By the age of 10, Malcolm Azania knew he wanted to be a storyteller. At the time, his creative impulse took the form of comic book illustration and writing until, at the age of 15, he read Frank Herbert’s Dune. Blown away by a work of imagination that was “so rich it needed a glossary”, Azania vowed to write novels, a dream he realized in 2004 when he published The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad under his pen name, Minister Faust, to international acclaim.
Since then, the Edmonton-based Azania, a 2018 Alumni Honour Award recipient, has published five more novels and expanded his creative repertoire to broadcasting – he founded CJSR’s Africentric Radio, Canada’s longest running African news and public affairs program; a popular podcast, MF Galaxy; and a wide-ranging series of creative workshops and public speaking engagements. His 2011 TEDx talk, The Cure for Death by Smalltalk, has been viewed more than 800,000 times.
“All of it is storytelling,” he says. “The venue doesn’t matter.”
Early in his career, Azania’s writing was inspired by the social and political issues he saw around him, using the lens of science fiction to “explore strange new worlds, meet alien life forms and see our human foibles reflected in them.” Now, he says he’s more interested in how individuals can make themselves and the world better, citing fellow author and friend Robert Sawyer as a writer whose plots are never solved through violence.
“Everyone knows MacGyver, so I started to think, what is the MacGyver equivalent of justice, or a better society? In one of my books, The Alchemists of Kush, I slowly lay out how teens and adults work together to fix a series of crises in their lives. Human ingenuity plus compassion equals progress.”
Azania is staunchly pro-Edmonton. His novels, all of them science fiction/fantasy, are partially set in Edmonton, prompting one New York Times reviewer to remark, “not exactly a glamorous metropolis” but then adding that the author “anatomizes the streets of a Canadian city with the same loving care Joyce brought to early 20th-century Dublin.” High praise indeed.
He says that locating his stories in the city where he was born and raised stems from a creative writing class he took in the early 90s while working towards his English degree.
“Everyone was setting their stories outside of Edmonton, but one guy wrote a scene with a character standing at Churchill Square at rush hour. It was electrifying,” says Azania. “He made the city come alive for me in a way that I’d never seen before. I realized, all of us default to the US but when you look around, you see the beauty here. For me, that’s important as a writing lesson, but also as a life lesson. Why are you going everywhere but where you are? Open your eyes.”
It’s a lesson Azania passed along to a student he was mentoring in 2014-15 while serving as a Writer-in-Residence for the Department of English and Films Studies.
“A young gay man came to see me,” says Azania. “He was from a small town in Alberta, I can’t remember what town he was from so let’s say Millet. He had been the target of a lot of harassment and cruelty and had a real hatred for his town.I said to this young man, nobody can tell the stories of Millet like you can, so be that writer, not the guy who says I’m coming to Edmonton to get away from those idiots but the guy who says, they don’t get to say who Millet belongs to. My impression was that he was at least willing to consider it.”
Growing up, Azania said he never had a single teacher who encouraged him to “try big things” or go to university, in spite of his good grades and positive remarks about his writing.
“I would argue that one of your jobs a teacher is to be a talent scout,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was in university that I received that encouragement.”
These experiences inspired him to seek an education degree following the completion of his BA. His mother was a teacher for 35 years, and from a very early age, he saw the importance of connecting with young people. Many of her students were immigrants from Chile and Portugal, and visits to his family’s home, sometimes even for Christmas dinner, were not uncommon.
Azania spent a decade teaching high school English in the public school system. Channeling his mother, he worked hard to connect with his students, to see them as persons of dignity, whatever their circumstances.
“Many of the kids I bonded with were born here, and some went back as far as my family did, but a lot were new Canadians,” he says. “One of the simplest ways to let people know you accept them on their terms is to pronounce their name correctly. Ask them, and learn from them. If we can grow up saying Tchaikovsky, we can do this.”
Along with writing a long-awaited sequel to The Coyote King, his current project, a graphic novel, centres around John Ware, an African-American who settled in Alberta and became Canada’s most famous cowboy. He is quick to point out that while he respects the realistic treatments of John Ware, his version will involve Ancient Egypt, freemasonry and – demons.
“In Canada,” he says, “we are not myth makers. I think this is to our detriment.”
Malcolm Azania (photo Donna McKinnon)
The deeply humanistic Azania looks for connection in everything that he does. Equity, diversity and inclusion are not just concepts, they are the structure around which he conducts his life and creates his art. And, he says, while everything he does is not necessarily for fun, it is fun.
“There is an old Samurai meditation where they contemplate their own death as they head into battle,” says Azania. “That doesn’t really work for me, so I started to think, what would? So I imagined, if I was imprisoned by an evil regime and had one day left in my sentence, what would I do when I was freed? Well, I would rise early to see the sun come up. I would make breakfast for my kids. I would make my wife and my friends laugh. I would grow tomatoes. I would write. I would draw. I would do martial arts. I loved coming up with this list, because I realized, it’s what I do every day.”
Malcolm Azania received his BA in English in 1991 and his BEd in 1994.
The University of Alberta will be recognizing the 2018 Alumni Award recipients at a ceremony on Monday, September 24. To register for this event, click here.
Know another inspiring UAlberta grad? Nominate them for a 2019 Alumni Award. Deadline is Dec 15, 2018. Visit uab.ca/AlumniAwards