Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

What Tomorrow Brings with M.G. Vassanji and Michael Helm

Where are we going? It’s a question often asked by authors and readers alike. The question of what the future holds in light of today’s ever-changing world was clearly on both Michael Helm and M. G. Vassanjis’ minds in writing their latest books. Michael Helm and M.G. Vassanji both expressed that in their new novels they explore something new that is a different in style from their previous works.


Helm’s new novel After James consists of three sections. The first could be categorized as a gothic horror, the second a detective story and the third an apocalyptic tale all wrapped up in one intriguing novel. The three stories are distinct, but also interrelated, and it is up to the reader to find the links that unite the stories.


Host Peter Schneider asked Helm about incorporating high and low elements in his work.  High elements have a little more substance, but low elements are likely to sell. Helm talked about how the literature market has become saturated by popular stories and he wanted to write narrative fiction. Narrative fiction either takes you out of the world, or makes you see it in a new way, he said. “I really love language that has layering to it; where there’s more than one thing that’s going on,” he said. His work is humorous, and there are elements of a good detective novel in it, but there’s always a deeper meaning to the events that are happening.


The conversation turned to the blurring of the lines between real and unreal. In an age with continually advancing technology things like genetic technology blur the line that used to exists between reality and fantasy. What tomorrow brings is inevitably linked to the role of technology in today’s world as man finds himself capable of things that previous generations would have called impossible. Reality itself has become increasingly fantastical as people discover they are capable of things that have only ever been possible in the imagination. 


“Fourteen hundred years ago the universe appeared in time, but no predictability,” said Helm. The question of the unpredictably of life is a prevalent theme within the novel. Helm quoted T. E. Home saying that man is, “organized and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” This inevitably leads to the question, what’s happening next?


“It’s midnight, the lion is out. . .” Vassanji read from his new novel, Nostalgia . Nostalgia is a piece of speculative fiction set in the world of the future. A patient comes to see Dr. Frank Sina with symptoms of nostalgia. “The past does not catch up with us, but sometimes it does because why had he come to see me? Dr. Sina asks himself. He begins to notice hints of his past in his own life and seeks to find out what they mean.


Set in Toronto, Nostalgia has striking similarities to Helm’s novel. Set in Toronto, Nostalgia takes place in a real world setting, but is mixed with elements of the fantastic. Both worlds contain elements of the fantastical, but are close enough to reality that the reader can imagine them happening in the real world.


 “Suppose one was able to forget the past,” said Vassanji. Would that be a good thing? Sometimes forgetting the past seems desirable. “The world would be a nicer place,” he said. In Nostalgia, Vassanji creates a world where people have overcome mortality. They always have the appearance of youth and beauty regardless of age at the cost of forgetting the past.


Can you go back? Is it desirable? These questions immediately bring to my mind the question I often asked myself reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, is it not the past that keeps us connected to the present and the future? As Nostalgia shows, a future that is utterly disconnected from the past is lacking something crucial.


Skilled storytellers as well as cultural critics, the author’s novels and conversation were extremely interesting. In the excerpt Helm read from his novel, I was particularly aware of his attention to structure as he created three distinct stories, all with an underlying theme, and the many details that bring together the work into a single work of art. For Vassanji, I was struck by his strong narrative voice. As a Canadian who was born and raised in Africa, you could hear the influence of other cultures in his writing style. Both authors weave bigger questions into the plots of their novels while retaining their own unique narrative style.