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Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
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Bright Lines

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Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
Paperback $22.00
Aug 11, 2015 | ISBN 9780143123132

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    Aug 11, 2015 | ISBN 9780143123132

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  • Aug 11, 2015 | ISBN 9781101600603

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Product Details


Bright Lines is set in Brooklyn during the summer of 2003, the summer of the Blackout, and Ella is a young Bangladeshi woman growing up there, beginning the process of coming out to herself and to her adoptive uncle’s family as queer, while also being crushed out on her cousin Charu, whom she lives with. By the time we get to Charu’s friend Maya, we are in deep. This is a novel that let me travel a little more fully into this city that I love, even as it reminded me of so much of why I love it in summer.”
Alexander Chee,

“A Brooklyn-by-way-of-Bangladesh Royal Tenenbaums. A pot-tinged, PTSD Muslim Sesame Street. With sex. Hallucinations, hijabs and handlebars on the always-busy Atlantic Avenue. The New York sense of place in Bright Lines rivals the recent memory of Teju Cole’s Open City.”
The Denver Post
“Tanwi Nandini Islam makes waves with her debut novel, which traverses from Bangladesh to Brooklyn exploring the secrets of three young women.”
Time magazine

“The miracles in Bright Lines are the understated moments of family telepathy. . . . An understated queer coming-of-age, a study of how much work it is to be a family, and a snapshot of a disappearing Brooklyn, set against the ghosts of the past, and a search for home.”

“A family, blended in unexpectedly compassionate ways, takes you on a tour of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, Bangladesh, and all the ways we make our lives more complicated than they ever had to be. For many of Islam’s well-crafted characters, home is a place they’ve never actually been, but somehow dream to return to someday.”
Ashley Ford,

“So many narratives about being queer and brown are flat stories about the tension between living an authentic queer life and adhering to the oppressive traditions of your immigrant family. Those narratives are spoken of as if they are universal experiences, but they have never reflected mine, which is why I clung to Bright Lines from the moment I started reading. Tanaïs’s story is about a modern Bangladeshi American family living in an overstuffed house in Brooklyn in the summer of 2003. They are weird and funny and have revolutionary politics and love so vastly and deeply. And even then, both parents and children have their own secrets and desires. Tanaïs draws out the challenges of figuring out your own queerness that remain even if you live in a diverse, accepting world and what it means to live between Brooklyn and Bangladesh in a way that never flattens either place. Once you read a book that shows you a fuller range of queer and brown experiences, going back to the one-note narratives will never be enough.”
Jaya Saxena, The Cut

“Vivid and captivating. . . . Spell-binding and a page turner. . . . Bright Lines takes place in a Brooklyn that shimmers like a mirage—at once vivid and surreal. . . . A very promising debut that explores family, love, loss, and the painful process of growing up in a way that is both timeless and modern.”
Emma Cueto, Bustle

“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.”
Jason Diamond, Electric Literature

“Lush and vibrant, Tanwi Nandini Islam comes rushing out of the gate with her debut that has a lot of things (great characters, family story, history), but it’s her descriptions of Brooklyn streets and then the effortless move away to a place far away that shows this is a young writer who can control a story with the ease of a tested veteran.”
—Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“A brave, honest look at what it was like to be an 18-year-old Brooklynite in 2003, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, teetering somewhere between innate rebelliousness and respect for heritage. Islam is an intuitive and inventive writer, and her story, which bounces between Brooklyn and Bangladesh, is wholly original. Don’t miss it.”

