Megha Majumdar on her debut novel ‘A Burning’

Thursday, November 5, 2020 - 3:15pm

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Knopf

On a dark Thursday night last week, the University Museum of Modern Art held its fifth installment of this semester’s Virtual Zell Visiting Writers Series. This week, the guest of honor was fiction author Megha Majumdar, who devoted several hours to answering questions from curious students and reading from her debut novel “A Burning.” Majumdar is an associate editor at Catapult, an independent publishing company in New York, and wrote the book in her spare time over the last four years. Born and raised in Kolkata, India, she moved to the United States to attend Harvard University, and later attended Johns Hopkins University for graduate school. 

A major inspiration to hopeful writers and editors, Majumdar attracted over 70 viewers to her virtual book reading. I perked up when hearing the moderator mention that there were listeners tuning in from all over the world. Not only were there Michigan students and faculty, but video tiles from a student from Kenyon College, people in Japan and Majumdar herself, who was in her living room in New York City. 

“A Burning” is set in India and told from the perspective of three characters who find themselves caught up in the consequences of a rash Facebook post against the backdrop of a dangerous rise of right-wing nationalism. Literati Bookstore described the book as “an electrifying debut novel about three unforgettable characters who seek to rise — to the middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies — and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India.” 

Due to the heavy themes and important philosophical questions posed in the novel, I was expecting the prose to be complicated and dense. However, as Majumdar began reading the first few pages of the novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writing was actually very clear and digestible. This straightforward approach to depicting quite difficult material allows for a greater understanding of circumstances that would otherwise be hard to grasp. 

As Majumdar read the first chapter of her book, she did something unique. Every few lines she would stop and explain to the listeners what she would change if she could go back to editing now. Halfway into the first page she stopped after reading “I picked up my new phone — purchased with my own salary, screen guard still attached.” Now, she shared, she thinks this part sounds clumsy.

Toward the end of her reading, she stopped at a section that read “And then, in the small, glowing screen, I wrote a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.” She noted that she wanted the reader to slow down in this paragraph after taking in all of the information of the action-packed chapter. She employed repetition to “compel the reader to linger.”

These short notes were both encouraging and fascinating. The idea that a published author could be so open with what she doesn’t like about her writing to an audience of students and fans was refreshing. Many of the students later spoke up to thank Majumdar for being so candid about her own writing, and to tell her that they found her tips immensely helpful. Because this is her debut novel, she related to the prospective writers in the audience, sharing her own worries about the reception of her book and the writing process as a whole. 

Majumdar herself is a captivating person. Sitting in front of a shelf brimming with colorful books, she engaged with the audience quietly yet confidently. Even while reading her book, she made sure to make “eye contact” with her zoom camera from behind her thick glasses, giving the illusion that she could really see each of her viewers. For all the success that her book has seen since its publication, she was still soft-spoken and humble, giving courteous and respectful answers to all of the audience questions. 

Majumdar also reflected on the differing reception her book received in the US and in India. Because the story is so dependent on specific current events in India, Majumdar said that she was wary of American readers not understanding because of a lack of knowledge of Indian politics and news stories. She explained that she wanted to present the information in a way that was readable in the US, but also not an oversimplification of the particular dynamics and events in India. The book has been successful in both countries and has even been named a National Book Award Longlist honoree.

Majumdar inspired her listeners through her careful confidence and eloquent language. After the Q&A was finished, she thanked the viewers, saying she hoped the event provided “a chance to take a break and some writing energy.”

Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at catkin@umich.edu.


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