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The many vocations of U of T's Randy Boyagoda: Scholar, Catholic intellectual, novelist with a hit on his hands

“This is my first, open, fully cracked autobiographical fiction," says Randy Boyagoda, principal and vice-president of University of St. Michael's College. "It’s the most personal book I’ve written" (photos by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Meet Princely St. John Umbiligoda, or as he’s better known, Prin. He’s a Sri Lankan Canadian in his early 40s. He and his wife Molly have four school-age daughters and live in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood. He’s a literature professor at a Catholic college that has financial trouble. He rides a bike. He’s a devout Catholic, concerned he’s not living up to who God wants him to be. At the same time, he can’t shake a palpable yearning for his ex-girlfriend. And he has early onset prostate cancer that needs surgery.

Now meet Soharn Randy Boyagoda, better known as Randy. He invented Prin and made him the subject of his popular new novel, Original Prin. Boyagoda, 42, is also a Sri Lankan Canadian (born and raised in Oshawa), a devout Catholic, a literature professor at a Catholic college (the University of Toronto's University of St. Michael’s College, where he is also principal and vice-president) in Toronto. He and his wife Anna also have four school-age daughters. They live in the Beaches. And Boyagoda rides a bike.

Is Prin Randy?  

“Prin is a 21st-century everyman with a twist,” Boyagoda says in his St. Mike’s office on a sunny day in early October. “He’s trying to figure out what it means to live a good life in the time and place where he is. He’s also not me. But I could inhabit the world he’s in.”

This is Boyagoda’s third novel. His first two, Governor of the Northern Province (2006) and Beggar’s Feast (2011), earned respectful reviews but weren’t big sellers, nor were they as personally authentic as Original Prin.

“This is my first, open, fully cracked autobiographical fiction. With my prior books, to some degree, I was performing. Watch, I can give you a genocidal African warlord, I can give you this Sri Lankan tyrant magnate, shipping empire builder. But what does it mean to write about someone you can identify with? It was a completely different set of challenges. As a result, by most readers’ responses, it’s the most personal book I’ve written.”

And it’s a hit.

In the Toronto Star, critic Trevor Corkum called Original Prin “fresh and utterly original,” adding that “Boyagoda’s…adept at capturing the rambunctious, multi-faith, multicultural zeitgeist of the city, particularly in corners where cultures and faith converge.”

At a recent book launch at the Toronto Reference Library, every book was sold out in an hour – a feat a library staffer said had never happened at a launch.

But Boyagoda didn’t nail Original Prin easily. When the book’s editor, John Metcalf, saw the first draft, he said, “You’ve written a very funny 200-page novel,” Boyagoda told the audience at the book launch. “The problem is you’ve got 600 pages.”

To get to the satire Metcalf could see, Boyagoda had to make a decision. In the 600-page first draft, “Prin had lots of arguments with and about the (Catholic) church. And he was struggling to make sense of his own personal feelings of Pope Francis. Metcalf said, ‘This is interesting if I were a Catholic intellectual. But I’m not and neither are your readers. So you need to take out anything that isn’t a personally felt belief rather than Catholic politics. He said Prin was too scrupulous and dry in the first version because it was these intellectual arguments with the church. I wanted to write about a person fully alive in this moment who believes in God, not my arguments about what’s going on in the church these days. It was my decision to listen to my editor and personalize it.”

The author intends to extend Prin’s story into a trilogy. But as Boyagoda embarks on a series of promotional events, he also has to keep his many other roles humming. That’s the way Boyagoda likes to live and work, although it has taken him time to find the right balance between his day job as a professor, St. Mike’s principal, a noted essayist, novelist and active member (and former chair) of PEN Canada.

He says St. Mike’s and U of T have enabled him find that balance.

After earning his doctorate from Boston University, Boyagoda joined Ryerson University as an English professor and was later appointed chair of the English department. “At Ryerson, I was told what I had been told since I was a graduate student, which was you can’t have this academic life as a scholar of 20th-century American literature and write for newspapers and magazines and write novels. All the way through my academic career I have been told that – and I’ve kept doing it.”

Acclaimed author Charles Foran is well aware of Boyagoda’s ability to wear many hats.

“He’s a natural leader, communicator and administrator…he’s a rare combination,” says Foran, who Boyagoda says encouraged him to join PEN. “Randy manages to be a gifted satirist and he has a day job, which is almost unheard of. And throw in his volunteer work, such as PEN, and he and his wife are raising a family of four girls. I’ve never been able to figure out where he gets the energy. And where he finds the capacity to be all those things at such a high level? It’s uncanny.”

At Ryerson, he took on a role that even the multifaceted Boyagoda wasn’t sure he could handle. At the request of then president Sheldon Levy, Boyagoda became head of the university’s zone learning program, helping students to pursue startup companies as part of their studies.

He enjoyed the work, but felt he was living too much of a divided professional life. “As a believing person, I believe in integration and finding ways for things to come together. Then this job came open as principal of St. Michael’s. And I thought, ‘Well, this is the most natural place to bring together my vocations of leadership, service, academic life and Catholic intellectual life. This is a serious Catholic intellectual community modelled around the liberal arts, in the middle of a great research university. It’s really interesting.”

An example? Take the upcoming “Reading Frankenstein: Then, Now, Next” from Oct. 24-31. The brainchild of St. Mike’s Assistant Professors Paolo Granata and Jean-Olivier Richard, the event celebrates the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic novel with film screenings, a marathon reading of Frankenstein on Halloween evening at the Toronto Reference Library and panel discussions and keynote addresses with experts in the humanities, sciences and social sciences.

“One of the great things about U of T is that there are so many different kinds of scholarship and research going on at the same time,” says Boyagoda. "Paolo and Jean-Olivier had this sense that what Shelley was trying to make sense of with Frankenstein is a source of permanent fascination and fear about the power to create, the consequences of creation, the relationship between humility and overweening pride and the pop culture reality, especially when it comes to someone like Frankenstein. So, wouldn’t it be great to bring scholars together to have a conversation about what it means to be a human being fully alive with Frankenstein as our shared text to figuring it out. That’s fun!”

Boyagoda is also having fun with his new role as a popular novelist. “I used to introduce myself at literary events this way: ‘My name is Randy Boyagoda and I write critically acclaimed fiction that book clubs don’t like.’ From what I can tell (with Original Prin), this is a book that people are just enjoying instead of saying, ‘Oh, isn’t this smart and clever.’”