Literary Scents

Literary Scents

Tanwi Nandini Islam ’09.

Award-winning author and perfumer Tanaïs says that at the intersection of writing and creating fragrances are deeper stories to be told of culture and politics.

Tanwi Nandini Islam ’09 M.F.A. is a noted author, essayist, perfume maker, and community activist. They—Islam’s singular pronoun of choice—has chosen to go by the name Tanaïs, a portmanteau of the first two letters in each of their three given names. On their website, Tanaïs explains, “I wanted to find a meridian between identities that honor where I come from and where I am headed.” They also see their myriad activities as deeply connected.

Their roster of accomplishments and activities suggest that Tanaïs is headed toward big things. Their debut novel, Bright Lines (Penguin, 2015) won many honors, and it was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the inaugural selection of the first lady of New York City’s Gracie Book Club. Yet for all of the acclaim, it was difficult for Tanaïs to sell their second novel, Stellar Smoke.

“That has been a trip,” said the author, whose parents emigrated from Bangladesh. “It’s illuminating about who are the recipients of our work and who are the gatekeepers. I expected some lack of understanding because I grew up Muslim, and I am writing about queer characters. The experience made me rather jaded about what it means to come from a non-dominant culture point of view.”

Instead, Tanaïs sold In Sensorium, a collection of essays that grew out of their perfume business. After earning an M.F.A., Tanaïs worked as a brand manager for a startup, which gave them the grounding to start Hi Wildflower, their own perfume business. “I had begun thinking about the colonial project and how it enabled the perfume business in Western cultures as a result of the cheap—sometimes enslaved—labor and the access to exotic scents.”

For Tanaïs the business has furthered their cultural explorations. “I started to deepen my experience of perfumes and what it means to build a composition from a variety of places all over the world. The materials have backstories and importance politically and economically.”

Tanaïs’ interests in scents and literature merged when they created a fragrance based on Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved. They said that the perfume was to celebrate the literary lion’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Center for Fiction. The notes included rose, African bluegrass, and saltwater. “If you read Morrison with an olfactory sensibility,” Tanaïs said, “you can see her celebration of the ancestors.”

With parents who moved to the United States in the 1970s to escape a war in their native land, Tanaïs says that a political consciousness and profound sense of justice was hard wired deep inside of them. Tanaïs said with a reflective giggle, “Even if I have a yacht one day, I’m going to be helping move people to safety with that yacht. It’s in my lifeblood.”

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