When Writing about Pain is Political: In Sensorium by Tanaïs

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In their new memoir, Tanaïs, a queer, Muslim, Bangladeshi-American writer and perfume maker, seeks to capture personal and ancestral pain in a book structured like a fragrance. The opening sections of “Base Notes” and “Heart Notes” build to a conclusion of “Head Notes,” just as the signature scents of a perfume emerge from its grounding ingredients.

The “Base Notes” of In Sensorium are Tanaïs’ itinerant childhood in America and South Asia’s contested history. The latter is dramatized through the writer’s love affair with an unnamed man of Indian descent who hides the relationship from his wife. He belongs to the priestly caste of Hindu Brahmins that dominate India, and Tanaïs must avoid disappearing into his shadow while simultaneously rescuing an alternative history of South Asia from the master narrative he represents.

The book’s second section, its “Heart Notes,” recounts Tanaïs’ young adulthood in New York, as well as Bangladesh’s bloody 1971 fight to gain independence from Pakistan. Tanaïs centers the birangona (literally “heroic, beautiful women”) who survived rape during the war and are honored by the contemporary Bangladeshi state through this collective noun, but who are often marginalized in practice. We also learn of Tanaïs’ own rape by an Indian boyfriend when Tanaïs was 14 years old. In Sensorium becomes about survival, at both a national and individual level.

Finally the book’s “Head Notes” describe moments of transcendence when, with the help of hallucinogens and friendships that cross South Asian borders, Tanaïs seeks to heal from both historic and personal pain. The book is also dotted with short “Perfume Interludes” in which Tanaïs describes the ingredients and origin stories of some of their favorite fragrances, often acts of healing in themselves: tributes to the Bay of Bengal; to Delhi, where Tanaïs once lived; and to their husband, Mustapha.

Memoir is a significant departure for Tanaïs. Their first book, Bright Lines, published under their given name Tanwi Nandini Islam, was a joyful Bangladeshi-American coming-of-age novel that breezily punctured the gender binary. By switching to history in In Sensorium, Tanaïs forces us to reckon with their suffering instead. The result is an angry read, in which Tanaïs wrings out trauma after trauma like a damp cloth and demands the reader look closely at what’s left.

At the center of the book is the conflicted identity of huge numbers of people growing up outside South Asia who are collectively thought of as a single group. Tanaïs describes the bittersweet relationship of many diasporic South Asians to the idea of desi-ness, a blanket identity represented by Bollywood films and sitar music. Desiness, Tanaïs points out, is representative of only one specific type of South Asian: Indian, male, upper caste, Hindu, like the lover we encounter in “Base Notes.” While it offers others a chance to belong to a global brown collective, billions-strong, most South Asians must ignore parts of their identity as the price of entry. Bengali Hindu aunties do not return Tanaïs’ Muslim greeting of As-salaam-alaikum, for example, while Indian men crave their body but cannot imagine introducing a dark-skinned queer person to their parents. Tanaïs is not allowed to volunteer for Indicorps because their parents are from Bangladesh, although their homeland was part of India long before Pakistan or Bangladesh existed.

“Being perceived as an Indian . . . feels a bit like being a replica—a cyborg,” Tanaïs writes of their interactions with other South Asians. “You’re with a person who believes you to be just like them, you’re having a great time, you are both desi, until you hit an uncomfortable topic—war, genocide, caste, color—and slip into a strange place of distrust.”

But In Sensorium is anything but parochially South Asian. Throughout the text Tanaïs makes imaginative leaps across time and space, caste and race, to imagine a much wider community of the oppressed of which they are part. This allows them to weave their specific suffering into a larger narrative and address questions of white supremacy, nationalism and patriarchy, ideologies that Tanaïs calls patramyths.

Early in the book Tanaïs writes: “As a Bangladeshi Muslim raised in the United States, I am still just two generations out of the village.” While other descendants of immigrants might emphasize the social and material capital that can accumulate over such time and distance, Tanaïs repeatedly doubles down on proximity, identifying themself with indigenous peoples, dalits (people excluded from South Asia’s caste system), sex workers and Muslim Africans sent to America as slaves. It is as if, given their life at the intersection of so many minority statuses—female-born, Muslim in America, Bangladeshi rather than Indian, relatively dark skinned, and queer—Tanaïs can feel oppression in their bones.

I felt an initial discomfort with this approach—first for its claim on the pain of ancestors despite material differences in realities, and second for the attempts to draw connections between so many racially and geographically disparate groups of the oppressed. Who fits in this collective of suffering, who doesn’t, and what binds them?

Part of this, I realized, was a sense of threat. In Sensorium’s subtitle, Notes for My People, makes clear the book is written for allies. As a friend of Tanaïs from when I lived in Brooklyn a decade ago, I would hope to count myself among them. But the book attacks so many groups—white people, men, Indians, heterosexuals—that it forces you to question whether you pass the test.

