This week we welcome writer and perfumer Tanaïs for a multisensory exploration of their latest book, “In Sensorium: Notes for My People.”
Tanaïs first worked in New York City as a community organizer at Make the Road New York, a non-profit organization based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that works to empower working class communities. In 2006, they started writing their first draft of their debut novel, “Bright Lines,” while in New Delhi, India. During this time Tanaïs grew interested in olfaction and started their own botanically based perfumery.
Epicenter: So what does it mean to be brown, bodied and free?
Tanaïs: Being brown, bodied and free is about the liberation, sensuousness and space that brown-skinned, Black, Indigenous, Dalit people inhabit in the world. How we move as our truest selves beyond the exploitative systems that threaten this freedom. Brown, bodies and free imagines each of us living our inviolable joy and innate beauty, the place beyond dominance. In my book, In Sensorium: Notes For My People, I write my experience as an American Bangladeshi Muslim femme, and the syncretic multitudes of my people throughout history, while interrogating the violence of caste, Islamophobia, nation-building and war on femme people.
Epicenter: Tell me about the role of scent and smell in your work?
Tanaïs: Perfume is a borderless substance, composed of materials laced with fraught histories. I write about how the quest for fragrant materials throughout history has led us to this endgame of late capitalism, this era of refugee migrations and climate change. I think it’s important to decenter European fragrance culture — one that emerged as they colonized and enslaved people to build their wealth. I seek to connect my own perfuming practice with South Asian and Islamic olfactory cultural milieus — I use materials like Bandarban sandalwood from Bangladesh, mitti attar — Ganges River Clay — from India, jasmine, turmeric, marigold.
Vasana is a word that appears in medieval Indian texts, it means a perfume, but also the imprint of a memory, in this lifetime or a past lifetime. I use the concept of vasanas to write the memories of my childhood, family, survivors of sexual violence, and the way perfume inhabits our memory long after our body moves on from an experience.
Epicenter: We feature an artist every week in our newsletter. I wonder if you might tell us how people can better support artists in New York City?
Tanaïs: Show up for people’s work if you’re able to be there, not only with your presence, but also with your voice—shout the name of your favorite artists to others who should know their work. Buy our work! Let us know what moved you, how the work feels to you. Those words mean everything after a period of solitude making your art. We all need the nourishment of community showing our work some love. Come see me in conversation with Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Brooklyn Museum on March 10 for a night of conversation and smelling your way through the book!
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