Dubai-based writer Avni Doshi has reason to celebrate. Her debut novel Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, 2020) published in India by Fourth Estate as Girl in White Cotton was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. With a BA in Art History from Barnard College, New York, and a Masters in History of Art from University College, London, she won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. In this interview, Doshi tells us about writing a story on a complex mother-daughter relationship, authors she admires and the 1980s’ nostalgia.
How did you come up with the story of your debut novel about a complex mother-daughter relationship?
The novel was written over many years, and many drafts. The mother-daughter relationship was the one thing that I explored in every iteration of this book. The relationship became particularly dark in the final draft, but I didn’t come up with a story as much as I conjured these two characters in my mind. The narrator of the novel has a very specific voice and tone which I could hear as soon as I began to write. I put Antara and her mother in a room together and their shared history revealed itself.
The book relives bits of 1980s nostalgia in terms of the protagonist Antara’s childhood in Pune, her Catholic boarding school in the hills of Maharashtra and her years as a young artist in Bombay. Was your own life an inspiration behind this?
I was born in the early 80s, but my own life looked very different than the world in the novel. I grew up in New Jersey, never attended boarding school, and though I wish I could have been an artist, I’ve never taken an art class outside of grade school. My mother grew up in Pune, and my grandmother still lives there—that’s how I grew to know and love that city. I suppose that I wrote the novel through observations and curiosity about Pune—the Pune of my memory, rather than from a place of certainty.
Who are some of your contemporaries that you admire?
I love Sheila Heti’s writing. Besides, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Ottessa Moshfegh.
What are you working on next?
I’m not working much yet, but I hope to write more novels in the future. It’s a form that I am absolutely in love with.