One of our recommended books is A History of Burning by Janika Oza


In 1898, Pirbhai, a teenage boy looking for work, is taken from his village in India to labor for the British on the East African Railway. Far from home, Pirbhai commits a brutal act in the name of survival that will haunt him and his family for years to come.

So begins Janika Oza’s masterful, richly told epic, where the embers of this desperate act are fanned into flame over four generations, four continents, throughout the twentieth century. Pirbhai’s children are born in Uganda during the waning days of British colonial rule, and as the country moves toward independence,

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In 1898, Pirbhai, a teenage boy looking for work, is taken from his village in India to labor for the British on the East African Railway. Far from home, Pirbhai commits a brutal act in the name of survival that will haunt him and his family for years to come.

So begins Janika Oza’s masterful, richly told epic, where the embers of this desperate act are fanned into flame over four generations, four continents, throughout the twentieth century. Pirbhai’s children are born in Uganda during the waning days of British colonial rule, and as the country moves toward independence, his granddaughters, three sisters, come of age in a divided nation. Latika is an aspiring journalist, who will put everything on the line for what she believes in; Mayuri’s ambitions will take her farther away from home than she ever imagined; and fearless Kiya will have to carry the weight of her family’s silence and secrets.

In 1972, the entire family is forced to flee under Idi Amin’s military dictatorship. Pirbhai’s grandchildren are now scattered across the world, struggling to find their way back to each other. One day a letter arrives with news that makes each generation question how far they are willing to go, and who they are willing to defy, to secure their own place in the world.

A History of Burning is an unforgettable tour de force, an intimate family saga of complicity and resistance, about the stories we share, the ones that remain unspoken, and the eternal search for home.

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  • Grand Central Publishing
  • Hardcover
  • May 2023
  • 400 Pages
  • 9781538724248

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About Janika Oza

Janika Oza is the author of A History of BurningJanika Oza is the winner of the 2022 O. Henry Prize for Short Fiction, and the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Award. She has received support from The Millay Colony, Tin House Summer and Winter Workshops, VONA/Voices of Our Nation, and the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference, and her stories and essays have appeared in publications such as The Best Small Fictions 2019 AnthologyCatapultThe Adroit Journal, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She lives in Toronto.


“Remarkable….a haunting, symphonic tale that speaks to the nuanced complexities of class and trauma for this particular family. This demand — and spirit — for bolder storytelling that transcends borders and identities certainly can be found in Oza’s generous novel.” New York Times Book Review, Editors Choice

“Vast and intricate, alight with love and contained fury, A History of Burning is a towering debut by a phenomenal writer. A book I want to press into readers’ hands and discuss for hours.” —Megha Majumdar, New York Times bestselling author of A Burning

“A riveting testament to home, exile, survival, and inheritance. Janika Oza is a writer you won’t want to miss.” Lisa Ko, National Book Award finalist for The Leavers

A History of Burning is as transfixing as a flame. Janike Oza writes strikingly and steadily, with exquisite, incisive detail, about making one’s home in imperfect places. This is a book about what it means to be part of a family and lineage, in all its heartbreaking and wondrous complexity.”Rachel Khong, award-winning author of Goodbye, Vitamin

“Intimate and epic… A hymn for the ancestors, and the bitter, radiant acts of their survival: this book is a triumph.”Shruti Swamy, author of A House is a Body

“Ambitious in scope and dazzlingly executed… A tour de force.”Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People

Discussion Questions

1. With family members being separated by countries and oceans, consistent correspondence is an essential part of the character’s lives. In what ways does their correspondence work to create distance as well as intimacy?

2. There are many relationships, both platonic and romantic, that develop throughout the course of the novel. Describe the ways these relationships balance obligation and devotion?

3. When Vinod expresses a desire to attend university abroad to his parents, he realizes it’s ultimately not possible. Both father and son experience feelings of shame over this conversation. Describe the reasons for their individual reactions and the way this feeling is carried throughout their lives.

4. Rajni and Sonal form a strong bond as mother-and-daughter-in-law, with an innate shared understanding. How do their experiences shape their sense of home, and what it means to belong to a place, in contrast to their husbands?

5. On his death bed, Pirbhai tells Latika of his long-held secret. Why do you think he chooses to unburden himself to his granddaughter?

6. How does the knowledge of Pirbhai’s actions impact Latika throughout her life?

7. Latika’s decision to remain in Uganda during the expulsion of South Asian people ultimately separates her from her family and community. How does the prose emphasize her isolation?

