A Burning is the buzziest debut novel of the season, and with good reason. But it's landing at a historically uncertain time in American life.

By David Canfield
June 02, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Elena Seibert; Knopf

"It's definitely a strange time to be focused on a book," Megha Majumdar admits. An editor at the publishing company Catapult, she's set to publish her first novel, A Burning, this Tuesday. For months it's been the toast of the literary community: the debut of the summer. It's already being hailed by indie bookstores across the country, and has generated advance raves from such luminaries as Colum McCann and Amitav Ghosh.

It's the kind of intricate epic, nestling complex character studies within bigger overarching narratives, that literary breakouts are made of. Set in contemporary India, A Burning explores three distinctive characters and traces how their lives entangle in the wake of catastrophe. At the center of the story, young Muslim woman Jivan finds her life — and earnest ambitions — upended when she becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack investigation. On either side, we get to know PT Sir, a young man rising in a burgeoning right-wing faction, and Lovely, a dreaming outcast holding some key information.

It's a sweeping story of injustice, corruption, and passion; surrounding these main strands are interludes that follow new characters in brief, illuminating segments, that only expand A Burning's world to make it feel limitless. The whole package resonates not merely in its subtle, complex portrait of a nation in crisis, but in its parallels with the fears gripping American life, too.

I spoke with Majumdar, who lives in New York, last week, when the city was still largely in social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the days since, life there and across the country shifted rather drastically, as protests over the death of George Floyd and police brutality against black Americans moved to the fore. (At the end of this interview, you can find an addendum from Majumdar addressing the current situation.)

But the book's power at this moment in time, not to mention its general skill and readability, remains. As our conversation began, Majumdar acknowledged, "I'm definitely figuring out how to talk about my book and affirm that I'm proud of it and that I worked so hard on it, but also be very mindful and respectful of everything that people are grappling with. What I've tried to really keep in perspective is that there are really big things at stake right now. Just try to remember that."

Read on below for Majumdar's full conversation with EW. A Burning publishes Tuesday and is available for pre-order.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You're publishing your first novel at a very anxious time. But you're also on the other side of the industry, as an editor at Catapult. What has that been like?

MEGHA MAJUMDAR: I really love working at Catapult. Part of what has been really comforting is that Catapult has always felt like a really human workplace to me. It's a place where all my colleagues are really creative, they're all writers and poets and artists, and at the same time they're also publicists and editors and they work in production or design. It's always been a really supportive, creative environment. It's a place where I feel like people are trusted to do their work and bring their full selves to work. In some strange way, even though we're not seeing each other every day, I think that culture has definitely been sustaining in this time. I do hope that the pandemic will ease in a few months. All the books that I'm working on right now, which are for the fall or next year or even beyond that, I feel like there's something so hopeful in the act of working on a book which will come out in the future. It's a beautiful, hopeful act; it's a good kind of work to be doing right now.

Well let's talk about your book.

Okay. [Laughs]

I wanted to start with the overarching structure of this: The very interconnected nature of the plot here. How did you go about constructing it? How did you envision it reading?

I visualized it in early days reading as — well maybe this gives too much away [Laughs], but I was going to say I visualized it as one story that has this central, downward-spiraling movement, and two stories which rise next to it. I knew that I wanted to have three really full lives, and that's why I settled on this structure of writing about three people in depth trying really hard not to flatten them in any way, not to simplify them in any way, and have them be full, complex people, even when they do things that might be considered villainous. That's part of why the structure settled on these three big stories with the interludes. I really had space to only do justice to three, I felt, and the interludes are meant to be doors ajar for a reader to imaginatively follow if they want to.

The book felt so bursting with life, in that way, which I really appreciated. I do find that a lot of times with big ensemble pieces in fiction, exactly what you're talking about can happen: Lots of main characters who are all really interesting, but none gets the space to breathe. Did you find that was a delicate balancing act? Did you know from the outset that three was your magic number, in that sense?

What was very important to me was to write characters with complexity. I felt that in order to do that, I would need a number where I could really develop them and I could really show where they were coming from and where their lives were leading them. The ways in which they're constrained, the ways in which they are free or want to be free. I did feel that three was that magic, dynamic number for me. I also felt like I could show how they touched each other's lives in a way that I hope doesn't spill over into forced in any way.

So how do the interludes work in tandem with that? How did they fit into your overall tapestry?

I wanted to write this big, rich, bursting book like you said. I wanted to signal to the reader that these are the three lives that I have chosen to follow, but really, you could follow so many other people in this world, in this society, and they would lead you to different kinds of thoughts on justice and corruption and opportunity and who gets opportunity and dignity and who is denied those. The things that people turn to, in order to live; they nurture wild dreams, they go to a spiritual guru, they take up this questionable hateful nighttime activity. There are all of these ways in which people cope and justify to themselves what they do. I wanted to hint at that to a reader.

