Avni Doshi remembers the telephone call she received from her editor at Penguin UK in late July. “The first thing she told me was to sit down,” says the Dubai-based author. “I was a bit nervous and wasn’t sure of what to expect. For a moment, I thought she had some bad news for me.”
But Avni was in for perhaps the biggest surprise of her life. “She told me ‘You are on the Man Booker long list’.”
The first reaction of the author of Burnt Sugar was to break down in tears of joy. “I cried a bit, then kept rambling and repeating ‘I cannot believe it’. Over and over. It took me a while for the news to sink in. Actually, I still feel a bit unsure about how it all happened,” she says.
“I was so surprised and shocked mainly because there are so many great books coming out. But now it is obviously very gratifying to hear something like that.”
It surely must be; Burnt Sugar is Avni’s debut novel and is a contender for the prize with works of Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler and Diane Cook, among others. The taste of success must surely be sweeter than burnt sugar coming after she worked on her novel for close to eight years writing, rewriting, starting all over again.
Initially published in India under the title Girl in White Cotton, the book tells a love story and also one of betrayal not between lovers but between mother and daughter.
It has already elicited plenty of praise; Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, hailed Avni as “a writer of surgical precision and sharp intelligence”.
“This novel of mother-and-daughter resentments and the deep, intimate cuts of ancient family history gleams like a blade — both dangerous and beautiful. I loved it.”
Avni, too, clearly loved her work – honing and polishing drafts for nearly a decade fine-tuning it to perfection.
“The problem was that I couldn’t get the voice right,” says Avni, over telephone from her home in Dubai, when I ask her why it took her eight years to publish her novel. “The voice of the narrator is what drives the story; I wasn’t able to get that right.”
Her initial attempts at writing were fragmentary. She wasn’t even sure she was writing a novel. But a Facebook post in 2013 about a prize a British literary agency called Tibor Jones was offering for an unpublished manuscript spurred her to give shape to her novel. Apart from the prize money of 100,000 Indian rupees (Dh5,000) and being represented by that agency, the winner also had a chance to sell the novel to a UK publisher.
Although Avni had barely a month to submit her manuscript, the art historian by education gave it her best shot and her Girl in White Cotton triumphed over more than 100 full-length novels to walk away with the prize. The chair of the panel of judges termed Avni’s work “different, elegant, well crafted, precise and complex”.
A dream come true
Avni, who had never taken a writing class or had imagined that she would be interested in creative writing, suddenly found herself with a literary agent. “It was a dream come true,” she says, the excitement still ringing in her voice.
But she also realised that “I don’t know a lot about writing so I had to teach myself”.
She began by reading books on the craft, applied for fellowships and also enrolled for a course. “That was really great because I got to sit in on seminars and workshops, and got to see all these really brilliant people discussing their work, works of other writers, the formal aspects of writing a novel in a way that I had never really known before.”
She is grateful for having some “wonderful mentors who guided me and looked at my work and offered me feedback on what I had written”. The experience at the writing course also taught her an extremely valuable lesson: “I realised how difficult writing is; how it is about editing, about rewriting, about reaching a position of precision and clarity of thought which usually doesn’t come in the first go; I think my understanding of writing was very different from that.”
That was six years ago. The writer continued reworking and revising her work but she also had to contend with more questions. “When you spend so much time writing, you struggle with what to leave out,” she says. “The cliché, kill your darling, is true. It’s important to know what to cut out; sometimes parts that you really love might actually be the weakest links in the book.”
That’s perhaps a reason many writers suggest keeping the first draft away for a couple of days or weeks, sometimes even six months before returning to it and editing it. It helps when you are able to approach your work as a stranger rather than as the author of your work, she says.
Was it a challenge ‘living’ with characters of Burnt Sugar for so long, particularly as some of them are not really nice people to know, I ask.
“The narrator is not a very likeable person,” Avni admits, “and it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the story needed to be told by a character. Whether she was likeable or not was beside the point.”
As Burnt Sugar began to develop, each draft was completely different from the other. “You can say I wrote eight different books because they were so completely varied,” says the mother of two. “It was not just the mood and tone that differed but the story too did. From the first draft to the final, there isn’t a single full sentence that was carried over.”
What did carry through, though, is exploration of the bond between a woman and her daughter. “It’s fascinating, the mother-daughter relationship; it’s one of the most basic, primary relationships on which all subsequent relationships hinge,” says Avni, who delivered a baby girl just a couple of months ago. “The relationship to your mother is your first one – it’s the umbilical cord really, and sometimes the cord never really gets cut. It influences everything that comes after. And if you’ve had a difficult relationship with your mother it can kind of lead to your destruction. In that sense, I was trying to look at that most essential relationship.”
I ask her if Antara, the protagonist of Burnt Sugar, has any of her characteristics.
“All characters do have something of me in them since they came out of my brain,” she says. “She’s definitely not modelled on anyone else; she came together as a voice in my head. She had been speaking to me in my head for a long time; maybe she is part of my shadow self; maybe she is a part of me that I don’t acknowledge – a part that I repress.”
Avni believes every individual has shadow characters that exist within them, personalities that are often pushed aside or suppressed for various reasons. “I think fiction writing is a great place to explore those other sides.”
If the praise she has been receiving for her book is any indication, she surely has explored the protagonist’s mind with aplomb particularly when she describes the anxieties and fears of Anatara who, as a young child is dragged away by her mother to an ashram.
Is the ashram a reference to Osho’s in Pune – a city Avni’s mother hails from?
“Several members of my maternal family belonged to Osho’s ashram as well as to other ashrams in other parts of the country,” she says, and makes it clear that she was not interested in writing about a specific ashram in her book. “I was more interested in thinking about how an ashram might look from the perspective of a child. For me, it was more important to get the anxiety the child experiences in an unfamiliar place, how the trauma of being dragged away to an ashram would affect her.”
From history to creating writing
Avni very nearly did not become a writer.
Growing up, she did show an interest in ‘making art’ but never really took classes for it. “My mother loved the idea of me being a dancer, singer, ballerina… She wanted me to learn roller skating, sing Italian arias and enrolled me in a music school. She didn’t know I had interests of my own and maybe I wasn’t communicating that,” she says.
Through it all though, her passion in art survived, and Avni went on to do her Masters in History of Art from University College London before becoming an art curator specialising in contemporary art from South Asia.
What was her mother’s reaction after she was longlisted for the Booker, I ask.
“She is very proud and happy,” says Avni. “She has started reading up a lot about the prize. It is a bit abstract for her. I mean the Booker Prize is not something that is at the top of one’s mind. It is something out there and you don’t really focus on it. Now, though, she is finding out more about it.”
The shortlist of six books will be announced on September 15 and the Man Booker winner in November. The winner receives £50,000 (around Dh236,000) and a specially bound edition of their book.