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Avni Doshi on her Booker Prize 2020 longlisted novel: 'The book is polarizing'

'Girl In White Cotton' by the Indian-origin writer is up against Hilary Mantel's 'The Mirror And The Light', among other titles

Writer Avni Doshi. Photo: Sharon Haridas.
Writer Avni Doshi. Photo: Sharon Haridas.

Indian-origin writer Avni Doshi spent eight years and wrote as many drafts to come to the end of her debut novel, Girl In White Cotton. First published in India in 2019, the book rattled readers and critics alike.

Scheduled to appear in the UK tomorrow under the title Burnt Sugar, the novel is already in the longlist of the Booker Prize 2020. Pitted against literary giants like Hilary Mantel and Anne Tyler, Doshi has tough competition ahead, but her book is being noticed. The Guardian praised it as "an unsettling, sinewy debut, startling in its venom and disarming in its humour."

The story revolves around the protagonist Antara and her difficult relationship with her mother Tara, who was never a conventional parent. Having walked out of her marriage to join a spiritual clan, Tara lived in penury with Antara, defying expectations of domesticity. Emotionally cruel and also unexpectedly tender, her equation with her daughter begins to crumple as Tara is suspected of having an early onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Reading Girl In White Cotton is like embarking on a roller-coaster ride through the deepest, darkest, often vilest depths of the human mind. But the experience is worth every moment of it, intensely cathartic and full of self-knowledge.

Doshi spoke to Mint about the making of her book and finding herself on the Booker Prize longlist. Edited excerpts.

Girl In White Cotton: By Avni Doshi, HarperCollins India, 288 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Girl In White Cotton: By Avni Doshi, HarperCollins India, 288 pages, 599.

You have written eloquently about your struggle to finish the novel. And now you're in the Booker longlist. How does it feel? What has this journey been for you as a writer and an individual?

I’m probably overusing this word, but "surreal" is the best way I can describe it. When you write in the dark for so many years, it becomes hard to believe that anyone will ever read your work. I think it will take some time for it to sink in. Writing the novel was a long, arduous process. I quit many times. I restarted just as many. I lied to myself and to others about how well the writing was going. Deception is useful for a writer. But I’m a different person than the one who started writing this book. I think I’ve been humbled by the process. I can stoically dismember a manuscript now.

Neither Tara or Antara are likeable characters. In fact, the reader's fascination with them is almost tied to their unpredictable behaviour and outbursts. Did you worry about writing and living with such difficult characters for so long?

I didn’t worry about it. Should I have? If I were afraid of my characters, writing would be the wrong profession for me. I think your real question is how have I been deformed by living with these difficult characters for so long. You’ll have to ask my husband and children that.

'Girl in White Cotton' deals with themes that are unpleasant and hushed up in families, especially in India. Do you remember any feedback from readers who were drawn to the book?

The book is polarizing. What some found unflinching, others found repugnant. Some people (some friends) were triggered by the book because it reminded them of something close to home. Most people want to read my life into the story, and draw out similarities where they can.

You are a trained art historian and art plays a key role in 'Girl In White Cotton'. Can you tell us about the place of art, especially with reference to specific artists, in your literary imagination?

Visual art and literature are inextricably linked in my mind. While writing this book, I came back to the artist Louise Bourgeois quite often–the way in which her art work is haunted by her past, by memories of her childhood, by the spectre of her father, and a mother who was at once maternal and monstrous.

How was the process of editing the book into shape in India and the UK? What do you make of the different titles the book goes by in these territories?

The editing process was very straightforward. I was lucky enough to work with two great editors. Personally, I really like both titles, and think they both resonate with the text. I trusted the teams at Hamish Hamilton in the UK and Fourth Estate in India, they clearly know their markets.

What are you working on next?

Another novel. That’s all I know for sure right now.

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