“A wonderful debut. . . . The beauty of this novel is that it perfectly merges fascinating narrative, honest characters, and the rich history and culture of Bangladesh with the juxtaposition of Bangladesh’s past and future and of that country with America, adding to the reading pleasure.”
—Library Journal (starred review)

Bright Lines exudes and explores intimacy in profoundly diverse ways. . . .  Each character seems to undergo powerful sexual awakenings. . . . Tanwi Nandini Islam deserves much praise for her fantastic and wonderfully emotional debut novel.”
—Hyphen magazine

“It’s a colorful, vibrant world that Bright Lines invites readers to step into and enjoy.”
Shelf Awareness for Readers

“Every detail in this rich novel is evocative of transformation. . . . A sensitive and subtle exploration of the experience of gender nonconformity across cultures. . . . A transcontinental, transgenerational tale of a family and its secrets.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Islam depicts lush Bangladesh and a gritty Brooklyn very well, and she’s at her strongest when following the free-spirited young women. The characters’ halfhearted feelings toward their Muslim identities provide an original and intriguing backdrop for their misadventures.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Islam presents an unusual, involving, and evocative rites-of-passage tale enriched by multicultural, intergenerational, and gender-role conflicts and questions.”

“[A] refreshing and delicate debut novel. . . . Shuttling between Brooklyn and Bangladesh, Bright Lines explores in fast-paced prose and haunting descriptions of flora and fauna, the very nature of family, revenge, guilt and acceptance.”

Bright Lines is the most daring, emotionally dense work I’ve ever read by a debut novelist. I can’t remember the last time a novel kept me breathless, wandering and reconsidering the decisions of my own life. 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. She is completely unafraid of insides and outsides of the characters she’s created. I dreamt about Ella and Anwar for weeks long after I finished the book. I’m sure the characters here, and the actual range of Islam’s talent will wonderfully haunt readers for a lifetime. Bright Lines is brilliant and absolutely soulful.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division
“Whether it’s entirely fictional or not (and I really don’t care) the New York City of Tanwi Nandini Islam’s novel is the one I want to live in! What a radiant, abundant, worldly, sharp and spirited novel! And what a good and powerful imagination, heart and soul seems to have produced it. Bright Lines is very special.”
—Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name

“Tanwi Nandini Islam is among an emerging generation of American writers giving voice to people, places, and concerns that have escaped the notice of the mainstream. Such is the range of her talent that in her first novel Bright Lines, Islam shows us two locales, Brooklyn and Bangladesh, that are as varied and vibrant as they are restrictive and horrible, no small achievement. Hats off!”
—Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Song of the Shank

Author Q&A

What was it like writing your first novel?
I started and restarted Bright Lines for a few years, taking the time to explore my voice and the characters in the novel in different short stories. What started off as explorations in Brooklyn College MFA turned into the first draft of the book the summer of 2008. I was living in the south of France, when I was working as a shawl seller in a luxury hotel. What wrested me out of the stifling boredom of that summer job was diving right into my novel. Being immersed in another language just forced me into solitude. What I realized from writing everyday for the next three months, was that I’d been thinking about this story for years. It was only a matter of time before I wrote it all out.

While Bright Lines is told from several characters’ perspectives, Ella seems to be at the heart of the novel. Why did you choose to center the book on her and how did that affect how you wrote her character?
Ella is the heart of this story, simply because Ella is at the heart of change. We see Ella’s transformation from lovelorn outsider to a confident, gender nonconforming person in charge of their destiny. I remember being young when my vision started to change, and I need thick glasses. Ella’s hallucinations stem from a deep trauma, the loss of her parents. And while this has stayed with Ella throughout her life, ultimately, as the character experiences huge life transformations, Ella accepts the hallucinations and their shifting gender identity.

Bright Lines is incredibly rich in detail, from the history of the Saleem family’s neighborhood in Brooklyn to what life was like in the Bangladeshi countryside for Anwar and Rezwan in the 1970s. Tell us about the research you did to bring these scenes to life. Was there anything you wanted to include in the novel that you had to leave out?
Traveling through the countryside in Bangladesh is to see the vast majority of the people and the land outside of landlocked Dhaka – and there are so many stirring visuals I wanted to memorize during my last trip. My research and the rich details mingled together for the scenes in the novel. For example, I interviewed a man who had fought and lived through the Liberation War of 1971, and he described the hot pink sky after tracer bullets exploded. That image stayed with me, and when I went on a road trip through rural Bangladesh, I remember seeing infinite fields of watermelon. In the scene where Anwar and Rezwan (Ella’s father) try to save a group of women who’ve been raped, those details – the sky, the watermelon field – make the scene come alive.

