Reading appealed to Rabindranath Maharaj as a boy growing up in a small rural South Trinidad village. So, too, did his thirst for listening to villagers tell stories at every street corner and rum shop.
“I read comic books at a very young age and the people who penned those were my favourite writers at the time,” Maharaj told Share shortly after winning the 2011 Toronto Book Award and its $11,000 cash prize for his novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy. “As I got older, I started reading books by Trinidadian writers like Vidiadhar Naipaul, Samuel Selvon and Michael Anthony. In high school, I read a lot of English classics by 18th and 19th century European writers that influenced me.
“I liked the way that writers would take something and make it seem kind of magical. They seemed to have a gift which I admired and I vowed I wanted to be just like them.”
Maharaj’s book was selected from 78 submissions.
“I want to congratulate Rabindranath Maharaj for his wonderful novel,” Councillor Gary Crawford said at last week’s awards ceremony at the Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon. “His book gives a unique perspective about our diverse city.”
The book tells the story of a 17-year-old Trinidadian immigrant sent to live with his estranged father in Canada following the death of his mother. In the absence of parental supervision – and even interest – the optimistic teen sets out from his Regent Park home to discover the city’s wonders. The characters he meets along the way, including relatives who visit from Trinidad and denizens that he encounters around the city are colourful, often funny and invariably also struggling to cope with life and isolation.
Maharaj said the book’s idea was conceived at the Toronto Reference Library where he was the Writer-in-Residence in 2006.
“I noticed that new immigrants came here to do not only research, but also communicate with family and friends back in their homelands by e-mail,” he said. “It seemed to me that this was a little community centre. I began to talk to some of these new arrivals to find out how they were making out in their new home and that allowed me to try to see if I could understand the city a little better.
“One night while coming home on the GO train, it dawned on me that there was so much construction going on around the Greater Toronto Area and I started wondering how a young person would react to all of this. I concluded that they would think this city is constantly being dismantled and rebuilt. By the time I arrived home, I knew this would be a book.
“I taught students in Ajax who had moved to this area from Regent Park and the media construct of that neighbourhood differed from how they saw the community. That’s why I chose to set the story in Regent Park – before it was refurbished – to pay fictional tribute to that commune.”
Maharaj wrote most of the book in a now defunct Ajax coffee shop.
“It’s hard to write at home when you have a family,” he said. “I could concentrate better in this shop even though people were talking but they were not saying anything to me.”
Maharaj is the third Caribbean-born writer to win the Toronto Book Award which was established 37 years ago. Fellow Trinidadian Dionne Brand captured the award in 2006 and Barbadian-born Austin Clarke in 2009.
This is the second significant literary prize Maharaj has won in the past four months. He beat out five finalists for the $20,000 Ontario Trillium Book Award last June for the novel which was named the best English-language book published by a citizen of the province in the past year.
That was his first literary prize since leaving Pine Ridge Secondary School nearly seven years ago to concentrate on writing full-time. He taught English, Creative Writing and Mass Media at the Pickering school.
“It took me about three days to realize that I had finally won a major book prize,” said Maharaj of the Trillium prize. “When you are just writing, you don’t make a lot of money so I was able to cover most of my debts with that cash award. It feels good to know my hard work is now paying off. This award is a little bit of icing on the cake.”
Born in Tableland in 1955, Maharaj received his Bachelors, Masters and Diploma in Education from the University of the West Indies St. Augustine campus and taught at Rio Claro High School before coming to Canada in 1992 to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick.
His thesis, The Interloper, was published and Maharaj returned to Canada the following year to promote the book, which was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for First Book, and decided to set up residence here.
The father of three children is the author of five novels and three short story collections.
Maharaj currently teaches a “Writing the Novel” introduction course at the University of Toronto.