Perfume was a hallmark of the millennial teen magazine. Teen Vogue and Seventeen had us experimenting with scents that offered teasers of womanly sophistication. Playing dress-up with fragrance samples was enough–adulthood held the certainty of tasteful routine. And flipping through issues months or years later, long past “top ten nail polish shades to try now!” lost relevance, their perfume lingered.
When teen magazines shifted online, perfume samples became lost in the archives. In Sensorium: Notes to My People, author and perfumer Tanaïs’ second book, brought me back to this era’s potency. Yet as an account of Tanaïs’ relationship with scent that moves seamlessly from the personal to historical, it goes deeper than the millennial teen magazine.
Perfumes are made of smells of varying longevity: base notes, heart notes, and head notes. Tanaïs adapts this logic to narrative nonfiction. They transition from history, geography, and childhood, to stories of femininity and gendered violence, to the ephemeral fluidity of spirituality and psychedelia. This is a dizzying array of topics, and scent is the glimmering throughline.
Their writing is visceral and uncensored. They observe, “A version of the feminine emerged in the liminal space between shame and sensuality—this is the place where I search when I write.” As a manifesto, this is pretty powerful. True to their word, Tanaïs is honest to a point that would make many uncomfortable. They combine the confessional style of their Instagram posts with novelistic digressions, dipping into road trip narratives and art writing. In the manner of Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, ingredients break up sections. These ingredients are not for recipes, but rather for perfume. Exquisitely detailed, the ingredients are also, as Tanaïs outlines in the preface, portals.
Tanaïs roves across prodigious territory, and their work is impeccably researched. The book is best thought of as a collection of musings for an intimate audience. It’s an audience that they are familiar with, and also one they are schooling. I think of the teen magazine, and how it might have been to read this instead. Although In Sensorium can be uneven, that might be expected with a scope this ambitious. Some parts were direct, startling, and immediate. Others felt more familiar to me–but that may be good, as I have already had my induction into these ideas. Tanaïs has a sparkling mind and the ability to shape paradigms in those who are consolidating their sense of what it means to be a woman of color in the world. Throughout, they take pleasure in pushing boundaries, whether social or geographical. Their courage is contagious, and In Sensorium feels like just the beginning.
In Sensorium is also radically stylish. It’s zeitgeisty, informed, and provocative. Tanaïs says, “Luxury is never about proximity, just as in love, we yearn for some distance to know how much we want someone.” This applies to the consumer, the migrant, and the lover alike. For example, they remember visiting an agarwood tree in Bangladesh, which is the source of oud fragrance. While we now associate oud with Arab lands, its distant provenance made it valuable. Sometimes distance is imposed because of gender. As Tanaïs writes, “Nature is not guaranteed to femmes. Perfume lets me concoct a simulation of these sacred woods I can’t walk alone without fear, a ritual of the future using ancient materials.” Perfume – a substance some easily dismiss as decorative and therefore unimportant–challenges boundaries, collapses distance.
In Sensorium delves deep into the gendered pain that Tanaïs has experienced. Scent, in the way it settles into grief’s crevices, records the pain of oppression and violence. Surviving violence at the hands of men “is to slowly recollect your senses, after having been estranged from your body.” Masculine violence, in its cowardice, contrasts with the book’s bravery. Tanaïs accurately captures the double standards of South Asian men: “their shame as strong as their desire for me.” Beauty helps to heal from trauma. Later, Tanaïs recalls the love ceremony they shared with Mojo, their partner, in Hawai’i. A gentle experience – it offers solidarity that South Asian men, by and large, cannot fathom. “In Bangla, the word for love is bhalobasha, or good home,” they write.
The scope of the book changed while the author was writing it. It was originally intended to be a travel account from the Gangetic delta in Bangladesh upriver to the Himalayan foothills. Then Covid-19 struck, circumscribing movement. Tanaïs decided to instead write a kind of scent-memoir: “Perfume would be my pilgrimage.” It is a book in flux with a river’s untrammability.
Now In Sensorium begins with the loss of smell, the sense that guides it. Tanaïs contracted Covid-19 in April 2020, and writes, “Losing my sense of smell terrified me, threatening my livelihood and what brought me so much pleasure.” Starting with the loss of sense, the sense of loss, Tanaïs recovers a sensorium. In the future, I hope to see them unfurl more such liberatory experiments, allowing themselves to go to the limits of where their ideas will take them. The market is reactive, not imaginative; their readers will follow them there.
Photo Credit: Photography by LOMI
Makeup Artist: Randall Rosenthal