Janika Oza is the author of the novel A History of Burning, out now in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and elsewhere. She is the winner of a 2022 O. Henry Award and the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Award. She lives in Toronto.
As I thumbed through the pages of Janika Oza’s debut novel, A History of Burning, I was delighted to discover how she deftly portrays our sudden sensational joys: the sticky imprint of holding a baby to one’s chest, the cool relief in a spoonful of passion fruit, the bittersweetness of seeing a river stretch beneath an airplane’s wings. These depictions enliven each individual voice in A History of Burning, which follows four generations of an Indo-Ugandan family across the twentieth century. But these particularities also serve to depict experiences universal to many migrant and diasporic families: the surprising alchemies of combining cultures, the slow simmer of dictatorship’s boil, the relentless throb of exile.
The story opens in Gujarat in 1898, where a young man named Pirbhai is coerced by the British East African Railway Company into laboring in Kenya. He eventually settles in Uganda, joining a vibrant Indo-Ugandan diaspora. When Idi Amin comes to power in 1972, Pirbhai’s son Vinod, his wife Rajni, and their daughters Latika, Mayuri, and Kiya must make a choice that will change the rest of their lives.
Janika and I have been friends since we met in college over a decade ago, and we spoke in May via Zoom about the complexities of depicting a diasporic narrative. We touched upon how to research experiences unbound in traditional archives, the role of language as a tool of colonial critique, and the power of intuition in shaping a story that has not yet been told.
Paulina Jones-Torregrosa: Let’s dive right in. You previously spoke with the novelist Lillian Li at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In that conversation, you said that you kept working on A History of Burning because you wanted to write into the space between knowing and unknowing. What did you come into this project knowing, and what did you want to learn more about? What does this phrase mean to you?
Janika Oza: I came into this book knowing intuitively what this family was experiencing, how they cared for one another, how they tried to protect and hold on to each other above everything else. And so I felt a deep sense of connection to the family in this book on an emotional level. What I didn’t know was very much on the factual level. This book goes through history from the late 1800s with the building of the East Africa Railway, through to independence in Uganda and then Idi Amin’s dictatorship. All of this is history that lives in my family and it’s something that I knew very little about aside from the broad strokes. It’s something that we hardly talked about as a family. Growing up, I knew a handful of stories about that time and about my family’s experiences. As I got older, I had a lot of questions and a lot of deep curiosity about not only what that time and those experiences were like, but also how that brought us here [to Canada], how that shaped us.
So, when I said that phrase about the space between knowing and unknowing, it felt like the most generative place for my writing. It was a place that was so alive because it was so full of questions.
PJT: What does it feel like, intellectually or physically, to be in that space? How does that space between knowing and unknowing manifest for you?
JO: I think when it’s an unstructured space, it can feel very overwhelming…what grounded me and created a path was chronology. I decided to write this book chronologically rather than in an episodic form. I realized that writing in a linear fashion doesn’t take away from the circularity of the plot itself and the ways that the book is constantly looking backward and also forward.
Writing chronologically really helped me streamline some of that uncertainty and that unknowing. I also always came back to the family to think about what was motivating them. What was moving them forward in time? What was connecting them? What was holding them in place or forcing them to move? Coming back to that was an anchoring force.
PJT: How did you choose to write this novel from multiple points of view? Or was it a choice? Was it like the book just told you it needed to be done that way?
JO: I think it was both. It was very much something that I wanted to do. I wanted to see if I could write a novel without a singular perspective, but rather have the protagonist of the novel be a whole family. Every character in this family has a point of view, and you’re seeing their movement over time through all of these different eyes and voices. And for me, that felt like it came out of my research process, which was very much an intergenerational exchange. I was speaking to members of my community who were in their eighties, people in my parents’ generation who were in their sixties, people who are in my generation who are descendants of this history but didn’t live through it themselves or were very young when they were exiled. So it felt important for me to honor the intergenerational nature of that process by including the voices of different generations, and also to consciously write against the Western understanding of documentation that is very much about the kind of singular individual voice rather than the collective.
PJT: I found myself thinking about the idea of diaspora as a scattering as I read from character to character. I feel like your multi-perspectival form enacts this process of displacement because you distributed the family history among several voices in motion.
JO: I love that reading of it. I think that is a really beautiful way of seeing this family because they are a unit that is intertwined, entangled in so many different ways. At the same time, a core part of this book and this story is the experience of displacement, the experience of family separation, of having to leave your home, your land, your people, your community, and the immense disruption and fracturing that that can cause in a family and also in the self. And so I love that idea of the form of this novel actually mirroring that kind of fracturing.
PJT: What it feels like I’m hearing from you is that telling the story through one voice would be to streamline a history that cannot be gathered and also is never singular.
