When She Was Queen

Front Cover
Doubleday Canada, Mar 5, 2010 - Fiction - 272 pages
4 Reviews
“My father lost my mother one evening in a final round of gambling at the poker table,” writes the narrator of “When She Was Queen,” the title story of a new collection by bestselling novelist and two-time winner of the Giller Prize, M.G. Vassanji. That fateful evening in Kenya becomes “the obsessive and dark centre” of the young man’s existence and leads him, years later in Toronto, to unearth an even darker family secret.

In “The Girl With The Bicycle,” a man witnesses a woman from his hometown of Dar es Salaam spit at a corpse as it lies in state at a Toronto mosque. As he struggles to fathom her strange behaviour, he finds himself prey to memories and images from the past–and to perilous yearnings that could jeopardize his comfortable, middle-aged life.

Still reeling from the impact of his wife’s betrayal, a man decides to stop in on an old college friend in “Elvis, Raja.” But he soon realizes that it’s not always wise to visit the past as he finds himself trapped in a most curious household, where Elvis Presley has replaced the traditional Hindu gods.

The other stories in the collection also feature exceptional lives transplanted. A young man returns to his roots in India, hoping to find his uncle and, perhaps, a bride. Instead, he becomes a reluctant guru to the residents of his ancestral village. A mukhi must choose between granting the final sacrilegious wish of a dying man and abiding by religious custom in a community that considers him a representative of God. A woman is torn between the voice of her dead husband–a cold and grim-natured atheist–and her new, kind and loving husband whose faith nevertheless places constraints on her as a woman. On Halloween night, a scientist lays bare his horrifying plan to seek vengeance on the man who thwarted his career.

Set variously in Kenya, Canada, India, Pakistan, and the American Midwest, these poignant and evocative stories portray migrants negotiating the in-between worlds of east and west, past and present, secular and religious. Richly detailed and full of vivid characters, the 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.

Vassanji’s seventh book and his second collection of short stories, When She Was Queen was shortlisted for the 2006 Toronto Book Award. The jury said: "Vassanji's Naipaulian language is like a sharp short knife that cuts through the superficial and gets to the heart and soul of the narrative.”


From the Hardcover edition.
  

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Review: When She Was Queen

User Review  - Hadia - Goodreads

sweet,,,, Read full review

Review: When She Was Queen

User Review  - Shadoh - Goodreads

short stories, such a variety, all good, esp like 'elvis raja' such imagination. Read full review

Selected pages

Contents

When She Was Queen
The Girl on the Bicycle
21
The Sky to Stop Us
48
The Expected One
63
Her Two Husbands
85
Last Rites
106
Is It Still October
126
Elvis Raja
140
The Trouble with Tea
185
Dear Khatija
197
She with Bill and George
230
Florida
244
Acknowledgements
254
About the Author
255
A Note About the Type
256
Copyright

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About the author (2010)

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, and raised in Tanzania. He took a doctorate in physics at M.I.T. and came to Canada in 1978. While working as a research associate and lecturer at the University of Toronto in the 1980s he began to dedicate himself seriously to a longstanding passion, writing.

His first novel, The Gunny Sack, won a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and he was invited to be writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The novel’s success was a spur, Vassanji has commented: “It was translated into several languages. I was confident that this was what I could do, that writing was not just wishful thinking. In 1989 I quit my full-time job and began researching The Book of Secrets.” That celebrated, bestselling novel won the inaugural Giller Prize, in 1994.

Vassanji’s other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land (1991) and Amriika (1999), and Uhuru Street, a collection of stories. His unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant, classical style, his narrative reach, and his interest in characters who are trying to reconcile different worlds within themselves. The subtle relationship of the past and present are also constants in his writing: “When someone asks you where you are from or who you are, there is a whole résumé of who you are. I know very few people who do not have a past to explain. That awareness is part of my work.”

M.G. Vassanji was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994 in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve Canadians on Maclean’s Honour Roll. In 2003 he became the first writer to win the Giller Prize twice, when his bestselling novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall garnered the award. When She Was Queen, his most recent work, was shortlisted for the 2006 Toronto Book Award.
M.G. Vassanji lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.


From the Hardcover edition.

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