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“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” reads the memorable opening line of Burnt Sugar (Abrams, 288 pages), New-Jersey-born, Dubai-based Avni Doshi’s beguilingly sinister debut about memory and motherhood. Set in present-day India, the novel follows Antara, a recently married artist forced to revisit her shambolic childhood – much of it spent living at an ashram, where her impulsive, neglectful mother, Tara, became a kind of concubine to the resident guru – after the latter starts showing signs of dementia. Though shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, Burnt Sugar has only just been published in North America.
What was the genesis of this novel?
Burnt Sugar was written as a kind of experiment. I was working as an art historian at the time, and started writing fiction suddenly. When I look back at that time now, it seemed like there was some inner imperative to get the story out. I remember being in my grandmother’s home in Pune, India – where the novel is set – and being unable to get a particular image of a mother and daughter out of my head. It started as a fragment, I had no idea that it would turn into a novel. I continued to work on the story for seven years and eight drafts. Each one was completely different than the one before, but the mother and daughter relationship at the heart of the story remained. In terms of the novel as it is today, I heard the narrator’s voice in my head so clearly when I started the draft. In a way, I didn’t feel like I had that much control until it came to editing, to cutting down sections of the book.
Had you written short stories or other fiction before?
Not as an adult. In high school, I believe I did write. But I’ve blocked that out. I think I was ashamed of it. Ashamed of writing for some reason.
So is it safe to assume, given that tentative start, that getting shortlisted for one of the biggest literary prizes in the world came as a surprise?
A total surprise. I thought I hallucinated the whole conversation when my editor called to tell me the news.
The novel feels extremely embedded in India, even though you grew up in the U.S. What’s your relationship to India?
I travelled to India fairly often when I was young, and spent a lot of time in Pune in particular. My mother grew up there, and we would go to visit her family. There was something about my experience there that really stayed in my imagination. There were a lot of questions, a lot of secrets. Many of the women in my mother’s family belonged to the Osho ashram, and other ashrams. It was always part of the conversation, but so much was unsaid, understood without the use of language. I guess for me, a young child, I had to fill in the blanks.
I lived in India in my twenties, and that is when I began asking questions and rethinking some of the narratives that had been passed down to me. I realized the India of my childhood was a lot of white space. So many years later, that suddenly felt like an opportunity for invention.
It was also first published in India – to what do you attribute its strong reception there?
I’m not sure. It’s so hard to look at my own work and understand anything about – I understand even less about how it is received by readers. Sometimes readers notice things that I was completely unconscious of. I was recently emailing back and forth with someone who is writing a research paper on the novel, which is sort of bizarre to think about.
I suppose the home and the mother in South Asian culture are idealized, and that might have been hard for some people to digest. But the monstrous lurks everywhere.
Why was the title changed?
Girl in White Cotton was the original title in India. In the context of Hinduism, white cotton is the fabric of ascetics and mourners. It’s the colour of grief, of existing beyond this plane. It captured a tension that was lost for a reader who wouldn’t understand that double effect – in the west, a girl in white cotton immediately makes you think of innocence and purity. We decided to come up with another title, and Burnt Sugar seemed to hold the tension of the opposites that we were after. It also refers to an important element of the story and the idea of the domestic monster.
The ambivalent, and often quite dark view of motherhood in your novel is something writers like Sheila Heti and Rachel Cusk have explored. In Cusk’s case, she experienced angry backlash for it. Did you approach the subject with any trepidation?
I didn’t feel any trepidation at all. I have to emphasize the fact that I had given up almost all hope that this novel would ever be published. And even the small part of me that dreamed it could be assumed it would only be read by a small number of people. And I guess in a sense I am coming after so many brave writers who have said the unspeakable – who have put maternal ambivalence front and centre.
At times, the novel is so sinister as to verge on genre territory. What authors or genres do you read?
I don’t actually, but that is so exciting to hear for me because I admire so many writers that exist in that in between space. Carmen Maria Machado, for example.
I end up reading new literary fiction for the most part and am always so behind on my reading these days. To be honest, with two kids, I feel lucky if I read at all. I only discovered contemporary fiction well into my twenties – until then, I only read classics!
Is writing pleasurable or painful for you?
Hmm … I think a little bit of both. A writing teacher of mine, Madelyn Kent, says that sometimes it is elusive and sometimes it is obvious. I think that describes my experience.
You wrote a character who experiences post-partum depression and then went on to experience it yourself. What was that like?
It is scary when I think about it now, but to be honest, when I was in the middle of postpartum depression, I didn’t think anything was wrong. I just didn’t want to be alive, and that felt okay, almost healthy. Like I was so wretched, that everyone around would be better off without me; my husband, my newborn. And so the contemplation of my own death was almost comforting, a place where I could linger in my mind.
So having gone through it, how do you feel about your depiction of it? Did you go back and read what you wrote?
I went back and read it once, and felt good about it. I felt I had captured something of my own experience, though I had no idea when I was writing it.
The “experimental” phase of your writing life being officially behind you, what comes next? Do you have another book germinating like the first one did?
I have been working on a second novel but I’m still working a lot of it out. In a way, I am still experimenting. This time it’s about finding moments to write in, working with an erratic schedule. How do I write when I don’t have entire days to lock myself away? I am still figuring that out.