Nurtured by REAL LIFE
Debut novel is a fictional account of some difficult family history
It's about displacement, about exile, about the importance of belonging and of place. But it's also about how we do and sometimes don't share stories and pass on memories of our families and communities and how these memories are a part of our history. Janika Oza
A History of Burning Janika Oza Mcclelland and Stewart
“I knew very little about our family history,” Janika Oza says. “It was not something we spoke about. And I began to think there must be so much more.”
She's talking about growing up in Toronto because — really — if one wishes to understand the genesis of her acclaimed debut novel, A History of Burning, her childhood curiosity was where it all began.
Oza is the product of a South Asian family that came from elsewhere to build a new life. Theirs was a flight from cruelty and injustice: even as a child, Janika was aware of that and of a central fact in her parents' life — the 1972 decision by Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin to target his entire South Asian population and kick it out of the country.
But she still wanted to know more. “How did we come to be here?” this Toronto-born youngster kept asking herself.
In a sense, A History of Burning represents Oza's attempt to provide a detailed answer to that early childhood questioning. “It's about displacement, about exile, about the importance of belonging and of place,” she says. “But it's also about how we do and sometimes don't share stories and pass on memories of our families and communities and how these memories are a part of our history.”
The 29-year-old writer is chatting with Postmedia by phone, snatching a few minutes away from a multi-city promotional tour in the U.S. on behalf of the novel. Its reception from the international book community has left her somewhat at a loss for words.
“It seems incredible,” she finally says. “When I was working on the book, I didn't believe that anyone would even read it — or publish it.”
It had taken her six years to write this multi-generational chronicle of endurance, resilience and love, but when the publishing world had the chance to see the completed manuscript, the response was swift. A fierce bidding war saw Mcclelland and Stewart snap up the rights for Canada and Grand Central pick it up for the United States. Overseas, the legendary British firm of Chatto & Windus, the house that gave the world Iris Murdoch and Aldous Huxley, secured the rights for the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries.
Furthermore, because of an early buzz of excitement within the book world, major media outlets have been quick to respond now that the book is out, with laudatory reviews appearing in The New York Times and The Economist within days of publication.
The History of Burning, breathtaking in its sweep, carries a caution for the reader: a privileged society 's comfortable assumptions about place, community, order and stability, elements essential to a civilized way of being, should never be taken for granted. Some of the novel's most dramatic and horrifying pages deal with Amin's expulsion of 80,000 Asians from a country where they had lived for generations and had made a major economic and social contribution to its welfare. When Oza took her master's degree at Toronto Metropolitan University, her chosen pursuit was in immigration and settlement studies. “Again, it was about how did we come to be here — questions that were a huge part of my personal life.” And those questions increased in urgency as she continued research into her novel.
“What surprised and shocked me the most was how little was known about the effect of Idi Amin's dictatorship on an Asian community that had been there for generations,” she says. Some of the novel's most searing pages, products of her own research and interviews with family and friends, deal with images of suddenly stateless Asians who are herded into lineups on the streets, their destinies subject to the whims of a malign and merciless state.
“All this was really shocking to me as an example of how a community can be erased by `documented' history. So that became very important to me as I reached out to people ready to remember and share their stories with me. There was so much more to be told than what was available from the records. I heard about people isolated and separated from their loved ones. I heard about people having to sleep on the streets, which could be dangerous, because those lineups were so long.”
However, Oza goes beyond the horror of Amin's notorious Uganda regime to examine the deeper effects on history of exile, displacement and loss of community. So this is a novel that ends up chronicling four generations of an often-beleaguered family with settings that include India, Uganda, the United Kingdom and Canada.
It begins at the dawn of the 20th century with a teenage boy named Pirbhai, who is taken by trickery from his Indian village and forced to work on a new railway being constructed by the British in East Africa. He ends up staying, eventually building a new life in Uganda and launching a generational saga that will end up more than a century later in Toronto, where his descendants will again rise from the ashes of displacement.
Exile, in its many variations, echoes and re-echoes throughout the book. Pirbhai is snatched away from his own birthplace. During his time as a railway labourer, he commits his own act of displacement when he obeys an order to set fire to an African village that lies inconveniently in the way of the train tracks that are being laid. Later, in 1947, a young woman's flight from war-torn Karachi constitutes another form of exile, this time bringing her into an imperishable family established decades before by Pirbhai — she is destined to become one of the novel's most compelling characters.
Early on, Oza knew this would be a novel spanning generations. She was not only concerned with historical background, but also with societies, cultures (she writes memorably about food) and intergenerational tensions. She also wanted to explore the resilience of family and community, of grace under pressure. Although she was dealing with fictional characters, her novel was nurtured by the real-life stories she was hearing, both from her own family and from others. “I am interested in the way these family stories are passed down through the generations. There was so much love that was revealed.”
And how has this affected her personally? “I do think family history and intergenerational trauma are something I feel in my own life.” But she also feels blessed. “It's a great privilege to have grown up in Toronto and to have been part of such a supportive community.”