Islam was born in Carbondale, Illinois, and spent her childhood moving between cities like Houston, Colombia, Missouri, and St. Louis, before her family finally settled in upstate New York. Bright Lines — which she began work on in an MFA program at Brooklyn College — was nominated for a Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named one of the best literary debuts of 2015 by BuzzFeed. Islam also recently started a botanical product business called Hi Wildflower. We spoke on the phone while the author was in Oakland, California, on book tour.
NEELANJANA BANERJEE: Tell me a little bit about your process of becoming a writer. Was literature something you were always interested in? Was it an important part of your family culture?
TANWI NANDINI ISLAM: My first foray into writing happened at a very young age, as a child in Columbia, Missouri. I’d write stories and leave them on the student books table, where any handmade books students made could be read by others. I must have written more than a dozen books. At the time, my mother was a geography student at Mizzou, and my father a chemist in search of a steady job — and both of them were completely insistent on literacy. My mother taught me to read Bangla, which blew my mind, the phonetics of it. Meanwhile, any time I read a book, my father “demanded” a synopsis of each book on a notecard, to be filed away in a little notecard box. I hated that so much, but it taught me to record and remember the stories I read. Spelling bees, the Scripps Howard contest where Desi kids seem to win a lot, were a part of life too. I still remember the words I lost out on: “onerous” and “sporran.” In the process, I learned a lot of words. Library trips were a staple of our childhood, because it was a free place we could visit and then magically come home with new things, which was about all my folks could afford back in the late ’80s.
How did all the moving around you did as a kid affect you?
I love that I moved around now. I think it really helped me to see how completely different parts of the country are. All my experiences with racism happened at a really young age. There was this kind of othering of me as an Asian person in a very black and white Alabama. In Missouri, it was intense being one of the only Muslim people when the Gulf War was really on people’s minds.
What was the origin of Bright Lines?
The earliest iteration of Bright Lines, a prototype of where the novel is today, began when I was selling shawls in the French Riviera for a Kashmiri businessman for 100 euros a day. It was the summer of 2008 and nobody wanted shawls, especially that summer when the world’s economy was falling apart. But I was able to read for 12 hours a day in the hotel. I read Márquez, Morrison, Baldwin, French dictionaries — anything and everything. When I finally got fired, I’d made just enough money to live in a hostel for the rest of the summer. That area is super colorful. A lot of the impressionist painters were inspired by it. I was dating a painter. There were a lot of colors. A lot of the images at the beginning of the book are really about the color of that landscape — and I transported it to New York.
Did you always set out to write a novel that featured so many points of view? What were some of your inspirations?
I do think that close-third POV that Bright Lines employs is inspired by novels I love by writers like Toni Morrison or Zadie Smith, these big novelists that have big stories where each chapter can be from a different person’s POV and create a much larger narrative. I think Toni Morrison is my favorite American writer who employs that so beautifully in her fiction, and you’ll just get a real sense of each character and how they contribute this stream of their reality, and this reality is being questioned and pushed with each new POV. In Bright Lines, I think Anwar is our slightly unreliable but beginning POV, and then we get to see the other side of his POV, which are his daughters, Ella and Charu — and they are the inheritors of all of his dreams, his fumbling, you get to see how people who grew up under that turn out. It’s like where one character leaves off, the others pick up. It’s almost like passing a baton between each narrative to kind of complete the entire story. It just feels more whole and more rich.
I thought Anwar was a very interesting character. As a Bengali myself, he was familiar to me, as this philosophical dreamer type, but beyond that, he had other traits that I hadn’t seen before, like the fact that he smoked so much marijuana, and also that he carries out a sexual affair with his tenant Ramona. He was surprising, but intriguing. What a risk to write this kind of character. Is he based on anyone in particular?
I think he is really based on … that type of Bengali man: dreamy and philosophical. The kind of man who smokes cigarettes and waxes poetic and doesn’t really know where he is going, but knows a lot about life. These are the men I end up talking to through innocuous conversations in a taxi, or drinking chai in Jackson Heights. It will be a very simple moment where I’ll fall into conversation that goes everywhere, and it will be laced with this repressed desire after we get to the end of the conversation, and it will be like: “Whoa, there is so much here that no one really knows.”
