A Writer’s Soul with an Entrepreneurial Mind: Meet Tanwi Nandini Islam

Tanwi Nandini Islam is a storyteller through and through. Whether whipping up an aromatic storm for a candle or piecing together the futuristic plot of her second novel, Tanwi continues to find new ways to explore and honor narratives that reflect beauty and truth in raw and enriching ways. I read her first novel, Bright Lines, last summer and was completely intrigued with her exploration of identity, friendship, brownness, and coming of age in a pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Her beauty and fragrance line, Hi Wildflower Botanica, features scents dedicated to capturing the survival stories of brave figures, and her beauty products have a strong connection to nature and self love. She is interested in creating makeup and fragrances that are like “wearing a story on your skin.”

Q&A

Live FAST: It’s so inspiring to see women of color entering and re-shaping the beauty industry on their terms. Tell me about the origin story of Hi Wildflower Botanica.

Tanwi Nandini Islam: The name Hi Wildflower itself is quite playful and funny but it also carries a few layers of meaning. I was contemplating how much I connected with the essence of a wildflower  – a flower on the one hand is vivacious and tenacious, but then is also ubiquitous and by its nature quite neglected. I feel like that is also the experience for so many women of color, myself included. We’re constantly being rejected or told that we’re not doing the right things or that our work isn’t what some organization wants, yet there is so much beauty and strength in persevering and really fighting for your own way of existing.

At the time Hi Wildflower was conceived I had just been laid off and was having a hard time finding a job in the media world. My dad’s a chemist so I had grown up doing science experiments with him and had developed a real interest in perfumery and the chemistry behind it all. So there I was, without a job but with all of these skills that no one knew how to put together, and that’s what entrepreneurship really is, using those skills and finding a gap that you can fill them with. I really liked the idea of a beauty brand that reflected luxury in a more lighthearted yet authentic way, one where I could still express myself artistically. So I just went for it, and now we’ve been stocked in over 100 stores and have had orders from the likes of Urban Outfitters and Lorde & Taylor. This venture has really taught me resilience – it can be really overwhelming at times as I try to juggle so many other things but that’s where a good team and amazing friends who support and help you come in. It’s also been really exciting to grow a beauty company in a time where other representative beauty brands, like Fenty, are emerging.

LF: Despite being heavily conditioned to only value Eurocentric ideals of beauty, we’re living in an exciting time where these ideals are being challenged and the idea of “beauty” is being reclaimed to its own definition. Can you tell me when this journey of denouncing Eurocentric beauty began for you?

TNI: I was seven when I rejected the peach crayon to draw myself, and opted for brown and tan, but I would say high school is when I really started coming into my political and feminist consciousness and my sense of fashion and style.

LF: What do you mean by a feminist fragrance line?

TNI: At the heart of it is valuing and perpetuating ritual and self care. This is a part of our liberation strategy as people of color, and the creations of Hi Wildflower are made to give a sense of that to people. Also, lets be real, fragrance and perfumery and the quest for natural materials was very tied to colonial expansion, and we are on the other side of that as the people who were colonized, so the products also serve to send a message of reclamation. It’s also an act of creating more space for women of color in this industry. Why should only white men be considered master perfumers? Why should all these materials be used only to make clean, clinical concept fragrances? I’m very inspired by taking materials from the natural world, as well as aroma chemicals, and creating a very complex and nuanced product. In making scents, I want to raise awareness about ecological devastation and environmental consciousness, as to me that is also feminism. For example, I made a sandalwood perfume that is based on both royal Hawaiian sandalwood and Indian sandalwood, both of which were historically and dangerously deforested for profit, but I used sandalwood that was part of a reforestation project in order to acknowledge that history. I’m also trying to redefine what beautifying means. It’s not just to feel good or attract a man but to literally be wearing the earth on your skin or wearing a story on your skin and being immersed in something that is an experience.

LF: Tell me about some of the new projects you’re working on. 

TNI: I have so many new projects! I recently completed a podcast called Mala. Mala in Bangla means a flower garland, but in Spanish it means “bad woman.” The writer in me loves double entendres and I wanted to make a line of perfumes dedicated to women that society deemed “bad.” Through my makeup artist, I met a woman who had been incarcerated for 25 years and now has a catering company. I wanted to know her story and make a perfume with her. It turned out she lived in a house with five other women who had also been incarcerated. So the podcast explores their stories of survival and the perfumes are a metaphor for their feelings of freedom after being trapped inside of something. It’s been very emotionally compelling but it’s also brought me back to my original career, which was a social justice organizer. I used to do a lot of street theater and community work making plays with survivors of incest and rape, as well as running protests. I’ve moved away from that because writing a novel and running a business takes up all your time, but I’m always trying to create synergies and connected tissues between things I’m doing. This was a way to connect with the part of me that’s an activist and the fire in me that comes from wanting a more liberated world.

For Hi Wildflower, I recently launched a collection called Mati Rose (mati means earth in Bangla). I feel like we’re in such a cold, fascist time and I want to really reconnect with the earth and my culture, so the collection is full of very grounded colors, lots of pinks and browns.

