'Motherhood is messy': Booker nominee Avni Doshi on her longlisted novel Burnt Sugar

We meet Booker nominee Avni Doshi at her Dubai home to talk about her longlisted novel Burnt Sugar and the soaring expectations from the writer


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 30 Jul 2020, 7:34 PM

Last updated: Fri 7 Aug 2020, 11:50 AM

Losing memory is losing a sense of self. The degeneration of one's mind is also painful to others, as they find themselves being eliminated from shared experiences of the past. In Avni Doshi's debut novel, as a mother's mind descends into a void, a daughter finds herself being the lone custodian of the memories that have defined their fractured relationship. This incisive dissection forms the crux of Burnt Sugar.
The novel has received high praise and, earlier this week, made it to the Man Booker 2020 Longlist that also features Hilary Mantel and Ann Tyler's works. It has been a little over 24 hours since Doshi received the news at her Dubai home, where she had written the final draft of the novel. Initial shock and awe have now made way for gratitude. When her editor Hermione Thompson called her on Tuesday morning, Doshi, 37, who became a mother for a second time only two weeks ago, was convinced that something had gone wrong. She was asked to sit down, following which the news was broken to her. "I broke into tears. It was difficult to believe that when you have been writing by yourself for so long. It is a very solitary occupation. Sometimes, you can go on for years without showing anyone your work," she tells us.
Doshi did go on for years. The first draft of the novel was written in 2012 - when she was neither married nor living in the UAE - and had been working as an art curator in India. Bits and pieces of writing the novel took a more definite form when Tibor Jones announced a competition for unpublished manuscripts and a friend asked her to participate. In the Tibor Jones competition, Doshi saw an opportunity to finish the manuscript, thinking that even if her novel did not make it, she could at least take it to publishers. The novel won the prize.

Burnt Sugar, also titled Girl in White Cotton, was always meant to explore the internal worlds of women, but memory took on a character in itself.
Outside of the fictional world she'd created, it was her grandmother's Alzheimer's diagnosis and her personal struggle to come to terms with it that compelled Doshi to put her protagonists through a similar journey. "When someone is sick, the illness enters the family unit too. The mother's character is diagnosed with Alzheimer's and the daughter is now faced with the difficulty of looking after a sick parent who never really looked after her. So, there is a resentment in the narrator when she discusses her mother's illness."
The novel begins with this resentment - "I would be lying if I said my mother's misery has never given me pleasure". With the opening line itself, Doshi jibes at our collective obsession with virtues. In fact, the greatest triumph of the story is its refusal to Photoshop ideas on motherhood and family. "Motherhood is messy," Doshi tells us. "That's the reality. It's full of emotion and it can be a portal for healing, but it can also be a deeply triggering experience for many. It was very clear to me that, for my characters, motherhood was not pure bliss. It could not be. At least not within the time frame the novel covers. Ambivalence was important to explore in these characters."
Today, being a parent herself, Doshi says she has a little more empathy for the mother's character. "When you are a mother, you realise that you are doomed to failure. You can be a great mother but not the mother your child needs. You can do everything possible with best intentions and put your child at the centre of your life, but at the same time, you can mess up and fail." There are, however, "bits and pieces" of Doshi to be found in every character, all of them embody her "aspirations, demons and neuroses". "So much of what we see in the world is a projection of what's happening inside us, and it happens with characters of fiction as well."
While accolades have been received, there have been murmurs about the absence of strong male characters. It's a charge that comes from a position of privilege, notes Doshi. "This is the kind of criticism that could only have been levelled at a writer who is writing about women and is a female writer herself. The person has probably come from a place where he has read work by men on men, characters that spoke to him as a reader. It came from a place where the individual just expected to see himself in any work of art. And so, I assume it's difficult to read, think or empathise from a different position."
Sitting in the living room of her home as we speak, Doshi tells us that this is where she wrote the final draft of her novel. In the UAE, the Booker nominee found a neutral space, away from the setting of her fiction, to look at the characters and their situations with clinical precision. "There is an aesthetic here that suits my style. In Dubai, while there are hotels and shopping malls, there are also these spaces in between that are a bit deserted. These have a sterile quality to them. Those are the spaces that speak to my writing style. When I was living in India, there was so much sensory stimuli coming my way. And here, I think, I can easily cut off. I can zone in and pick and choose what I want to focus on - is it a particular sound or smell? I can dissect it and look at just one aspect more clinically. Distance is always necessary with fiction."
During the course of our conversation, Doshi mentions that the Booker Longlist has also been special because she has been a literary outsider. "Maybe all writers feel they are outsiders," she says at one point. But what are the real challenges of being an outsider looking to take up writing professionally? "The biggest challenge is monetary because writing doesn't pay very well. You need a day job where you are making enough money to support yourself. Or you have to be born to rich parents. Or you have to marry well. One of those three things has to happen."
The Booker Shortlist will be announced on September 15 and, being the only South Asian on the list this year, the expectations have obviously been soaring. "The Longlist is not something I would have allowed myself to dream about," she says. "I am floating at the moment, but not stressing either. I have two little babies under the age of two; I have more pressure from them than I could have from the entire line-up of Booker judges."

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