How Literature Smells: Scent in Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines

The two strongest scents in the gold 1986 Porsche 930 that my friend’s dad picked us up from hockey practice in were the leather seats and the pot he’d smoked on the drive over. There was usually a Steely Dan or Spandau Ballet cassette playing, and the dad was a real bummer, likely because he pretty much lost everything in the divorce — the house, custody of the kids, a lot of money in child support each month. But he still had the Porsche. There was something so enticing about that car’s smell, and the fact that I could distinctly tell that my friend’s dad wore the same cologne as my own father — Ralph Lauren’s Polo — means that those scents mixed together in a combination that pulled some Proust-and-the-madeleine type of involuntary memory out of the back of my brain. Not that it happens all that often, but if I happen to find myself in an older model Porsche with a faint smell of marijuana in the air and somebody is wearing Ralph Lauren cologne, I will be automatically transported back to that bummer year.

That’s my story. It’s autobiographical, and when I tell it, I could probably switch out the Steely Dan for Roxy Music or the make of the car, but you can’t swap out the scents. There’s something important and sometimes overlooked about how the very mention of a certain smell can transport the reader to a different place entirely. A city after a cold rain, the freshly cut grass of some suburban lawn, the mix of smoke and whiskey in the air at a bar — those are all things you can conjure up because you’ve smelled them, too, and in that shared experience are thus relating affectively and even physiologically to what you’re reading.

A city after a cold rain, the freshly cut grass of some suburban lawn, the mix of smoke and whiskey in the air at a bar — those are all things you can conjure up because you’ve smelled them, too

With her debut novel, Bright Lines, Tanwi Nandini Islam has given Zadie Smith’s White Teeth an American cousin where the characters of Bangladeshi origin are situated in America (Brooklyn to be exact) and not London. It’s a story of immigrants and their children, family secrets, and feeling like a stranger in a place you’re told is home. It’s a damn fine first book–easily one of the best debuts of the year — but what sets it apart from so many other novels is that Islam just understands scent better than almost any other contemporary novelist.

“I have a particularly sensitive nose, every memory is laced with a scent of imprint, and this inevitably makes its way into the world of my characters,” Islam tells me. Bright Lines is filled with mentions of different scents since one of the main characters, Anwar, owns a botanical apothecary, but the novel focuses on various smells of places and situations throughout. The reason scent plays such an important part in Islam’s stellar debut, besides her sensitive nose, is because when she isn’t writing, Islam is running Hi Wildflower Botanica, making small-batch skin care products, candles, and perfumes. Writing and making things that smell nice is her business, but even Islam admits that translating scent to print isn’t always the easiest thing. “With every breath we inhale a motley of odors,” she points out. “And our capacity to describe and find the words for what we smell is limited — the words are always in relation to another sense, usually our sense of taste.”

#GetLit candles

“This candle and perfume business is a natural extension of where I left off in Bright Lines,” Islam explains. She talks about how she started her career as a community organizer, but ultimately, “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do is about story, community, beautification, bond.” Bored with her job at the time, she decided to go into business for herself, one of those realizations many of us have but aren’t always willing to act on. “I made a collection of perfumes and candles, something that I’d learned from classes, collecting oils, and reading lots of books and blogs.” Ultimately, her writing and her business grew up together, so her writing being influenced by her business makes great sense.

Islam’s business is also heavily influenced by the literary world. Nowhere is this more noticeable than with the #GetLit series of candles she recently did with writers Kiese Laymon, Porochista Khakpour, Mira Jacob, and Nayomi Munaweera, each one designed to burn off and evoke something that connects with each author. Islam worked with her writers to develop the scents. With Khakpour, looking to find something that connects with her novel The Last Illusion, Islam says, “she wanted to somehow bring in the scent of those scorpion candies in the Southwest, and I thought that smoke would be good, given the 9/11 context — so the end result is a sweet, smoky and saffron scent that is at once Persian and American myth folded into a really mysterious scent.” For the others she says, “the scents were literal interpretations of place — what does the collision of Kerala and New Mexico smell like? How do we stir up the memory of Mississippi magnolia, moss and balmy deep southern heat?” Ultimately, “Once I got down what they wanted, it was just a matter of crafting blends to honor the author’s work. And as an author, I think we’re all always stoked by fan art, and intelligent readers of our work.” Islam compares making the candles to her own brand of fan fiction.

“Once I got down what they wanted, it was just a matter of crafting blends to honor the author’s work. And as an author, I think we’re all always stoked by fan art, and intelligent readers of our work.”

Scent tells a story. I mention an essay I’m particularly fond of: “Lavender” by André Aciman. Because it was the writer’s father’s favorite scent, he, too, loved it his entire life. “Interesting,” she says. “My partner is a lavender man, and I think that’s partly why I fell in love with him, when I discovered the lavender stash in his medicine cabinet.” That’s her story. Like Aciman, lavender plays a big part in her life; the scent reminds them of their past. It is part of the story of their lives. I can go back to that Porsche speeding down the highway as my friend and I squealed with joy while his dour father gripped the wheel, and Islam can go back to opening the medicine cabinet. Once, while on assignment covering the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibit, The Art of Scent: 1889–2012, I brought along a friend who also makes colognes and candles. He shared memories of his grandmother, jogged by the museum’s library of classic scents. He said some smells remind him of moments in time he wasn’t even around for, but ones that he has long been fascinated by. When I got home and started looking at his website, I noticed how he used his bottles as a way to tell those stories; both his and the ones he had to build through scent. I knew where he grew up, so seeing a bottle described as “A memory of Boston in the ’80s. Where green moss & ivy grew next to I.R.A. graffiti & fresh clover was salted by the sea” was his memoir in a bottle. Scent as another medium for storytelling brings readers away from the page across both time and the senses. This potential for a new method of storytelling is what got me so excited about Islam’s novel in the first place. I wanted a story that came with its own set of smells, and Tanwi Nandini Islam has delivered just that and more in one unforgettable book.

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