The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji

Magic of Saida

My rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: September 25, 2012

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Thank you Brie of Eat Books for giving me a copy of this book.


The Magic of Saida tells the haunting story of Kamal, a successful Canadian doctor who, in middle age and after decades in North America, decides to return to his homeland of East Africa to find his childhood sweetheart, Saida. Kamal’s journey is motivated by a combination of guilt, hope, and the desire to unravel the mysteries of his childhood–mysteries compounded by the fact that Kamal is the son of an absent Indian father from a well-to-do family and a Swahili African mother of slave ancestry. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch Kamal’s early years in the ancient coastal town of Kilwa, where he grows up in a world of poverty but also of poetry, sustained by his friendship with the magical Saida.

This world abruptly ends when Kamal is sent away by his mother to live with his father’s family in the city. There, the academically gifted boy grows up as a “dark Indian,” eventually going to university and departing for Canada. Left behind to her traditional fate is Saida, now a beautiful young woman. Decades later, Kamal’s guilt pulls him back to Kilwa . . . where we discovers what happened to Saida during a harrowing night of sinister rites. This complex, revelatory, sweeping and shocking book, is a towering testament to the magical literary powers of M.G. Vassanji.

This book humbled me, repeatedly.

When I read the blurb and saw “East Africa,” I thought, great! I just did a bunch of research on East African culture (for work,) so I am gonna get ALL the cultural references. I was hardly past the first page when I realized that, um, no. First of all, my research was on Somalia and Ethiopia, and East Africa encompasses way more than just those countries. 

I was also humbled when I realized that Canada isn’t the first country to deal with immigration and multi-cultural issues. I know. I think we celebrate Canada’s multiculturalism a LOT (rightly so,) and sometimes it feels like we invented it. That immigration is a new world  or modern issue. When in reality, people have been immigrating and emigrating and mixing cultures for better and for worse, forever. Kamal embodies this fused and confused identity. He’s half Tanzanian and half Indian. Indian is the dominant culture though not the majority, but Kamal’s Indian father is absent.

Most of all, I was humbled my Vassanji’s confidence. He wrote this story that includes elements of magical realism, post-colonialism, coming of age, cultural identity, and romance and makes it look easy. His prose is so matter of fact, I found myself thinking “really, you’re just gonna SAY that, no symbolism, no turns of phrase, just BOOM, putting it out there?” Not that there’s no symbolism or imagery here. There’s plenty. It’s hard to explain. I get that sense that Vassanji is a guy who knows he can rock this story and simply does so. Oh, and did I a mention that M.G. is also a nuclear physicist? You know, in his spare time, I guess? Humbled times a million.

M.G. "Mother-effing Genius" Vassanji

M.G. “Mother-effing Genius” Vassanji

And what of Saida, the girl Kamal leaves behind? I found myself reading in a feminist subtext to this book. It’s Kamal’s story, but let’s face it, he got out. He moved to Canada and Saida is left behind to clean up the mess. Metaphor for post colonial times or indictment of the patriarchy or both, there’s a reason Saida makes it into the title of the book rather than Kamal.

The Magic of Saida isn’t an easy read. Vassanji’s confidence also means that the story doesn’t stop to explain the cultural context. No hand-holding. So if, like me, you don’t have much background in Tanzanian history, you have some tough slogging ahead. Things didn’t really start to click for me till a couple hundred (yep, hundred) pages in, but my goodness, it is worth it. The end is horrific and reminiscent of Heart of Darkness (one of my favourite classics) and so, so worth the work it takes to get there.



  1. Rick MacDonnell

    Read the words “also a nuclear physicist” … immediately adds to TBR pile.

    Loved your point about Canadians acting like we invented immigration and multi-culturalism. When we’re almost one of the LAST countries to get on that train (although we’re damned prolific at it).

    The book sounds fantastic. Also, this reminds me that I have to read Heart of Darkness after owning the book for years. Luckily it’s only like 8 pages long. Maybe I’ll squeeze it in there somewhere during Moby Dick.

  2. Brie @ Eat Books

    “Mother-effing genius” Love it. Is M.G. on Twitter? Because you should tweet him that 😉

    I’m sad I didn’t have time to read this book at the same time as you. Maybe I will pick it for my bookclub in November. It’s hard when a book takes so long to get into, because think of how many people end up DNFing a really good book if they had just stuck to it? This is why I always finish a book…that whole benefit of the doubt thing, because “HOW DO YOU KNOW IT WONT GET BETTER?!”

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