This episode was a part of the 2020 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, and was originally released on 5 November 2020. It features Avni Doshi in conversation with Astrid Edwards.
Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It is a love story and a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between a mother and daughter.
Avni is an award-winning author with an Art History degree from Barnard College in New York and a Masters in History of Art from University College London. She was awarded the 2013 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize and 2014 Charles Pick Fellowship. Her first novel, Burnt Sugar, has been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
Burnt Sugar, karya Avni Doshi, telah masuk daftar panjang untuk penghargaan Booker Prize 2020. “Sebuah debut yang mengguncang, mengejutkan dengan bisanya dan melucuti dengan humornya dari kalimat paling pertama,” menurut The Guardian, ini adalah sebuah kisah cinta dan pengkhianatan. Namun bukan di antara sepasang kekasih, melainkan antara ibu dan anak. Bergabunglah dengan Avni saat ia membongkar ikatan memori dan mitos yang mengikat dan memisahkan kedua perempuan tersebut.
Avni adalah penulis peraih penghargaan dengan gelar Sejarah Seni dari Barnard College di New York dan Magister Sejarah Seni dari University College London. Ia dianugerahi Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013 dan Charles Pick Fellowship 2014. Novel pertamanya, Burnt Sugar, telah masuk dalam daftar Booker Prize 2020.
ASTRID: Welcome to KEMBALI 2020: A Rebuild Bali Festival. My name is Astrid Edwards, and I am coming to you from Melbourne, Australia.
I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation on whose land I live and work. I would like to recognise and pay my respects to the Elders past, present, and future. And I would like to acknowledge the sovereignty was never ceded.
As I said, my name is Astrid Edwards. I am a podcaster, writer, and teacher, and it is my great pleasure in life to talk to writers about what they do and how they do it. And today, we are speaking to Avni Doshi.
AVNI: Hi, thank you so much.
ASTRID: I believe you're joining us from Dubai.
AVNI: Yes, I'm in Dubai. In my little study.
ASTRID: I am in my kitchen in Melbourne. It is the way of the world at the moment. Now congratulations are in order your debut work. Burnt Sugar was longlisted and then shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. And we are still waiting to see who is awarded the prize this year. So many, many congratulations.
AVNI: Thank you. Thank you so much.
ASTRID: How does it feel?
AVNI: There are a lot of mixed emotions. It's completely overwhelming. It's a bit surreal at times. It's been a difficult thing to digest. Particularly when you've been working on a single piece of writing for such a long time, I've been working on this novel for the better part of... Or I was working on it for the better part of seven years. I wrote it over the course of eight drafts. And so, to be acknowledged feels amazing, but sometimes it's a little hard to believe.
ASTRID: It really is an extraordinary achievement receiving and attracting that international recognition for your first published novel. I interview a lot of writers, and that is or whatever kind of story Avni before we go any further. And I ask you questions, and I have lots of questions for you. Can you introduce us to Burnt Sugar? The story, the theme, and the characters.
AVNI: Sure. Burnt Sugar is the story of a woman living in a city in Western India. The city is called Pune. And she is faced with the difficult task of figuring out how to look after her mother, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And the difficulty really emerges because her mother never really looked after her when she was a child. This is a story some of the major themes running throughout the novel are memory, motherhood. It's really a book about learning to look after people who never perhaps cared very much for us, learning to love people who we don't like very much, and also in some ways is a story about revenge. There are many facets to the novel that I'm just now even discovering myself as I returned to it. It's interesting.
ASTRID: Revenge is an interesting theme, and we will come back to that, but I just wanted to draw everybody's attention to your opening line. Now, for people who read a lot payment's lines in literature is quite a thing. And you have written a spectacular opening line. I'm going to read it for everyone. I would be lying if I said my mother's misery has never given me pleasure. How did you capture all of that and get the reader in first sentence, a mother's misery?
AVNI: The first line actually came at the beginning of writing this particular draft. Now I had written many leading up to this. So, a lot of the ideas were clear to me when I began this draft, but there was something in the narrator's voice. There was almost this other person inside of me that was speaking. The first sentence came together pretty quickly, almost immediately at the beginning.
