In 2019, Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman, and first black British author, to win the Booker prize, though she had to share it with Margaret Atwood. A year later, the 2020 Booker shortlist is a totem of diversity: four out of six books are by women, four out of six are by persons of colour. Four out of six also happen to be debut novelists. Eligible for a £50,000 (around ₹48 lakh) prize, the name of the 2020 winner will be announced at a virtual ceremony on 19 November. For Indian-origin Avni Doshi, who is on the shortlist this year, the fact that the diversity of this year’s shortlist has been the talking point is an indicator of how racist and bigoted book prizes have been in the past.
Over a call from Dubai two weeks before the big announcement, Doshi tells me something that makes conversations about authors’ identities seem almost redundant. The debut novelist finds writing a pretty messy process, coming from the unconscious. “In a Jungian sense,” she explains. “There is this ‘other’ inside you that is co-producing this work. You access parts of yourself that you are not necessarily in contact with. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to take full credit. Sometimes I write things and don’t remember them.”
In the past, Doshi has told me she is uneasy with editing her work. Over the seven years that she worked on the book, she would start from scratch when a draft didn’t work. All the previous drafts were preparatory.
Hinged on a complex mother-daughter relationship, Doshi’s book Girl In White Cotton (published as Burnt Sugar internationally) does seem as if it has been written in a fever dream. Though it moves back and forth in time, it is breathless, with invisible seams. For a book that is so much about memory and memory loss, this is just as well. The book’s narrator, Antara, is an artist—Doshi was an art curator before she became a literary phenomenon—and while Doshi insists they are not alike in their approach to art, she says that like Antara, she has been interested in the idea of memory since she read Gabriel García Márquez in her 20s. A master’s in art history saw her further entrenched in the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and the idea of the archival death drive (Derrida believed we archive because we fear being forgotten).
We spoke about diversity, sexist critics, and why she loves Javier Marías’ sentences. Edited excerpts:
Is it fair to surmise that the time for female debut authors has arrived, perhaps even female debut authors of colour?
It does seem that way. I suppose debut novels have a kind of energy that this particular judging panel was drawn to. However, some of the judges have said they didn’t know which books were debuts and that they didn’t know the identity of the authors when they started off judging.
Questions of diversity are at the forefront now, given everything that happened in the US over the summer. #PublishingPaidMe was also a big deal, as was the scandal over (the novel) American Dirt. We are in 2020, is it really such a big deal to have black and brown skin on the Booker list? The fact that this makes headlines is sad to some degree. It’s indicative of where we are at the moment.
I hope that people believe the books have value beyond our different colours of skin. And I hope people don’t think I am on the list because I have a vagina.
As someone who’s already thinking about her second book, what do you make of this new focus by book prizes and the industry at large on debuts? Do you worry about what happens after the debut?
It doesn’t worry me. I can’t speak about the industry at large but I have been lucky as to whom I have worked with so far. They are all individuals who think in terms of the span of the author’s career. It’s very clear from (my UK publisher) Hamish Hamilton’s list that they are interested in developing a career for their authors.
I have heard things about the second book being particularly hard to write. A debut is birthed by a different kind of energy. It is something that had to be told, had to come out, couldn’t come out fast enough. As I am starting to think about my next book, the urgency isn’t the same, it’s something more contemplative.
Writers now not only have MFAs but PhDs in creative writing are increasingly popular. You didn’t formally study creative writing and you have mentioned that a few times in the press. Is there anything you would do differently?
You are right, sometimes I do have a chip on my shoulder about it. Not so much about sitting in writing workshops but more about the fact that when you come out of a programme like that, you have a writing community. I don’t have that. I have some friends who are writers whom I can share work with but it’s nothing like the stories I hear from others who have a group, they workshop regularly, both informally and formally. I look at that with a kind of longing. At the same time, I am not sure it would necessarily suit me. I am quite private about my work.
Who were the writers you learnt from by reading them?
So many. Deborah Levy…
Hot Milk does have thematic similarities with my book but I think Swimming Home is her masterpiece…in terms of how intense and focused it is. It’s inspirational. There’s Javier Marías: I love his sentences. I read him in translation. I wish I knew Spanish well enough to read him in his own language. He does incredible things with his sentences.
Then there’s Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation that just stayed with me. I was so surprised by the sparseness of words on page and how she used her white space. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. She’s brilliant; the way she can come at a subject from so many different directions. There’s an element of her writing that is very academic, intellectually rigorous. How does she do that?
What were you reading while writing ‘Girl In White Cotton’?
Marías, Don DeLillo and various texts about Alzheimer’s disease. I loved the (mental health) podcast On Being.
“He was sloppy, and never had the discipline required to make art.” Your narrator, Antara, says this about a character in the book. Could you expand on this in the context of your own process?
I am not terribly sure about what I think about that. Antara has a certain idea about the control required to make art. She and I work very differently. It was much more of a messy process for me than Antara and what she believes art to be about. I was disciplined at times but a complete basket case at other times. I would leave writing for months at a time.
Books by women tend to be viewed biographically. Does that make you angry?
Anyone writing is writing from some kind of well of experience, whether it’s purely emotional or from empathy. I don’t get angry about it but it’s a little telling that people only ask this of women. It has been said before: Does it stem from the assumption that women can’t come at things from a place of pure imagination and therefore have to borrow from their biographies? Besides, I don’t know what is pure about imagination. Do men write from pure imagination?
Perhaps it comes from the idea that people want to know if women have exposed themselves in public in some way—maybe that’s why it’s asked more of women. This reminds me of when I was studying art history in college. Clement Greenberg spoke of Jackson Pollock’s work as pure gesture. But if you were a female artist like Lee Krasner (Pollock’s wife), her work was not deemed interesting enough. This shows the kind of sexism at the base of judging art. There’s something similar at work here. Something about the male author’s work is deemed a pure ejaculatory experience but for a woman to write something compelling, it needs to be seen through the lens of her own life for it to be worthwhile.
That said, I have been open about my personal experiences of motherhood, the fact that my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—I might not have gone into this kind of research into the illness if not. It’s fair to ask women writers these questions. Not fair to demand to know everything.
Your novel has been called scathing and vicious but it’s also intensely tender, isn’t it?
Those two sides of it are inexplicably linked. You can’t feel deep hatred without experiencing deep love. These polarities bring tension to the novel. I also find ambivalence to be important. To use the obvious example, one might have a tremendous desire to become a mother, but at the same time there is a repugnance to the impending existential shift. Ambivalence exists in all of our most profound feelings.
If you could have a conversation with anyone right now, dead or alive, who would it be?
Gabriel García Márquez.
This is the first in a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.