Few writers in the world, leave alone those whose roots are in India, have had the dream run with their debut novel that Avni Doshi has. Her novel Burnt Sugar – originally published in India as Girl in White Cotton – has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Doshi spoke to Scroll.in about the novel, the Booker Prize, getting published in the West, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
I was really excited when your book started its Booker journey, on the Booker list, the longlist and then the shortlist. How did that land in you, you know, when you heard the news?
I still don’t know if it’s landed. It’s one of those things that’s hard to fully digest. When my editor told me the news about the longlist, I think I started off crying. For the shortlist, after she gave me the news, I hung up the phone and sat there thinking, did that actually happen or did I hallucinate this entire thing?
I didn’t even tell my husband immediately, even though he was in the next room. I kept staring at the screen of my computer, waiting for an email to pop up, confirming that it was true. Because I thought, if I’ve completely invented this entire thing, it’s going to be really awkward to have to explain this to people. As I’ve said before, but it’s wonderful. This has been such a tough year, especially for debut authors, because they haven’t had the chance to connect with readers in person and do book tours. Everyone seems to be sick of webinars. I feel really lucky that the book has been able to reach more readers because of the shortlisting.
It’s so interesting that you used the word ‘lucky’. I feel like there’s so much loaded into that word.
It’s been hard to build confidence for me around the art I make. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, maybe confidence and art don’t really go together. I’ve never been confident of my writing in general and I probably lack self-confidence as a kind of a personality trait. I’m deeply insecure about my work. I think part of it is I’ve never really studied writing in an organised academic setting. I’m always wondering what I’m missing, which plays into my imposter syndrome – although I meet brilliant writers with MFAs who also suffer from something similar.
You went to Barnard College for your undergraduate degree, right?
Yes, but I never took any creative writing classes at Barnard or, later, at Columbia. I studied art history. I did one literature class at Columbia, on the evolution of the novel. We read Tristram Shandy, etc. It was a good class, and I enjoyed it. But I never took creative writing. I did sit in on some seminars when I was at University of East Anglia (UEA) doing the fellowship there, which was really enlightening for me.
Is your Masters in Art History from UEA?
My Masters was at University College London. That was a couple of years before I did a fellowship at UEA.
And then you’ve been working for years as an art curator.
Yes. I moved to India soon after finishing my Masters. I don’t know why I did that. I wanted to live in India and be closer to the artists whom I was researching and writing about. I started working in the art world and writing criticism. Everyone I met encouraged me along the way, including some really smart people who were involved with Indian art. It was very kind of them.
Being in India was wonderful because I got to curate a couple of shows quite early in my career. I don’t know if I would have had that opportunity in places like New York and London, where it was so saturated at that time and still is, with people who do the kind of work I was doing.
Where were these shows?
The first show I did was in New Delhi at a gallery called Latitude 28, and it was called The Pill. The year that I did the show, the US was celebrating 50 years of the birth control pill. It was on the cover of Time. The show was a subversive look at thinking about the science around the pill, which was being treated as this ultimate moment for feminism. I wanted to rethink that.
All the artists in the show were considering the female body through that lens. There was a curatorial bind that I set in place, but it went out the window once all the artists started working. I suppose one of the things that was hard for me about curating exhibitions was the lack of control I felt.
Speaking of a curatorial bind, I just love the intense sensory detail in Girl in White Cotton. I feel like your character has a high sensory threshold; she’s always smelling things and touching things. And I was wondering how hard it was to be in that character’s mind or inhabit that narrative voice for extended periods of time. Did that take a toll on you? Did you change in any way?
I think it probably has taken a toll on me. I don’t know what the shape of that toll is yet. I’m probably like settling into it and living it at this moment, and it’ll become more apparent to me in various ways. I suffered from postpartum depression after giving birth to my son, but I had already completed writing the novel at that point.
I just wondered if my experience of postpartum was connected to writing about it in the book: did I inhabit the character too intensely? Did the process change my neurological pathways? I don’t know what the answer is. I feel I’ve become more anxious, particularly after my second child was born a few months ago. I’m getting the physical symptoms of anxiety, tingling all over my body and other strange symptoms. To what degree is this from living in that character’s mind? Does that have anything to do with it? Or maybe the character is me to some degree.
This is a question I always try to avoid. How much of the character is me and how much of me is the character? Because why should everybody assume that all I can write is me? At the same time, it’s also something for me to privately consider when I start to see things emerge in my life that have parallels in the novel.
Can you give an example of such a parallel?
I started writing about memory loss in the first draft of the novel, back in 2013. At first, amnesia appeared as more of an abstraction. But a couple of years later, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and I started to wonder if I had written it into reality. Life fed back into the novel in a way, because I got deep into the research of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to save my grandmother.
I was one of those people with no background in science who thinks they’re going to find a cure. I did a deep dive into the research and into different modalities of healing. And that research fed back into the novel. It was a strange circular process, almost spooky, how art informs life and life then informs art.