I knew it was the right sentence to start the story with when I could see the shape of the entire novel in the sentence itself. And I could see so many of the themes right there. I could see the tone. I could really hear the narrator's voice in that sentence and the complexity and ambivalence of her emotional state. And yeah, so that's really how I knew. I didn't know the attention. I couldn't kind of anticipate the attention the first sentence with that.
I guess that there is a kind of cult in literature around the first sentence as well. People remember first sentences in novels that they really love. I'm really grateful that everyone likes the sentence.
ASTRID: There was a call to literature around per sentence, and a lot of great books don't have a great first sentence. It's not a prerequisite, but when I sat down to read, Burnt Sugar opens it up, I'm like, ‘Wow, I'm really going to be drawn in and captured by this work’. Now Burnt Sugar is many things. It is a novel about mothers and daughters and families. It is a story of a mother, Tara, and her daughter and Antara, but I also read it as a story of women and family and domestic spaces. And of course, we have other women in the novel. There is Tara's mother Antara's grandmother. And of course, Antara becomes a mother herself at the end of the novel.
So is very much a story of women. Obviously, that was deliberate. But I would like to ask you a question that hopefully you don't get asked much. That kind of means the men were left out a bit. And the men aren't that important to much of the actual action. They certainly feature in the novel, but they are not protagonists, not main characters. And I'd like to ask why you left the men out and why this is all about the facets of being a woman.
AVNI: I think part of my own personal experience of life has been that, and this is a very personal thing. Women are central to my experience. I've said in other interviews, patriarchy and men kind of form the structure that I live in, I guess, but my most interesting daily activities, my closest friends, my family that's most dear to me, they're all women. I mean, there are men, of course, but I have the most interesting conversations with women, and I'm really fascinated by the lives of women. They're just the most interesting to me. And I think my question would be, why isn't that the case in more novels? Because I find women absolutely fascinating.
I have actually been asked this question, but in a different tone, people have criticised the novel for not having kind of central male characters. And it was men who kind of criticised the novel for this reason. And I think it's very telling that this particular man that I'm thinking about couldn't find his way into the novel because he couldn't relate to a male protagonist. And I wonder if that's a kind of limitation in empathy or a limitation in imagination. I'm not sure.
ASTRID: It might be both. I would also suggest it's a limitation in much of the international literature that we have that has focused on males, men's stories, and the action that happens outside of the home and outside of our domestic and intimate spaces. I did ask you a leading question, and maybe I fluffed Avni, but I was in no way criticising you. I adore the novel, and I love the fact that men don't really do that much in there. They're quite inconsequential. And I found that a very relaxing reading experience. Can I ask you to give us a reading?
AVNI: Absolutely. This is a short section from the beginning of the novel. Sometimes I refer to Ma in the past tense, even though she is still alive. This would hurt her if she could remember it long enough. Dilip is her favourite person at the moment. He is an ideal son-in-law. When they meet, there are no expectations clouding the air around them. He doesn't remember her as she was. He accepts her as she is and is happy to reintroduce himself if she forgets his name.
I wish I could be that way, but the mother I remember appears and vanishes in front of me, a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing. The doll turns inanimate. The spell is broken. The child does not know what is real or what can be counted on. Maybe she never knew. The child cries. I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands. Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved. I should be sad instead of angry. Sometimes I cry when no one else is around. I am grieving, but it's too early to burn the body.
ASTRID: Thank you for the reading. That is a very powerful passage. It does appear early in the novel. And I did read it a few times. There was so much in there that I wanted to ask, but I thought we could start with exploring the idea of what mothers are and what daughters are and the forever, how they are intertwined, always, but also may not want to be. And Tara, who does have Alzheimer's, was possibly not a very good mother by traditional society's judgments, and Antara didn't enjoy having her as a mother. And now, Antara finds herself looking after her mother who her health is compromised.
And I just love seeing this ambivalence, this not filial adoration all of the time. I have read an interview with you where you asked the question, why is this not more commonly explored? And so my two-part question for you is why is it, why do you think we don't see this more literature? And why did you decide to fill that gap?
