Rituparna Mahapatra in conversation with Avni Doshi talking about her journey, the writing process and the future plans.
The first sentence came to me as a revelation, within it was the shape of the whole story. I wanted to begin with something powerful!Avni Doshi, writer of Indian Origin, longlisted for Booker 2020.
Not many can claim their debut novels to make it to the list of the World’s most prestigious literary awards. Dubai based Indian novelist Avni Doshi has done that; her debut novel ‘Burnt Sugar’ has been long-listed for the 2020 Booker prize. The novel made it to the ‘Booker Dozen’ after judges assessed 162 novels, published in the UK or Ireland between October2019 and September 2020.
‘Burnt Sugar’ was earlier released in India under the title ‘Girl in White Cotton‘ to critical acclaim. The judges at the Booker panel called it an “‘utterly compelling read’ that examines a complex and unusual mother- daughter relationship with honest , unflinching realism” it is “emotionally wrenching but also cathartic, written with poignancy and memorability”.
Doshi says it was not easy for her at all, and it took eight drafts and seven years, to finally see the light of the day. Doshi elaborates that the most difficult part was to not get any real feedback. ‘Burnt Sugar’ tells the story of a strained relationship between a mother and daughter, dark at times it explores the layers of human relationships and catches its readers unaware with its raw portrayal of emotions. The story travels in time, both the past and the present which Doshi connects masterfully, with her crisp sentences.
Born in New Jersey in 1982, Doshi studied art history at Barnard College, New York and her Master’s in London. Her interest in contemporary South Asian art led her to India, where she worked as a curator for several years, and it was during that time she began writing this novel.
She won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. The novel was long-listed for the prestigious Tata Literature Live First Book Award.
Recently Doshi had a baby, and between her busy schedule , she very graciously agreed for this interview on email.
Speaking to Rituparna Mahapatra, Doshi here talks about her journey, the writing process and the future plans.
Rituparna Mahapatra: How does it feel to be longlisted for ‘Booker’ the most prestigious award in the writing world, with your Debut Novel? Has it sunk in? Why was the title a different one for the Indian audiences?
Avni Doshi: My U.K. editor at Hamish Hamilton suggested that we look at another title for that market because she felt white cotton had different connotations outside of India, and readers wouldn’t immediately understand the connection to grief and asceticism. We came up with Burnt Sugar as an option and both loved it.
RM: Please tell us a little about yourself and this journey.
AD: I grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s and had a relatively conventional childhood. I was and still am extremely close to my family. I fell in love with art history and majored in it at university in New York, and went on to do a Masters in the UK. My focus was on contemporary art from South Asia, and I decided that I wanted to live in Mumbai to get to know the art world more intimately. I ended up living in India for six-year. It was during my time there that I began to write the novel, winning the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize and a Charles Pick Fellowship for my early efforts. But finishing the novel took a very long time, and I spent seven years writing and rewriting to feel satisfied with what I had made. I moved to Dubai in 2015 and began writing the last draft of the novel. Once the draft was complete, I started querying agents, receiving many rejections before finding representation.
RM: You studied Art history and worked as an Art curator. How did writing fiction come into the picture? Has your experience as an art curator influenced your writing? If yes, how?
AD: I always loved reading fiction, and literature played a central role in how I thought about art. In fact, I curated an exhibition which centered around notions of amnesia and loss in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. My study of art history has definitely fed my fiction writing and vice versa. In the novel, art plays a central role in the development of the narrative and the relationships between various characters. In fact, art is the lens through which the narrator sees and makes sense of the world around her.
RM: A mother-daughter relationship is understood as the most secure of all relationships. You shattered this belief by your ‘theme’ and the opening sentence of the novel; which I would attribute as being very bold. How did you come up with this idea? Was it challenging?
AD: I’m not sure if I believe that the mother-daughter relationship is secure, although I know it is romanticized to be so. In reality, it can be deeply complex, fraught with anxieties and insecurities. It is, however, the first relationship we experience, and essential to how we understand ourselves and the world around us. I was interested in writing into that place, where the separation between mother and child is impossible to distinguish.
The first sentence came to me as a kind of revelation – within it was the voice of the narrator, and the entire shape of the story. I wanted to begin with something powerful that would draw the reader in.
Art is the lens through which the narrator sees and makes sense of the world around her.Avni Doshi (Booker Prize Nominee)
RM: The novel explores human relationships to a great extent, exploring the fears and the dark side which is hidden in all of us. The characters are so real, that at times it makes the readers uncomfortable to face them. Yet the character of the protagonist is not revealed much. There is a sort of mystery around her character, so much that we are left with wanting to know more about her. Was this deliberate or it shaped up that way?
AD: The thing about an unreliable narrator is that you are never really sure where you stand. How much of what she is sharing with you is accurate? Antara is careful at the beginning, carefully constructing the reality of the novel. But then she makes mistakes, says too much, and exposes herself. The reader is always on shaky ground. It’s easy to be seduced by a story, to be persuaded that what you are hearing is true. I enjoyed playing with that – moving the reader between belief and doubt.
RM: ‘Amnesia’ or loss of memory covers a large part of your book. Why did Tara have to suffer this and not any other ailment? How important was this for your story?
AD: Memory and amnesia were themes in the novel from the beginning, though less central. About four years ago my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I became obsessed with knowing everything I could about it. Slowly it began to seep into the story. So I didn’t choose the ailment. The ailment chose me.
RM: Your writing style has been acclaimed as one very precise, very surgical and at the same time very impactful. How did you develop this style?
AD: It’s very simple – it appealed to me and I decided to adopt it. I liked to read it and hear it being read out loud. I admired writers who wrote clean, spare prose. I imitated them, kept reading their work, digesting and regurgitating their style until it became my own. That’s how I learned how to write.
I imitated them, kept reading their work, digesting and regurgitating their style until it became my own. That’s how I learned how to write.Avni Doshi (Booker Prize Nominee)
RM: Has living in different places influenced your writing? Have they been detrimental at any point?
AD: I don’t know if a location has been detrimental, but they can all add a specific quality to the work… I will say that what I wrote when I was living in New York was terrible. I think I was surrounded by that city’s frenzied culture of productivity, and it wasn’t very useful for my writing. My process is slow, and focusing on word count and hours spent at a desk distracts me from doing work of quality.
RM: You currently reside in Dubai. How would you describe the literary scene there?
AD: The literary scene is very small, but I hope it will grow. For the first few years that I lived here, I didn’t know anyone writing fiction. Luckily, I have met a few writers recently, which has been a blessing.
RM: Who are your inspirations as writers?
AD: Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh, Jenny Offill, Sheila Heti, Javier Marias, Deborah Levy, to name a few.
RM: What are you working on currently?
AD: At the moment, I am working on looking after my newborn baby. But I hope to start writing a second novel at some point this year.
RM: What would be your advice to budding writers?
AD: Learn to be critical of your own work. It’s the hardest thing to do, especially when you have spent time and energy on something – Effort can feel precious, but effort doesn’t matter. What matters is what you’ve put down on the page. Teach yourself to know what’s crap and what isn’t. Don’t be afraid of throwing it all away and starting again.
The Booker 2020 shortlist of six , will come up by September and the prestigious prize in November. We wish Avni the very best.
About the Interviewer
Rituparna Mahapatra is a writer, based in Dubai. She teaches creative writing in English and is Kitaab’s Editor-at -large, UAE.