JO: Right, exactly.
PJT: In the epilogue, you draw back from these individual voices and describe the characters as follows: “On a rocky outcropping off the shore, a young man and an older woman stand.” It feels jarring since we’ve spent almost 400 pages getting to know each character’s individual voice, but it also seems like it releases the story of exile, secrecy, and reconnection from this particular family into something that can speak to many kinds of migrants.
JO: I got a lot of questions in the editorial process about the voice of that epilogue. That’s how it originally came out for me when I wrote it. We had a lot of back and forth about it and for me it always felt that the end of this novel needed to pull back. The novel is so deeply embedded in the experiences of these characters and that experience is very embodied, very physical, very sensory. I felt that at the end of this book there needed to be a release from that groundedness. Also, because the book is so much about the collective, and because it felt so important for me to center that rather than to prioritize any one voice over the other, I didn’t feel like I could end the book on any single character’s voice…I didn’t want to answer every question that a reader probably would have by the end of the book. I wanted to leave more room for questions. More than anything, I wanted it to be an opening.
PJT: I’d love to talk to you about the language in the novel. Something that really struck me about A History of Burning is its mix between English, Gujarati, and Swahili. Why was it important for you to include multiple languages in the narrative? How did you and your editors arrive at the decision to leave the Gujarati and Swahili untranslated?
JO: It always felt really important to me, in writing this book, to include all of those languages and to have them be unitalicized and untranslated. First and foremost, it’s a political choice to not be drawing attention to the non-English words and creating an air of “foreignness” around them. But it was also very much a choice that came out of my personal experience with language. The language that my community speaks is a hybrid language of Gujarati and Swahili, and of course now some English in there too. And that is a language that is a testament to the ways that our community has had to move, migrate, and adapt.
That’s the way that we speak at home, you know. It’s very, very common in my family home for us to be speaking in English and then sprinkle in a word from our language. And most of the time we don’t know if the word is Gujarati or Swahili because it’s that entangled. It’s something that we laugh about in my family. We have no sense of what’s what. But I think it’s also something really beautiful, especially when you think about the fact that our community was exiled and is no longer living in that place, for the most part. This is also a language that came out of that specific place and time, and that in a way is a dying language. It felt urgent for me to honor that in the book, and I was really fortunate that my editors completely understood that.
PJT: That’s wonderful. What kind of language backgrounds did you come into the novel with and what kind of resources did you need to write in multiple languages?
JO: For the most part, the Gujarati and Swahili words that exist in the novel are ones that we use on a day-to-day basis in a household, so a lot of language relating to food, everyday conversation, family relations. And so for me, all of that was very intuitive. I didn’t really have to think about inserting Gujarati and Swahili words. It was what felt natural in the context of the story. But for the earlier parts of the novel, which actually take place in East Africa, I was conscious about allowing certain words to be in Swahili or Gujarati relating to place or landscape. For some of those words, I had to do some research. But it was actually kind of nice in that it connected me to my family because I got to WhatsApp my aunt or my dad asking them, “How would you have said this?” Or, “Do you know the word for this?” We would go back and forth. It was a really lovely way to have the family and the community be involved in the writing of the book and it was very much a process of learning for me.
PJT: One of the other really fascinating things that you do with language at the beginning of the novel is how you make English unfamiliar. I’m thinking specifically of the scene that takes place in 1926, when the character Vinod is in school in British-occupied Uganda:
“At the start of the year, Teacher-ji said that the flag was created because Britain had spread its control all through Uganda, fixing its borders into one united something – a word Vinod didn’t understand but that sounded like protection, a word he knew. Teacher-ji explained that it meant the British had extended their authority, which made Vinod think of a long fence penning them in, and all the jackals and gorillas straining against it, the cranes trying to hop over with their vast dusty wings.
And schools. Authority must mean hundreds of schools mushrooming up over the country, stale and dreary. Vinod let his pencil go slack.
He jumped as Teacher-ji slapped his workbook. “You’ve mixed up your b’s and d’s again.”
JO: I’m glad you picked up on that. That was something that was quite joyful for me to poke at, and it was a question that was coming up for me too as I was writing: at any given point in time in this novel, what language is the character speaking? Thinking in? Of course, the whole novel is written in English with other languages present, but I was thinking that in 1926, when Vinod is in his teacher’s cramped classroom, what is the language that he is speaking? What is the language that he is thinking in? He’s speaking and thinking in this mix of Gujarati and Swahili that is the language of his community. And the language that sits outside and that is causing him trouble is English. You know, he’s mixing up his b’s and his d’s. That is what is messing with him. And it was particularly fun to write that from the mind of a child.
PJT: When the narrative changes to the character of Hari, who lives with his family in Canada, I noticed that there’s never a scene where Hari is embarrassed by his family’s accents, or reflects on how his English is better than theirs. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice to leave that out or, because that is something one would expect from an immigrant coming of age novel. And I can just use The Namesake (2003) as an example.
JO: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point. And this is something that I was thinking about when I was working on this novel—there are very much tropes of immigrant literature. And even further than that, South Asian immigrant literature has particular tropes. That is a big one, the ways that the later generations have this feeling of shame or embarrassment about their parents and how they’re so much more assimilated [than their parents] or have so much more of a sense of belonging. There are other tropes in South Asian immigrant fiction in particular, you know, tropes around food and the ways that food acts as this exoticizing factor that to me when I read it feels very much written towards a white audience. So when I was working on this book I just didn’t want to write into those tropes. I wanted to write against them.
I understand that for a book like The Namesake, which is kind of a first in many ways, it made sense for those [scenes] to exist. But I think we’re no longer living in that time. There are so many more of us who are writing these stories, who are getting to put these stories out there. We have so much more to offer than just those, you know, very typical narratives.
When I was thinking about language, I was thinking about what is it that Hari has taken from his parents or grandparents? And of course, there are gaps in language that do affect him, that affect his life concretely. I’m thinking about the chapter when he’s in second grade, and how his experience of being in school is shifted by his parents’ grasp of English. But you know, the next step doesn’t have to be, “And so he feels ashamed and embarrassed.” There are other possibilities.
Similarly, with the ideas of food, there’s a lot of food in this book and that’s just something I find really joyful and pleasurable to write about and also very much connected to ideas of family and community. But it doesn’t end there. I was challenging myself in this book to think about food in other ways. What about when someone like [the character] Rajni prepares food with all this love and care and attention for her family and her daughter refuses to eat it? What about times like that? There are so many more meanings that food can bring to this kind of narrative.
PJT: If we’re talking about tropes of ethnic fiction, particularly South Asian fiction, I feel like A History of Burning borrows elements from several genres but never settles neatly into any of them. It’s an immigration novel, a partition novel, a forbidden romance, a dictatorship novel, and a coming of age. Did you have a sense that you were playing with genre as you were writing? How would you characterize A History of Burning?
JO: Yeah, it’s a great question. As I was writing the book, I was not concerned with how it would be labeled or how to label it, what genres to fit it into. That feels very much like a product of the market, and that’s a concern that comes later. But what I was always prioritizing when I was writing this book was the story. It found its own structure. It found the structure that it needed to follow. I spoke about the chronology of it, and there’s also the ways that we jump forward in time as we move from character perspective to character perspective in the different chapters—those were all the things that I was balancing as I was working on the book.
I will say that I didn’t have a model of a multigenerational family novel that felt like it fit what I was trying to do. Many of the multi-generational family novels that I really love and that influenced me are told from a third-person, omniscient, grand perspective. Books like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry or Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese were super influential for me. But it felt like there was something about the voice and the structure of those novels that worked for them but was not what my book needed. At a certain point in the writing process, I realized that I needed to write each character in third person close because the kind of writing that I was interested in was one that was very intimate, connected to the body, and grounded in the lived experiences of these characters. It felt for me like the narrative could be more deeply felt if I wrote it that way. And so that’s how I landed on that structure.
In the end, there were some choices I made with perspective and shifts in perspective, particularly towards the end of the book, that could be considered unconventional and that were a big discussion with my editors. There was a lot of rewriting and rewriting and changing of those parts, but in the end, I wrote what felt intuitive and what I felt resonated with the characters and was true to the characters in this book. And I would say that that was the guiding force in finding the structure and moving away from some of those tropes, maybe moving into more unconventional territory in parts. It wasn’t because I wanted to break the form, or you know, specifically wanted to do something unconventional, but it’s just what felt right for this story.
PJT: You and I have been friends through many moves in our lives, and you once told me about your idea of the backpack book, meaning like a book that you don’t pack up but instead stash in your backpack because it’s too precious to get lost. So what books were in your backpack as you were writing A History of Burning? What authors or thinkers accompanied you during your six years of writing and editing this novel?
JO: That’s such a lovely question to end on. I mentioned A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which are two books that I hold very close. White Teeth by Zadie Smith was one of the first books that I encountered where I thought, “Oh, like, we can do this.” It really changed things for me, and it’s a book that I come back to. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is another book that just beautifully moves across time and place and yet is so intimate, so deeply felt. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste is an incredibly beautifully written novel about an adjacent socialist dictatorship in a similar time period in Ethiopia. [It] taught me a lot about writing a story that is about a family and a community, but also very much attuned to the social realities of that time and place.
How big is this backpack?
PJT: You know, as big as you want it to be!
JO: I think I’ll stop it there. This backpack is getting heavy.