AVNI: I think it's hard for society in general and women as well as men to think about motherhood outside of these kinds of ideal parameters. I think it's not a conversation we often have. I know, even leading up to my experience becoming a mother, there was a lot of tiptoeing around certain truths, truths, like the possibility of postpartum depression. Sometimes women have a difficulty attaching to the child immediately.
People try to construct an idea of motherhood that is very natural. And I would say motherhood may be natural, but nature is brutal. And I think there's a real brutality that's linked with motherhood. I also think, like all major decisions in life, there's deep ambivalence connected to motherhood. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any mother who doesn't, if she's being honest, have a great deal of ambivalence around the experience of becoming a mother.
For me, it's just been, why don't we talk about this more? I think it's really a fear. I think it's kind of historical expectations that we're still hanging on to. I think motherhood is kind of that last safe space, that kind of container where we all just imagine, we all imagine ourselves in this kind of cocoon of the mother. I think it's probably something to do with a maternal archetype as well, but there's this monstrous mother archetype, I believe too. And I think it's important to honour that and to look at that full in the face. And I guess that's what I was thinking of and what I was interested into kind of look at that archetype from different angles.
ASTRID: I'm interested in the responses that you've been getting, obviously, literally a claim and may be shortlisted and longlisted for the Booker. But what about people in your life, but also readers out there?
AVNI: I think the people in my life it's mostly been positive. I think the people I know are not necessarily going to share their negative reactions. My mother shared her negative reaction at the beginning. She hadn't read the book yet, but she had heard what it was about. She had kind of read a synopsis of the novel, and she was really disturbed and upset. She told me I didn't have the right to write about these things, but once she read the novel, I think she felt comfortable that it wasn't about her. I think then she could kind of relax into it and I believe she rather enjoyed it.
There are a lot of mixed reactions to the novel. I think people either love it or they hate it. It seems to trigger something for a lot of readers. Some people point out how completely unrealistic it is, and the kind of relationship or the kind of characters I've described are impossible.
Other people say the opposite. Other people say, ‘Oh my God, this reminds me so much of my life of my own experiences’. And that's been really fascinating to me. I'm also a debut author, so I've never had this experience where my work has kind of been put under a spotlight in this way. So it's also been a learning experience for me to kind of digest having your work criticised at this kind of scale.
ASTRID: So I am a reader. I've interviewed about 100 writers this year in Australia, and I can only comment their work, and I can only comment your work from my perspective as a reader. And I found your characters incredibly realistic. It felt like you were telling me a true fictional story if that makes sense.
So I'd like to tease out those responses that you have been getting from people who don't find the characters realistic. Is it because they're offended, or is it because, like, are they having an emotional reaction because I guess it's not mine. So I'm genuinely interested in the other side of the emotional response.
AVNI: I think that's such an interesting question. I got one review yesterday on social media, where it was a very negative review. It was probably one of the most negative I've received. And the writer she kept repeating what a cruel book it was. And she didn't like the sentences. And she didn't like the way it was told in the first person for much of the book. And I think that she commented on how it felt too in your face or maybe too immediate or something like that.
And I wonder if maybe it touched something, I was almost not offended by it. I mean, there's part of you that kind of feels a little bruised, but at the same time, when the reaction is kind of almost like a visceral one, you can see somebody having this kind of visceral reaction. You're almost not offended by it because, in a way, that's the goal to be able to touch the reader, whether in whichever form that takes. I just wonder if maybe it triggered something because there are, of course, people who just don't like a book. Maybe it just doesn't speak to them or the themes or maybe the style.
And then there are people who have these kinds of there's a negative reaction with the sort of intensity, and you wonder, what is it about the novel that has a hook for them? That's kind of grabs them and held them in a way where they don't know how to digest it. So it's interesting. I think I would love to actually speak to some of these people more and figure out where it's coming from, I guess.
