe Naiyer Masud's short stories. But let me try: haunting, frustrating, tedious, and utterly hypnotic and compelling. The first time I read him I felt I was being sucked into a labyrinth only to re-emerge from it disoriented and dizzy with joy. In some strange way, his stories remind me of Harold Pinter's plays.

"There's a menace to them, but Masud's stories are perhaps more subdued, quiet, and there is beauty to complement the sinister feeling that his work evokes. One of India's greatest short story writers, Urdu or otherwise, Masud passed away in 2017."

The poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Wisława Szymborska

From left: Anna Akhmatova was an influential 20th century Russian poet; Polish poet Wisława Szymborska received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. (Poetry Foundation)

"I'm not mentioning any specific works, but these two poets captivated me when I was a young man browsing through second hand bookstores in Vancouver, when I first arrived in 1998. I would simply read opening lines, opening pages — both fiction and poetry.

"All I remember about Akhmatova and Symborska was that I encountered them at the same time. Just reading their names made me think, 'They sound like poets.' And reading their work was like being infused with electricity."

The Amar Chitra Katha comic book series

The Amar Chitra Katha is one of India's largest selling comic book series, with more than 100 million copies sold in 20 Indian languages (India Book House)

"The smell of my childhood. I used to smell these comic books as though I were ingesting the very scent of the celestial beings, kings, demons and mythological creatures that flew through the pages. Every afternoon (mornings were for cricket and evenings were for football), I would stare at the illustrations, and long to enter the world of ancient India.

"It was all very fantastical, but at the same time felt totally natural. Perhaps my first lesson in magic realism. But back then, just the act of reading itself, especially comics, was magical — a childhood I'm extremely grateful for."

Anosh Irani's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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