Grant’s Desi Achiever Randy Boyagoda

BOOK, LINE AND SINKER

Image by  NARI MAVALWALLA

Image by NARI MAVALWALLA

By SHAGORIKA EASWAR

Randy Boyagoda is principal and vice-president, University of St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto; professor, English Department and Basilian chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He also writes critically-acclaimed fiction.

“Because I love reading,” he says. “I always have. And I’ve been writing stories since I was about eight or nine years old.” 

The world he created in his last novel, Original Prin, is unlike the one he inhabits, and yet, the similarities exist. 

Boyagoda is an academic, Prin is an academic. He has four daughters, so does Prin.

“My parents came from Sri Lanka, as did Prin’s; they are divorced now and my mom is also in a long-term relationship with an Ismaili gentleman like Prin’s mom,” continues Boyagoda with a laugh. “And my wife is also from Milwaukee, like Prin’s wife Molly, but she is not Molly.”

Just like Boyagoda is not Prin.

“I call it a ‘cracked autobiography’ in the sense that it is clearly not me, and yet I can very much imagine inhabiting Prin’s world and dealing with his challenges.”

As a personally-felt story, it was more difficult to write than Beggar’s Feast which was nominated for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor of the Northern Province, which was a New York Times book review Editor’s Choice pick. 

Original Prin is one of those books that defy classification. It’s very real, yet surreal. It’s funny – actually laugh-out-loud-so – but sad. 

There are parts where one goes, “Oh, I’ve seen that!” 

Whereas at a church like St. Teresa’s in deep Scarborough, the people went to communion in sincere moustaches and dark, dismal suits, in wedding gold and bright crimson saris that flowed into snow boots.

Where one nods when he writes about the precarious employment for university professors.

And then Prin ups and goes to the Middle East. It’s not surprising that it garnered praise from Salman Rushdie – he owns the genre!

“I’m using humour to write about the immigrant experience in contemporary Canada more broadly. I want to show that our cultural heritage is both essential and incidental. Prin’s family is just another Toronto family, where their culture is not forgotten, it is normalized. It is about getting to a place where all our different cultures are normal, not special. It is a complete Canadian novel.”

Boyagoda, who was born and raised in Oshawa, asks South Asian questions in a Canadian context. He explores faith-inspired identities. 

“When I am back home in Sri Lanka, the commonly-asked question is, ‘Which religion are you?’ There’s a presupposition that one follows some religion. Here, in Canada, the question tends to be, ‘Are you religious?’.”

His father came to Canada in the late 1960s as a graduate student, and jokes that it was on a whim. He had accompanied a friend who was applying for Canadian immigration to the High Commission in Sri Lanka and decided to apply as well. He got accepted, his friend didn’t. His mother joined him in Canada later after their marriage. 

Speaking of his parents’ experience and his own, he says for his father, coming in the pre-immigration boom, Oshawa was very white. 

“He would have the old-fashioned understanding of assimilation. I grew up in the 80s and though some of my experience was racialized – mostly comments about my presumed family connections to brown convenience store owners – my upbringing was very assimilationist. We spoke English at home, we didn’t eat ‘curry’, only ‘Canadian’ food.”

He consumes more curry now as his wife Anna, a white Midwesterner he met in graduate school in Boston, loves it! 

“It was as an adult, as a novelist, that I studied and explored my identity. It was profound how South Asian I really am.”

Exploring his creative aesthetic as an adult provided the intellectual distance to better understand and reflect on who he is, to paint the big picture with his words.

His parents, like most immigrant desi parents, had wanted him to be a doctor and so he opted to become what he describes as a “fake doctor” – one with a PhD in American literature. 

“It was one way to read all the best stuff, and parents find it far easier to take pride in a professor at the University of Toronto than in a writer! A professor spells stability and respectability!”

As an author, he was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, he says. He’d had several of his short stories published when one in The Walrus caught the attention of an agent. Could it possibly be a larger piece, he asked, perhaps a novel? And Boyagoda was off and writing.

And yet, like many successful authors today, he has a day job. His wife, who is also an academic and works for the Archdiocese of Toronto, running a Montessori program for them, says he can focus on just writing.

“She understands and encourages my passion for a literary career. Her only condition is that I find ways to do it without impacting the family.”

Which means both not taking time way from the family, and not writing about their daughters.

“I find ways to write without taking too much time away, though perhaps I could more on that front,” admits Boyagoda. “As for not writing about our daughters, I agree that it is not fair to do so. We don’t want them seeing themselves in my books when they are older and asking, ‘Is this how my dad thought of me?’ So while Prin and I both have daughters, the similarities end there. Prin’s daughters are not my daughters.”

While he is grateful for his wife’s support, he is not about to give up his academic career any time soon.

“I am a family man, I have responsibilities. I don’t want my family to live in genteel poverty because their father wants to devote his time to writing. Also, I love teaching. And while writing fiction is primary, my other roles as an academic and administrator provide experiences and perspectives that help me serve others and learn from them. They all inform each other.”

The couple’s daughters are growing up in Drake’s Toronto and Justin Trudeau’s Canada, as Boyagoda had written in an article in the Globe and Mail. And yet, there are challenges. 

“I thought we were all done, I couldn’t imagine them facing any challenges, but the reality is slightly different.” 

In the article, he describes the experience of watching Hidden Figures with them. They paused the movie to explain the inequities female African-Americans faced. They expected their daughters to be shocked, and were shocked instead, to discover that they were not. The girls spoke of their friends liking their white friends more than their brown friends in a matter of fact way. Friendships, it would appear, are still colour-coded. Self-awareness and solidarity will “allow them to recognize and navigate a world of manifold asymmetries, one defined by ratios of privilege and prejudice both visible and hidden,” wrote Boyagoda in his article.

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He tells his students to think of themselves in terms of a vocation. “What am I called to do with the talent and gifts I have for the greater good?”. He also tells them to be aware of how much work is involved in being a writer and that one has to juggle personal interests and family commitments and responsibilities, to balance different roles. 

And to read. “The challenge with young people is that they are enamoured with the idea of being an author, but they don’t read. One has to read about different people, about other lives in order to write, to hone one’s craft.”

Original Prin is the first in a planned trilogy. Without revealing the plot, Boyagoda shares what readers can expect in the next book.

“Suffice to say, Prin continues with his adventures in a world that is chaotic and crazy for a family man with faith.”

Watch this space!

Original Prin by Randy Boyagoda is published by Biblioasis, $19.95.

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