Lost and found in Dante’s Indiana

  • September 19, 2021

Randy Boyagoda takes a bold dive into some of society’s most contentious issues in his latest novel, Dante’s Indiana.

Contemporary themes surrounding religious faith, addiction, race, marital separation and cancel culture are all on the table in this second instalment in a trilogy of novels modelled after Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Set in the American midwest, Boyagoda continues the story of Prin, a Sri Lankan-Canadian English professor and devout Catholic introduced in Original Prin — the 2018 first instalment in the series. In this latest text, Prin’s life is in shambles as he finds himself homeless and jobless, separated from his wife and children. Struggling through his own personal purgatory, he moves to a small town in Indiana ravaged by opioid addiction to work for an evangelical millionaire building a theme park inspired by Dante’s Inferno.

A professor with the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of English and the Undergraduate Vice Dean, Boyagoda’s academic work is highly focused on American literature, religion and public life. Originally from Oshawa, Ont., before moving to Toronto in 2006 to take up a position as an English professor at X University (formerly Ryerson), Boyagoda and his wife Anna moved to Boston in 1999 and lived there for six years, while he completed his doctorate in English at Boston University before going to the University of Notre Dame in 2005 as a postdoctoral fellow.

With Original Prin modelled after Dante’s Inferno, and this latest modelled after the Purgatory of Dante, Boyagoda felt Indiana was the prime setting for the characters and all their moral complexities to collide.

“Dante imagines purgatory as a mountain that Dante has to ascend in order to then get to the point where he can go off to Heaven,” said Boyagoda. “(Dante’s Indiana) is set in Terre Haute, Indiana, which translates to high ground. A high ground midwest town where you can imagine the situations he’s describing. The combination of a religiously-inspired theme park, opioid addiction and the desire to save your family at the same time all made sense and worked in the context.”

Oshawa has been battling its own opioid crisis many believe was exasperated by the closing of the General Motors plant in recent years. For Boyagoda, the novel is as much about his hometown as it is about midwest America. 

A religiously serious writer, Boyagoda says in building this novel he was very much open and responsive to the salient issues of our current moment in history. Original Prin and Dante’s Indiana are the third and fourth novel in Boyagoda’s unconventional canon. Previous novels, Governor of the Northern Province (2006) and Beggar’s Feast (2011), while not focused primarily on Catholic faith implications, still offer in their overall message exploration of universal themes of suffering and redemption within the complexities of the human experience.

The killing of a Black teenager in Dante’s Indiana adds another element to the dynamics which give rise to themes around racial justice, cultural competency and the burden of the model minority. Whether it’s Prin’s marriage struggles, the journey of an evangelical entrepreneur, a father struggling with his daughter’s addiction or a smart young Black professional woman trying to exist in a white space not built with her in mind, Boyagada’s intention, as with his other works, is to humanize characters. He hopes that in ingesting his work, the reader will be able to move beyond any superficial differences and find themselves perhaps unexpectedly on the page.

“Part of what I see frankly as my vocation as a novelist is to find the inherent dignity of the human person where you might not expect it,” said Boyagoda. “That meant writing about an African warlord in my first novel and then writing about a runaway boy monk who has three wives and 16 children in my second novel. In (Dante’s Indiana), rightly, people have a lot of preconceived notions about Americans, about American evangelicals, about American evangelicals building theme parks, about business trying to save a town from opioid addiction. … We certainly do see types I think in place of persons and I think the work of a novelist and very much my vocation as a novelist is to find the person behind the type.”

Boyagoda sees a lot of himself in Prin. While the details of the troubled protagonist’s life situation are far from Boyagoda’s — who is happily married with four daughters — imagining himself in Prin’s shoes is not far-fetched.

“The particulars of Prin’s situation are thank God not mine — out of work, his wife and children having moved away from him, working on a Dante theme park — but I would say that Prin’s engagement of the world around him and its problems make a lot of sense to me in personal terms,” said Boyagoda. “In other words, I can imagine inhabiting Prin’s life and trying to make sense of the dilemmas that he encounters.”

Dante’s Indiana, Boyagoda says, is a story about a character at odds with his faith and like the Divine Comedy, the theme of being lost and also being found is at the crux of Prin’s experience and that of the other characters. That profound idea found in Catholic liturgy and in Scripture is central to the religious tradition at play in this book. 

“At the beginning Prin is lost and throughout the novel he meets people over and over again who are lost,” said Boyagoda. “What does it mean for them to be found? How will that happen? Will they allow themselves to be found? Will they be given the grace of being found? That’s kind of great drama of the Divine Comedy and I think that’s the drama of Dante’s Indiana.”

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