In the end, it took seven years and eight drafts before Avni Doshi’s debut novel saw the light of day.
It was a lot longer than the American author, who now lives in Dubai, had expected, after she won a literary prize in 2013 and with it, the chance to shop her manuscript around to big-name publishers.
"Getting the book out into the world ended up being a longer and more complicated process than I imagined," she tells The National. "The journey has been long and difficult to say the least."
Doshi’s searing debut novel about the fractious relationship between a mother and daughter was finally published in India last year, under the title Girl in White Cotton. This month, the book is being released in the UK under the name Burnt Sugar, and it’s already creating waves in the literary world.
Doshi's novel comes with a testimonial from Pakistani author Fatima Bhutto, and has been compared to Jenny Offill's Weather and Diana Evans' Ordinary People. It's being published in the US next year, and translations into Hebrew and Spanish are also on the way.
So does Doshi feel the pressure from all the early buzz? “Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I see that writers I admire have enjoyed my work,” she says. “There are so many brilliant books coming out from new and exciting voices all the time, and I don’t take any of this for granted.”
After all, it’s been a long journey to this point; both literally and figuratively.
Doshi was born and raised in New Jersey, in the US, after her parents immigrated from India. She recalls finding it difficult to reconcile her Indian background with her new life in America.
“My childhood was quite normal by any standard, but I remember feeling that I was different than my peers. My mother put me in a Jewish nursery school near where we lived and I remember speaking a mix of English and Gujarati as a child, and I was often unintelligible to the teachers. That feeling continued through school – where I felt some aspect of me remained unexpressed in my childhood.”
But she remained connected to her culture through regular visits to India, spent with her mother’s family in Pune, where her future novel would be set.
A lot of the women in her family belonged to the Osho ashram, founded by controversial Indian mystic Rajneesh, and Doshi recalls that this “captured my imagination from a very young age”. She continued to spend time in India as a teenager, doing charity work at the Mother Teresa mission in Kolkata.
But the author stresses that Burnt Sugar isn't autobiographical. Neither of the two characters are anything like her or her mother, she says, but a more general comment on familial relationships as a whole.
“I suppose all mother-daughter stories are love stories in a sense. We mirror our mothers, rebel against them, emulate them while trying to unconsciously destroy them. I’m really inspired by psychoanalysis and the way the mother complex is constellated in all of us to some degree – it’s an integral part of our histories, both personal and collective.”
Doshi then went on to study art history in college. She moved to the UK to complete her masters, and there developed a fascination for South Asian art, so she moved to India to pursue it. Instead, her career took a very different turn.
"I soon found that although I was passionate about art, I craved to make something of my own. I felt I had something I wanted to express, a story that I wanted to tell, and I was looking for a language in which to do it. I suppose that's how I started writing Burnt Sugar," she says.
Which is why when she saw a friend's Facebook post about a literary prize for an unpublished manuscript, winning the chance to shop their book around to publishers, she applied. “I didn’t think I had a chance at winning – my book was barely a book at that point – but I decided that I would use the deadline as something to work towards and I ended up submitting what I had. I was astonished when I ended up winning.”
That was 2013. In 2014, Doshi left India, feeling “disenchanted with many aspects of my experience”. She recalls finding day-to-day life difficult, and believes it may have been due to attempting to forge a life there as a single woman. “I realised that I would always feel like an outsider in India, which was a wonderful position to write from, but began to grate on me emotionally.”
She returned to the US. But instead of assembling a new life for herself there, she met her future husband and moved to Dubai.
And all the while, Doshi was readying her manuscript for publication. This resulted in years of revising the prose and completing a writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia in the UK. And a good few knocks to her confidence along the way. “Soon after I started working with a literary agent, I realised that even though I had won a prize, my book was in no way ready to see the light of day,” she says.
“I kept working on the book, sometimes losing hope. I parted ways with my literary agent around the time that I moved to Dubai, which was very difficult. I was in a new city and felt completely alone in terms of my work.”
But with her eighth and final draft, Doshi finally began reaching out to literary agents again, receiving several rejections before finding a publisher in India.
Burnt Sugar will be released by Penguin on Thursday, July 30, and Doshi admits it's been a tough ride; with releasing a book during a pandemic capping off a turbulent seven years. However, she says local authors here and around the world have been supporting one another, and she is eager to travel to literary festivals and promote the book when travel restrictions finally ease. But for now, she is content with her life in Dubai, and hopes the domestic literary scene will flourish.
“I would love to see some homegrown small press publishers come up in Dubai, or even for there to be the presence of literary agents to represent the variety of voices here. There’s a lot of scope for grassroots efforts and I think publishers around the world would be interested,” she says.