Plants and their therapeutic properties feature prominently in the book. Why did you choose to make Anwar an apothecary? And what about the profession led you to produce your own line of botanical products?
If you live in New York City, you’ll see that many of the health food stores and groceries, spice shops, Muslim paraphernalia, incense and oils shops are owned and operated by Bangladeshis. It’s specifically the row of shops on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a small strip, really, that invites the motley characters of the city to purchase these goods for their own brands. I love going into those shops. I’m always looking for the space where the city turns into wilderness, the corner of a park or waterfront where there are no people. Plants have such a healing property to them, and my parents were avid gardeners – I wanted to show how working with plants was something that could allay the residue of trauma.

Your love of Brooklyn and the many people and cultures that live there shines in your writing, and in many ways, Brooklyn is as much a character in Bright Lines as any of the people you write about. What is your perspective on recent demographic shifts in the borough? And why did you choose to set the novel in the Brooklyn of the early 2000s?
Those years were the life-changers. I moved to New York in the early aughts, and immediately fell into this really vibrant, diverse world with people of different ethnicities genders, sexualities – and I wanted to write about this world. My first evening in my new apartment, a $500/month share with two roommates, was epic. Dave Chappelle threw his legendary Block Party that night. We just don’t see much writing about that side of Brooklyn. Beyond immigrant Brooklyn, but stories about the descendants, stories about the generation of youth born here in the U.S. in the city. Gentrification has continually happened in waves, but at this point, it seems that the city is unlivable and unaffordable for many people who have lived here for a long time.

You’ve written articles on feminism, workers’ rights in Bangladesh, and accountability in the fashion industry, and you’ve done extensive nonprofit work with young people of color. How does Bright Lines fit in with your activism?

Bright Lines is borne out of my activism and political philosophy. I’ll always write articles about my basic philosophy in life: I can’t be free unless you are free, too. That’s the heart of feminism, which was my main academic focus and continues to be what I’m interested in writing about. Working with young people in New York City as a community organizer and teaching artist allowed me to work in the outer boroughs of the city – places like Canarsie, the North Bronx – and to work with young people who were imaginative and innovative. They’re so much of the inspiration behind the trio of girls in Bright Lines. They mirrored my own rebellious ways as a teenager in suburban New York.

The book deals head-on with some topics that are often taboo in coming-of-age novels, such as sexual feelings directed towards a family member. Did you have any concerns about how readers might react to these scenes?
I think my readers are smart and sensitive enough to let a story unfold to see what will happen. The taboo and the misdirected desire stems from a deep repression and loneliness, and as that becomes more and more apparent, I think readers know they must let the character evolve and grow. I want to explore the darker, shadowy side of our nature in my writing, because the process of a character finding their way out of that place is so rewarding.

All of the women in your novel are completely and refreshingly different from one another. Are any of them based on real people you know? What was your process for fleshing out these uniquely compelling, multicultural female characters?
We all have our own imprint in the world, and all characters have this, no matter what their culture. I wanted to write characters on a continuum of gender, Muslim identity, personality – they all complement each other because they show us a different facet of the same story. The characters are an assemblage of fragments of my personality and the diverse group of people in my life.

Which character did you enjoy writing the most and why? If you were creating a perfume for them, what ingredients would you incorporate?
I love Anwar, his voice and the way he sees the world. He’s a good, delightful man who just can’t help but indulge his vices. Like all the characters in the novel, he’s a man who has masculine and feminine sides to his personality, so a perfume would definitely have notes of oud, tobacco, and a touch of champa flower.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my new novel, tentatively titled The Rivers, about a couple of virtual reality filmmakers working on a film about the oldest woman on earth. Switching between the present day and 1920s Harlem, they realize there’s a secret in her past that is a gaping hole in their story. When one of the filmmakers is abducted, those secrets are revealed. I’ll also continue to grow my own perfume and candle company, Hi Wildflower, which has allowed me to live the themes in Bright Lines in my real life.

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