Randy Boyagoda’s third novel reaches into the world of an English professor at a Catholic university. Photo by Jacklyn Gilmor

Randy Boyagoda's new literary venture explores the Catholic faith in school atmosphere

By  Jacklyn Gilmor, Catholic Register Special
  • October 8, 2018

Some might say that Randy Boyagoda is a lot like Prin, the protagonist of his third novel. Both are Catholic university professors with a Sri Lankan background and four daughters. 

However, it goes deeper than that. 

Original Prin is Boyagoda’s first literary venture into the world of post-secondary school, a world Boyagoda knows well as principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

“It makes sense,” said the 42-year-old writer and scholar. “I’ve been in the university world since I was 19 years old; I never left.”

Original Prin, intended to be the first in a trilogy, launched Sept. 25. Much of the book, both humourous and spiritual, centres around struggling with faith in the context of a 21st-century school atmosphere. 

Prin teaches English at a small Catholic university. Life is pretty comfortable until he finds out his school is facing a possible shutdown and he might lose his job. If that’s not enough, his ex-girlfriend Wende shows up unexpectedly and she has a crazy solution: open a satellite campus in Dragomans, a war-torn part of the Middle East. Oh, and Prin is just the right professor to go over there. 

Boyagoda says the inspiration for the story came when he was sitting in a university lecture and noticed that something had been torn off the podium: a school crest. He thought maybe the crest had been Christian in some way and that the school had torn it off out of embarrassment of its roots. 

“They pried it off and they had nothing to put in its place. I thought it was a striking example of a mundane, secular worldview.” 

The university in the novel has tried to hide its faith background, so it’s known as simply U.F.U., initials which don’t really stand for anything.

The school might be struggling to marry faith and modern teaching, but it has a higher sense of purpose.

“Because it’s a Catholic university,” said Boyagoda, “there’s more to their purposes than simply making money to keep the lights on. They believe in the importance of educating the fullness of the human person.”

Despite some heavy issues the book tackles (like disease and religious extremism) some things just don’t change. For Prin, students are pretty much the same from downtown Toronto to the new campus in Dragomans.

In one scene, Prin is prepared to lecture about the writer Franz Kafka but, distracted, his students ask him about immigration to Canada instead.

“They might as well be students at Ryerson (University) and St. Mike’s in a sense,” said Boyagoda. “There’s an ordinary universal experience of ‘I didn’t do my readings and I’m still here in class.’ ”

Throughout the novel, Prin struggles to navigate his relationship with God. Is there a greater purpose for his life? Why would God let him suffer? Is he a bad husband and father? Also, is his ex-girlfriend still wearing the same apple-scented lip balm that smells really good?

Boyagoda said it might have been easier to write a story about faith that’s set 500 years ago. Maybe even 50 years ago. However, he wanted to explore what it means to live out the Catholic faith today. 

“You go to work, you have your family responsibilities, you play with your phone too much, you get bored in Mass, you go to confession and the priest is strange,” he said. “What does it mean for that ordinary daily existence to be suffused with a sense that our lives are made in the image and likeness of God? ... That’s the desire: to write a story like that and make it relatable, for people like you and me.”

Far from being a “perfect Catholic,” Prin sometimes sits in Mass and dares God to make the candles flicker to prove that He exists. 

“I think maybe the difference with this book is it’s both about campus life, it’s about family life and it’s about the life of faith,” said Boyagoda. 

“All things that matter to me personally, but things that I never actually explored in my fiction before. Probably because all of them are very personally felt as well. So the stakes are higher.”

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