Avni Doshi’s debut novel, Burnt Sugar, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and will be released in the US next month from Overlook Press, has been published in more than twenty languages. It is a startling exploration of memory, loss, and motherhood. In it, we follow a woman named Antara as she weaves us in and out of her traumatic recollections of living with a neglectful, abusive mother, first in an Osho-style ashram, and later begging for money on the streets of Pune. In a novel that is curiously alive with the rococo workings of one woman’s mind, Antara’s brilliance, rage, and eloquence spark up out of every page, as she takes the reader deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine twists of her troubled life.
Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey and currently lives in Dubai. She has a BA from Barnard College and an MA from University College London. After her completing her MA, Avni moved to India to curate and write about South Asian contemporary art. She was awarded the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Granta, and the Sunday Times.
I was delighted to speak to Avni on a video call about her first book, the complex ways a reader might find entry into her protagonist’s mind, and more.
The Rumpus: You recently said something very interesting about the novel’s first sentence. About how you saw, I’m paraphrasing here, but how you saw the entire shape of the book within it. First sentences are an obsession of mine. Was your first sentence really your first sentence?
Avni Doshi: I didn’t know it was the first sentence, if that makes sense. It was only once I got to the end that I realized that it was the first sentence. I heard the voice of the narrator the most clearly in it. It came like at the eighth draft, so, by that point, I knew the story inside and out. I knew parts of the story that would never make it into the book. I knew aspects of the character that didn’t make sense anymore for this particular story, but they were there in previous drafts. So, yeah, I mean, it was there at the beginning, but I did a lot of preparation to get there.
Rumpus: So, the book went through eight drafts—eight significant drafts, you’d say?
Rumpus: Can you speak about the evolution from the first to the eighth? And how you knew that the eighth was it? Can you give a sense of the mindsets that you cycled through while you were writing those drafts?
Doshi: I think the first draft was so exploratory. I didn’t even know that I was writing a novel until I was quite far along. In the beginning, I was writing mostly in fragments. I must have had forty thousand words before I started to think about putting it together. I mean, it had some kind of flow, but I had to make it more coherent in terms of the narrative. And then I spent a couple of drafts trying to sound like a novelist, because at that point, I’d won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. That’s when I thought, oh, I’m a novelist. So I tried to make the book sound like what I thought a novel would sound like. Those drafts were horrible! There was one draft that went back generations, and it turned into a partition story. That draft was in the third-person, and it was horrible.
Rumpus: Third-person didn’t feel like the right point of view.
Doshi: It did not. I also went through a phase where I felt I had to say more, do more. The description has to be more and the character, everything has to seem like it’s coming off the page, and that’s actually so unnatural for me. I think at one point, after I had Antara’s voice in my head, I realized that no, this is an intimate story. It’s about the life of this one woman, and yes, this is her mother’s life also, but it’s told through her experience of her mother. I started with an idea and I had expanded it. I didn’t even know that there was a value in paring back. It was at the beginning of this final draft, where I realized that, no, I have an urge to pull back. That’s what feels good. In my earlier drafts, I’d been fighting that urge.
Rumpus: Let’s delve further into self-consciousness. You’ve mentioned that not having an MFA was something that you were made conscious of. Do you feel the experience of not having an MFA has helped or hindered you, in the sense that an MFA could have provided something you felt you were lacking? Or is it the other way around: you’re relieved that an MFA hasn’t informed or formalized your writing practice?
Doshi: I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t know that I’d still be writing if I had to go through a rigorous workshopping process. I’m pretty thin-skinned, but I do think the structure of an MFA might have been useful. I think the writing community would be nice. I think the fellowship that I did at UEA was wonderful, because it was kind of this in-between space where I felt immersed in this very academic setting, but at the same time I could be as involved as I felt comfortable. What seems strange to me about the workshop dynamic that it sets you up to think that there is no place for bad writing. I think bad writing is essential. Bad writing is the most important thing for learning how to write. Even your literary heroes, if they say they don’t produce bad writing, they’re lying.
Rumpus: In the first chapter, there’s a line that struck me when Antara’s talking about her art project, which is so incredibly powerful. She says that an artist couldn’t be fearful about sharing her secrets with strangers. I feel like that resonates across many forms. A writer also can’t be fearful about sharing their secrets with strangers. I was wondering if that feels true to you not just on the level of the novel, but also on a personal level?
Doshi: To me it’s a fine line between feeling free to get at some kind of truth, but then at the same time, wanting to protect one’s own privacy. This fine line is the difficult line to walk in terms of my own work because I do want my privacy. I don’t want people to assume that the book is my life and then make assumptions about what my private existence looks like. At the same time, I want to feel free to draw on my life experiences. I want to feel like I have ownership over my life. Sometimes I don’t think that there’s such a clear distinction between what constitutes real life and what constitutes art. The closer you look at that, the murkier it gets. But I agree with what Antara says in the book. I don’t want to withhold something that I think is important, to protect something else. Well, that’s what I think now. Let’s see how it goes in the future.
Rumpus: In an article I read, you mentioned that The Lying Life of Adults was the novel you were most looking forward to reading. Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume that the author has taken to tell her secrets, but also to protect them. How do you feel about that idea? Do you find any parallels between your novel and Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet?
Doshi: I mean, yeah, I love Elena Ferrante. I read her quartet after I had already finished my book. So, I was not familiar with her work while I was writing. I think there’s something in the sensibility, the voice, there’s definitely something in terms of even the themes that run throughout her work that parallels with mine. I do think she’s protecting herself, which is incredibly smart. It’s an interesting question: do I ever want to be completely detached from my work? I wonder if that ever gives Ferrante any pain, that she’s been scrubbed out of the story. I probably have a lot of internal confusion about this question. I wonder how much I want to share, but do I want to be completely absent from anything to do with my book? I have no answer. It’s the thing about the first-person, right? There’s something seductive about believing that the first-person narrator is the author. I can almost understand from the point of view of a reader, especially if your writing is really persuasive, how they can just fall into conflating the author with the first-person narrator. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever done that myself.
