From M.G. Vassanji, two-time winner of the Giller Prize, comes When She Was Queen, an extraordinary collection of ten stories that take us from one world to another in a moment, from the riot of colours and sounds of Kenya and Tanzania to the From M.G. Vassanji, two-time winner of the Giller Prize, comes When She Was Queen, an extraordinary collection of ten stories that take us from one world to another in a moment, from the riot of colours and sounds of Kenya and Tanzania to the slushy streets of Ontario, where boys play road hockey after mosque.
In the title story a young man questions his mother about a family secret that has circulated among his older siblings as a scandalous, prurient rumour: that their father, Rashid, lost their mother in a poker game when the family lived in Kisumu, in Kenya. According to this rumour, the mother, Shirin, spent a night in the bed of a local magnate. It is in the course of denying the implications of this rumour years later in Toronto that Shirin betrays an even darker secret: that the beloved Rashid, hotelier, wonderful cook, and dispenser of candy, is not his father after all.
The other stories bear the same stamp of nostalgia of lives marked by change. A grocer’s son from Dar es Salaam becomes a real estate developer in Toronto, only to see his life’s work slip away along with his culture and family. A young African-Indian returns to his ancestral village in drought-stricken Gujarat to find a wife, and finds instead an unexpected destiny — that of a guru. The widow of a university professor finds herself increasingly a prisoner of the edicts of her new husband’s spiritual advisor, Sheikh Mural Ali. A secular man leaves turmoil in the wake of his dying wish to be cremated, in violation of Muslim tradition.
This is vintage Vassanji. Richly detailed and full of vivid characters, these stories are worlds unto themselves, just as a dusty African street full of bustling shops is a world, and so is the small matrix of lives enclosed by an intimate Toronto neighbourhood. It is the smells and sentiments and small gestures that constitute life, and of these Vassanji is a master.
With the effortless narrative of traditional storytelling and a thoroughly modern sensibility that sets one traditional moral code beside another, When She Was Queen, like The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, is a portrait not only of the Old and New Worlds, but of the very rich and real world that comprises both.
With his trademark assurance and in exhilarating detail, Vassanji weaves haunting tales of extraordinary lives transplanted, of the traumas small and large of migration, of the bitterness of memory and the ravages of hope. These are characters who will live with you long after the book has been read.