Avni Doshi started off writing as a curator based out of Mumbai, but her search for art soon led her to fiction. Her debut novel, "Girl in White Cotton", a seven years' labour of love, told the story of a city, a disease, and the fraught tapestry of a mother-daughter relationship. It went on to be critically acclaimed, receiving a Booker Prize nomination in 2020. On a rainy day in Delhi, over electronic mail, she joined The Medley team for an interview about her art and inspirations.
What inspired Girl in White Cotton?
AD: I remember being in Pune, in my grandmother’s house and being visited by a vision of two women. Who were they? I don’t think I knew much about them, but I could sense a bond and imagined they were mother and daughter. That was when I wrote the first scene. I only began to discover the characters through writing them. They surprised me throughout the process. I sensed that they had some psychic objectivity. That was about 10-11 years ago now.
In your descriptions of Pune, your prose never lapses into poetry all the while never losing its cadence. Even in describing Reza's poetry you never reveal the lines he wrote on the walls. Would you ever resort to poetry in your work or do you think it is just not the right time yet?
AD: I don’t know much about poetry, I only know when I like what I read. In terms of writing - I tried to write some poetry when I was in middle school. I haven’t since then.
The research surrounding Amyloid Plaques' role in Alzheimer’s is still conflicted and inconclusive much like the research surrounding its other causes. Do you find this anxiety of being so powerful yet powerless in our attempt to defeat disease is inspiring a new wave of writers not to write about not love or war, but the incurable?
AD: I’m not sure. I think a lot of writers are still writing about love and war. I think science makes breakthroughs but like all human endeavors it has its limitations and it’s blindspots. Maybe the anxiety we are feeling is an old one - the anxiety of dying, the eventuality of our death.
In the book, Antara shares a kind of intimacy with Kali Mata that is hardly present with anyone else. Do you find it easy to talk about intimacy in your work or do you feel like writing tarnishes it some extent?
AD: Writing about intimacy or love or emotion can sometimes be tricky because it can become sentimental. There are so many tropes in the language we use for these feelings. I think the way Antara expresses her intimacy with Kali Mata is an exploration of the sensations in her body, and a noticing of the idiosyncrasies of her god mother.
How did you traverse through the fragility of depicting a mother-daughter relationship?
AD: I don’t think of it as fragile at all. I think of it as solid, expansive and ever-binding. Your parents, even when you don’t speak to them, live in your DNA and speak to you through the voices in your head. Their unlived lives determine the course of your ship. The relationship between mother and daughter is one that can swing from joy and love to pain and humiliation and remain intact - simultaneously full of forgiveness and full of revenge. It’s a perfect relationship to explore the full spectrum of human emotion and experience. I think of the archetype of the Great Mother and how it contains within it the notion of the Death Mother. It’s a relationship that is pervasive and all encompassing.
Antara's insistence to make sense of her subjects through drawing rather than paint is unique. Do you draw too as a way of recording your experiences? Are there any contemporary or classical artists whose work you keep looking back at?
AD: I don’t draw but I wish I could. I studied art history but I think I always dreamt of being an artist. It’s a fantasy, not something I’ve ever seriously worked at.
I love the work of Louise Bourgeois. Her work is endlessly inspiring to me. I saw an exhibition of her art alongside her psychoanalytic writing, and it gave me new insight into her symbols. Leonara Carrington. Hilma Af Kint. Amrita Shergil. There are many artists that inspire me.
How do you interpret the theme of The Medley’s eighth issue- “Mosaic”? Do you think your book is also synonymous with the theme of “Mosaic” in some ways?
AD: In terms of the novel, I think the idea of mosaic could refer to the inner landscape of the character. Antara is made up of so many parts, some silent, some dormant. I’m interested in the incoherence and multitudes that people contain. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they contradict themselves without realizing it? I think central to human consciousness is paradox.
We’d love to know if anything is under wraps or if there’s any other literary project you’re working on. Lastly, would you like to give any word — of advice, caution or general note — to budding writers?
AD: I’m still writing my second novel, but I can’t share anything at the moment.
For writers seeking advice, I would say don’t listen too much to advice. Writing is often subjective. Some people will love your work, others will hate it. That’s all fine. Don’t look for praise outside of yourself, find your inner source and purpose. Nurture and guard it. That is the most precious thing each of us has.
Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey and lives in Dubai. She has a BA in art history from Barnard College in New York and a Masters in history of art from University College London. She was awarded the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship in 2014.
Her writing has appeared in British Vogue, Granta and The Sunday Times. Her first novel, Burnt Sugar, was originally released in India under the title Girl in White Cotton, where it won the 2021 Sushila Devi Award and was longlisted for the 2019 Tata First Novel Prize.
Upon publication in the UK, Burnt Sugar was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Named a 2020 Book of the Year by the Guardian, Economist, Spectator and NPR, it is being published in 26 languages. In 2021, it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize and selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of the year. In 2022, it was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Avni is currently working on her second book.