Across South Asia there is this deep repression that a lot of people have dealt with creatively, but I wanted to write a book where everyone fulfills their desires and wishes and deals with the guilt that comes from that moment of fulfillment. We read a lot about characters who have never fulfilled it, who are dealing with that pressure, who have a love affair and then get an arranged marriage. I was just not interested in writing that, even though I have read a lot of books that have done that well. I thought it would be cool to write about that moment that comes after you come. Charu has sex for the first time in the back of a van in a pretty funny scene, so I wanted to deal with both the levity and the gravity of these choices.
Anwar’s adopted niece — the other major point of view in the book — is dealing with a myriad of issues: she’s an orphan, she’s trying to figure out her sexuality and feels uncomfortable in her body, and on top of that she’s suffering from visions that trace back to the early trauma of losing her parents. What were the origins of Ella’s story?
The kernel of Ella came from being a gawky and awkward person for most of my life. The person I am now didn’t start to emerge until I was 16. Up until then I felt very much weird in my body — I was very confused about who I was. I think that’s normal. I think taking that kernel and going with it led to Ella: a character who is completely confused and abandoned by virtue of a tragedy at the very beginning. I wanted the novel to be about a search for home, and if you don’t even feel at home in your own body, then you are really disconnected from everything. The search for home is driving Bright Lines in so many ways, but for Ella, it is not just “Where do I belong? What family? What country?” But it is also: “What body?” I think the hallucinations were a way to show that there is imagination and play and survivorship that arises from trauma that I thought could be beautiful, and could be a place for El to experience something beautiful and something out of this world.
One of the aspects of the novel that I was most excited about was the inclusion of diverse voices: there are black characters, Latino characters, Muslim characters, and more. What were some of the challenges of bringing those diverse voices to your work?
I don’t think I had much choice in terms of what I see as my worldview. I didn’t want to write a book in which [the characters] were only in relation to white characters. A lot of South Asian fiction in America is written in relation to white characters. I wanted to mess with some of those narratives, only because that is not my experience. I have grown up with a very diverse life, and that means, race, gender, sexuality. And my community in New York is representative of the world in Bright Lines. Perhaps Anwar’s generation might not have as many friends across races as we would like it to be, but when you have a small business — I have a small business now, too — you just interact with so many other business owners. You share space, you share resources, you share so many things that you have to navigate that. I wanted Anwar to be the person who owned this hub, and in this hub, you have this intersection of characters. I wanted to see what would happen to create these living spaces where patterns emerge, and patterns based on human life emerge, and characters who have parallel lives exist together — and have this moment when their lives intersect, like Anwar and his tenant Ramona, who is a Mexican nurse-midwife. You get to see them sharing their stories. Same with Bic [a black friend and neighbor] and Anwar — they are sharing their war stories of surviving and becoming the men that they are. And that is very common in the states, you have people who would never know each other in their home countries, and here they have to interact all the time.
The 1971 war looms over the characters of the novel from when we find out what happened to Ella’s parents, but you wait until the third act to really go into detail about this violent war. What kind of research did you do?
I always knew that I wanted Anwar to be somebody who survived the war. Most people his age were survivors of the war if they were in Bangladesh. My parents did not fight in the war. My mother was a teenager, and my father was a pacifist. I definitely didn’t grow up hearing war stories, but I did really want to dig into what it meant to be a reluctant participant in the war. I’m not really so into the noble soldier narrative. El’s father Rezwan is that kind of character, but I think Anwar grapples with guilt in so many ways — a lot of people do who leave their home. In terms of research, I did talk to people who survived the war. But I talked to my friend Tarfia Faizullah about taking history and molding it into something new. There was a story about Anwar and Rezwan finding women who had been kept in a house by soldiers, and that is something that just came to me. I was traveling and there were these huts and I presumed that people lived there and I thought, what an opportunity to write a scene. I really wanted to talk about the landscape, how it helped the Bangladeshis win the war. They disappeared into the countryside.