ASTRID: I hope you get that opportunity. And I don't know. I mean, I'm not quite sure what it's like for you to feel the different responses from readers, but I think it is the mark of great literature. And I think it is the mark of stories that last a long time that stays in print and are spoken about over generations when they prompt visceral reactions, whether they are positive reactions or negative reactions. That's what keeps people talking about a book. Like if everybody just has the same opinion, it's not going to be talked about in two or three years. Right?
So I don't know I would encourage you to think that it's a really good thing that you are prompting visceral reactions because it means that your words have created something, spurred something in someone's deep emotions.
AVNI: I'm thinking back to kind of the first novel I read that really produced that kind of reaction in me. And I'm not comparing my novel to this novel, but Lolita was actually when I was I think in middle school, I think I must've been no more than 13 when I read Lolita for the first time, and I hated it. I had such a strong reaction to it.
And now, looking back, I think it terrified me. I think it made me question a lot of things about myself because I was genuinely so seduced by the narrator. And at the same time, I had to ask myself, what does it say about me that he's kind of persuading me? And I was this young girl at the time, so I had a kind of empathy for Lolita herself. And it just put me in this strange position where I felt kind of fragmented.
And so I guess I should take it as a kind of compliment because I've since returned to the book, and it brings up so many things for me every time I read it.
ASTRID: I think it's possible that readers of Burnt Sugar will be confronted with all different interpretations of motherhood and daughterhood, I guess for want of a better word, and that people don't always fulfil or think that they fulfil or desire to fulfil the typical social norms that we're all supposed to adhere to. And that can be quite confronting. You're basically talking about just to do subjects, I guess.
And I'd like to talk about the two main women in Burnt Sugar, Tara, and her daughter Antara, they both at different stages of their lives find themselves in situations where they aren't believed, or they are powerless, or people aren't supporting the decisions that they are making. For example, Tara in her marriage where she's not comfortable in that home and living near her mother-in-law, and she eventually flees. I mean, she takes her daughter when she flees. And she has no sympathy from the family and gets no support over time.
And then I'm thinking about Antara decades later when she is trying to get help from her mother, who is at the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. And no one really believes her, her husband, the medical professionals, even her grandmother at certain instances. They're not really supportive of her efforts to understand and intervene. And I guess, what are your thoughts on the role and sometimes the powerlessness of these women, these mothers and daughters?
AVNI: I think it's difficult to win if that makes sense. It's kind of. It seems like everything is sort of stacked against them from the medical model all the way to their status in society, to even the support that they receive from other women. I think the other women in the novels seem to undermine them rather than really support them in any way.
You can see that even though Antara is trying to really look after her mother, she's also simultaneously trying to undermine her mother and vice versa. And I think that isn't something, and it was important to me that this wasn't something that kind of just existed between Antara and Tara. I wanted to really illuminate the fact that these things are generational.
So you see it pretty much at the beginning with the grandmother, she's talking about her own daughter, she's discussing her, the possibility that her own daughter has dementia. And she's talking about burying her own daughter. And her primary concern is, ‘Oh my God, she's gotten so fat. How will we get the rings off her finger?’ So, I mean, this is a kind of intergenerational trauma and a kind of self-loathing that emanates outward and becomes a loathing of the child who is sort of a mirror of the self.
And I thought that that relationship between the mother as a woman and as a self, and then just the reflection that she sees in her own child, to me, that was really fascinating, the way that that kind of cycles through these relationships,
ASTRID: I have to apologise. I've been saying An-Tara, and that indicates my Western pronunciation. I apologise. Antara.
And I agree with what you just said. And I would also throw in my interpretation of the mothers-in-law, there are kind of two examples of mothers-in-law, and most of them are particularly women that you would want to spend a lot of time with. They don't make it easy for their families or for their daughters-in-law, which we can all kind of maybe point to our own experiences in life or those that we know, but it's a bit different figure of the mother, isn't it? The mother-in-law, who creates and brings in a new family, I guess.
AVNI: I think the mothers-in-law are so interesting. And I have children of my own now, and I have a new way of thinking about mothers-in-law because I am beginning to understand this kind of possessive desire to hold onto my children in a way. And if I have to kind of imagine my life forward and what it will be like to sort of share them, I have to say; I don't know that I'm going to be a great mother-in-law.
