It’s below freezing on a Thursday evening in January, and Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass. is full of activity. People are reading at the seats that line the front window and customers wait to order warm drinks to be shared over literary conversations. Three rows of metal fold-out chairs face two empty chairs and microphone stands; the mood is expectant and excited. As it gets closer to 7 p.m., the chairs fill up and the bookstore employees scramble to find and organize additional seating. About 30 people have arrived to see Tanwi Nandini Islam ’04 discuss her debut novel “Bright Lines”–a huge turnout for a new author and a cold weeknight.
“Bright Lines” takes place over a year and two continents. The story centers around the Saleem family: the father Anwar owns an apothecary, the mother, Hashi, runs a salon in the basement of their Brooklyn brownstone, NYU-bound Charu is itching to get out of the house and Ella, their niece and adopted daughter who is home from college for the summer, spends her nights awake observing the world around. As much as the story is about the characters, it is also about the space that they inhabit. Islam’s mentor and Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon writes, “Tanwi Nandini Islam has created a fictive world where race, place, desire, violence and deception beautifully cling to nearly every page, and really every part of her Brooklyn and Bangladesh.”
Grace Sparapani ’16 echoed Laymon’s sentiments. “[Islam] allows several different lines of narrative and identity to cross; coming of age is never easy and it’s never simple, but she captures the paradox of discovering yourself while feeling at odds with the markers of your former self– family, home, culture.”
In her discussion of the book, Islam acknowledged that many people have deemed it a coming-of-age story. She accepts this categorization, yet thinks of it in broad terms. It is a coming-of-age story for the two college-aged daughters as much as it is for the middle-aged parents. The characters are all in the process of finding themselves and where they fit within their family and in the broader context of society.
Throughout her talk, Islam discussed not only her book but also her process and her experience as an artist. She spoke in conversation with another debut novelist, and the two went back and forth about everything from their identities as women of color to the importance of their workshop group in their MFA program. In discussing the art of storytelling, Islam pronounced, “Truth is an illusion unless it’s an expression of how someone experienced something.” Moments like these had the small audience hanging on every word of these two brilliant women. Islam talked about how this book had been inside of her for a while, like an itch, but that it will never truly be finished and the characters live on inside her imagination. In fact, she cut around 150 pages from the end in the editing process.
In an emailed statement, Islam discussed her beginnings as a writer. “Theater let me find my voice as a writer. I’ve always known that I wanted to write a novel, probably since the age of seven. But it’s hard to access the level of discipline it takes to sit and write a novel, especially in college.”
During her sophomore year at Vassar, she wrote her first play–a big first step towards realizing her dream of writing a novel. She continued, “As a sophomore, I had something of a breakthrough during winter break, and wrote my first play, Mukti, the story of four South Asian women and a 12th century Indian poet, Mahadeviyakka, who are connected by identity politics, survivorship and suicide. These were the things that I began exploring as a Women’s Studies major at Vassar–how do women of color build communities and survive collective trauma. My writing has evolved from that place, for sure, but it would take another couple years after graduating before I started BRIGHT LINES.”
Laymon’s mentorship sustained this breakthrough with advice as a fellow writer. She explained, “Kiese Laymon understood the work I was trying to create right away. His advice was ‘let your characters live’–and to not cut down the energy of the prose with narratorial interjections. Academic language is antithetical to creative writing, and in Prof. Laymon’s class we could shed all of that dead language.”
Laymon also instilled in Islam a sense of confidence in her creativity. “Under his guidance, I learned that crafting vivid fictive worlds required a level of fearless and time. Years, in fact, to reveal the story. And learning patience has been such a gift for me–especially in a time when content and sharing our lives is instantaneous.”
But before she started working on “Bright Lines,” Islam worked as a youth organizer at a nonprofit called Make the Road by Walking in Bushwick. “I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do after I graduated, but I did know that it would be connected to community organizing and social justice,” she said.
The experience was taxing but rewarding – many of the skills she learned continue to benefit her in life. Islam continued, “My salary was $38K, tens of thousands less than fellow grads who’d gone into more lucrative careers. I think it’s important to realize the reward of activist work is that you have microlevel impact with the folks you work with directly on the ground–and that is priceless. After years of it, I started to feel my value and the cap on my salary was wearing down on me living in NYC–and that’s when I decided to shift into entrepreneurship. The skills you learn working with people, the compassion, the interpersonal connection, the administrative slog–it lends itself to a multitude of skills you can apply anywhere.”