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‘The Shape of this Moment’: In Conversation with Avni Doshi

“The narrative that is built around a particular moment eventually buries the moment itself.”

Interviews | interview, novel
April 21, 2021

We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We both have homes in India. From Birmingham, England, I ask Avni Doshi–New Jersey-born, Dubai-based–what’s been difficult. On a practical level, what’s been difficult? (For me, it’s distance.) Is it coming to the page? I ask. Or, is it thinking about the value of creating art–stories–in a world such as this? “It’s time,” she says. Finding it, managing it.  

Avni Doshi’s debut novel, Burnt Sugar (out now with Overlook Press), was originally published in India as Girl in White Cotton in 2019—and is being published in almost two-dozen languages worldwide. Her days as an art curator are distant memories from another lifetime (she has a BA in Art History from Barnard College and a Masters in History of Art from University College London). She has certainly come a long way from the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize she was awarded in 2013 and the Charles Pick Fellowship she was offered in 2014. These were merely early stepping-stones to Burnt Sugar being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. 

Announcement of her second novel, Protection, also arrived earlier this year. Doshi has described the novel as “really about how families can shield us from the outside while leaving us vulnerable within”. Hermione Thompson (her editor at Hamish Hamilton) has called it a continuation of her exploration of the “monstrous domestic.” I ask her what readers can expect: a similar sense of anxiety, toxicity, and claustrophobia? I ask her if she is reading or writing differently this time. “It’s early days,” she says. “But it’s exciting to be working on something new after almost a decade.” Time shrinks, time stretches.   

Burnt Sugar is the story of a mother-daughter duo, of doubling and deception—of how memory and traditional notions of motherhood dissolve. Avni Doshi’s prose is sharp as a knife: it stabs the heart then twists in further, for good measure. It is prickly and poisonous—yet leaves you with a deep poignancy. 

It’s fitting that, so far, her novel has had two selves, two lives. The U.S. publication seems like an afterlife of sorts—far-removed from the book first being published in India in the fall of 2019. It’s fitting, too, to see how time has twisted for Doshi—how it has transformed pre-publication memories in her mind, how it has taken the novel to new territories. We spoke in February, back-and-forth over emails, about authorial anxieties of the past and present, about the future of prize cultures, and about playing with perversity. 

–Sana Goyal

Sana Goyal: An Indian edition (Girl in White Cotton, 2019) followed by international editions as Burnt Sugar—with different titles, covers and even endings. You worked on eight different drafts over seven years. And then there’s that famous first sentence: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” 

How has the journey been? How far away do you feel from that opening, that often-quoted sentence? 

Avni Doshi: Oh lord. You must be fed up of hearing it! It’s been a long journey with this book, it’s been out for two years now in different parts of the world, and in many ways I’m a different person than the one who wrote the book. The sentence exists as a story in itself now, one that I tell, but now I’m not sure I can remember writing it. I guess it’s a bit like the trouble Antara has—the narrative that is built around a particular moment eventually buries the moment itself. 

SG: In what ways are you a different person—can you say more about this post-publication self? 

AD: I’d rather not go into the details of my life and my character that have changed. I’ll only say that I have.

SG: Before Burnt Sugar, you weren’t formally trained in creative writing. Yet, you persevered from the first draft to the final draft—you had a story to share. I’m curious about your process, about the anxieties of birthing a (first) book. Are writing workshops and MFAs overrated? Do you think you would have benefitted from attending one?

AD: If I ever say that MFAs are overrated, it’s because I’m jealous that I never did one. Are they necessary? I don’t think so, but they’re a wonderful way to find a writing community. If only they were affordable. I’m sure I would have benefitted from one, but I also think workshopping would have terrified me. I hate sharing anything before it feels ready. 

SG: When does a work feel ready? 

AD: I suppose on publication day. 

SG: Did you consider doing an MFA after—and ahead of your just-announced second novel? In the absence of these mentoring and workshopping opportunities, have you imposed any discipline on or expectations from your writing, or your writing-self? 

AD: No, I don’t think an MFA is possible in the near future. I haven’t at the moment; I am still figuring out what my writing routine looks like now. 

SG: You’ve said somewhere that after you won the 2013 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize for your manuscript of Girl in White Cotton, you thought: “Oh, I’m a novelist.” Burnt Sugar was published in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2020 to a swift Booker long-listing and subsequent short-listing. 

What is the value of literary prizes for a young writer such as yourself–a debut writer, a writer of color, a female writer–who is just starting out? Do prizes make or break writers and careers?