Delving a little more into the characters. I know a lot of people have talked about the book in terms of motherhood. But I want to discuss the book in terms of selfhood, as in the creation of the self. The way I read it, it is more that there is a character who is pathologically self-reflexive, and yet one feels she has no sense of self. It felt like she’s trying, throughout the book, to define the contours of herself. And her mother’s memory loss is very much part of that self-erasure. So I wanted to ask, thinking of the book through the lens of selfhood, what comes up for you.
Joseph Campbell says something about how all we do our entire lives is relive the drama of the nursery. That is what gives shape to the rest of our lives. I think I believe that. I don’t really believe in the endless possibilities of self-determination. We’re all pretty limited by what we’re given as children. I think that could potentially then become your life’s work, to break those patterns.
For me, when I think of character building, it’s deeply important how childhood is remembered, how it evolves, and how that narrative is revisited later in life. I think we decide what we give importance to in our memories about childhoods, and in that sense, we have the power to determine certain things. But the novel’s narrator, Antara, is completely a product of her parents.
There’s a tremendous amount of fear in her, in fact, when her mother begins to lose her memory because she has no relationship with her father to speak of; it’s a massive void in her life. And there is a sense that she’ll just be empty space. With no materiality left to her. Even the experience of motherhood seems disembodied for Antara. I think you’re right. People talk about motherhood when discussing the novel, but I don’t know that she’s finding herself in motherhood. Through motherhood, the holes are all the more gaping.
Yes, it’s definitely not a happy ending.
I’m reading a few reviews here and there, and I realise that readers want Antara’s experience of motherhood to provide a kind of redemption. I don’t know if redemption is that easy. It takes a lot of work, a lot of healing. I don’t think you pop out a baby and all the problems of your childhood are solved.
Antara’s mother is such an excellent foil, she keeps her trapped in this cycle of no matter what she does, her mother will erase her – whether her mother is fully cognisant, or she is losing her mind, she’s just going to be trapped in that, you know, in that cycle of losing her sense of self.
You’re 100 percent right. She can’t find a spot to land on, she can’t find anywhere to rest. Even in her mother’s madness there’s kind of a paranoia and anxiety, especially in the novel’s final scene. That scene is so deeply interior, it is as though she’s hallucinating the whole damned thing.
Throughout the novel I was interested in that line between the surreal and the real; it was important for me to keep the distinction a little blurry, and that becomes more and more the case towards the end of the novel. Even though her mother is losing her mind and even though everybody around Antara agrees with her, Antara starts to imagine that everybody is involved in a conspiracy against her. And she physically begins to feel herself dissolving, as though she no longer exists in the room. There’s no place for her to be.
What made you want to push it so far?
I don’t know what made me want to push it so far. A friend of mine said, how hard you are on Antara! And, I didn’t think of it like that. To me this seemed like the reality of what you experience when you experience trauma.
And I wasn’t interested in redemption or in pandering to the reader in this case, or for everything to feel good at the end so we can all have a good night’s sleep. I guess a lot of people found difficult, but that didn’t occur to me as I was writing, because it was more that this ending felt truthful to the characters and the story.
Well, there’s a kind of bravery in that, right, not succumbing to pressure to give the readers the sense of closure that they might crave but that isn’t there?
I don’t know how much I think about readers’ expectations when I’m writing. I think about relaying necessary information, but that’s purely from the perspective of giving or withholding.
Did you have a particular kind of reader in mind when you were writing?
Maybe myself? I like what Toni Morrison said. I’m totally paraphrasing and butchering her beautiful words, but she said if there’s a book that you want to read that doesn’t exist, you should write it yourself. To some degree that was on my mind. I was writing something I wanted to read. Aren’t we always kind of imitating writers that we love? I was thinking about what kind of stories I want to read.
So in terms of writers who are an influence, Jhumpa Lahiri also went to Barnard. I don’t know if she was an influence for you. But I was just wondering, who are the writers, Indian or otherwise, who have brought you to where you are today.
Jhumpa Lahiri is definitely an influence for me because I didn’t know that women like her, and by extension, perhaps women like me, could write books about the things they wanted to write about. She gave me permission to write. I knew contemporary fiction existed, but I didn’t really read much of it. I read classics. And it was only in my 20s that I really became aware of contemporary fiction.
Another Barnard graduate, Otessa Moshfegh, is a big influence for me. She is so strange and unapologetic and, according to me, a genius. I didn’t know she went to Barnard until pretty recently. Who else, there’s so many. You want a list of my influences?
Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life, there’s no sentimentality in that novel at all. It’s a really powerful book. I think when I read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home for the first time, that was a big deal. I was at UEA and Sharlene Teo, who’s a brilliant novelist, and was also a fellow the same time that I was there. She opened up her little library to me, and she told me I needed to read this book and that. She curated my list, and I’m forever in her debt for that. Javier Marías. He writes gorgeous sentences. I’m blown away by how imaginative and interesting his novels are. Maggie Nelson for sure.
