Janika Oza

Maybe Home is the Thing We Carry: A Conversation with Janika Oza


After reading Janika Oza’s debut novel, A History of Burning (Grand Central Publishing), I had to understand not only how she crafted such an empathetic, intricate narrative of numerous characters but also how she did so with such a sweeping timeline and across continents. The book, which begins in the late 1800s, covers a century of stories within one family, grappling with the personal, familial, and (multi)societal all at once. This book would be a masterpiece at any stage of one’s career, but to know that Oza published this novel as her very first makes the success and impact of the book that much more stunning.

A History of Burning flawlessly braids the stories of an Indian-Ugandan family as many of its members are displaced from India to Africa and from Africa to Canada, consistently confronted with the violent ramifications of British colonization and its global reach. The echoes of this history are felt not only in the external vitriol and trauma the family experiences throughout their displacements but also in the inter-familial complexities. When and how do they resist? What does that resistance look like? Who will stay, and who will go? The novel unpacks some of the answers to these questions and highlights the fortitude of this family without ever landing on finality or permitting a one-dimensional, reductive reading of the book. As Oza herself points out, yes, this is a story in part about sacrifice, in part about survival, but it is also a book about truth—complex, emotional, and messy truth.

Over the course of our conversation, Oza offered insight into her process and the work it took to put forth a multigenerational, multi-point-of-view narrative that manages to humanize and complicate each character as much as the next and create compelling narratives. She spoke to her approach to research, her sources of inspiration, and her rationale behind some of the significant choices she made about the book and the stories it shares.


The Rumpus: The narrative starts in 1898. What was your source material for that time period? What research did that entail?

Janika Oza: My research for this book was a combination of archival documents, academic and creative work, and oral interviews. To write most of this novel, I drew from the stories and details shared with me by those who have experienced this history of migration to and exile from Uganda, which came from conversations via Zoom and Skype and also with my own family. But of course, for the earlier parts of the narrative, I didn’t have any first-person accounts, so those sections relied more heavily on scholarly material and my imagination. A couple of books that were hugely helpful for me were We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture edited by David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and Tina K. Ramnarine; Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur; and the novel Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani. These are books that combine research and creative storytelling to tell a less documented history of indenture, colonization, and forced migration from the Indian subcontinent outwards. The thing with writing a fictional narrative rooted in history is that it’s not possible to get everything right, and I had to learn to be okay with that—I had to give myself permission. Above all else, I was writing in service of the emotional truth.

A History of Burning

Rumpus: How did you know when to begin and end this narrative, particularly given that it spans more than a century?

Oza: That’s something that developed over time, through writing and rewriting and revising. In my earliest draft of this novel, the story actually began in 1971, during Idi Amin’s military coup, but as I got to know the characters more, I realized that this wasn’t where their story began—I knew that Rajni, one of the matriarchs of the family, had been through these experiences of displacement and loss before the ’70s, during the partition of India in 1947, so I jumped back to that time period. And that kind of character-driven expansion of the narrative kept happening the deeper into the story I went. I kept asking myself, “How far back do I need to go to undo this family’s wound?” And the wound I was thinking about was that of dislocation and family separation, which eventually led me back to 1898, when Pirbhai is taken from India to East Africa to work on the railroad. Without giving anything away, the ending felt quite intuitive to me—there’s no resolution but there’s a sense of circularity where the novel ends up, a moment to pause and reflect and then move forward and back all at once.

Rumpus: I read in another interview that this novel is, in part, based on your family. When did you know you wanted to tell this story, and how did you find a balance between fictionalization and autobiographical fiction?

Oza: The novel isn’t based on my family, but it is inspired by the experiences and history of my family and community. I came to writing this novel out of a deep curiosity to know more about our history because there is so much silence in my family and community when it comes to talking about these heavy and sometimes very traumatic memories. There was an urgency to that feeling that I followed and also a lot of love and care because it’s personal: it’s my parents and grandparents and aunties, a history I’m descended from. At the same time, I definitely wouldn’t call any of this novel autobiographical. There are some scenes and moments in the novel that come very close to experiences from my family, but I won’t say which. I’ve been very careful about what I choose to share with the public and what I’m keeping close to my chest. It’s a purposeful silence. For me it feels like, we’re still learning how to talk about this, we’re starting to break generational silences, but where it shows up in the book—that part is just for us.

Rumpus: You’re a reader for The Rumpus. Has any of that work helped you with your writing practice either for A History of Burning or in other works?

Oza: I became a reader for the Rumpus in part because I just love a good essay . . . I wanted to immerse myself in the world of creative nonfiction and think about all the many ways you can craft a narrative. And that work is always teaching me. One of the greatest parts of being a submission reader is that you’re forced to think about craft on a very granular level, and when something isn’t quite working you have to articulate why that is, which can then translate back to your own work. But there are also times when a piece is so good that I forget it’s a submission. What a joy! I think all reading is important for the writing, regardless of genre. When I’m stuck in my writing, I turn to reading, and that always brings me back.

Rumpus: So much is communicated by titles. How did you decide this was the one? Were there any others that you had considered throughout the process?

