As a writer, I am always curious about what makes other writer’s tick — especially those that have written for publications I admire and have a managed to write a book. Interviewing Tanaïs was even more of a highlight because she not only writes, but also runs a small business: Hi Wildflower. Many creatives like Tanaïs have more than one interest, but struggle to figure out how to take the leap into other creative avenues (speaking for myself here) that are out of their comfort zones. Here I chat with the author and entrepreneur about writer’s block, burnout, feminism, and why journaling is a part of her creative process.
Name: Tanaïs, a portmanteau of my birth name Tanwi Nandini Islam
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Current Title/Company: Founder, Hi Wildflower & Author of Bright Lines (Penguin 2015)
Education: BA Women’s Studies, Vassar; MFA Fiction Brooklyn College
What was your first job and how did you land it?
I worked as a community organizer and youth theater director at Make the Road NY, a nonprofit community organization based in NYC. I found this job on Craigslist when that was still possible! I knew I wanted to work with youth and put on plays and street performances that dealt with social justice issues like incarceration, sexual assault, immigration policy, and detention. It was inspiring and they innovated so much from their lives — I am still in touch with a lot of these youth, who are grown adults today.
Tell us a little about how you knew you had the gift (I think it’s a gift) of sitting down and putting your thoughts on paper, well, a computer screen these days?
I have been writing since I was seven years old — storytelling and imagination work were a huge part of my development. Like so many young people who never quite feel like they fit in, books were my refuge. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so my father would take my sister and me for long excursions to the public library, and I’d always leave with a stack. Reading is where a writer’s first love with language begins, and by the time I graduated college, I knew that I wanted to write novels in my life.
Before writing your first novel, Bright Lines, you wrote for publications like Elle, Vice, New York Magazine, and The Feminist Wire. How did you know you were ready to write your first novel?
I knew I was ready when I lived in India, back in 2006-2007. I was staying in a hotel in Srinagar, Kashmir, a very beautiful place but in a very fraught borderland between India and Pakistan. It was Ramadan, everything closed by sundown, and I was up late writing. That night, I must’ve written 20 pages in a spell, and when I finished, the next week I applied for MFA programs — knowing it would help me develop as a writer and part of a literary community.
Like so many young people who never quite feel like they fit in, books were my refuge.
What was the process like? Were there long hours? Did you get writer’s block?
After my MFA, I had to de-MFA my writing. I had to unlearn the critique of my classmates to chisel my own voice out of the hundreds of pages I’d written. So much of writing is revising, and I’ve stopped thinking of writer’s block as writer’s block. When I’m flowing, I fly through writing. A block means I need to observe the world, get quiet, handwrite in my journal, and experience life.
Once your book was complete, how did you go about finding the right publisher? I’d imagine putting your work out into the world with the possibility of rejection could be tough.
My novel was sold to the only editor who wanted it, according to my agent at the time, and I am so grateful to the editor who saw what I was trying to write. Back in 2013 when I sold the book (it took another two years to publish) writing about queer, Muslim, South Asian Brooklynites was not seen as viable — not in the way we see more now. So, I definitely love how my editor at Penguin understood the world I wrote. That world hardly exists now, it’s a love letter to a Brooklyn that has been lost or displaced.
So much of writing is revising, and I’ve stopped thinking of writer’s block as writer’s block.
You’re working on your second novel, Stellar Smoke. What did you take into this process that you learned from writing your first novel?
I just finished my second novel, Stellar Smoke, so the process is fresh again in my mind. Much like the first time with Bright Lines, I had to completely shut out the outside world. I’ve gotten to a place where I have an amazing studio director who manages the day-to-day needs of my small business, everything that once used to be done by me solo is now automated. So, I have time to write, think, and take days where all I do is write. I pull up my chair (a very special throne-like chair in jacquard jaguar and floral print!) a cup of coffee, a glass of water, my journals, and computer. I journal a lot when I’m writing, outlining, imagination work on the page, writing scenes by hand. I need that pen-to-paper analog connection. My first draft stride hits me in the midnight hours, when everyone is asleep, 10pm to 4am! I am not quite functional in society during these deep hibernations into my writing, but I’m lucky I have folks in my life to help me as I tunnel vision into my work.
As a writer, do you enjoy journaling?
Absolutely. I think it’s necessary to let words come from our brains through our fingers — there’s a connection between mind and body that happens when we hand write, something that a computer can’t quite achieve.
Aside from writing, you studied perfumery and eventually went on to open Hi Wildflower, independent beauty & fragrance house. What led you to fragrance and entrepreneurship?