I love her.
I love her. She’s just amazing. I would love to write like that. I mean, she’s a genius, so it’s not a possibility, but I would love to write something like the Argonauts that is so deeply personal but touches on myth and history and the body. It goes everywhere, but at the same time, you feel that she’s opened herself up. There’s just so much intimacy in that book.
I see Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall behind you, very prominently displayed. In fact, when you were speaking during the Booker shortlist announcement, I was like oh wow there’s Hilary Mantel right behind her! How did that, on a small tangent, how did that feel? What was it like to be on a list with these much-venerated writers?
She’s a master. I don’t know what to say about it. I’m terrible at answering these questions, by the way. I need to figure out a good answer because people keep asking me how it really feel. What is your advice?
Well, I was afraid that you might get annoyed. I know a lot of media outlets have been going on about how Hilary Mantel didn’t make it to the shortlist. And then on Twitter, some writers said, well, why don’t you focus on the people who are on the shortlist because they’re super talented and amazing.
I don’t get annoyed. Another interviewer asked me, a couple of days ago, about this being the most “diverse” shortlist and how that makes me feel? I said, look, this is 2020. The “diversity” of these lists is something I don’t think we should be satisfied with. To me, it just shows how much work we have to do. It’s depressing to think that this is the most diverse list and we’re in 2020.
It’s also kind of ironic because most of the authors on this list are all from the US, and to call that “diverse”. You’re kind of telling on yourself there a little bit. About what you think is, quote unquote, diverse.
It’s diverse how? By our skin colour? Because you can see more than one shade of brown? What does diverse mean?
Which brings me to like a question I’ve been dying to ask you, which, is about the publishing world. Specifically, the whole current debate on diversity in publishing and how that has you affected your own publishing journey in the US, UK and elsewhere.
The book isn’t out in the US yet, so I’m still at the beginning, in a sense, of my publishing journey there. But to think about my publishing journey overall, I was astounded to the core when that whole #publishingpaidme came out on Twitter. I was stunned. Debut novels by white writers were getting six, seven figures, while established, prize-winning brown authors, I’m thinking of one in particular who is a master, said her last novel got an advance of £500. If that’s the discrepancy, what chance do we have? But that’s a global issue, I don’t think it’s specific to the US.
On the one hand, it’s my personality to withdraw. Or I sometimes have a tendency to absorb these things as my own failings. So if I haven’t received attention from agents or publishers in the US. I automatically think it’s because my book isn’t good enough. But I’m starting to see the various ways in which this is systemic. I also wonder if I’m not exotic enough for the West.
In what way?
People in India questioned why I put an ashram in my novel, but the ashram exists more as a place of anxiety and fear for a child.
Yeah, I think the parts of the Ashram read to me almost like a diary of a hostage. I really feel for Antara as a little girl in those pages. On the whole, I felt that you resisted the urge to exoticise.
Some have said that Poona is like a character in the book. I thought, is it, though? I don’t know. Again, I’m the writer, so I probably can’t objectively see my own work. But I wasn’t interested in making Poona a character. I was interested in this affluent, upper middle-class India that’s made up of domestic spaces, enclosed and sometimes claustrophobic, where, in fact, you have a blind spot, in my opinion, where you’re not even really seeing anything else around you. Antara is consumed by her own interiority.
I think that it’s also so interesting that there is this burden for Indian writers to always bring in the poverty. When it comes to the “Third World”, like India or Africa, there’s always this pre-formed expectation of having an element of the slums or terrorism or Bollywood – without which it seems like you’re in a bubble or that you’re being selfish, or being, you know, not true to the reality.
What are the Western expectations of books coming from Indian authors or authors of Indian origin? What would that book look like?
Coming back to the Ashram for a minute. Was it fortunate that Wild, Wild Country was such a big thing just before your book came out? Do you think that it helped your book or do you not want it to be associated with that show?
Maybe some readers knew a bit more about who Osho was, even though the guru in the novel is not really based on him. In the novel, the guru is this surreal figure. People who read the book expecting it to be about Osho were probably disappointed. But I will say that Osho and the ashram have always been in my imagination to some degree because members of my mother’s family did belong to the ashram. Watch Wild, Wild Country, and you’ll see my mom’s paternal aunts on screen. I was just around it growing up.
So my last question is, what are you working on now? Anything new, or are you taking a break, or are you changing gears?
I wish I was working on something new. I have started writing little fragments but there isn’t really any cohesive idea behind them yet. There’s definitely not a character I have in mind or anything like that. I’m still talking about Burnt Sugar so much that it’s still in my head. I don’t know how people do it – writing the new thing and talking about the old thing. I’m bad at multitasking. But I’m sure what I write next will be a novel, because I don’t seem to know how to write anything else.