I actually have a good deal of empathy for these women in kind of all the positions and all the relationships they find themselves in. I think it's also a question of trying to maintain power and trying to maintain a sense of identity. What do you do when your entire identity is hinged on another person, and where does that really leave you?
And if the mother-in-law sees her entire identity hinged upon who her son is and how her son relates to her, how does she relinquish that without relinquishing who she is or who she understands herself to be? And I think those things really require a lot of work. They require a lot of introspection, which is also something I'm really interested in. I'm interested in the work that we do on ourselves, even in kind of new agey way. Everybody's talking about working on themselves, but I think there's still kind of amazing about that.
And also the possibility really believing in the possibility that you can change yourself. And that's a really, also a kind of central question for me in the novel, can you escape your upbringing? Can you escape your conditioning? Can you escape the pressures and the weight that society puts on you? And so I think all of the women in the novel are kind of by turn either bowing to these pressures or then trying to push back against them. And so there is constant motion, I think for all of them.
ASTRID: There was a very clear voice in the novel. It is established in that first line, but it stays throughout. And this is always a slightly leading and difficult question to ask any novelist, including a debut novelist, about their first work. But I want to ask the obvious question, how much of you do you think there is in this work? And I mean, there are some basic parallels in terms of you've studied history and the protagonist is an artist and a creator, but beyond that.
AVNI: I think the novel is definitely inspired by my own knowledge. So what I have knowledge of my mother's family is from Pune. So I've spent time there. And I drew on my experiences in that city to kind of create a setting in the novel. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four years ago. And so the way... I've said this before, but the way in which for me, it was devastating to hear that my grandmother had this disease. And I went really far into the research of Alzheimer's to try and make sense of what it was, and there were just no answers. There was just kind of these big black holes where nobody could tell me exactly what was happening to her.
And I even looked at various modalities of healing, and I had it in my mind that I wanted to save her. That was it. I was going to be the one. I'm a writer with no background in science, but I was going to kind of be the one who is going to find the cure. And I had all this information, and I didn't really know what to do with it or how to make sense of it. And at the same way, in the novel, the narrator Antara, she make sense of her mother's illness through her artwork and through making art out of what she learned, I guess in my own way, was making art in the form of writing to make sense of what I was learning.
So there are definitely parallels in that kind of a way, I guess, maybe, I think more than this narrator really being me, I think it's more that she is a kind of a mix of my fears, my neuroses, my dreams, my fantasies. I mean, the way she talks, I would love to say some of those things. I don't think I am brave enough, or maybe I'm not forthright enough to say some of those things.
So she's an artist. I always wanted to be an artist. I was never very good, especially in the visual arts, I was never any good, but I think my fascination drew me into the study of art history. So there are these kinds of parallels, but I guess in some ways, she's probably the person that I fear I might be. And she's probably in other ways, the person I would love to be rather than me myself.
ASTRID: That is a wonderful response to a very old and tired question. So it takes you, Avni, I have to say, even if you don't think that you are brave enough to say some of the things that Antara says in the novel, you are brave enough to write them. And I think that counts as the same thing. You mentioned your mother's reaction to Burnt Sugar earlier in this interview, but I'm interested in how you approached all of those in your life. Did you get permission? Did you just give this to them in draft form and say, ‘I'm publishing this?’ How did you navigate what some people might have thought was about them?
AVNI: So I kind of just held on to that old adage that your life is yours and you own your life and anything that kind of makes its way into your life, that is material that is available to you. And I actually feel anything in the world is available material to me. I don't feel too much. I don't feel really any guilt about... Who's, is it? I think Anne Lamont. Is Anne Lamott the one who says, ‘If people wanted you to write about them more warmly, they should have behaved better?’
ASTRID: I think that was her.
AVNI: I butchered it a little bit. Yeah, so I think it's all fair game, according to me. I've heard other writers who I really respect say that they feel a very strong responsible. I think Sheila Heti actually who I absolutely adore. I just love her work and her writing. And I think that she says that she would never write about anyone in her life without getting their permission. And I think that's incredibly respectful and empathetic, but I don't myself operate by that.
