Interview: Avni Doshi, author, Girl in White Cotton
The Booker nominee talks about drawing on the myth of the monstrous mother, about art, and the writers who have influenced herUpdated: Oct 24, 2020, 00:20 IST
Were there any concerns about reconstructing and deconstructing the myths surrounding motherhood and maternal care that have been ossified in popular imagination?
I’m drawing on another kind of myth of mother, namely the monstrous mother, the shadow of motherhood that we don’t like to talk about, the one we try to disown. Motherhood is idealized in most cultures to the point where it looks nothing like what it really is. And I understand the impetus for this. The creative power of the mother, to give and destroy life, is terrifying – something that the entire species depends on. Patriarchal powers are in a constant battle against women and their bodies – a battle to control, to regulate, to dehumanize. And that makes a lot of sense. I’m sure it must be very scary to be a man.
A claustrophobia associated with domestic spaces permeates the novel, particularly in relation to how the female characters navigate these spaces. Was that something you had wished to bring out?
The majority of the novel is set in domestic spaces, and I was interested in how the interiority of the narrator and the interiors of homes could speak in the same voice, and essentially be in dialogue with one another. The spaces are claustrophobic because Antara feels the walls of her psyche closing in around her. The rooms are containers and mirrors for her trauma.
Antara is an artist working on a long term project that weaves in her personal history with her art. In what ways, would you say, your own formal education in art has made its way into the book?
I think about art a lot, about art objects and the process of making, and how artists conceive of their work. There is a mystery in how concept takes form – how does something abstract acquire its materiality in a way that is meaningful, moving and unexpected? There are the kinds of questions that I was thinking about when I tried to imagine what sort of work Antara would make.
Objective memory and linear progression of time, both come to be challenged through the form of your novel as much as through the story itself. Was that a conscious effort?
Yes, I was keen to construct the story in a way that would be compelling to read, and I have learned that linear storytelling mostly gets in the way of that. In terms of form, short sections and bursts of memory, as well as the white space on the page, which act as moments for reflection, for pause, for the unknown; these were important to consider because they are intrinsic to the way in which we remember the past.
What is your writing process? How long was Girl in White Cotton (Burnt Sugar) in the making?
I spent seven years writing Burnt Sugar and it took about eight drafts to get to what you see today. I didn’t know how to write when I began, and I learned along the way. I realized through writing this last draft that, for me, the process is slow, and that I need to write sentence by sentence. Plotting and planning ahead don’t work.
As a debut novelist, were there any authors or works which influenced your writing style?
There are many! Too many to name. A few are Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Jenny Offill.
What was your initial reaction to the Booker Prize shortlist announcement?
I was shocked. I started weeping. I was certain that I had hallucinated the whole thing. It’s too much to fully absorb, but I am getting more and more comfortable with not absorbing it, with letting it just float around.
What impact has the pandemic had on you as a writer and a reader?
I haven’t been writing or reading very much during the pandemic, not as much as I thought I would. But I think it has been a time for turning inward, spending time with my husband and children, and realizing how little we need to be happy.
Any upcoming writing projects?
I’m working on a few essays, and maybe even a short story or two.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.