A History of Burning
by Janika Oza
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Pub Date 02 May 2023 | Archive Date Not set
Pirbhai's children, born and raised under the jacaranda trees and searing sun of Kampala during the waning days of British colonial rule. As Uganda moves towards independence and military dictatorship, Pirbhai's granddaughters, Latika, Mayuri, and Kiya, are three sisters coming of age in a divided nation. As they each forge their own path for a future, they must carry the silence of the history they've inherited. In 1972, under Idi Amin's brutal regime and the South Asian expulsion, the family has no choice but to flee, and in the chaos, they leave something devastating behind.
As Pirbhai's grandchildren, scattered across the world, find their way back to each other in exile in Toronto, a letter arrives that stokes the flames of the fire that haunts the family. It 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.
“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 Goodbye, Vitamin
"Intimate and epic... Janika Oza bears witness, with rigor, with unflinching beauty, to a vital branch of South Asian diaspora, allowing both for the complexities of colonial violence and the human heart. A hymn for the ancestors, and the bitter, radiant acts of their survival: this book is a triumph."
-SHRUTI SWAMY, author of The Archer and A House is a Body
“Oza’s writing reminds people that vulnerability and openness are the only ways we can save each other. A History of Burning is the art we need now.”
-MEGAN GIDDINGS, author of Lakewood
“Ambitious in scope and dazzlingly executed A History of Burning is a marvelous debut. A tour de force.”
- SHARON BALA, author of The Boat People
Average rating from 29 members
This was an incredibly powerful book from a perspective that I haven’t read much of before, and everything was woven together so beautifully, that sometimes I forgot I was reading and felt as though I existed within the book itself.
I was not prepared for the power of this read and was immediately taken by the sweeping tale of human fortitude Oza tells through multiple generations. I was oblivious to the history she shares prior to "A History of Burning" and am grateful for the education it provides. The book is reminiscent of "The Namesake" and "Brick Lane" and is, similarly, the kind of story I expect to see on the silver screen. I devoured chapter after chapter and am already looking forward to whatever Oza shares next.
This was a beautifully crafted novel with an ambitious (and well-executed) multi-generational tale of of family, sacrifice, heartbreak, and identity spanning a century and four continents.
I always approach these types of sweeping multi-generational sagas with caution. I like to get deeply invested in characters and their story arcs. Sometimes with multi-generational books I can get really drawn into the first generation's story, then pulled out and dropped into the next generation, and so on - it can make it hard for me to connect. With this book, thankfully, I quickly realized I'd had nothing to fear!
Janika Oza's writing drew me in from page 1, and I found the introduction of each new character and generation flowed seamlessly. The immersive prose along with the depth she gave each character kept me drawn into the family story. I particularly appreciated how she would take the older characters' pasts, what they survived in their youth, and tie that directly into how they responded to the hopes and dreams of their children. Each person longed to establish their own place in the world, and sometimes their ideas of how to do so were in direct opposition to one another. When they butted heads - sometimes in deeply significant ways - it was so clearly out of love for one another rather, and that complexity of family relationships shone through. It was incredibly well crafted.
In terms of the plot, the novel opened at the turn of the 20th century with a young Indian boy named Pirbhai looking for work to support his mother and sick sister. He comes across a man advertising work - just sign this contract with a thumbprint, don't worry if you can't read English. Pirbhai is then swept away across the sea to East Africa where he is forced to labor in grueling conditions building a railroad for the British colonial rulers. He survives, marries, and tries to create a life for the generations to come. His children and later grandchildren witness the toppling of the colonial regime, a country surging towards military dictatorship, and brutal expulsion into exile.
I basically devoured the first half of the book. I didn't know much about the history of Indian immigrants who settled in East Africa and the communities that sprung up there. It was not only fascinating to learn about the individual characters, but also the political situation, and how their Indian culture melted together with the local cultures in Kenya, Uganda, and the rest of the region. I loved how the author used words from Gujarati, Hindi, and Swahili woven into English to describe foods, traditions, and concepts like independence and freedom - it felt like the author truly wanted to write something authentic for this community and their experiences, while still giving readers like me enough context clues to not break the flow of the prose.
About halfway through the book there was a major tone shift after an incredibly traumatic event (or series of events) that left the family scarred and scattered. After that, I had to slow my reading down somewhat due to the emotional toll. I thought Oza handled this part of the story well, with family members each coping in their own ways, finding it hard to connect with one another and open up about what they're going through - it felt very honest and raw. The struggles of the immigrant experience in places like Canada were incredibly difficult as well, and the blatant discrimination they faced was an added layer of heartache on top of everything else they'd lost. That being said, the trauma and grief did change the tone and pace of the story a bit.
I think the first half was a clear 5 stars - second half, maybe 4.5, so I'd average that out to a 4.75 overall.
Thanks to Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing for this ARC to read and review.
A History of Burning is a multi-generational story about what it means to be a stranger in your own land. It is also a tale of refugees and the trials of making a new life. The story starts with Pirbhai who, at a young age, becomes slave laborer for the British building a railroad in Africa. His decision to stay in Africa after he becomes free will reverberate through the following generations. I was not familiar with this history and learned a lot reading this book. It is wonderfully crafted and you will get emotionally involved with this family. Past trauma tends to affect how future generations react to situations.
This book will stay with me for a long time and I look forward to the next book by Janika Oza. I would highly recommend it. What a wonderful story. One of the best I have read this year.
Thank you to #netgalley, #JanikaOza and #GrandCentralPublishing for a copy of this book.
I really enjoyed a History of Burning. I loved the multi-generational tale, looking at the Indian community in Uganda. I loved the themes of resilience, family, loss, and heartbreak. It was well done and sucked me in.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
This is a gorgeous family saga, the kind of book that gives you a hundred years of one family, following from one generation to another including in-laws (but not friends/peripheral characters as POV). It's about an Indian family that immigrates to Uganda while both are still under British rule, and...the twentieth century plays out from there, the Partition, independence for both regions, the rise of Idi Amin, another round of immigration (hello, Toronto!), all of it. It is harrowing but not only harrowing; it is heartbreaking but not only heartbreaking. There's joy, there's hope, there's camaraderie, there's all the emotions of family and community life.
I don't want to say "one doesn't often see" because perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps there are loads of books about this and my white American self has just not found them. But. I don't often see books that are about the fraught ground that comes of being a colonized people that is then part of colonization for another people. And that complexity is beautifully handled here--the characters have a wide range of reactions to each other, and being someone we care about does not mean that you're necessarily right about any one thing--or that rightness is achievable in your circumstances. These characters are all doing the best they can, but their bests vary wildly--as people do.
This is a warm and rich and compelling book, and I'm so glad that it's coming soon so the rest of you can read it too. Read it when you're in a place to deal with difficult things, but absolutely read it.
This book hooked me and then it changed me. The writing is so engaging. The point of views are very clever and unique. Each decision made is reflected in the next persons point of view, allowing the readers to see the path taken and now actions and our past inform the future. It also made the flow of time throughout the book feel like a documentary but with inside eyes. getting to know each character intimately through many eyes. Another thing I loved about this book is it's rich and colorful descriptions, you are dipped wholly into their lives and culture. it gave me an opportunity to learn. And for that this book exceeded my expectations. A History of Burning is a riveting family saga about Exile, Determination, and survival. Please read it, it is one of my favorite pieces of literature I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
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