Fragrance is something I’ve always enjoyed as a consumer, but when I took a fragrance blending class at an arts education startup I worked out, I was hooked. The memorization of olfactory notes from botanical and aroma chemical materials is something I immediately had a knack for. I’ve always had a sensitive nose, but composing a perfume is an art form that really requires attuning oneself to scent and how notes play off each other. I ended up getting laid off from that job at the startup, so I took the skills I’d learned in graphic design, branding, PR, and perfuming to form my own brand, and I haven’t looked back since.
Are the fragrances your enjoy when you’re diving into your creative process that center you or bring stillness?
I love incenses and woods: palo santo, Tibetan tara incense. An unpopular opinion perhaps, but I’m not crazy about sage.
I ended up getting laid off from that job at the startup, so I took the skills I’d learned in graphic design, branding, PR, and perfuming to form my own brand, and I haven’t looked back since.
You use sustainable and ethically sourced botanicals for your fragrances, why was that important to you?
I use both botanicals and aroma chemicals, and I’m transparent about this — because, to me, a perfume is a multifaceted composition that requires a lot of olfactory nuances you cannot achieve only with natural materials. And most times, the aroma chemical is either more available and sustainable and safe than plant material. When I do use naturals, and I use quite a lot, I make sure that the sources can be traced back to distilleries and farms because I think of the economy around any product as interconnected. I prefer to use essential oil suppliers who are committed to working with growers who are committed to sustainable environmental practices
What inspires the scents your sell in your shop?
Nature and travel. The world I want to hold onto — a world that is increasingly becoming harder with climate change. I want to make you step inside of a redwood forest with one whiff, I want to remind you of hiking in Joshua tree, or the incense trails of a market in New Delhi.
With writing and entrepreneurship, how do you find balance in maintaining your creative voice while making sure you don’t find yourself with a case of entrepreneurial burnout?
I definitely experience burnout, and when I feel this coming on, I make sure I restart my yoga, make quality time for my friends and my life partner, and of course, I am not beyond retail therapy and scoring the perfect piece of vintage. I take days for self-care and ritual, so massages and acupuncture are a part of how I do that.
You describe yourself as a feminist. What does that term mean to you?
Feminism is working toward the eradication of patriarchal power, and how that dominance and power erases, hurts, traumatizes and kills members of the LGBTQ community and people of color. Feminism is anti-colonial and anti-oppression—it is a liberation strategy. All of these identities intersect in each of us. Feminism is about deconstructing systems of power for a more equitable and free planet.
Feminism is anti-colonial and anti-oppression—it is a liberation strategy.
How important do you think intersectionality in the world of feminism as a woman of color?
Intersectionality is critical for women of color—and I think a lot about how trans-exclusionary radical feminism really failed to be intersectional in their definition of feminism, and how that is a violent erasure of what womanhood is. We can’t just consider race or class or gender or sexuality or ability—all of those identities live simultaneously within us and influence how we experience the world. I’m so glad that I encountered the critical race theory of Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectional feminism when I was an undergrad. Intersectional feminism requires us to consider the interwoven lattice of identities that form each person and how they experience the world living as they do.
You have found your voice. What is your hope for young women finding their voice and identity in the world?
I live to help young women find their voice, their art, and their expression. I tell all the young people I meet to be steadfast about their dreams, to live for themselves, and to not let parental or societal pressure deter them from their path or art.
What is a typical day for you?
Each day is different! One day I might be loading 1,000 lbs. of candles onto a pallet, another day, planning collaborations with fellow writers on fragrances. I keep my work schedule fluid but also schedule time to write when I’m in a period of writing. Since I just finished my last revisions on my second book, I’m focusing on the business and getting Hi Wildflower into new stores.
I tell all the young people I meet to be steadfast about their dreams, to live for themselves, and to not let parental or societal pressure deter them from their path or art.
What advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
Definitely stop dating the person who will never love you back! Keep on writing, because you’ll get better as you find yourself more and more.
Best way to relax after a long day?
My favorite way to unwind involves something green and something delicious. I’ll leave it at that.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is The Everygirl…
Fragrance you can’t live without?
I’ll name some of my own since I actually do wear what I make! I wear either Sándalo — a dry sandalwood spice or Lovers Rock, a tobacco tonka spice bomb — both made by myself. When I’m somewhere tropical, I like Nāmaka, a white grapefruit, coconut, and gardenia tropical goddess.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
I’d definitely want to have lunch with Janelle Monae. I’ve loved her music since her first record and I remember when I was getting my wedding dress designed, I noticed a pair of pants with embroidered snakes on the thighs and exclaimed, “Janelle Monae needs those, they are so HER.” Guess who they were for? JANELLE MONAE.
Favorite inspirational quote?
Like most writers, I’m really averse to inspirational quotes, so I’ll quote the greatest writer alive, Toni Morrison: “Art reminds us that we belong here.”
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Live every moment of your precious life as fully as you can — from my dad!