The author of acclaimed debut novel A Burning on how being an editor informs her writing, and why her childhood alerted her to literature’s limitations
Megha Majumdar grew up in India before moving to the US at the age of 19 to study at Harvard. Her debut novel, A Burning, follows a young Muslim shop worker who is jailed as a terrorist after she posts a message on Facebook in the wake of a deadly train bombing in Kolkata. Writing in the New Yorker on its American release last summer, James Wood called the novel “brave” and “extraordinary”, comparing Majumdar to William Faulkner. She spoke to me on Zoom from New York, where she edits fiction and nonfiction at Catapult Books.
Were you setting out to open our eyes to life in India at the moment?
I wanted to see if I could write an intellectually serious book that also feels entertaining in some way – fiction’s first task is to move you – but I do hope it’s a book that encourages a reader to think about injustice. It came from a place of being alarmed by what was happening. I grew up in a country where we were taught secular democratic values and that the plurality of our society is something to be proud of. When certain people say, “this community belongs and that one doesn’t”, that’s very frightening. Someone like Jivan, the main character, can have a narrative imposed upon them by the state which they don’t agree with and which they never claimed. Of course, it’s not just taking place in India, it’s around the world, this kind of policing around notions of purity and who belongs. A reader familiar with the political landscape in India will see where certain things connect to the news, while someone elsewhere might not catch the specifics. I hope they’re still moved to think about injustice wherever they are.