This piece was originally published in Kajal Volume 3: Plant Life. Find it here.
Tanaïs, née Tanwi Nandini Islam, is a polymath. She published her first novel Bright Lines, about a Bangladeshi-American family living in Brooklyn, New York in 2015. Since then she has launched her own cosmetics and perfume company, Hi Wildflower, which is stocked in boutiques all over the world. The colors and scents in her products are deeply botanic and pull inspiration from natural landscapes, the earth, and, of course, flowers.
I caught up with her in her Williamsburg home to talk about her vast and varied career.
Nadya: A lot of people know you through your book Bright Lines, and your cosmetics line Hi Wildflower. I have to say I know you best through your Twitter account, which I follow. It’s so vulnerable and confessional. To be that exposed in such a public way, how does it feel?
Tanaïs: You know, I want to be most in touch with how I’m feeling at any given moment. I think as a writer, that has served me well. To follow an instinct or a feeling. And I think Twitter is a haven for writers to have those instantaneous live stream of consciousness thoughts. I just see it as a part of the stream of consciousness that makes me who I am. On Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter, I mean all these different things that I’m using, I have a different facet of my personality exposed. I think on Twitter it’s very much the acerbic writer side of me that wants immediately have a thought or opinion. But also, finding this beauty in this concept of a thread. I think that kind of building together some sort of narrative around a thing I’m taking issue with, is the perfect medium for little nuggets of thought that come.
Nadya: Like extemporaneous feelings and stuff.
Nadya: I get that.
Tanaïs: And I think vulnerability is a key part of my process. If it doesn’t feel or look good or manifest in a way that feels natural to what I’m into, then I’m not into it. I just express things that are very my moment.
Nadya: So you take inspiration as well from this exercise, I guess. I don’t know what to call it.
Nadya: We’re always kind of putting on one mask for another when we present ourselves publicly. Even if we feel like it’s the truest one. It’s just one iteration, like you said, of our personalities. I wonder about the flip side of that, of maybe feeling too exposed sometimes? So sometimes maybe your readers, or your fans, or your followers feel like they know you too well and kind of push that boundary too far.
Tanaïs: I always liken my personality to a bonfire or a fireplace. I’m very warm and inviting, but you don’t wanna get to close.
Nadya: Are you a fire sign?
Tanaïs: I have fire in my chart, yeah. I’m a Libra-Aries rising. I wanna be a person that provides insight and comfort and truth, but I also have boundaries and I’m very, very much a stickler for them. I do articulate that as well with people. My job as a writer, and even as Hi Wildflower, is to be really open and transparent about processes. Because people of color in positions of entrepreneurship and creating in an authentic, and I use the word authentic kind of facetiously, but also to really mean, I’m proud of being brown, and I want to be doing this in a way that embraces that. I’m not aspiring to something that a white supremacist ideal will say is the way it should be.
I talk openly like that, and I don’t know that that has been typically the way people with a business would talk. But do I want it if it doesn’t actually honor what I believe? No, I don’t. I have to respect myself at the end of the day.
Nadya: I’ve read origin stories of Hi Wildflower, where it began, because you were doing research on your first book and it kind of took life out of that work as well.
Tanaïs: You know what’s so funny? I think I said that once, and we ran with that.
Nadya: It’s like a mythology.
Tanaïs: Yeah, it started in mythology. So I was working as a youth organizer and teacher after I graduated from college. I got offered a job at a startup that’s now defunct. I was all ready, like, I wanna make more money. And it was like this need for wanting to be plugged in. And this is, 2012, 2013. Activism and internet hadn’t exactly coalesced in the same way that it is right now. I wanted to do something in the startup space. And when I got there, I took a perfume workshop and fell in love with materials.
So I started buying my own materials, and I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to buy essential oils online or anything, but it can add up. So I ended up buying a bunch of oils and within a week of my 30th birthday I got laid off from that job. And that was in a tailspin, because I was like, what am I going to do without money? Literally no one believed that I could work for them and their brand. In that time, part of how I found some sort of comfort was just pouring candles, making blends. I ended up signing up for this craft fair and selling 500 dollars worth of stuff. I was like, whoa, people are really into this, and then I shared perfume at Bushwick Open Studios, and then people were really into it. I think that happened a year before my novel came out. So for a year I was establishing a means of income that had never really been a territory I’d explored. I’d always thought I’d need a job in an office with health insurance. I mean, that is what you are trained to do. This was taking a totally different approach.
So that’s the origin story. Yes, for the book there was research as a part of it, but a book until you’re published is one sliver of many things that you have to hustle to do to survive as a writer in New York. I mean, come on, it’d be great if that was the story, but I started it because I was desperate for something to feel like I could make something of my own life. And it actually turned out to be something I’m good at. And all the people that didn’t want to hire me to do their brand management, or logos, or creative, fuck them, because I’m doing it for my own brand.
Nadya: Where did the name for Hi Wildflower come from?
