Tanaïs,The Founder Of Beauty Brand Hi Wildflower On Promoting Inclusivity
Her personality and life are as layered and nuanced as the characters she creates and the perfumes she concocts. But instead of being trapped between preconceived stereotypes, she has used the amalgamation of who she is (queer, femme, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Hindu, Bengali, American, diasporic), to build the foundation of a new identity — Tanaïs — a portmanteau of the first three letters of her birth names. “I’ve never felt limited by any of those identities; I see them as an abundance. It’s my turn to address the deeper issues — namely gender-based oppression and the complexity of our sexualities. I take it upon myself to illuminate the lives of characters who embody the confluence of histories that have created our modern South Asian diaspora,” she asserts.
Her change of name is one part of her quest to claim an unpoliced space for expression and empowerment. “I grew up as Tanwi Nandini Islam, a name that signifies my Bangladeshiness, since we’re the only ones who use Islam as a surname. My parents opted for a Sanskritic first name because of their love for poetry. Secularity is important to them and they lost so much during the 1971 Liberation War. However, as a writer, I want to craft my own visions, my own universes, on my own terms,” she explains.
For Tanaïs, the call of the written word came early — at just six years old, actually, when she wrote little books for her classmates. Her 2015 debut novel, Bright Lines, with Penguin Books, is set in Brooklyn and Bangladesh. It traces the journey of three young women — and one family — who are seeking to come to terms with their past. It was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and the Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize. Her second book, Stellar Smoke, is a work in progress.
Her love for the art of storytelling and perfumery is also an inherited one — her father, a chemist, dreamt of writing novels but didn’t have the time or luxury to pursue it. But the founder of Hi Wildflower does have strong olfactory memories from when she was growing up, and recalls one in particular, “I had bronchitis and pneumonia as a child, and the medicines I was taking were making me nauseous. So, my nani dipped some jasmine attar on cotton balls and stuck them in my ears, to calm me down. That memory of jasmine has never left me.”
An emotional reaction to scent is what draws us into choosing a perfume; Tanaïs doesn’t doubt the psychological power of smell to bring back memories. This affinity for the aromas of nature combined with a wish to create something new is what resulted in a line of handcrafted products with wildflowers as a muse. Her beauty brand comprises high—pigment lipsticks infused with natural non-toxic ingredients, hand-poured soy candles, intoxicating perfume oils, and even opulent nail lacquers and limited-edition palettes. For instance, the colours of the moonlight over the waters of the Bay of Bengal and its jungle foliage found their way into a shimmering eyeshadow quartet of the same name. Her offerings, with evocative names like Ancients and Lovers Rock, are steeped in the essence of ingredients that grow free and wild, and their effect is enhanced by her knowledge of herbalism and rare blooms. “I love working with Indian flowers and attars. Jasminum grandiflorum, tuberose, sandalwood, and mitti attar are among the materials I love to use,” she lists. “My inspiration starts with either a fragrance note or a story. For example, I was travelling in Hawaii with my partner, and we went on a catamaran ride on the Na Pali Coast. This gorgeous honeyed note wafted through the air, and the captain told me it was the scent of hala, or Padanus (screw pine), which is also found in India (ruh kewda). I sourced some kewda to recreate this feeling of travelling along the scented coast of Hawaii.”
Tanaïs has managed to find the right blend of both passions. “I am a keen observer of flowers and trees — knowing the name or history or usage of plants makes my fiction and my perfuming come alive to me. My work is laced with sensual, historical details, and perfumery is applied chemistry, after all.
Her intuition for weaving stories around the senses spurred the creation of MALA: Blooms & Bad Women, a podcast that featured formerly incarcerated women. Talking about its inception, Tanaïs says, “I wanted to craft perfumes with women who’d been incarcerated because I kept thinking of traumatic memory and how scent must be central to this. I met with a host of women who’d recently been released from prison and to my delight, they were all very into perfumes. And it made sense; they had been denied alcohol-based perfumes since they’re considered contraband. They were only allowed attars, sold by Muslim imams (who buy them from a Bangladeshi—owned oil supplier that I also use!). There were so many synergies that I had to document it.”