Oza: I did have a few other working titles over the years of writing this book, all of them way too embarrassing to share here! And to be honest, I can’t remember the moment that I came up with this title, but I do remember that the more I said it, the more right it felt. It speaks to both the span of this book and also to the themes of complicity and resistance running through the novel, the ways that a burning can be both destructive or violent but also purposeful and regenerative. I wanted a title that could hold both possibilities together.

Rumpus: I was drawn to the pattern of complicated mothers in this narrative, particularly because you write them in a way that shines a light on their flaws but does so with incredible empathy. Did you find it difficult to capture that complexity, or did that happen organically as you told their stories? Do you have a particular approach for handling character development in that way?

Oza: The women and mothers in this novel are complex and flawed because that’s been my experience of all the women in my life and all the people who have mothered me: funny, tender, sweet but with an edge, fiercely protective and prickly all at once. There are many moments in this novel when the characters, and especially the women, are called on to make difficult choices, and I wanted those moments to reflect the complexity of what it would mean to live as a woman in these different times and places I was writing about, trying to survive and take care of your family and also yourself. I didn’t want to play into the stereotype of the sacrificial mother. Even in moments when the mothers in this book are self-sacrificing, I wanted them to have feelings about it! I wanted to show the messiness and to leave room for the characters to grow.

Rumpus: When I realized this was your debut novel, I was astounded because the book is written with so much clear confidence and craft. Can you speak to your experience writing and publishing a first novel?

Oza: Thank you for saying that, it means a lot. I worked on this novel for six years, [and] for most of that time, I didn’t believe that it would be published or that anyone would read it. I had to kind of put the thought of publication out of my head because it would weigh heavily on me at times and bring with it a lot of doubt and insecurity. But it’s so clear to me that this is the book I needed to write because even when I was in the deepest doubt spirals, I always came back to the writing—there was a feeling of purpose there that was unconnected to whether or not it would ever get published. It took a lot of patience to see this book through, but I didn’t do it alone. I don’t think this book would be out now if it weren’t for the writing community I found as I went. It was through attending workshops like Tin House in the U.S. and Diaspora Dialogues here in Canada that I met mentors and other writers also figuring out how to work through their first projects, and that kind of support has been deeply necessary at every stage of the writing and publishing journey. Long live the post-workshop WhatsApp groups! You need people to commiserate and celebrate with.

Rumpus: Without giving too much of the narrative away for readers, the epilogue offers a brief, gentle description of a reconciliation that the plot was sort of building toward. How did you decide that this moment was best suited for the epilogue rather than something to flesh out in the narrative itself?

Oza: To me, the epilogue serves as a breath after an uphill sprint. I didn’t want to end the novel with that kind of high intensity moment, I wanted to offer a reprieve and a note of hope or at least possibility for this family. At the same time, the details of that reconciliation scene felt beside the point because this is a novel that is really about all the ways that we leave and come back to one another over and over again. I wasn’t interested in writing a final scene for this family that would feel solid and unbreakable because I don’t think that exists. That instability, that cyclical breaking and mending, was really the point for me, and ultimately what I wanted to offer with the epilogue.

Rumpus: The British quite literally loom in this book—at one point a portrait of Queen Elizabeth looks down upon passersby, and the organization of houses in Uganda reflects the enforced hierarchy established by colonizers—only to then try to swoop in and act as saviors for the schisms they created. Was it difficult to decide how much of this violent history and hypocrisy should be directly commented on and how much should be depicted through the echoes of intergenerational trauma? How did you make those choices?

Oza: At no point in writing this book did I want to turn away from the realities of British colonialism and its violent impacts on people, on the land, on whole communities. It felt integral to this family’s story because British colonization is quite literally the reason why this community of South Asians in Uganda formed and why that community was ruptured and scattered across the world. Writing this book without deeply engaging with that truth didn’t feel possible to me. Beyond that, this is a story of a family trying to find their place in a world that is constantly shifting beneath them, and I wanted them and their relationships and emotions and memories at the center of this narrative. There were places in this book where it felt right to engage with a more capital P politics, but I was very interested in how politics and history live in more subtle and interpersonal ways—in a romantic relationship, or in the food the characters can and can’t access, in the soil, in the body itself.

Rumpus: This book raises questions of what home is, where home is, and who gets to have a sense of home. What are your thoughts on those definitions, and do you feel you leave the characters in a place of certainty or uncertainty regarding their own home?

Oza: For the characters in this book, home is constantly changing, constantly unsettling and resettling, sometimes by choice but often by force. For the book to land on one definition of home would feel false given that context of exile and displacement—there is no final arrival. My own family has a history of exile and uprooting. We are refugees and immigrants and settlers all at once, and so my personal understanding of home has been shaped by those experiences. In writing this novel, I wanted to engage not just with the question of what is home but also who gets to feel security and belonging in these places? Can we call it a home if we aren’t all safe and free in it? This novel deals a lot with the way stories are told, the way memories are passed down or buried or live in the body, and with that comes the idea that maybe home is something we carry. And maybe sometimes, we can carry it for each other.





Author photograph by Yi-Shi

Liz Declan is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia. More from this author →