Tanaïs: I always notice wildflowers when I’m traveling, even if I’m in India. I find them in Bangladesh. I find them in California. I find them in Mexico. Always the thing that draws me to the landscape is this sort of inundation of color that comes from wildflowers in the most obscure places. I thought the metaphor of that was something that really, really, really spoke to me because they’re so tenacious. At that point, I felt like such a tenacious person. I was like, I am holding on and I am going to make something of my life. It was just like I had this sense of tenacity with it. That’s definitely the image that I wanted to work with.
The ‘Hi’ part, I think it was kind of this joke that started, because we were joking about how Apple has an “i” in front of everything. We were like, iWildflower. It was kind of this weird moment. Then I just said, “Hi Wildflower.” I liked Hi, because it’s an opener. And then I also have joked that if I ever stop doing it, it will be perfect to just be like, Die Wildflower, Bye Wildflower. And just sign off with that.
Nadya: Yeah, there’s an internal rhyme as well, which is really endearing when you say it out loud.
Nadya: I’m a big fan of your perfumes. I find your scents very evocative, and they’re beautifully layered.
Tanaïs: And they’re strong, I like strong.
Nadya: They’re very strong. They have that olfactory memory aspect of it. I’m hurtled back into my memory every time I put your scent Namaka on. I’m thinking about all these things, and that’s what I love about them. I’m curious what you love about the scents that you make.
Tanaïs: I’m writing a book that will go into this, so I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot. But I think one of the things that has really guided my olfactory process is trying to preserve this experience of being in the natural, living, analog world, and transforming that experience into a wearable piece of art for your body.
In the example of Night Blossom, if you smell it, immediately you get this jasmine, white floral vibe. It’s so our people, our grandmothers, our mothers. It’s like aunties, whatever. I come with this idea that is very much like, I want to tell the story of a redwood forest. Or I want to tell the story of a desert walk. And then I think about when I’m in Joshua Tree and I see white sage on the floor of the desert and I crush it in my fingers, what does that smell like? I’m building all of these things. I do that constantly. If I kiss my partner hours after lunch, I’ll be like, did you have fennel today? I’m always kind of in that space. I don’t know, I think for me I want to hold onto what the world smells like because I feel like it’s disappearing. Part of what I’m writing is we created perfume to survive this planet, but I also think it’s part of what’s killing our planet. But if we didn’t have a scented world, would we be able to withstand the scent of our own filth in the world that we live in?
Nadya: Visibility is extremely key, it seems like, in our consumption, and I wonder how you feel working on something that people might not experience before they actually have it in their hand. Is there a challenge with that?
Tanaïs: I’m really drawn to obscure things that make people work for it. Scent and writing really kind of embody that, I think. Most perfumers who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, or read how they describe their perfume, are incredible with language. I actually think that the language of scent, it might be the hardest to describe for us because it’s so relational to other senses and other things that we experience.
Nadya: When I look at your lipsticks and eyeshadows, the colors that you use are really distinct and rare.
Tanaïs: Yeah, it’s so challenging to think of color because it’s loaded, right? My first makeup growing up was a woman of color brand called Fashion Fare, a Black women’s brand. And Fashion Fare had really kind of classic colors, with this beautiful, lightly fruity scent. I remember loving my compact, which was my shade of brown, and my lipstick. I think that with the colors that I’ve been trying to develop, there’s this really interesting way that South Asians play with color. The bright red lipstick with a hot pink or purple and red combo. People just combine colors in this way that’s so exciting. Look at this kashmiri jacket. It’s every color. It’s psychedelic almost.
I wanted to bring that flavor into our aesthetic as Hi Wildflower because I think that it’s almost the act of adorning yourself with a color is as good as what shirt you decide to put on that morning.
Nadya: I was told for a long time I can’t wear white because my skin’s going to shine through, that I shouldn’t wear yellow. There were colors that I warned away from.
Tanaïs: I bet you love yellow now though.
Nadya: It has to be a bright yellow.
Tanaïs: Yeah, always. I used to hate green, but I’ve been wearing green.
Nadya: I’m really curious when you choose these colors. Do you do things in active rebellion of those rules? I’m sure you grew up with some sense of that too. There’s a sense that we can’t do, that we can’t wear. That are not lady-like, or are unbecoming, whatever that means.
Tanaïs: There are all these ways we’ve been colonized by colorism in our community. I mean, we still live in an era where castes exist, where light skinned privilege exists, where savarna feminism is the feminism of South Asia. I remember my mom would say this thing whenever I would wear orange lipstick in particular. She would say you look like a dushtume, which is a naughty girl or a bad girl. It’s so funny because there is this thing that’s always teetering on repressing too much I just think that these rules have been made to preserve some idea of white supremacy within our cultural milieu, and it’s actually a disservice to us because it’s almost like we can’t see our own beauty. I think dark brown skin with a hot pink lip is hot. That is not something that many moms and aunties have supported, particularly in my diaspora.
[When it comes to picking colors], I really think about the earth, and the planet, and the flowers, and the environment meaning these colors. So you look at the names of the colors like Dianthus is the name for carnation. Mala is a garland of flowers. Gulabi Gang is obviously a hat tip to the women’s organization, but also like Gulabi is rose. So I think of how flowers on earth look. I think of mud. I just feel like the synergy of color with brown. It needs no explanation.