I’ve also been working on my second book, Stellar Smoke. It’s about a woman who renders herself in AI and her estranged daughter discovers her AI after her death. It’s very futuristic. The daughter is a perfumer and was not close with her mother whilst alive but through the AI she bonds with her mother over their sense of smell and connection to nature.

LF: Without revealing your trade secrets, how do you come up with the various concoctions for your fragrances and lipsticks?

TNI: Creating a fragrance is building layers of base, heart, and top notes to create a composition that is alluring, addictive, and memorable. I start conceptually or with a specific place/memory in mind, and start to work through this in my imagination, much like my writing process. For example, I’m working on a new fragrance, NAPALI, one of several olfactory accompaniments to my novel-in-progress, Stellar Smoke. I wanted to recreate the scent of Hala (screwpine) trees wafting off the Napali coast in Kauai. I found a gorgeous Kewda oil from India, which is the same plant, but distilled into attars and ruhs. Building on the Kewda note, I want to incorporate marine, green, and woodsy notes to recall this distinct scent.

LF: I want to ask you about your process – so many writers are lucky just to have one book out there. You have one under your belt, another one coming, a business, and a podcast.  How do you do it?

TNI: I’ve definitely had to make some lifestyle changes. Writing is its own beast and I need to divide my days, so one week might be all podcast editing, doing business admin, and cleaning up my space and then when I’m ready I’ll take a chunk of time to go write. I recently spent three weeks in Joshua Tree just to write. It’s a very European mentality of valuing holidays and taking time for yourself that we’re not very good at doing in the States. I also acknowledge that it is a privilege to do that and I definitely don’t take that for granted.

You also need to know when you need help and ask for that help. I have an amazing team who has my back and will come into the studio when I can’t or when I need to switch gears. It’s also really important to have some sort of a routine for release. Every day I put on music and dance, and that’s a wonderful release for me.

LF: Turning to your first book, Bright Lines, it was important to see how the book grapples with themes like queerness, brownness and identity from a first generation standpoint. You’ve been writing about these themes for a long time now, from a time when it was nowhere in mainstream dialogue. What’s your reaction to seeing much more writing on these issues all over the internet today by a younger generation of women of color?

TNI: I’m a believer in stirring all of the pots at the same time. That’s how I cook, that’s how I create my perfumes. Fiction is a very specific lens to see the world – it has no boundaries and you can do whatever you want. In an essay or opinion piece, you are abiding to a certain truth based on a nonfictional story. So I’ve created something that hopefully will withstand time for as long as it can, and people who are writing essays and other pieces that will be consumed in a specific context, will also withstand time in a different way. We’re all working towards the same goal, which is liberation. If we’re trying to create a hierarchy of what’s liberatory and what’s not, then that’s part of the oppressive structure that we’re fighting against. I think creating in a world where white supremacy is all we know, there’s such a sense of self-hate, self-loathing and self-doubt, and I think part of that is being like, “Oh I’m on this issue first, watch out!” It’s kind of like Solange’s album, A Seat at the Table. There’s many seats at the table and I want all of my brothers and sisters to be seated at the table. I don’t feel like there is only one space for one voice, I feel like that’s what we’re fighting against. Be the age that you are. What a 21 year old writes is so valid – I see young people writing so prolifically because that’s what the internet has created. I have this business and the internet allows me to do it. When I graduated from college, there was no Instagram or ability to start up a business as a WOC without an investor. I find a lot of community with people of all ages. I want to be a timeless person, not a person thats like, “You don’t know whats up.” That is boring and aging!

LF: I love that! So inclusive and uplifting. Speaking of social media, what is your relationship with technology? I have a love/hate relationship with it and constantly need to go on mini tech detoxes. I think that everyone has to do the work in figuring out their relationship and attachment. I feel that Instagram can really be a social disease, but at the same time I’m also grateful for it. It’s allowed me to connect with people and share interests. How have you navigated your work around it?

TNI: Every year for the winter solstice I totally go dark on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I just stop using it. Last year on December 20th, I stopped for a month and I only worked on art that I wanted to create and not worry about other people seeing me. I will say on days that I’m not feeling great and I need extra validation or some love, I will post photos of myself or the work that I’m doing. And I think that’s pretty common, but there’s also a judgment that can go with that, but again we didn’t see representation of people like us being fabulous in a social way or in media, so I don’t judge it, but rather applaud seeing other brown women looking fly. The darker side is when social media can create this feeling like I’m not enough or I’m not doing enough. I think that is very toxic. I’ve even had arguments with my partner where I see something online and it stirs up a feeling and I’ll pick a fight with him and he really checks me and is like, “You’re totally just saying this because you just read something on Facebook,” and I’m like, “You’re right!” On the other hand, it’s a great way to know what’s going on in the world. Thankfully I’m not as addicted as the generation after me.

LF: What is your definition of success or having made it?

TNI: Balancing the constant cycle of creation, letting the world experience your work, never getting too comfortable in what you know. I want to live with love and compassion and learn from so-called failures. Living through new experiences or new forms to get closer to that creation. Kindness and humility heighten success.

LF: Finally, what do you regard as sacred?

TNI: Time to explore my lover, my loved ones, and my creative work.

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