You write Jivan in the first-person: What was it like getting into that headspace and writing from that perspective? How did it open up the story?

It's funny that you ask because I did try at some point writing her in third-person. Without giving too much away, I felt that toward the later part of the book, I needed to be very close to her and I needed the reader to be very close to her in a way that I felt I couldn't quite achieve with the third person. Also I think there was a register of pain and injustice that I wanted to access. There was a register of what it is like to see your parents struggle in their lives, and to do everything you can to save them from that kind of struggle, to make life better for your parents. But be defeated by all of these institutions around you. That form of striving, that particular kind of love that passes between a parent and a child. Sometimes you might find that you are your parents' guardian. I think that is so interesting to me. I find it very moving. To get really close to that kind of sentiment, I needed to be inside Jivan's mind and her soul.

She's a complex character, to be sure, but there's also a straightforwardness to what she's trying to achieve, and who she is in many ways. I'm interested in maintaining that in a novel like this, where complexity still is so important.

What's interesting to me about her is that what she wants is so straightforward. She wants to rise to the middle class. She wants to not have to fight to get a reliable water supply. She wants to know that her home will not be demolished. She wants justice when her father suffers in the demolition of the slums. What she wants is so simple; it is just to have this job at her store in the mall. It is to enjoy her new smartphone. But she is thwarted in all of these ways. I think what I wanted to explore through her is this really hard reality, which perhaps exceeds what we think of as the logic of a story. But that reality is that you can have people who work so hard, so earnestly, and they are still not able to achieve what they want. They are defeated by their circumstances. They are defeated by their station, due to a society where the systems and the networks that they live within do not serve them. I wanted to see how somebody could try to do everything right but could still be defeated. It's such a profound form of injustice. I wanted to look at that.

What you're describing is a story that's very true here in the United States as well. I think that goes for a lot of parallels in this book, which feel deliberate.

Yes, for sure. It has become even clearer during the pandemic that here in the U.S., we live in a society which is led by people who don't care for us or about us. [Read to the end of this Q&A for Majumdar's updated thoughts on this, in light of the past weekend's events.] Even the profit motive trumps everything. I think this has been apparent in the U.S. for some time: the corruption and injustice and denial of opportunity and aspiration that this book is about are so present in the U.S. as well. I hoped that by situating the book very specifically in India and giving it the heart and texture that I knew so well from India — that that specificity would open up ways for people in the U.S. to relate to the book to where they are — that the book would be an instrument for them to think with as they think about what they're seeing right now in relation to injustice and the rise of the right and hatred and illogic in their own communities.

The exploration of a right-wing faction, particularly: Depicting India in such a vibrant and multi-faceted way, did it feel ever at times like there was an element of instruction? For readers who don't know India like you do or who have, perhaps, been ignorant before going into this book. Was there an element of painting a portrait of the country in a way you knew would resonate particularly for those readers?

I wanted to write a book about people living in India that would feel rich and complex and absorbing and worth their time. I also wanted it to be about that somebody who doesn't really follow Indian politics, doesn't know much about India — that they could also pick up and read [it]. That was definitely a huge part of my work with this book. I think a book is in so many ways an act of invitation. You want to invite somebody in. All of these craft questions that you asked a bit ago are swirling around, that question of, "How do you best invite a person into this story?"

Totally.

So I worked hard on that. I wanted people to come to this book, anybody who wanted to improve their life, anybody who has had a big dream or a small dream, and anybody who has felt that they live at the intersection of various kinds of oppressions that they are denied certain opportunities. I wanted that kind of universal resonance to be present in the book. What I really hope is that the book is complex and rich enough for both groups of readers, people who are very familiar with India and people who are not familiar with India at all but want to read a book about what it is like to chase big dreams in a place of vast obstacles.

The portrait of India in this book is tough, in many ways, in the way that it parallels the U.S. particularly. But you find a lot of passion and hope in its youth.

Jivan does encapsulate in some ways the ambitions of India's youth. I hesitate to say something as grand as that because I definitely realize that this is one person with a specific arc that I made up. [Laughs] I'm sure that there are complexities and questions that this particular character doesn't address. If there is anything real and full of heart in her then that definitely draws on that reality.

I imagine it'll be an interesting conversation once the book comes out, too — how grand some of the takeaways are.

[Laughs] I do love that you began with these craft questions because one of the strange things about writing a novel that engages with politics is that I have to distinguish, sometimes, that it's a novel, I'm not a journalist. But I had a story to tell.

After this interview, Majumdar submitted the following to EW in light of the past weekend's events:

"I feel furious, outraged, heartbroken to see the state's violence against black people. I think watching the state-sanctioned violence, the state's oppressive systems laid bare, above all I recognize that there are lives at stake, and this is a moment in which to think about how we live meaningful lives and how we move forward when we're surrounded by oppressive systems. I recommend the work of authors like Wayétu Moore, Raven Leilani, and Jamel Brinkley."

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