Did you visit Bangladesh often as a child?
My first trip to Bangladesh was when we lived in St. Louis. My parents couldn’t afford to do a whole family trip for years. So my first cognizant trip, when I wasn’t a baby, was when I was 10 — right before we moved to New York. I just remember feeling very overwhelmed by Bangladesh and homesick for America and not enjoying myself, getting sick, all the things you deal with when you go to South Asia for the first time. Since that trip, I have been able to go every seven or so years.
Did you take a specific trip to research the novel?
I went in 2014. I knew I wanted to write about Sylhet, on the border of Meghalaya. And in the South, to the Bay of Bengal. Those are the places I think that historically Islam really took hold. In my book, they play an important role. In Sylhet, I love how that border to India is so porous. And obviously the ocean. It’s the end of the country, the end of all the rivers; it’s the first line of defense against typhoons. There is a lot of topography and geography and botany that I wanted to explore. So I went on a trip in March of 2014 with my sister and with my mother’s cousin to explore these places.
Anwar and Ella are obsessed with plants and botany — the garden at their house is like their own secret garden in Brooklyn. Are you equally obsessed? Is that how you started your own botanical products business?
I did grow up in a family where my parents had very green thumbs, but I wasn’t up in the garden. I was always like: I don’t want to help. I was such a bratty kid about it, so it’s kind of funny that I got so into it in Bright Lines. When we do read books about South Asia, it’s always like it’s teeming with life. I knew that’s how the book would get read. But I think the grittiness of New York can also be a lush and verdant world, so I thought about how creating that lushness out of this house, this former drug den, would be magical without being magical realism.
Ella’s faith is in these plants, but the nature of plants is this constant pollination and sex. I wanted to tie that into Ella’s passion, because it is the only way they can experience sensuality in terms of planting things and holding the earth and watching things grow, and that’s something I wanted them to experience. And for Anwar, the inner conspiracy theorist wants to have a stash in case the world ends — that’s why I imagined he would have the Seed Library. And if you think about it, anyone who has experienced a war is pretty sure the world has ended. That’s how people felt in New York after 9/11. This is a post-9/11 book even though I don’t address it explicitly. But I think that end-of-days feeling is one that I wanted to impart throughout the book. It’s almost like building this botanical arc … something to provide grounding to these two characters who are lost for much of their life.
The last image of the book is really where my business Hi Wildflower begins. I see it as a continuation of the themes of Bright Lines and a way for me to be an entrepreneur and independent and not be in an office working nine to five, with no sunlight. I can’t do that anymore. I’m not saying what I do now is easier or better — it’s really hard. There’s a lot of debt, a lot of risk, but it is very alive and it’s exciting and it’s a way for me to tell stories through objects that are beautiful and have all this experience and wonder laced into them. I thought that I would think about the book forever, but when it was finally done, I was kind of like: “Shit, what am I going to do now?”
I saw you read in the Unslain Words event to celebrate slain Bangladeshi bloggers during the 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival. What is your connection to what is happening with freedom of speech in Bangladesh?
I am connected to what’s happening in Bangladesh, very much so emotionally, but also in other ways. Avijit Roy was a blogger — and the murdered publisher who was related to my mother's fam is Faisal Arefin Dion. It’s pretty crazy — the people who are being killed have families and lives. They are like us, artists and writers and publishers and thinkers. It is deeply traumatic. I think it is scary. My mom is a reader and commenter on these specific blogs, and has a lot of friends who blog. They are a really great way to provide these dissenting opinions in a pretty repressive place. And I am definitely aligned with those people who are speaking out. I am writing about gender and sexuality in fiction, so I don’t know if I would be a target of the same kind of attacks. But it does scare me, I’m not going to lie. Being a feminist and being an atheist pretty much aligns me with the same kind of thing — having the freedom to be who I want, wear what I want, think what I want — this is what bothers the fundamentals.
Neelanjana Banerjee is a co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010).