On being shortlisted for Burnt Sugar, Avni Doshi talks to the Booker Prize.

Avni Doshi reveals how Burnt Sugar came together ‘over many years and many drafts’, and talks about how her background in contemporary art influences her writing.

How does it feel to have your debut novel longlisted for The Booker Prize? 

After I got over the initial disbelief, I felt elated. It’s difficult for a debut to garner attention at the best of times, and 2020 has brought particular challenges to contend with. I’m grateful that the longlist is helping readers find my work. 

What inspired Burnt Sugar

I wrote Burnt Sugar over many years and many drafts. It’s hard to pinpoint the original inspiration, but I remember being in my grandmother’s flat in Pune, and noticing a distortion in the mirror in her bedroom that warped my reflection. For a moment I could see two different people in my face. That day, I wrote what would become the first fragment of the novel. 

Memory as a theme appears throughout Burnt Sugar, but I brought in Alzheimer’s Disease more recently, after my grandmother was diagnosed with the illness and I began to read everything I could find to learn about her condition. I suppose there is a parallel between the narrator’s preoccupation with Alzheimer’s and my own – she makes sense of the disease through drawing it, and I made sense of it through writing this novel. 

Avni Doshi

Ambivalence in a mother is too dangerous for the culture to integrate

— Avni Doshi

Your portrayal of the mother-daughter bond is charged with mutual animosity. Do you feel that this is a subversive depiction of motherhood? 

The myths around maternal love and certitude have been, and are being, questioned in literature, and it’s no secret that mother-daughter relationships can be fraught and full of conflict, but somehow the conversation still elicits discomfort. Ambivalence in a mother is too dangerous for the culture to integrate – a relationship understood as originary and natural should be automatic, a reflex, and there is very little room for complexity. It comes down to how much agency a woman is supposed to have, and what feelings she is allowed. There isn’t a place to put maternal resentment. Or maternal regret. 

How do you think your background in contemporary art has influenced your writing? 

On the level of story, art plays a central role in how the characters develop in Burnt Sugar. The major conflicts between characters are framed by the artistic production of the narrator. On a structural level, I think my study of art history has shaped the narrative in formal ways by using aesthetic strategies like fragmentation and grids. For example, I used fragmentation as a tendency in the text, both in terms of the narrator’s perception, and in the way the text is written, laid out, read on the page. And I thought of the grid as the basic structure that underpins an image, not only in terms of the artwork described in the book, but also in the quality of the prose. How could I create the evenness of a grid while subtly disrupting it? My understanding of memory, time and duration (which are central themes in the novel) are also completely grounded in my study of art history. 

What can we expect from you next? 

More novels, I hope.