Also, because it's not so easy for me to necessarily parse out what has come from where, I think it all kind of gets really mixed up in my memory. And though even the way another friend of mine, she kind of talks about the magical compost heap in our minds and how we all have that compost heap, and it's made up of everything that we encounter, and we just draw from that as inspiration. So it's hard for me to sometimes necessarily know exactly where something has come from.
So yeah, nobody really had read the book before it came out. I think my husband read it and my agent, and then it went to my editor and publisher, but not many people in my life read it before it came out in its final form.
ASTRID: That makes sense. You mentioned Alzheimer's before and your experience with your grandmother. I really appreciated your exploration of Alzheimer's and the disconcerting nature that it can... experience that others can have. I don't know what the stats are around the world or in Indonesia, but in Australia, one in two people will either have Alzheimer's or become the primary carer of somebody with Alzheimer's. And I felt almost a cathartic understanding of what I may experience what may come, what people I love my experience. And I did enjoy that, but beyond Alzheimer's and the forgetting that comes with that disease, Burnt Sugar explores memory and forgetting in multiple different ways. Does Antara leave notes for her mother around the place, in an effort to jog her mother's memory and maybe even get some validation from her mother, all sorts of things? Of course, her major piece of art that is done daily throughout the novel. And I guess, what was your impetus? What was your drive to tackle? What is a very nuanced subject memory and forgetting?
AVNI: It's such a nuanced subject. And I think memory is really the thing that makes us human, I mean, or what we understand kind of ourselves to be. I think it's what makes us who we are. I think it's really the way in which we relate to one another. And I came to memory as a subject when I was working in the art world and when I was curating shows, and I remember reading about memory and fiction for the first really understanding that I was reading about memory when I came to Marquez.
And I think I read Marquez for the first time in my late teens or early 20s. And I was so struck by it. It was just so powerful, especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And I just saw... It's just stayed with me, I think, since then, just the way memory informs everything that we do, the way it can be manipulated for the benefit of some and the detriment of others, the way we remember, and even the kind of selective amnesia we have, it has to do even with survival there a kind of biological foundation for the way we remember as well. I think it's always been really fascinating to me. And even the kind of idea of gaslighting is so interesting to me, how memory can even be used as a form of abuse. So, there were just all these different layers. And every time I thought about memory in a new circumstance, these other aspects just began to emerge.
And so, it wasn't even so conscious honestly, through the course of writing the book. I think it's just the way I understand even the relationships between all the characters. It's all got its foundations in this theme of memory.
ASTRID: I have a quote here that I would like to read to you. It's from page 50. And this speaks to me about memory and forgetting, but also that dynamic between mother and daughters and the manipulation of memory and how that affects our relationships. To quote, ‘It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn't want to remember the thing she had said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I'm brimming with it all the time’. That's, of course, Antara speaking about her mother, who is forgetting everything.
Their relationship is so I think Avni, I'm going to be thinking about their mother-daughter relationship for a long time to come. And I have a question for you. Burnt Sugar refers to, I read the title, Burnt Sugar as referring to a scene in the book, a choice that the daughter Antara made kind of informed by her research into Alzheimer's and how she feels about her mother. It is something of a spoiler, but I think that it's really important to discuss. Would you put that into your own words? Would you explain to the audience?
AVNI: Explain about where the title comes from?
AVNI: So, there's a section towards the end of the book where Antara, through her research, realises that sugar and Alzheimer's disease is kind of understood as a type 3 diabetes, which is something I came across in my research. It's something particularly practitioners of functional medicine and integrative medicine really believe. And perhaps certain kinds of Alzheimer's, in particular, can be almost turned on and off by your dietary choices. And so, Antara reaches a point for various reasons with her mother where she's kind of had it, she's at her limits, and she can't take it anymore. And she realises that by adding a spoonful of sugar to her mother's food every day, she can kind of send her mother deeper into this abyss. Yeah, so that's really kind of where the title comes from.
