Indian-origin author Avni Doshi’s debut novel Burnt Sugar, released in India as Girl in White Cotton, was recently shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction. “This utterly compelling read examines a complex and unusual mother-daughter relationship with honest, unflinching realism – sometimes emotionally wrenching but also cathartic, written with poignancy and memorability,” the judges said of Avni Doshi’s entry.
A haunting exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, illness, and love, the novel is both captivating and heartbreaking at the same time. It was awarded the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013. In 2019, the novel was also longlisted for the Tata First Book Prize. Born in New Jersey, Doshi is currently based in Dubai. Here, Avni Doshi talks with SheThePeople about her book, her experience as a woman writer, her pandemic reading list and the ultimate purpose of art.
Your book Burnt Sugar/Girl in White Cotton begins with an intriguing line, “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” How and at what stage of writing did you decide that this would be the first line of your book?
The book was rewritten many times over the course of seven years, but the voice of narrator and this particular sentence came to me when I started writing the final draft. In a sense, you can say this sentence came to me at the very beginning, but in another way, it was at the end of a long journey.
A love story between a mother and a daughter is scant to find, even in the genres of fictional works that specifically deal with familial relationships. How did this theme of writing about a mother-daughter duo come to you?
I think this catchphrase about a “love story” between a mother and a daughter, which makes excellent copy for a book jacket, has been a little misconstrued. The book is really about a mother-daughter relationship, plain and simple. There’s love and there’s hate, but there is also everything in between. I was interested in thinking around this relationship because it is, essentially, the first one any of us will have, and therefore becomes the most formative, determining who we are. Understanding how you have been mothered is, I believe, a form of self-knowledge.
In one of your interviews you’ve said, “I’m interested in telling stories about women, for women.” In literary history, it has mostly been male authors who have represented women for women. But the authenticity of experience and authority to tell stories on the basis of that is something that has become a topic of heated discussion in recent times. As a woman storyteller, what is your take on it?
As a writer, I don’t want anyone to tell me what I can and can’t write about. On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the stories we’ve inherited have mostly been told by those in power. Usually men, usually white. It was important for me, as a young reader, to see that people like me were writing, were telling stories on their own terms, and were finding their own forms. It gave me a kind of permission to do the same, something I wouldn’t have had the courage to do if it hadn’t been modelled for me.
You have been very open about the long process that writing your book has been. You have also talked about the anxiety that you faced during the process. Is there any advice you’d like to give to young, budding writers?
It is difficult to make money as a writer, especially at the beginning. Having a day job is useful.
Don’t think about showing your work to anyone at the beginning. Write and make mistakes in the dark, by yourself. This is hard, and at times painful, but it will help you to train your own eye (and ear). After all, it’s important to learn to be critical of your own work.
And don’t think about getting published when you start out – settle into the process, because in the end you’ll find that the act of writing is the most important thing.
You have a background in art history. Did that background help you while writing this novel? In what capacity?
My background in art history influences everything I do – it’s the way in which I see the world. The narrator in the novel is an artist, and her creative process is intertwined with how the story unfolds. Many of the major themes in the book, such as memory and amnesia, are ideas that I explored first in an art historical context, through visual art and philosophical texts, before bringing them into my fiction.
Writers are often questioned about the biographical elements that might be found within their fictional works. Do you think there’s a line that differentiates the self from art?
That’s an interesting question. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between biography and the self. I prefer to avoid discussing whether the fiction I write is based on my life because of what is often suggested by that question – namely, that I am lacking the artistry or imagination to invent a world outside of my immediate purview.
The question of the relationship between the self and art, however, seems to me to be something entirely different – it invokes an idea about where creative impulses emerge from, potentially referencing some unconscious drive that is deeply mysterious, and that has nothing to do with the banal facts of existence. I don’t have an answer for this, merely more questions. What constitutes the self when we’re making art? Where does the urge and the material come from? When I am inhabiting a character, aren’t I, in some way, in a state of becoming?
Rather than the self-defining the nature of the art, I would argue that art can reveal something unknown in the self.
Lastly, from what I’ve noticed on social media, the hobby of reading books is making a comeback during this pandemic. Share with us a small reading list of books you’d want our audience to read during these times.
Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Weather, by Jenny Offill
SS Proleterka and Last Vanities, by Fleur Jaeggy
The Dry Heart, by Natalia Ginzburg
The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD