What do you get when you cross Brooklyn and Bangladesh, a coming-of-age tale with subtle wisdom, the hardships of reality and a healthy dose of hallucination? Bright Lines, a debut novel that will make you feel strangely at home in its fabricated world (it also happens to be a finalist for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize). Tanwi Nandini Islam, much like the characters in her book, has led an eclectic life thus far, working as a community activist, playwright, and artist before becoming a published author. The obsession with reading and books started early on, thanks to her parents.
“I grew up in a family that wanted me to be a literary person,” says Islam. “I remember my father would take us to the library and we’d get lost and collect all sorts of books and then he’d ask us to do a written synopsis on each book we read. I really used to hate it, but now I’m grateful that he made us do that.”
While her father instilled a love and respect for reading in Islam, her mother also had an influence on her relationship with language and taught her to read in both English and Bengali. Although her main language is English in terms of how she thinks and writes, she has an appreciation for the other side. “When you’re immersed in another language or culture, it’s not really about shutting your brain off but more about utilizing a different part of your brain,” Islam says.
After attending Vassar College, the author decided to live a little before going back to school and started working as a community organizer and with community theater in the streets. Writing a novel was not at the forefront of her mind as she made space in her life for experiences, and it wasn’t until she moved to India in 2006 that she realized she wanted to write again. It was then that she applied and got into Brooklyn College for an MFA in fiction. The move allowed her time and space to work on a novel.
“I was excited to be immersed in my passion and I was also thinking about how to meet other writers, and the MFA was a great way to do that,” says Islam. “I loved everyone in my program, in the end, and they wrote very different from what I wrote, which was intimidating but helped me a lot.”
After graduating, she got roped into selling shawls in a hotel in France, which proved to be difficult, but necessary for her novel in the end.
“I started writing Bright Lines in France, and I wrote quite a bit that was supposed to be used in the original but now I might use for my second book,” she says. “It was a good exercise for me to not edit and delete everything right away.”
For the past few months, Islam has been on a book tour and is busy with her company, Hi Wildflower Botanica, a small-batch niche perfume, candle, and skincare line. On Saturday, Islam will be in conversation with local author Jaquira Díaz at the Betsy Hotel.
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“I’m sure we’ll discuss some of the similar themes in our work, things like home, dispersal of family, coming of age, and sexuality,” says Islam. “So far on my book tour I’ve had some great dialogue with the audiences so I’m looking forward to the crowd in Miami.”
Tanwi Nandini Islam in conversation with Jaquira Díaz
Saturday, December 12, from 7 to 9 pm at the Betsy South Beach. For tickets and more information visit thebetsyhotel.com.
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