Rumpus: It seems to be more common to conflate women authors with especially, quote unquote unlikable, difficult women narrators. Which brings me to the question of an unlikable protagonist, and our palate or appetite for them. What were the kind of hurdles that you faced with having somebody like Antara as the protagonist of your novel?
Doshi: I read reviews where people often say that they just cannot feel empathy for her. She’s completely unsympathetic. I think that is probably the challenge for a lot of readers to find a way into the novel, when you really don’t like the narrator. But I think that was very important for me. I did not want to sugarcoat any aspects of Antara’s character. I wanted to create a space in the novel where she did not have to be polite, where she could be exactly who she was. I wanted to create a safe space for her to expose what she wanted and hide what she wanted, without making anything palatable for the reader. I wanted to push boundaries. If that ends up feeling destabilizing for the reader, that’s okay.
In my understanding, it’s hard to listen to women who sound ugly, or who feel ugly. One reader also commented on how I used the word “smell” about sixty or seventy times. Smell is important in the book, and not just because smell is deeply connected to memory. I’m interested in these ideas that we have about what women are supposed to look like, but also, what are women supposed to smell like? I was interested in that. I talk about the smell of menstruation, the smell of the body before and after giving birth; I talk about different odors that a woman’s body produces naturally. In the same way that a character being unlikable is not palatable for the audience, a female producing smells, having body hair in unacceptable places, or being too fat or too thin, these are all not things that are palatable. It wasn’t important to me to make any of these things palatable. That was the furthest thing from my mind. It’s useful in a way because it kind of holds a mirror to societal expectations, and it exposes a lot of misogyny.
Rumpus: I think that one of the great goals of fiction is to evoke or invoke empathy for someone who is not like ourselves. Throughout the history of literature, it’s been put upon us to have empathy for messed up, unlikable men. Nabokov’s Lolita and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger are two such books that come to mind—where we’re supposed to be rooting for the murderer or the rapist—but when it comes to a woman character who is basically fucked up, and has fucked-up ideals, suddenly, there’s this huge pulling back from readers. Which I think is really interesting.
Doshi: I think as a reader, it’s worthwhile to think about why you’re unable to have empathy for a certain character. And so how is that a limitation of your own empathy, rather than, rather than necessarily a fault of the writing? It might be a fault of the writing or it might be a fault of the novel, but I think it’s worth looking at both.
Rumpus: I don’t think in your case, at all, it’s the fault of the writing.
Doshi: I found what the Booker Prize judges said about the novel very illuminating. One of the judges said the novel pushes the limits of the readers’ empathy but they saw that as a positive thing. I hadn’t given it much thought until then. We’re all difficult women now. How did all the women become so difficult? Suddenly, suddenly, overnight.
Rumpus: What fascinates me about Antara is that she has this art project that’s a central theme of the book. Her art focuses on a sort of pattern-making, or sense-making, by obsessively collecting and hoarding. She’s trying to make sense of the world. I think that’s definitely a trauma response, because she had such a nonsensical childhood. How did you land on that art project as a practice for her?
Doshi: I think it came out of the voice, out of the way I could hear her expressing herself. There was like a lot of specificity in the words she would use, a kind of precision, an interest in the paring down, in getting to what is essential. And almost an obsession with a kind of cleanliness, even a kind of a routine, a sense of hygiene associated with the way I could see she was. I felt Antara was expressing herself, in terms of the language and in terms of the sentences and the rhythm. As a response to her trauma, she’s in search of a kind of coherence, and a kind of wholeness. I felt that her artwork should reflect all of those conscious preoccupations. But what we also see is that a lot of her subconscious preoccupations begin to emerge. Her aggression, her desire for revenge, her kind of falling into these patterns of manipulation, perhaps of lying, that also begins to emerge in the artwork as an underpinning of the work, which isn’t immediately apparent to an average reader, but as you get to know more about her, as you get to know more about her relationship with her mother, it becomes clearer and clearer that under the hood of this order is her deeply troubled, tumultuous experience of a double life being lived.
I think in a way, the artwork offered me a metaphor for Antara in terms of who she’s trying to be for the rest of the world, and who she actually is. I think even the question of performance in terms of the artwork, and in terms of who she is, it comes out again and again, right? Because as Antara says in the book, she’s always thinking about performance. She’s wondering if her mother is also performing. If the world is not watching and you’re not performing, what is your purpose? Even in the end, I think like the last scene, there’s kind of a theatricality. There are several scenes in the novel where this performative aspect, or this kind of theatrical aspect emerges. Those were scenes that I think tie into the art as a performance for the exterior world, but also reflects the kind of interior conflict.
Rumpus: My last question is that there are two editions of your novel that exist: one in India and another in the UK and everywhere else in the world. What does it feel like to have two versions out simultaneously?
Doshi: In some ways, it’s complicated. On one hand that they’re both my books, so I feel kind of equally proud of both of them. And I also have very complicated feelings about both of them, as you would about any work that you put out. I guess that’s kind of interesting, right? The fact that two versions of the same work can coexist, as you mentioned, and kind of be circulating. But then you can order anything online. So, all editions are available everywhere, to some degree. I guess literature might just be where we expect there’s going to be one kind of master text. There’s some kind of hierarchy in our minds, as far as the written word is concerned. But if you look at other art forms, people often do editions or versions of the same work. It’s interesting to consider that maybe the work is never final, that it has possibility of shifting and changing. So, it doesn’t bother me too much.
Photograph of Avni Doshi by Sharon Haridas.