Girl in White Cotton: Author Avni Doshi on the triggers, themes and processes that underlie her novel
UAE-based Avni Doshi’s debut novel Girl in White Cotton was released this year to critical acclaim in India. Reviewers noted the economy of the writing, the hard-hitting nature of the plot, as well as its architecture, comprising the haunting themes of identity and co-authorship of memory at the troubled centre of a mother-daughter relationship.
UAE-based Avni Doshi’s debut novel Girl in White Cotton was released this year to critical acclaim in India. Reviewers noted the economy of the writing, the hard-hitting nature of the plot, as well as its architecture, comprising the haunting themes of identity and co-authorship of memory at the troubled centre of a mother-daughter relationship. Antara, the daughter and narrator, is coming to terms with being the caregiver for a woman with whom she still has a vexed dynamic and who may soon not remain the same woman owing to dementia. In an email interview, Doshi takes a look at the triggers, themes and processes that underlie her novel.
Has your education in the history of art been an enabling factor in the writing of Girl in White Cotton? If so, how?
Yes, I would say that Girl in White Cotton would be a totally different story without my art historical background. On the level of story, art plays a central role in character development, in the way in which the story moves. Even the major conflicts between the characters are in some way 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 as well, in terms of thinking about strategies like fragmentation and the grid. My conception of memory, time and duration are also completely grounded in that study.
Would you please describe what the strategies of fragmentation and the grid mean to you, and how they informed the novel?
In terms of the novel, I used fragmentation as a tendency in the text, both in terms of the narrator and her perception, and even in the way the text is written, laid out, read on the page. In the way time is experienced in the novel. The grid I thought of in terms of the bones, the basic structure that underpins an image, and I thought about that not only in terms of the artwork Antara (the central character in the novel) makes, but also in the style of the prose. How could I create the evenness of a grid while simultaneously disrupting it?
When working as an art curator, how long did you live in India, and where? Also, were you in India when you were writing your novel?
I was living in Mumbai, though I also curated in Delhi. My novel began in Pune, and I continued writing in Mumbai, the US; and this draft was started and completed in the UAE.
What were the life events that made you move house while you were writing the novel? Did these shifts in place help or hinder your writing?
I moved to India to work in the art world, and then I left when I found I couldn’t stay any longer – something shifted in me, and I began to long for the place that I had grown up in. Maybe I got older and wanted to be near my parents in the US. My life in India always felt full of instability. I moved to the UAE after I married my husband.
I often wonder if moving helped or hindered me. I guess I don’t know the answer to this. Although I suspect that living away from India made it easier to write about. I could revisit it in a way that felt less descriptive and more visceral – does that make sense? I was attempting India in a way that was embodied and sensory and interior – rather than describing what was around me.
What is the literary scene like in the place where you now live, Dubai?
The literary scene is small (but growing, I hope). I have recently connected with more writers and it has been wonderful. Writing is very solitary, and having a community is important.
To move towards the subject of the novel: what is your connection with Pune, where the novel is based?
My mother grew up in Pune, and I spent time there as a child, and again later in my life. My time there has always been full of food and stories.
You wrote eight drafts of the novel in seven years. How did the novel change from the first draft to the final one at the level of text, character, and plot?
Every draft was so different. The first was told in the first person, as this one is, but completely from the point of view of a child. That draft was something I had just written, without knowing anything about craft. Ironically, I won an award for that draft, but looking back, it was really a mess. The final draft began with the voice and the first sentence – I played with the first sentence for a long time. Those two things carried me through.
Plot-wise and in terms of character, I can’t pinpoint all the changes, because over the course of so many drafts, everything has developed into something else.
What did your writing routine look like? Was it a daily routine?
I used to have a really rigid and disciplined routine, which sometimes would start at 4 am and end when I went to bed at 6 pm. I think I read that those were the hours  Murakami kept. I have a family now, and so that is no longer possible for me. In fact, this draft was written in the moments in between my life.
What tools did you use: pen and paper, computer, or a combination of these? Did you use a novelists’ software?
I explore with pen and paper and then I type on the computer. Word has always been my friend.
Did you at any stage undergo writer’s block? If yes, what according to you were the reasons for being blocked, and how did you go past it?
In the past, I’ve just sat around miserable when I felt blocked. Now I just move to a technique I use called Sense Writing. The philosophy of this technique, about process rather than productivity, has really shifted the way I think about writer’s block.
