After hosting major writers like Wole Soyinka, Yvonne Awuor, Michela Wrong, Benjamin Zephaniah and Ben Okri at Storymoja Festivals over the years, Storymoja last week brought in Canadian author M.G. Vassanji for his second book tour in Kenya. He was last here in 2013.
Vassanji grew up in Kenya and Tanzania. His novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall was recently co-published by Storymoja. It tells the story of Vikram Lall, the Indian son of a railway worker, his sister, his closest childhood friend who happens to be the son of a Kikuyu farm labourer, and two British siblings.
The children grow up in Nakuru during the waning years of colonialism.
Their friendship is tested when political temperatures in Kenya rise during the violent Mau Mau struggle for independence. Later, the Kikuyu friend grows up to join the government and has a love affair with Vikram Lall’s sister, which causes a storm in both families and their communities.
In the novel, Indians, or 'Brown shylocks' in Vassanji’s words, inhabit the ‘in-between world’ a place where ‘myth and reality often got mixed up in our lives.’ And in this regard, the character Vikram Lall says: “I therefore prefer my place in the middle, watching events run their course. This is easy, being an Asian, it is my natural place.”
It is life susceptible to the grand corruption that later colours his adult life.
Few books have captured the stories of the relationship between Indians and Africans in East Africa or indeed the wonders and troubles of childhood so deeply or so well. The book became a national best-seller in Canada. Vassanji has written seven other novels, two short story anthologies and two non-fiction collections.
He has won many prestigious prizes for his work and received several honorary degrees. Vassanji is now one of Canada’s most acclaimed writers although both Kenya and Tanzania would like to claim him as our own. The Canadian High Commission partnered with Storymoja to make the book tour a reality.
Vassanji participated in book signings and discussions with teachers, high school and university students, who face the challenge of living in an in-between world of a politically charged Kenya.
The stage remains the same — warring parties driven by ethnic kingpins, corruption still at the helm of government, and yes, minority groups caught in the same quagmire Vikram Lall found himself in five decades ago.
Vassanji also launched a book drive and started a library at Arya Primary School in Nairobi. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is available in most leading bookshops.
You can also order it online for delivery anywhere in Kenya from http://www.magunga.com/bookstore/
Muthoni Garland is a founding member of Storymoja, a writers' collective based in Nairobi.