Interview with Avni Doshi
'It’s still hard to face the darkness of motherhood'
I wrote about motherhood load and penalty in a recent issue of the newsletter. And I also wrote about motherhood and writing. Personally it is often difficult to figure out at times if I am mothering while writing, or writing while mothering!
I am starting a series of interview with women writers, some of whom are mothers, some not. And I want to find out what their challenges are, what their writing process is (because I love hearing how people write), and how they align their dreams, and aspirations with other responsibilities, expectations and pressures. I also want to talk to them about choices and decisions, because so much of our work and life is about these sliding doors, and the paths we take, and those we are not allowed to walk.
Today I am speaking with AVNI DOSHI, author of Booker-prize shortlisted BURNT SUGAR. I sometimes resist reading books that everyone is talking about because I worry whether I would like it for its own sake, or because somehow I have internalised this message from others that the book is good. But eventually I gave in and read Burnt Sugar because a book about mothers and daughters is very appealing, as a mother of three daughters. I am continuously thinking about my own relationship with my children, and that with my mother, and my mother’s relationship with her mother and so on. I am also one of three sisters, so I have always reflected a lot on these familiar dynamics which are so intimate but can very quickly become oppressive as well. Mother-daughter relationships are always unique and wonderful, often fraught with tension.
I write in my own book about the experience of my eldest growing up, and as a teenager pulling away, while I was desperately trying to pull her towards me. This game of push-pull we kept playing, while I was also trying to make a decision about having more children.
But coming back to Burnt Sugar, I fell in love with it from the first page, and I fell in love with Avni’s writing. Yes, it is a book about Indian families which is wonderfully unique in itself because we don’t see such stories coming from the subcontinent where the family and close relationships are kept close, as private secrets. But it is also universal in its search for identity and home. So, I asked Avni some questions and here goes!
How did Burnt Sugar come about?
Burnt Sugar started as an image that I couldn’t shake. A mother and daughter, or perhaps two sides of the same woman, in conversation with each other. I wrote into that image and it carried me to other images and ideas. The first draft of the novel emerged from there.
I found its stark honesty so appealing, and I wondered that we don't see many portrayals of motherhood that are not completely positive in literature and media. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve realized that nuance is terrifying for most people.
I think the idea of motherhood is being rewritten as we speak, and we probably will need some distance to truly understand what this reshaping looks like. I guess it’s still hard to face the darkness of motherhood. For many, it’s the last “safe” safe, the last idealization that they can rest into. But that doesn’t account for the people who suffer due to this idealization.
How much do you have to give up for yourself when you become a parent? And what does that mean for what you can write?
Every decision has a cost. Deciding to be a parent is no different. Time, the space to think, to be alone. These are all lost, at least for a while. Those long, uninterrupted stretches of time become a distant memory. The weight of this is more often carried by women.
How did you decide what you needed structure-wise to tell the story?
Well, I had to give up control of the structure. The planning and plotting was useful as part of the process but it eventually became deadening. To finally write the book I wanted, I had to abandon my idea of the book, structurally. In a way, I had to let it tell itself.
I'm always interested in how people with children especially actually get the writing done. What is your process?
Do they get writing done? I am struggling at the moment. I don’t know who I am anymore. What do you suggest? :)
What are your writing challenges right now?
It’s really a question of bandwidth at this moment. One thing about having a toddler that I never realized before is that there is no quiet. You can’t have your own thoughts.
There are writers who have refused to answer this question I know, so how do you feel about this question of motherhood and writing, and the balance or not between the two?
I understand why writers don’t want to answer it, as it’s a question never asked of male writers. But I also don’t want to disown the reality of my own existence. Or stop a dialogue that might actually help other writers. It’s a tough one.
Was there ever a point where you thought, ‘I have killed my writing career by having children’.
I think both of these things all the time, honestly. But then again, my career as a writer is very new, just beginning, and I had very few expectations for it at the outset. Not because of motherhood, but because I was unknown, writing in the dark, without any knowledge of the publishing industry.
I grew up speaking both Hindi and English and I wonder if I would be a different writer if I wrote in Hindi. I don't even know if this is a valid question but do you have any thoughts on this?
I spoke Gujarati at home as a child, I’ve lost my fluency but I wish I still had it. I do think being bilingual would change my writing.
Lives in: a house with an overgrown garden
Lives with: my husband, my two children, lots of books
Favourite place to write: in bed
Favourite time of day to write: before sunrise
What are you reading right now? Muriel Spark - The Driver’s Seat
What are you watching right now? The Real Housewives of New York. I just watched the film The Father.
What are you writing right now? A new novel which doesn’t look like a novel yet. I’m writing down my dreams, too.
Where is 'home' for you? I don’t know. I feel a lot of longing for elsewhere no matter where I am.
I can relate to so much of this. There are many analogies with motherhood and writing because when we think we are in control, we are not really in control, and sometimes we have to consciously give up control (of the structure and routine). You have to let it ‘tell itself’ for the story and the child, I suppose. Raising children is so much about giving up: giving up pieces of ourselves, and, giving up any notions of a perfect or good mother we might have carried with us. But it is also about finding and discovering new versions of ourselves, and a unique sense of belonging, discovering resilience, and our desperate need for creativity.
I wrote a rather personal and brutally honest essay about ‘perfect motherhood’ and the pressure I had put on myself here: I let my house become a big mess, and I allowed myself to breathe.
I love Motherland and so I wrote about it. But I also think it has missed some real opportunities to address gender and racial stereotypes, the ‘otherhood’ of motherhood that we hardly ever see on screen. Motherland upholds tedious stereotypes and tropes when it comes to race and gender
And, finally. One last note - I’m delighted and slightly terrified that it is coming to publication week for my book out on 3 June next week.
Someone told me today that they are so pissed off because they so wish that they had written it. It felt like a huge compliment, I have to say!
Someone else sent me a message to say: “You write so beautifully and the way you weave the personal and the wider together is so clever and organic.” It is overwhelming and touching to have people say this. We always wonder if our words will resonate, whether anyone would even bother reading them. And it is a dizzying feeling when they do, and when people like it.
This is a hybrid format, a memoir, a manifesto using evidence from archival historical research, from ancient texts, from contemporary culture, and from scientific studies. Hopefully it will start and spur on very crucial conversations around motherhood and womanhood, in an intersectional and inclusive way.
Pre-orders really make a difference for new authors like me. (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman' is available on Hive, Waterstones, Amazon and all other stores. It’s also available on e-book and audiobook. Signed copies are available from many independent stores such as Fox Lane Books, Lighthouse Books, Portobello bookshop and others. Do get in touch with your local indie bookshop and they should be able to order this for you with a signed (and illustrated!) bookplate.