agenda by D.S. Chun

The author and perfumer discusses capturing the ephemeral world in words and scents.

reading time 5 minutes

Tanwi Nandini Islam is an author and a perfumer, two occupations that have more in common than you might think. Doing method research for her debut novel Bright Lines (Penguin), a kaleidoscopic coming of age story about a Bangladeshi immigrant family’s travails in New York, Islam started investigating the world of scents and how they connect to our feeling of home. This evolved into her second venture, Hi Wildflower, a line of natural, sustainable and ultra stylish perfumes and beauty products that draws inspiration and ingredients from all around the world. Fold sat down with Tanwi Nandini Islam to discuss the complementary inspirations and surprising interactions between her two ways of telling stories.

DSC: Your debut novel Bright Lines seems to map out a network view of New York and its different cultures. In the same way, your beauty line Hi Wildflower covers its own world of smells and colors, like multiple samples of multicultural life. What effect has New York and all its culture had on your creative outlook?
TNI: New York is an assemblage of people who feel like outsiders in some way. The characters in Bright Lines are very much looking at the city as a way to find refuge. The city is a place where it’s so easy to feel lonely but also so easy to not feel lonely at the same time. There’s almost this like weird oneness with everything that you want to achieve here and become here and everything that you’re kind of running away from. The minute I visited New York, I felt this melting away of the person that I was in this much smaller context and felt like I could be anybody, a stranger and creator in any capacity that I chose.

DSC: Both your writing and your beauty line have a very grounded sense of the sensual world, which connects us to different cultures, different geographies. How do these physical elements, smells and materials, connect across your two works?
TNI: I think a lot in both my writing and my perfuming about about how our sensuality connects us to our consciousness, exciting and opening it. Perfume as a cultural object is a complex space of history, botany, and farming practices in the actual composition and the way the notes come together. It is a volatile substance that rapidly evaporates off of your skin, so right after spraying it on, it begins disappearing and each second that passes is a new level of experience, awareness, feeling, emotion and memory being formed. That experience for me mirrors the project of writing a novel in which you want the symbols, characters, and plots that you’re lacing into your novel to occur completely in the present moment.

DSC: How does that work in your novel, Bright Lines?
TNI: For example, I have this character Anwar, who during a fight with his wife, wraps himself in a kantha, which is a blanket that is made of old saris stitched together with bright lines of fabric.  He seeks comfort and solace in an object that is women’s work that stretches back into his legacy and comforts him when he’s feeling this coldness from his wife whom he’s hurt very much.  It’s the idea of this quilt, which threads together all of our human experiences into a single object into a moment. So through writing and designing new fragrances, I found that layering each moment through our experiences of the world helps us elevate our consciousness.

tanwi islam

DSC: I’m curious about how a writer and perfumer thinks about time. Writers commonly desire as much time as possible, not just to hold the reader’s attention, but to build a world that can live on in the reader’s memories as deeply emotional experiences. This seems at odds with the world of perfumes which do become containers of meaning and memory, but in physical application are much more ephemeral and fleeting. How do those two senses of time time interact in your writing and perfuming?
TNI: I love this question so much. Both processes stem from the same search and journey that I’m on. One, the perfume, is ephemeral and short lived experience, and the other is an eternal experience that will be experienced differently by whoever encountered it. But at the same time they’re both about trying to capture a moment, a space. I’m currently trying to create a perfume inspired by the Mojave desert. The air there is so crisp and cool. How do I create a perfume that feels like cracking open a juniper needle and staring at the expanse of the Milky Way in the midnight blue sky and everything’s cool and outer space and camphor? So I start with a very deep base of mitti attar, which is basically distilled clay from the Ganges River, mixed with sandalwood, Palo Santo, and white sage and eucalyptus. These are all very sacred burnable types of things that have very cooling notes and gives you that feeling of inhaling the desert air at night..I want the perfume to not only translate my version of the experience for someone else to wear, but I also am trying to document the life that I lived on the planet in some way. I think Bright Lines for me, was the story I was looking for, the one that no one had written for me.

DSC: Both are about capturing different layers of ephemerality.
TNI: I’m from Bangladesh, where there the coastline is so fragile in terms of soil erosion and monsoons. Topography in that region changes so much in century’s time, you know, like there are rivers that dried up in India that are now Bangladesh. I’m thinking about all that stuff and here I have a makeup palette called Bay of Bengal. I am hoping the actual Bay of Bengal will still exist for my grandchildren. So, I’m commemorating my experience of being there. I’ve been to the indian ocean in India and Kenya and I’ve experienced all these different waters. When producing the lines in Hi Wildflower that try to document these unique parts of the world, I want you to become like enmeshed and yearn for it and want it and create a connection to the person who’s using it or wearing it for a longer kind of sustained relationship. It’s a different way of communicating.

DSC:  What have you learned from developing this second career outside of writing, and finding this other complimentary career? What can we learn from your approach?
TNI:  Try all of the jobs that interest you, that make you feel alive. But also realize that you can stop at any time and restart and get into a new lane and and keep your options open to keep learning. I feel like every day I’m a baby, a child relearning how to walk and crawl through my experience and just to live it and to be one with it. I get to learn new shit all the time and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m never going to have to call myself an expert or a curator. I’m just here to learn and to share and express myself through things so that other people can feel the vitality in me.

Cover Photo: Gabriela Bhaskar

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