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Tanwi Nandini Islam pours herself into everything she creates — whether it's a novel or a perfume, an article or a scented candle.
Islam, whose 2015 novel “Bright Lines” was selected by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray as the inaugural Gracie Mansion Book Club pick, told NBC News she’s dreamed of writing professionally since she was a child, often throwing herself into various projects throughout her time in school, including running a literary magazine at one point. “Ever since I wrote my first handmade book in 2nd grade, I’ve fancied myself as an author-in-training,” Islam said.
But her creativity was not limited to the written word. At Vassar College, Islam majored in women’s studies with a focus on performance art and Asian American Studies, while continuing to flex her writing muscles through playwriting.
Born in Illinois and raised across parts of the Midwest and the South, Islam said she grew up immersed in Bangladeshi communities and culture. Her parents, who met in Bangladesh during the tumult of the 1971 Liberation War, immigrated to the U.S. after their wedding – her father, in 1978 to pursue a PhD in chemistry; her mother, joining him in 1980.
“My father, who is a classically-trained singer, taught us to sing Rabindranath Tagore songs,” Islam said of her and her sister’s upbringing, “while our mother taught us to read and write Bangla. I never felt any sort of confusion about my identity as a Bangladeshi, but I definitely felt his when it came to being a Muslim.”
She also explored her passion for crafting botanically-based perfumes – a passion that grew from a personal place. “Perfume is something I’ve been drawn to my whole life,” Islam said. “The way you can summon a person with a few olfactory wisps – my grandmother is jasmine attar, talcum powder, paan; my mother: Nina Ricci L’Air Du Temps, fresh laundry, cooking spice. My father: Ralph Lauren Polo (the green bottle is my favorite) or Pierre Cardin. These are scents I associate strongly with people I love in my family, but in a way the actual fragrance is only part of the story I create when I recall a memory.”
But after graduating from Vassar in 2004, rather than focusing on her passion for writing or for perfumes, Islam decided to pursue a third passion: social justice. As a community organizer for a youth empowerment project for Make The Road New York, a social justice advocacy organization based in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, she continued to work on her playwriting (she even had one produced off-Broadway).
It was during her time as a William J. Clinton Service Corps Fellow in New Delhi, India – where she worked with the nonprofit Pravah – that Islam began to explore writing fiction. She eventually chose to pursue her MFA in creative writing at Brooklyn College, which was an opportunity Islam said helped her develop her voice as a writer – but it was a path that was not without its challenges.
“When I got into my MFA, I was one of two people of color in my year, and that was alienating,” Islam said. “A lot of what we read in mandatory classes focused on white writers, and often I felt my classmates couldn’t connect to my work unless things were spelled out. I wrote a lot for two years, but the novel I ended up with [“Bright Lines”] meant erasing a lot of that work and starting over.”
Through her research for “Bright Lines,” which was a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Islam said her love of perfumes was reignited, and she began to develop it into another creative pursuit. What began as an Etsy shop and “craft fair side hustle” for Islam became a full-time business through Hi Wildflower Botanica, a line that includes botanically based perfumes, oils, and scented candles, which evoke far flung places like the West Indies, Hanalei, and New Delhi.
“The stories in all of my perfumes are based on my travels, but more importantly, they’re all deeply rooted in the wonder and complexity of the natural world, and how plants and flowers play roles in human rituals. It’s so much deeper and more profound than any hyphenated identity. It’s beautifully universal,” Islam said.
Islam acknowledges that her passions also come with challenges, but she adds that she’s found it essential to keep her interests separate so that she can better focus on each. “I need days when I only work on fiction or essays, and other days when I go into the studio to process orders or play with new ideas,” she said.
And striking a balance between pursuing these passions and her personal life is often elusive. “I’m not certain I’ve found that balance yet. I think that sleep, quality time spent alone and taking walks have helped me toward that,” she said.
But while her two passions are incredibly different, Islam says that there are similarities between drafting a narrative and crafting a perfume.
“They’re both intricate compositions, with an image or story at their center,” she said. “As a writer, character and place are both very important to me as I craft a narrative. When I’m building a perfume, there will be some story I want to tell.”