April 7, 2013

The Magic of Saida - M. G. Vassanji

I finished this book about half an hour ago, and want to get this written while the magic was still fresh in my brain.

I discovered this author a few years ago when I read (and loved) The Book of Secrets.  I was excited when I heard that he had a new book coming out last year, and I finally got around to reading it this winter.  (Yes, I know that the calendar says that it is spring, but the snow falling outside my window says differently.)

I actually started reading this book back in February, but made the mistake of starting it on a weekend when I didn't have either the time or the mental energy to do it justice.  It is not an easy read - as with his other books, the writer makes the reader think.  And so it languished on my bedside table until this weekend, when I read the last 2/3 of it almost in one sitting.

One aspect that I really enjoyed in his other books is the structure.  In this book, the story jumps seamlessly between three different times in the main character's life; with the story unfolding like a flower opening up (the peonies that grow at my house back in Thunder Bay come to mind) until the heart of the matter is finally revealed.

One major issue explored in this book is that of identity.  Kamalu (my brain kept wanting to flip the consonants and call him Kalamu - Swahili for pen) is born in coastal southern Tanzania to an African mother and an absentee Indian father.  He is raised as African, though he is never fully accepted by the community around him.  He is later adopted by his paternal uncle in Dar es Salaam, the major port city up north from where he was born.  There, even though he is half-Indian, he is never quite accepted as Indian.  He later emigrates to Canada, along with his Indian bride (born and raised in Dar es Salaam), where he runs a successful medical practice.  At one point, he wonders if his two children would have been any worse off if they had been born and raised in Tanzania.

That is one issue that I have come to terms with.  I feel that culture shock when traveling to foreign countries, as well as reverse culture shock upon returning home, originate in trying to compare one culture to another and rank one as being better than another.  I lived in Tanzania for 3 years (2003-2006), and while I was homesick for Tanzania after returning "home" to Canada, I didn't experience severe culture shock, because I was able to accept that in Canada we have one culture and way of life, and in Tanzania there is another culture and way of life.  One isn't better than the other - they are just different.  I think that has helped me to stay in touch with my Tanzania friends, and to flip back and forth from one culture to another when I have traveled back twice to visit.

Anyways, back to this book!  I may be a bit of a sucker for books set in Tanzania, and this book scratched that itch, placing me right there, with all of the sounds and smells and sights of life in rural Tanzania.  There is a lot of Swahili scattered through the book, and I caught my brain translating the dialogue into Swahili.  Most of the English dialogue felt (to me) as though it had been translated from Swahili into English, with the vocabulary and phrasing that was chosen.  I wonder if this would be as rich to someone who wasn't fluent in Swahili?

As for the plot, there are 3 threads that are woven together, each one dealing with a different period of Kamalu's life.  There is the story of his growing up in the town of Kilwa along with his best friend Saida, moving to Dar, ending up in university in Kampala, and eventually in Edmonton.  Then there is the story of his returning back to Kilwa in middle-age, searching for his mother and especially Saida.  And then there is the story of his recovery from exposure to magic while looking for Saida, and telling the previous stories to an interested companion.

For me, it was the structure of the book, as well as the atmosphere, that compelled me to keep reading (once I was able to devote my full attention to it).  There were times when I felt right back in Tanzania while reading.

And now to celebrate this book, I am cooking Tanzania maharagwe (beans) and wali (rice) for supper, with the maharagwe cooked in coconut milk the way they would be on the coast of Tanzania (though not in the interior where I lived - no coconut trees, minazi, there!).  Though I am cheating and the kidney beans came from a can rather than being cooked for hours over a charcoal stove, and the coconut milk came from a can rather than being grated on a mbuzi ya nazi and soaked in water!

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