AD: Yes, I thought winning a prize made me a novelist in 2013, but I quickly realized I actually didn’t know much about writing. Prizes help books reach readers, which is what writers hope for. Beyond prizes, I think writing with anyone watching is hard. My only experience with writing has been in private, where I can experiment and fail. 

SG: What constitutes failure on the page—and how do you cope with it?

AD: Failure in the past has taken the form of a dead end, knowing that what I am writing can’t go any further, and that I have to discard what I have been working on to start again. I used to try to wrestle with the work, to reshuffle, reconstitute. That never led me anywhere. I think I’m calmer about throwing things away now. I also realize that those dead ends are part of the process.

SG: The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist was celebrated as the most “diverse” one in years; it was referred to as “dominated by women!” and “dominated by debuts!” In the 21st century, these seem to me like cosmetic corrective measures on the part of prizes. What do you make of these headlines, the hype and the hyperbole? In this focus on an author’s identity, where is the place for the work, the writing itself? 

AD: I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’m wondering what it has done to our psyches to see white lists for so long. 

SG: What has it done to your psyche—to see white list after white list, and then to see yourself on one?

AD: I am still trying to think through this.

SG: When I first read Burnt Sugar as Girl in White Cotton it was hot on the heels of Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and Rheea Mukherjee’s The Body Myth—both of which foreground toxicity and anxiety in familial relationships. I was also reading Annie Ernaux’s memoir, I Remain in Darkness, which sat beside your book in my mind in terms of mothers-as-daughters, daughters-as-mothers, double selves and bodies, remembering, misremembering, forgetting and lying. 

You have spoken widely of your go-to writers on motherhood – Cusk, Heiti, Offill – but whose writing on memory has stayed with you? Who crafts lies and deceit well?

AD: Besides [Gabriel García] Márquez, the way I think about memory has been shaped by visual art, by curators like Okwui Enwezor and artists like Zarina Hashmi. In terms of deception, I would say Shirley Jackson and Javier Marías. 

SG: There is a sharpness and restraint to your prose, like taking a scalpel to the page. But there also exists an unabashed, unapologetic pouring. You’ve put into words what most of us are thinking, but dare not say. I remember laughing out loud in some instances, then immediately looking around to make sure no one had caught me, no one was judging me. Can you talk about the tone, the humor?

AD: I’m not a funny person, but I guess the things that are funny to me walk the line between real and surreal, or between banal and disturbing. Quirks can be funny. Perversity too. 

SG: How would you define perversity—in a character, in literature? 

AD: Something contrarian which can build tension or release it?

SG: Disruption, deceit and dysfunction dominate the mother-daughter relationship between Tara and Antara in your novel. By now, I’m certain you have had to field reductive questions about autobiography, auto fiction, craft, creativity and femininity. I mean the kind where women write “the personal, the domestic” while men “create Art, speak to universal themes”…

AD: Yes, there are a lot of reductive questions, but I’ve been happy to have to think through them in terms of my own work. I never questioned the question itself until quite recently. I also didn’t realize that I don’t have to answer every question. 

SG: Yes, it means the book is alive. It continues to live long after you write or publish it—through readers and critics’ reactions. Earlier you said, “the narrative that is built around a particular moment eventually buries the moment itself.” 

How have you been trying to think through these questions, these reactions to your book, from the other side? 

AD: A friend of mine recently wrote a research paper about Burnt Sugar, which surprised and moved me, and I was struck at the things she saw in the novel, ideas that I wasn’t consciously aware of. I like that the book belongs to readers now, that their experiences of the text can be so far from mine.

SG: “We’re all difficult women now. How did all the women become so difficult? Suddenly, suddenly, overnight.” I can’t stop thinking about this statement of yours in relation to what Ottessa Moshfegh and Madhuri Vijay’s female protagonists have been labelled as: “unlikeable”. 

AD: I’m just hearing that word so much. And I find I’m using it too, which makes me annoyed with myself, particularly when I’m describing the relationship between Antara and her mother. Why is every woman being described as difficult? Why is it so hard to feel empathy for women? Are men ever described as difficult—past the age of toddlerhood? It feels and sounds infantilizing.  

SG: Can you speak about the pressures of writing in a pandemic, through pregnancy, childcare and having a room of one’s own? While speaking with Meena Kandasamy about motherhood and writing last year, she mentioned the phrase “economy of time”, which really stuck with me… 

AD: It hasn’t been easy. I don’t know what else to say about it, I don’t think I’ve fully metabolized it all. We are still in it. I think years from now the shape of this moment will become clear.