"Sometimes we avoid the things we care about the most," an interview with Avni Doshi

Avni Doshi's debut novel is to be published tomorrow by Hamish Hamilton. A haunting exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, illness, and love, Doshi's Burnt Sugar is captivating and heartbreaking. We're not the only ones who think so - this week, she's been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. We caught up with her to discuss the book, the beauty of representation, and the ultimate purpose of literature.

'I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.' That’s the first line of your book, and, arguably, a sharp and succinct summary to the themes of the book. How did the idea of writing a love story between mother and daughter come to you?

Burnt Sugar began as an investigation of mothers and daughters and the different aspects of this relationship. In a sense, a mother is the first god you encounter at birth, the source of attachment, nourishment - and also as an archetype, she activates something powerful in the psyche. How, then, can a negative mother complex play out, how can it become an obsession, the center of a child’s life, and how they negotiate all their subsequent relationships? Also, how do we become our mothers, and isn’t it inevitable that we will, if they form the basis of who we are? Antara will always have her mother’s voice in her head, her mother’s face in her face - it’s inescapable, something that haunts her. These were some of the formative ideas I had that went into thinking about mothers and daughters.

The book focuses in on Tara’s slide into dementia. Your descriptions of Tara’s illness are in some places horrifying, in some places, almost beautiful, like the scene where she holds her granddaughter and thinks it is her own daughter. Why did dementia become a story you wanted to explore?

Thank you for picking up on that. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the tension between beauty of an almost poetic nature and terror is something that definitely exists in my experience of her as she continues to deteriorate. She can go from blissful and childlike to enraged and paranoid in moments - and we, her loved ones, can only watch with our hearts in our throats. I suppose I wanted to capture some part of that in the story.

I dove deep into Alzheimer’s research soon after my grandmother was diagnosed with the illness and I think bringing what I found into fiction, allowing it to fragment, to be re-examined through the perspective of the narrator (who is an artist, and who tries to make sense of things through mapping and visual means) was therapeutic for me, a way of distancing myself from what felt too intense to contain in reality.

You said in your article for Elle India 'The things I attempt to write about are small, mundane—the relationships between people, the way intimacies can unravel, and the debt we carry for those who love us.' I would argue that the subject of your writing is anything but mundane. Throughout the novel, Tara and Antara begin to switch roles, Antara begins to care for Tara as she would her own child. This is the most terrifying moment for any child, I think. What drew you to writing about this role reversal?

I think this is the inevitable turning point for most children. At some stage your parents’ decline turns them into your dependents, into your children. Just as you once were at their mercy, they are now at yours. There’s a kind of symmetry that exists there, but I think we don’t talk about it enough.

I was interested in writing into the moment when the shift begins to take place - where the past of the mother-daughter relationship and its future hold uncanny echoes of each other. I was thinking about how being mothered and mothering is a continuum.

I was thrown by your descriptions of life in the Ashram. I’d always understood Ashrams to be peaceful places. Why do you think Antara was so terrified by the Ashram?

I think in general the world of adults can be frightening and confusing for a child. The ashram is a microcosm of the real world, populated by flawed people, where individual desires circulate. The veneer of the ashram seems peaceful, especially with good PR, but in actuality any place that functions with a set hierarchy, with rules that police behavior (and I would argue, language and thought) and with a leader who everyone strives to be close to, is going to have the same politics and power struggles that we experience in normal life. I wasn’t interested in privileging the ashram because of its mission statement, but rather getting into the details of how it might feel to really live there, especially if you’re there against your will and completely without status, like a child. In Antara’s case in particular, the difficulties of navigating life at the ashram might have been mitigated had her mother been different. The ashram is also where she finds a surrogate mother figure, which makes the place complex for her psychologically.

Ultimately, when reading this book, I felt like I was reading something I shouldn’t. It was too intimate, too raw. Do you think there are areas of life that writers tend to gloss over? Did you intend to make your reader uncomfortable when confronting some of these truths?

I can’t speak for other writers, but I think part of writing this novel (and perhaps learning to write in general) has been a battle with my inner censor. I wrote many drafts of this story before I got to this place, and allowing myself to write with intimacy was something I had to cultivate over time. I also had an idea of what a novel should sound like or look like - at least what this novel was going to sound and look like - and I had to abandon those preconceived notions too. The intention was definitely not to make readers uncomfortable, at least not consciously, because I wasn’t thinking about the reception of the book while I was writing - that would have been overwhelming and scary, and I had to tread lightly.

You’ve said that a man who read an early draft of your book told you that he felt that all the male characters were peripheral. Did you take that as a criticism? Is it a valid criticism?

I think I did take it as a criticism at the time, albeit a stupid one, and it was definitely meant as a criticism, a reason why the book might have been lacking or incomplete to that particular person. I think it’s very telling about the level of privilege they enjoy on a daily basis that leads them to expect to see their own reflection in every surface.

You’ve said 'I’m interested in telling stories about women, for women.' Do you think Burnt Sugar is just for women?

I don’t think Burnt Sugar is just for women, but I’m also aware that all books don’t appeal to all readers. It’s also not my aim to appeal to everyone. This comment I believe came out of a larger conversation I was having with another writer in an interview where they were insisting on the universality of literature, and that a writer, the minute they begin writing, no longer has a gender or race. I thought this was deeply problematic - I wondered, what happens to our identities when we write? I don’t want my writing to be judged based on whether or not I have a vagina, but do I suddenly become a dead, white man? It seemed to be a regressive attitude parading as a progressive one, one that could be used to stifle or even erase marginalized voices, insisting on homogeneity.

On a personal note, I also felt that it didn’t speak to my own experience. As a young writer, for example, it was important for me to read books that were written by writers who looked like me, that spoke to my specific experiences - this is what gave me the permission to write, in some sense, and I am grateful for it. Representation matters.

The list of accolades for this book goes on and on. Nikesh Shukla called it a 'brilliant debut', Scroll called it 'a masterclass', Fatima Bhutto called it 'taut, unsettling, ferocious'. How does it feel to have your work reviewed?

It feels wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I hold my breath as I read reviews, particularly from writers I admire. For a while I was having my husband go through the reviews before reading them myself. I can’t pretend to have a thick skin about it. Rejection is demoralizing. Bad reviews are hard. I’m not sure having your work critiqued ever gets easier. I haven’t done an MFA and have never been in formal workshop settings week after week, so I haven’t been toughened.

I was moved by how open you have been about the long process writing your book has been. Do you have any advice for those writing their own books?

Any advice I give isn’t worth much because I’m convinced that every writer (and every book) has its own individual journey, but here it is:

Writing a book is hard, much harder than you think it is. It might take years of your life, and you’ll probably have to give up a great deal to commit to it. There will probably be some suffering involved. And you’ll make a lot of mistakes - some so costly in terms of time and energy that you will be ready to quit. Social gatherings become awkward because you lose practice at how to be a well-adjusted human being, people resent you for always rejecting their invitations, and the conversation inevitably turns to “that book” that you’re still working on a decade later. This all sounds terribly pessimistic, but if despite all of this you can still enjoy the process, still love the sound of good sentences, still get enthralled by working out problems on the page, then it’s worth it. Because that’s really what writing needs to be about - the process. Otherwise, why would anyone do it?

Lastly: why fiction? As an art historian, what drew you to writing literature rather than non-fiction?

I think fiction has always been my first love, but it took many years of tricking and talking myself into it. Sometimes we avoid the things we care about the most because they feel too expansive, too weighty for us to take on.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi is publishing 30 July.

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.