One word describes author Tanwi Nandini Islam: Captivating.
I am sitting in her living room as she talks to me about apothecaries, Bangladesh, and Toni Morrison. It took me 72 hours to finish reading her debut book, Bright Lines, and now I want to be her friend. Her quaint Brooklyn home is colorful and vibrant; filled with custom bookshelves and an array of beautiful found objects. I am not surprised by the richness of the space — I imagine this is the backdrop where most of her writing comes to life.
Bright Lines is an engrossing novel, with vivid, bold characters — a story of immigrant parents, first-generation children and the need to reconcile traditions with present day realities. The story begins in Brooklyn, where Anwar and Hashi Saleem have raised their fiercely independent daughter, Charu, and their quiet, unassuming niece, Ella, as sisters. Collectively, their lives shift and decisions (or impulses) appear misguided throughout the narrative. The story centers on the young women, Charu and Ella, who magnificently embody Brooklyn: fearless, flawed, and fascinatingly self-aware. The reader is struck with young lust, infidelity, and the longing for full acknowledgement. Tanwi writes not only about the intimacy of youth, but her sensibilities towards exploring sexuality is beautifully reflected in Bright Lines.
Together we discussed what books live in her personal library, Gabriel García Márquez, and the fictional heroes that influence her storytelling. See my conversation with Tanwi after the jump. —Glory
Photography by Kylie Thompson
What are you currently reading?
Describe yourself as a reader.
I’m quite fickle as a reader, meaning I am the first one to put it down if the first 50 pages don’t appeal to me. But when I find one that I absolutely love, it takes over me, as if I’ve caught a cold. I will literally not put a book down until I’ve made a 100-page dent in it, and anytime I have started a book, it takes me a couple of days of nonstop reading to finish it.
What books might we be surprised to find in your personal library?
My father is an avid collector of books from garage sales, libraries — and I’ve amassed a lot of his books for research or just personal interest. There are books in my collection from the 1960s-70s, a nautical knot-tying book, versions of the Qur’an, editions of Robinson Crusoe, Tess of D’Urbervilles — stuff that’s wildly different from what I read now.
What specific genres do you enjoy reading?
There’s something about the notion of genres that bothers me — since I think literary fiction draws from historical fiction, science fiction, so-called women’s fiction. Octavia Butler opened my eyes to science fiction, while Toni Morrison’s novels all paint searing portraits of Black American life throughout history. I remember reading Paradise and loving how deep a metaphor the book was for the often conflicting movements for racial justice and feminism — a conflict created by misogyny and racism. I love reading diasporic work that illuminates the experience of South Asian people outside of the U.S., like Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone, which told the story of a pair of South Asian twin brothers in Ethiopia, or in terms of a transnational Filipino diaspora, Mia Alvar’s In the Country.
Who’s your favorite fictional heroine?
I will always love Lauren Olamina from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower series. She is young, fearless, soulful and wants to save the world. What’s not to love about that?
Name a book from your childhood that left a lasting impression.
The book I return to every five years or so is The Autobiography of Malcolm X; I read that at a very young age, as did my partner. We both were so inspired by that book, a very real connection between my experience as a young Muslim with one of the most famous ones in the U.S. Around the same time, I also read Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather — so clearly I’ve always had a love of multiple POV novels! When I recently connected with Amy Tan over my Ancients perfume, it was like a million dreams had just collided.
What was the last book that made you cry?
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I wasn’t quite sure if I even connected with Lydia, the girl who died. But something about her eternally listless, lost way of being in the world, which ultimately led to her death, haunted me.
What book(s) do you find yourself recommending to friends?
It’s one of the wonderful things about being an author, I get to recommend my author friends’ books to friends. Through various readings I’ve done over the last year of promoting my novel, I’ve met so many incredible authors whom I am excited to know and share with my other friends!
How do you decide what book to read next?
I do read reviews — although much more critically these days. If there is an insanely hyped book, I usually buy it and hoard it for when I next take a vacation. I want to read it without the noise surrounding it. In this case, my next book on rotation is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.
What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
Gabriel García Márquez, even more so after my last trip to the old city of Cartagena, Colombia, where he drew so much of his inspiration. I would love to eat a never-ending meal with him and walk around his old haunts.
Needless to say, I highly recommend Bright Lines. And so does the First Lady of New York, Chirlane McCray. The debut novel is the inaugural selection for the Gracie Book Club!
Follow author Tanwi Nandini Islam on Twitter.