The aspiring writers reading this interview might be interested in knowing more about sense writing. Would you please share this technique?
Sense Writing is a technique created by a woman named Madelyn Kent. She uses her knowledge of dance, healing and neuroscience to create movement sequences she pairs with writing exercises. The result is that the brain is able to work in ways that are unforced and the nervous system enters a parasympathetic state. All this to say, I have found it to be an incredibly useful (and reliable) tool for diving into the unconscious and for working around blocks. sensewriting.org has a lot more information.
How many publishers did you or your agent approach before the book was sold?
I think he approached five at first and then three made offers right away.
How did your editor at Harper Collins India help improve the manuscript? What inputs did the editor offer?
My editor at HCI, Rahul Soni, is wonderful. He helped to tighten the story and clarify a lot of the timelines.
You mentioned at your book launch at Mumbai that you wrote a piece on food and memory for Harper’s Bazaar three years ago. Is that piece connected with this novel? How?
In a nutshell, when I wrote that essay, my grandmother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and I was thinking through what the loss of her memory would look like for the whole family. You’re right in mentioning that piece, I think it is deeply connected to the novel – and even though I can’t recall the exact timeline, I would stay that it probably sparked the last draft. There was something about the voice of the piece, the imagery, the looming sadness and terror that comes with memory loss, and what that would look like for me and my mother, that really gave shape to the central relationship of the novel.
What were the main themes that you wanted to explore through the novel?
I suppose obsession, memory and the boundaries of the self are the main themes that I have explored, but I didn’t think about this before I began writing. I wanted to write the lives of characters in a manner that felt true and full, and the characters, in being themselves, gave voice and form to these themes. It is difficult to think about abstractions at the beginning.
A key theme of Girl in White Cotton is how memory is co-authored by a group of people, such as a family; and how, therefore, loss of memory in one member is a loss for the entire group. Would you care to elaborate?
This is something that social psychologists have found. But I want to clarify this: with dementia, there isn’t just a loss of memory. It’s a feeling of being in another place, another time. There can be extreme agitation, and fear, because the memories of a moment don’t add up with current surroundings. People suffer from hallucinations – and you can never be sure if what they say is an old memory or a complete invention.
And yes, memory is co-authored, meaning that we remember collectively, and the details of a certain story will be restated and codified by the people who continue to tell it, and one’s own memories of that time will continue to shift depending on what others recall and remember. You can begin to see, with memory loss, how even the simplest interactions can become fraught and problematic.
In my reading it seems that even though her mother is present in her life, Antara longs for her mother; she would long for her mother even if the old woman wasn’t losing her memories. Is this fair? Would you care to dwell on the causes of this longing?
I think there is a deep longing for an image of the mother, one that Antara has constructed, maybe based on her relationship with Kali Mata or her grandmother. It seems, in this case, to stem from neglect. Tara always neglected her daughter, which has created an abyss of longing in Antara. But it also seems that even while Antara longs for maternal love, she doesn’t know how to accept it when it is in front of her. Perhaps she doesn’t know how to recognize. She is very much a product of the patterns of her childhood, and though she thinks she wants love, she often acts in ways that continue to replicate the relationships of her childhood.
You said (at the book launch at Mumbai) that Antara sees the men in her life largely through their absences. Would you care to elaborate on the reasons behind these?
Because her father always existed as an absence more than a presence, she seems to continue to see men in this way. They are hollow, almost cardboard.
It seems that Antara is pushing her husband away from her because of her apprehensions that he, too, will leave. What do you think about this assessment?
I don’t think that this is conscious, but yes, it would definitely make sense. If every man you know leaves, you assume that this is what they do. In general, abandonment is big issue for her, and I think it is equally a fear and an expectation that this will continue to happen.
The last few bittersweet pages of the novel are not really an ending. Do you foresee a sequel to Girl in White Cotton?
No, definitely not a sequel, to me the ending is definitely the end, even though everything is not neatly tied up – I think that felt truer to life for me.
What were you reading while you wrote Girl in White Cotton? Did your reading inform or nourish your writing?
I wasn’t reading whole books but I had a stack of books nearby that I would read sentences out of, just to pick up on a tone or rhythm. Some short stories by Clarice Lispector, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.
What are you working on or planning to work on in the near future?
Another novel, I hope. I would also like to crack some short stories. Nothing concrete at the moment but I have some ideas.
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