In Sensorium is sexually explicit, for example, recounting episodes of Tanaïs masturbating, sexting and having intercourse. I thought of Tanaïs’ parents, who I’ve never met but unconsciously imagined to be like mine—suburban now, having ascended an immigrant economic ladder—and it struck me that this book must be a lot for them to handle. I quickly arrested this impulse, the idea that South Asian children, those born female in particular, have a responsibility to represent their parents, but it was there. For brown readers, In Sensorium will restlessly and precisely squirrel out such reflexive conservatism. For other readers too, there will be a sense of implication, the discomfort of feeling accused. To grapple with the work may require relaxing raised defenses.

The other part of my discomfort came from my expectations for how an argument should be made—coolly and rationally—as I was taught in school. Tanaïs is more freeform. In Sensorium brings together traditions from the I Ching to Ayurveda as taught by Black yogis in a way that left me wondering if it risks conjuring an anachronistic, pan Afro-Asian spirituality to stand against cold white supremacy. I thought of Donna Haraway’s critique, in her 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” of Audre Lorde and other feminist writers for a kind of reactionary essentialism: “They insist on the organic, opposing it to the technological.”

Haraway theorized cyborgs—part human, part machine organisms that were emerging from science fiction into medicine and warfare—as the best hope for human liberation: freed from control, she imagined them seeking a happiness not rooted in nostalgic ideas such as gender, faith or nature. But Lorde, to Haraway’s frustration, continued to embrace such ideas, and saw spirituality and a sense of female erotic power in particular as ways to resist patriarchy and the cold mechanics of capitalism. Tanaïs does the same. “I think of Donna Haraway’s declaration: ‘I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,’” they write at one point, before rejecting the statement: “Goddess feels truer to my embodiment.”

Rather than glory in the sense of being a cyborg and use it to reject the idea of South Asianness altogether as a pointless myth, Tanaïs chooses to rewrite desiness to include those it currently excludes. They seek to rescue what is organic from the past, not do away with it entirely as Haraway would advocate.

For Tanaïs, identity, race and ancestral pain are visceral, and they refuse to discuss them in cold, measured arguments. Gradually, I was persuaded of this approach. Of their decision to write through smell, for example, Tanaïs writes:

Perfume language is purple, its prose comfortable for me, it’s as if I revert to sensory language when I forget the performance of writing for a society (a country? a culture?) that loves a bare, spare sentence.

Consider how Tanaïs introduces their Nanu (maternal grandmother) in In Sensorium, through her particular scent: “One of the first sensuous cartographies in my memory—jasmine attar, violet talcum, paan juice, crushed rose powder, coconut oil, Pond’s cream, Tabasco sauce, canola oil.”

Tanaïs’ grandmother comes to life in this description, which communicates her class and layered postcolonial identity without having to mention any of these concepts. Although my appreciation of scent is too basic for the perfume recipes that dot the book to conjure specific associations, here I feel what Tanaïs’ ancestor smelt like.

I read In Sensorium alongside Who Is Wellness For?, the second book by Fariha Róisín, another queer, diasporic Bangladeshi writer, also published this year. (Tanaïs and Róisín acknowledge each other’s influence.) Like Tanaïs, Róisín ignored the commercial opportunity to follow up a breakout first novel in favor of a memoir of overcoming sexual abuse. While Tanaïs conjures scents, Róisín explores meditation, yoga, astrology and divination. Both have histories as activists and organizers, but what they are most interested in right now, it seems, is healing from their pain as a precursor to political activity, or as something essential to it.

Both their memoirs brought to my mind the introduction to My Grandmother’s Hands, by Black therapist Resmaa Menakem: “If you are convinced that ending white supremacy begins with social and political action, do not read this book unless you are willing to be challenged. We need to begin with the healing of trauma.” I find Menakem’s message challenging: Focusing on the body and trauma first seems suspiciously apolitical and introspective. What if the healing phase never ends? My attachment to cool, rational arguments resists.

But increasingly I am aware of how my own attempts to talk about race or ancestral pain—calmly and reasonably— tend to end in failure. When I try to calmly explain to white people why, for example, the British empire still haunts me, even if it officially ended before I was born, it never ends well. I begin to talk but soon stutter, my eyes filling with tears, words failing. There is too much unprocessed emotion to articulate in the register in which debate is meant to take place. So the subject changes, my point vaguely acknowledged but never understood.

Politically, I am useless while I carry so much distress, and perhaps my attachment to reason is a resistance to healing. In In Sensorium, by contrast, Tanaïs inhabits their pain fully and seeks new ways to describe and transcend it through scent, rather than just words. As my discomfort gave way to admiration, the book made me wonder if I too could find an alternative language to express pain.

Ajay Makan is a British-born South Asian writer currently based in Lisbon, Portugal. More from this author →