I actually have never spoken about it because I think we avoid talking about things at the end of the book, but for me, in a lot of ways, this story is also, and again, this doesn't get spoken about much, but this is really a story about revenge as well. And I think that's something that also makes people very uncomfortable to think about revenge as being a kind of pivotal emotion or motivation in a relationship between a mother and daughter, and not only revenge, but I think in Antara's case, this is a kind of premeditated slow, painful, painful for everyone kind of revenge. And I think it also points to her own trauma, her own constant proximity to pain, and perhaps even a kind of dissociative quality in the way she relates to her surroundings into her world.
So yeah, it was surprising to me when it happened in the book. I don't think I said this before, but I kind of write sentence by sentence. I don't plot or plan because I tried to do that in the beginning. When I first started writing the novels seven years ago, I tried to really plot out the book, and it never worked. And it would always be a complete disaster because by the time I got to that part, that climactic moment, it just felt so dead. It felt so wrong. It felt that actually the way the story had evolved, that shouldn't be a climactic moment, so I decided after that experience that from now on, when I write, I'm going to kind of let the narrative evolve and see what happens and allow myself to kind of be surprised. And I was really surprised when I got to that part in the book, and I was in the scene between mother and daughter where they're at this moment, and they've hurt each other so much. And it was sort of this moment where I thought, ‘Okay, now where do we go from here? Where is there to go?’ And when I saw or when it kind of happened, or as I was writing, that this was the direction Antara was going in, I was surprised. I thought, ‘Okay, this is a new side of her in a way. This is a side of her’.
We know she's complicated, but this is a new side of her that she has so far hidden from the reader, I think to some degree. She's really showing us now what she's capable of. And I was surprised, part of me was a little sad, and part of me was really happy also. I was kind of almost proud of her. I was almost cheering her on. I felt in that moment that she had really come into her aggression, something that I think all of us women are kind of told from a very young age, it's important to suppress. It's important to repress. We kind of push it aside and let it lurk in the shadows, and it comes out at various times, but it's something we really try to disown. And I was really kind of happy that she had taken a sort of ownership of it.
ASTRID: As a reader, I was shocked and surprised, got to that sentence, and I did read it a few times, but I also felt horrified and elated at the same time horrified because it's a horrible act, but elated because I read it as her taking agency and control over her mother. But over the domestic space, over her home, she chose. And she often not had choices. And I was elated that she got one.
AVNI: I'm going to say something a little controversial also. This kind of comes from my real life. That part, God, I hope my mother is not watching this. So that part actually a little bit comes from my real life. I did a lot of research into Alzheimer's, and I told my mother and her sisters that, ‘My grandmother she's got this disease. We have to cut her off, like no sugar, no more’. I had listened to these different integrative doctors, and functional medicine doctor speak. And they seemed so convincing. And I said, ‘We have to try this. We have to try to take her off sugar’. And my grandmother loves sugar. My mother and her sisters, they said, it's impossible. They said, ‘What do you mean, take her off sugar. This is nonsense. How can we take her off sugar? What a cruel and terrible suggestion’. And my reaction was, ‘Oh my God, but this could potentially save her life’. And there was on one hand, a kind of denial that it was even a possibility. And I'm not saying it's always a possibility, there's plenty of people who would disagree with me, but I sort of thought like, in a way, by just kind of letting her eat whatever she wants, aren't we sort of allowing this to happen. And what's the difference between kind of allowing her to sort of make her own decisions and then really consciously encouraging her to make detrimental decisions.
And so that was the kind of interesting question, how important motivation is, how important premeditation is. And I really began to be able to see why that gap is important, more important the act itself, how the intentionality behind it becomes so important and so loaded. So that was really, I guess, in a way where it came from, although I didn't realise it until it happened in the book and emerged. So yeah.
ASTRID: Look, it is an incredibly powerful experience for the reader. Really it is. And obviously, that is where the title comes from, but I know that that trigger has been published under a different title in India. And I wanted to ask why, because of the different title, I believe it's Girl in White Cotton that shifts the focus of what happens. It shifts the focus to a different part of the story, and I wondered if you were allowed to pick the different titles or what happened there.
