Tanwi Nandini Islam is a Bangladeshi-American Brooklyn-based writer, artist, perfumer, and creative soul that I can only describe as pure magic.
She’s the author of the critically acclaimed novel Bright Lines, which tells the story of a Brooklyn summer in the life of a Bangladeshi immigrant family and compellingly explores issues of sexuality, belonging, migration, secrets, love, growing up, and more.
Tanwi is also the founder of the popular beauty and fragrance company Hi Wildflower, which uses sustainable and ethically sourced materials to create a “botanical library” of her olfactory experiences. Tanwi’s lipsticks, candles, and scents have dreamy names like “Lovers Rock” and “Amber Dusk” that reflect the many places, from Brooklyn to Hawaii and South Asia, that inspire her.
As if that weren’t enough, Tanwi also just released, MALA, a podcast and perfume anthology where women retell their stories of survival and reimagine them as scents.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Tanwi for this week’s Feministing Five. We talked about the process of perfumery, her forthcoming second novel, writing about the immigrant experience, and more. Follow Tanwi and learn more about her gorgeous and inspiring work on Instagram @HiWildflower!
Senti Sojwal: I’m the proud owner of a Hi Wildflower lipstick, gifted to me by one of my best friends on my birthday this year. I love it and your shop. Can you tell our readers about Hi Wildflower, which also makes perfume, and what the process of creating a scent is like for you?
Tanwi Nandini Islam: I started Hi Wildflower soon after I was fired from a job. I’ve always been really focused on my olfactory sense, and my father’s a chemist so I loved doing science experiments growing up. At the time, my spirit was worn down, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and I had sold my novel, but it felt so far away. I started to make my own perfumery blends. I had taken a couple of classes and read some books about alchemy, so I had this really basic knowledge, but I had an affinity for creating. As a novice and as a woman of color, I was very outside of the white western male-centric perfumery world. I took four of the fragrances that I made and put them in a public installation at Bushwick Open Studios in 2013 to get like a gauge of people’s responses. I paired them with photos of different photographs taken from a trip to Bangladesh to create a multi sensorial experience. I got a great response, which was really exciting. I kept growing my base, and was really inspired by fragrance as a historical reference point for not just where these materials come from now, but what it means to think about fragrance and spices as so intrinsically tied to colonization and the history of our people. Now Hi Wildflower has lipstick and candles as well as perfume and other products. To me, it’s all connected to this idea of ritual and grounding and serenity and love in, especially for women of color, in a time that can feel so toxic.
Sojwal: Your first novel, Bright Lines, came out to critical acclaim in 2015. You’re currently at work on your second — how do you feel you’ve grown or changed as a writer since last time?
Islam: Oh my God, I think every writer looks back at their first book and is just like, ‘Oh, I would have changed all these things.’ I do look at it with that critical older eye, but I had this epiphany where I realized, for a book I wrote in my 20s, it’s a fucking good book! I put away the judgement of things I could have done better. I wanted to explore my queer POC community in New York through the eyes of these young teenagers who are grappling with their sexuality and their relationship to their culture. These things have been spoken about, but not so much in the Bangladeshi Muslim context.The first Bangladeshi characters I ever encountered in literature were in Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”, and they weren’t even American, they were British. I was also really inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy, but I wanted to see these issues of identity they explored in the context of my community — Bangladeshis in New York. We’re a huge population, and so visible but so invisible at the same time. That’s what guided me. I wanted to think about coming of age not just through teenagers, but also their parents. Even for them, there is such a stunting that happens because of cultural mores that keeps adults from exploring our sexuality in open ways. I wanted to explore what it means to have a family in which these things are accepted and there are different ways that people of the diaspora are infinitely expressing their gender and their sexuality. In terms of my process, having a business and writing a book at the same time is like having two different families. I’ve been neglecting my process, but to get back in, I’ve realized that I need to physically put my hand to a page in a journal. We’re so detached from the energy and spirit of our words coming to life on a page from our fingers. Computers can feel like a chastity belt. With my first book, I also had nothing to live up to. That was such a liberated state. This time, I feel the pressure to do something even more true to my vision of who I want to be as a writer. I’m trying to focus on the way that language is beautiful and fun and liberatory — that’s the part of my process I want to fine-tune.
Sojwal: Can you tell us a little bit about the book you’re currently working on and what your fans have to look forward to?
Islam: The new book is tentatively titled Stellar Smoke, and it’s a work of speculative fiction. It’s about the relationship between a woman and her deceased mother, and she learns of her mother’s life through artificial intelligence. The story explores the duality of past and present and timelessness. I’m interested in exploring what it means to be the first of your kind, to be in a female body and react to patriarchal oppression, but also uphold it in unspoken ways to protect ourselves. I’m thinking a lot about how we protect the men in our lives from the pain they inflict on us. I think this is resonant for South Asians especially. So much of the violence we experience in our communities is because there’s such a repressive culture around masculinity. That’s everywhere, but I’m really focusing on this family in this story and they are Bangladeshi immigrants. My main character is encountering her mother’s artificial intelligence in an abandoned ashram that she had grown up in. Her parents were kind of like these new-age hippies from South Asia who started an ashram in an unnamed island, modeled after the Hawaiian islands. Writing this book has been so fun — I feel like I’ve opened a new corridor in my brain.
Sojwal: Are there similarities in what parts of yourself you use or come alive both in the process of fiction writing and of crafting a perfume or beauty product?
Islam: I definitely don’t think of anything as separate. That’s a great question in regard to this book especially because the character that I’m describing is a perfumer, and she is guided by the same kind of philosophies of perfume and cooking that I have. I think of perfume as this living material that’s been rendered into something inanimate. Then, it’s living inside of a bottle so it’s almost like this museum of everything that has ever happened, and it’s being re-experienced on human skin, and I feel very much like reading is like that. Words on a page are dead until you consume them — they’re just sitting there. It’s the same question that guides writing and creating perfume — how do I make this come alive the moment it’s touched by someone? There needs to be life in both things. I’m also making perfumes for this book! I’m so excited about that. I have a lot of olfactory knowledge now that I’m so looking forward to sharing. Using my senses to guide a story is something I want to explore in infinite ways.
Sojwal: How has writing about the Bangladeshi immigrant experience had an impact on your own relationship to your identity?
Islam: I actually feel farther from it, and I think that the distance allows me to see it with a bigger set of eyes. I don’t know if I feel more connected to my identity, but the part of my work that I love so much is being able to explore how history impacts who we are today. My name in and of itself is a contradiction, and I think about that all the time. My parents gave my sister and I names that are Sanskrit non-Muslim names, and they did it so we’d be “modern.” I love that they wanted to give us that — names that were contemporary and interesting and full of color. I think it says that they’re part of an interreligious, interconnected world. That’s not a guarantee for their generation. They saw their friends die crossing the border into India. I’m one generation from that violence and I feel the gravity of it. I feel the power of it. I feel a duty and it’s not a burden. It’s a privilege to write about it. Because I’m part of a lineage of survivors.
Photo courtesy of Gabriela Bhaskar
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