8. How does Hari’s discovery of his parentage shine a light on what has remained unspoken in the other character’s lives? How does it bring the younger members of the family together?

9. Each family member has major moments where they must decide between complicity and resistance. How does their family legacy influence them in key moments?

10. There is an emphasis on the importance of knowing one’s history and family lineage to achieve a greater understanding of personal identity. In what ways is that exemplified in the text?

11. “They had arrived here: almost whole. They would leave again, find another place. They would let it burn and insist on something better.” (pg. 385). Explain the significance of this line in the final chapter, and the way it speaks to the family’s history through the generations.




Who are some of your favorite writers and did they influence the way you wrote A History of Burning?

A few novels that feel foundational to me and the writing of this book are A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. These books span decades and places, are deeply invested in the intricacies and complexities of families and community, and offer narratives that are inseparable from the specific political and historical landscapes they explore. I also drew much inspiration and instruction from contemporary writers like Maaza Mengiste, Min Jin Lee, Edwidge Danticat, David Chariandy, and Hala Alyan—authors who have written so beautifully on displacement, intergenerational legacies, and shifting notions of home, but who above all are writing about love.

This novel takes place over a century and follows nine different family members. How did you choose who to focus on at specific moments in the text and give equal weight to each character?

I knew early in the drafting stages that the protagonist of my novel would be the family itself. I have encountered very few novels that place an entire family at the center rather than privileging one or two main characters, but I knew I had to try—it was at the core of my vision for the novel, and of my own lens on the world, that we are shaped by our relationships with others, that we can better understand a person by placing them in the context of their people.

The novel is rich with sensory detail and mentions of food. What role does food play for you in the novel?

Food plays such a pivotal role in community, in placemaking and in finding one’s way into new understandings of home and belonging. It’s also integral to my experience of family. There is a trope in South Asian literature about food descriptions, a way that food can be used to denote authenticity while simultaneously serving to exoticize the characters. I was conscious of this as I was writing; I wanted not to play into these conventions but rather to expand the meanings that food can carry in a narrative. I considered what it means to be cooked for, to care for someone in this specific and intimate way, what it feels like when you cannot access that taste you want, or when someone rejects the food you have prepared for them. I wanted to lean into the sense memories that food can evoke. At its best, for the characters in this novel, food is about togetherness, joy.

Did you find any specific challenges in writing such a grand-scale, epic narrative?

I didn’t set out to write such a beast of a novel: my earliest drafts began in 1971 and spanned only two decades rather than nearly ten. But as I learned more about the history and the characters, it became clear to me that I had to go farther back into this family’s lineage to really understand the different migrations, empires, separations, and ambitions that had shaped them.

This novel is rich with historical detail. What was your research process?

The seed of this novel and my entry point into the work was the various family stories I had heard over my lifetime—and the silences between them. I had so many questions, so many gaps in my understanding of where I came from and what my family and community had experienced, and these questions spurred my initial research.

The most vital part of my research process, however, was speaking to members of the Ugandan Asian community and gathering oral histories from those who experienced the expulsion and its aftermath firsthand. Through the magic of WhatsApp and Zoom, I was able to speak with people across the world, families separated by the expulsion and scattered across continents.

Many of the people I spoke to were eager to recount stories and share their astonishing breadth of knowledge, and it was through these interviews and conversations that the world of the novel truly came alive.

Were there characters that came to you fully-realized and others that took longer to take shape?

Rajni was the first character to come to me, and when she did, I saw her fully formed: a woman who had already experienced the loss of her homeland and family once, and was facing the prospect of doing so again in the new land she had adopted. From there, I was able to drop into her skin, and her first chapter came out of me in a breath—I could feel so clearly who she was, this young, carefree and spirited woman whose life was on the brink of change. Other characters were more guarded, taking draft after draft to reveal their true desires and motivations to me. There is a powerful, magical feeling when a character steps into the novel fully realized, but most times it’s a work of patience and curiosity and attentiveness to learn who they really are, much like in real life.

What do you hope readers will take with them after they’ve finished reading A History of Burning?

At the heart of this novel is the idea of community and collectivism, what it means to belong to a whole—whether a family, a land, a movement—and all the messiness and beauty of navigating that space. But crucial to the idea of community is a consideration of who is included and who is excluded, who is made central and peripheral. I hope readers will reflect on that notion, in the novel and in their own spheres, and the possibilities of solidarity—because our fates are entangled, because we need each other.