AVNI: So, Girl in White Cotton was the original title from first draft, and the first draft actually looked very different than this draft. Sugar didn't exist at that point. For me, I wasn't a part of the book in any way. I think in the context of India, white cotton has a lot of different meanings that I don't think it has, or it's not as evident necessarily to a Western audience. So in India, white cotton refers to grief. White cotton refers to a kind of asceticism existing outside of society, kind of always being this outsider. Why cotton really is mourning? It's the colour that widows wear. It's sort of the colour that you would imagine for a person who's kind of about to leave the plane that we live on. It's associated with death. So, I think that it kind of has a darker... I think in the western context, you kind of imagine this, you have this image of this girl wearing white, and there's a sense of purity perhaps. And I think in the Indian context, there's a kind of darker connotation associated with it. And fabric and white cotton are a very central part of the book.
For me as well, white cotton and that kind of white blank expanse. I thought about it as memory as well. I kind of related when I was writing white cotton, to me was a kind of image in some ways of memory in terms of even thinking about the tabula rasa, thinking about what memory actually is? Is memory a kind of palimpsest? Is it something that's layered and then erased and layered and erased, and are there just kind of the barest remains of the past? These were all just images and kind of visual sort of visual objects that kept coming to me as I was writing. I think that's where that title comes from. And I think we made the decision for the UK and for other markets that we would change it to Burnt Sugar because those meanings would not be as readily available.
ASTRID: Thank you for explaining that. And I do have to say Burnt Sugar is an excellent title in the Australian context where I am sitting and reading. I have one final question for you, and I know it is a big one, and I know it is almost unanswerable, but you were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I am going to ask.
ASTRID: Where do you place Burnt Sugar in literature written in English?
AVNI: Oh gosh, I think it's hard to know this. I think we might know in 100 years whether it's one of those books that never gets reprinted and it's forgotten about, or is it going to be one of those books that's burnt and destroyed because it's so kind of blasphemous, is it going to be a kind of cult classic or is it going to be taught in schools? I don't know.
I think these are all really interesting things. It's fun to think about how literature, how any work of art, has a life beyond our lifetime. But I think in every generation, I just imagine people would be surprised at what stands the test of time. I think also these things have been influenced by the values of the past. So even our education system and even what is in the canyon is kind of pretty whitewashed, pretty male.
I really don't know what that canyon will look like moving forward. I mean, I like to believe that, or maybe in a moment where those things are changing, are they really changing? It's hard to say. I hope they're changing. I hope there's space for a book like Burnt Sugar, which is really... I mean, what is it a book about? It's kind of a small book in a lot of ways, right? It's a book about, I mean, by definitions of what grand literature is or what I was taught in school, the grand literature is, it's a book about women, primarily, as you mentioned, it's a book about domestic spaces.
I mean, they don't really leave their homes much except to go to the club or get in the car. So these are really the interior spaces of women. These are the interiority of women. They're what happens in their minds, what happens between women, and so just the fact that a book like this is on a list like the Booker, I think maybe where we are open to different kinds of stories, but we're open to thinking about different themes as belonging to what literature with a capital L is. Yeah, but it's really hard to answer this question.
ASTRID: It was a big one, and I just thought I would ask anyway. I agree with you. The canyon is whitewashed. It needs an update. There need to be less males in the canyon, and changing the canyon is a work of generational change, but I do hope that listings like the Man Booker and all of the different prizes around the world are starting to make a difference.
I greatly enjoyed Burnt Sugar. This is what it looks like buy a copy in Australia, and I have the date here. So you're currently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but we will find out on the 19th of November the results of being prize this year. So everybody, stay tuned. And Avni, thank you so very much for taking the time to talk with me today.
AVNI: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
ASTRID: KEMBALI 20 was made possible by the support of the Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati patron program and their donuts. If you would like to contribute, that will guarantee the support for the programme ongoing. You can follow the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and you can find out more information at ubudwritersfestival.com. Thank you so much for listening today.