Beauty and make-up play an equally significant role in Tanaïs’ life. “Seeing my mother wear a sari, jewellery and perfume, and go out to a party in full regalia is a cherished memory of mine. Being an immigrant from Bangladesh meant she had to deal with racism, learning English and making a living doing laborious work. Over time, she completely transformed into the woman she is today. I think of beauty and fragrance as armour, a way to protect yourself against the world, with a ritual that is yours,” she says. She considers herself lucky to have grown up in a family where brown skin is loved and cherished. “However, I also grew up in a Muslim household where I wasn’t allowed to show my legs or arms. So, I am in a place in life where I love being a bodied, brown woman who wears what she wants,” she says. Armed with such a backstory, the expertise and innate desire to break open make-up doors for brown skin, Tanaïs developed the earth-toned Matí (the Bengali word for clay, terracotta, soil) lipstick and eyeshadow collection which, she says, reflects the sentiment of inclusion. “Growing up in the States, I never gravitated towards the so-called nudes because they always looked pale and ashen on me. But as I travelled the world, and to my motherland Bangladesh, I discovered and loved how the earth — deserts, beaches, canyons, mountains — mirrors the tones of brown skin. I wanted to play with these hues in a way that women of colour could wear them on their own skin.”
Every colour is tested on a variety of skin tones before being finalised, and it has to be something that she would wear too. Tanaïs adds, “I remember running out of my foundation when I was living in Delhi. I went to a mall and was dismayed to find that the colours available went from very pale to medium brown — nothing for deep brown — a tragedy considering I was in India. Beauty has always been about upholding the dominant culture’s standards. I wanted to create a palette of shades inspired by nature for everyone.”
Her own skincare routine is surprisingly low-key. She has tried all the popular American beauty fads such as Korean skincare or Ayurvedic products only to have them clog her pores. Looking at her own heritage made her realise that “Our melanin is a gift — the older women in my family don’t have wrinkles!”
And now she finds that simplicity is key. “A blend of squalane (an olive-oil-derived emollient) and essential oils of lavender, geranium and orange really keep my skin from getting inflamed. I double wash my face, moisturise with this blend and get facials every few months,” she reveals.
Given the number of things on her plate (which includes settling into newly married life), it seems that she would need an almost unlimited supply of energy just to keep up, but starting a beauty business, she mentions, happened organically. “I struggle with retaining the niche aspect of my brand while also growing large enough to be profitable and self—sustaining. We’ve had incredible growth over the last four years, and I’ve expanded from fragrance into beauty seamlessly thanks to my wondrous customers and the stores that carry my brand.”
She credits the internet for much of her success, even though she admits that social media can be quite a distraction. “Many times a day I want to delete everything. Sometimes I even delete the Instagram app from my phone, or deactivate my Facebook account but I think the positives are that it has allowed people of colour to have a voice and for justice and movements against sexual violence or misogyny to spread, and for me. to find my tribe of other brown folks living on their own terms. My business would never exist without it and without my livelihood, I wouldn’t be able to write.” Speaking as a woman of colour, she urges, “Our stories are infinite, interesting, and need to be told. We have this notion that if one of us gets there ‘first’, it means it’s too late for the rest of us, and that’s absolutely false.”
A staunch activist for gender, social and political equality, she had an emotional reaction to the recent ruling overthrowing Section 377 to decriminalise homosexuality in India. “I cried tears of joy when I read about it. I lived in New Delhi the year before the first Queer Pride Parade (2008). I remember the preparations and I felt how important and inspiring this work is for India. There is still a very long way to go in terms of gender equality and ending patriarchal violence and misogyny in every single aspect of Indian and South Asian life, throughout diasporas. Our collective cultural shame against sex needs to be shifted. We need to be open and positive and inclusive about the fact that we are having sex!”
Tanaïs, who will return to India for the Jaipur Literature Festival in January next year, still has a strong connection to the country from her time spent here. “There is a creative energy that I loved being immersed in. Not to mention that I lived in Lajpat Nagar, right next to many tailor shops. I loved how I could design new bed sheets or dresses and bring them to life with the innumerably talented people who work hard to make a life for themselves. The sheer breadth of human existence, and all brown folk at that, is something I miss, as a minority in the US. When I’m there, I don’t feel like a minority, I belong to a billion folks.”
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