For author Avni Doshi ’05 — whose debut novel, Burnt Sugar, is on the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize, which will be announced on November 19 — her years at Barnard were a time of great exploration and curiosity. “I read widely ... from art historical texts to novels, and essays about South Asian culture and religion,” Doshi said. “When I was 18, I wasn’t sure what I was interested in. It was a time of discovery, and a liberal arts education was perfect for that.”
After graduating with an art history degree and earning a master’s in art history from University College London, Doshi moved to India to work as a curator and art critic specializing in contemporary South Asian art. Although she spent plenty of time writing essays and criticism, Doshi felt creatively unfulfilled. “I loved studying art history, but working in the art world was a different animal,” Doshi said. “I was never fully convinced by the art market and the commerce around art.”
It was while Doshi was living in India with her family that she started to experiment with fiction. “I wasn’t really sure of where [Burnt Sugar] would go, and if anyone would ever read it,” Doshi admitted.
Burnt Sugar tells a searing and poignant story of the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter, masterfully crafting a narrative around the themes of memory, loss, and family bonds. Doshi focused on the art of storytelling and finding an aesthetic language to express something she had created. “For me, writing fiction is about the characters and the sound of the sentences. That’s what holds the story together, and themes emerge later, almost magically,” Doshi said. “But memory shows up in everything I write. I guess it’s important to me because that’s what makes us human. Remembering is the basis of how we relate to one another.”
Doshi drafted the first manuscript of her novel in one month, while living in Mumbai, to submit it for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, which she unanimously won in 2013. She published Burnt Sugar in India under the title Girl in White Cotton in 2019, and the novel was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize this past September.
Despite the acclaim she has received, the road to a finished book was not an easy one. Doshi went through eight drafts of the novel over the course of seven years and stepped away from it often, stating that she wanted to quit many times but returned to the writing time and time again. “Something about the story stayed with me, but it continued to shift and change as I moved to different continents and had new life experiences,” Doshi said. “Writing fiction is something I came to relatively late, and Burnt Sugar is a compost heap of all those diverse experiences.”
The creative challenges that Doshi faced to finish Burnt Sugar illustrate her loyalty to the story, and readers from around the world have responded in kind. Burnt Sugar has been published in India, and the United Kingdom, and is currently being translated into 21 languages. Its United States and Canada debut is scheduled for January 26, 2021. The book experience taught Doshi that all creative endeavors are gambles and the work of an artist is a labor of love.
“Write for the process, because you love it, and because you have to do it,” Doshi said. “It’s lonely and challenging, mentally and physically. This isn’t meant to be negative, just honest. If you have that pull to make art, nothing in the world will stop you.”
—SOLBY LIM ’22