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Transcendent Compositions: On Making Perfume and Writing Fiction

The word perfume means through smoke, a reference to the sacred incense, resin, and woods that define spiritual practice in every culture. Our ancestors used perfumed materials for embalming, for ceremony, to mask the scent of death and disease. Beyond luxury or aspiration, a perfume is a smoke signal worn on the body, a way to convey who we are, while drawing a protective border between ourselves and the world. I consider the years before I became a novelist and perfumer an olfactory field recording. In my notebooks, I write fragments of scent memories, illuminating the details of a specific place; they are the notes that shape my experience.

As a luxury good, we consider perfume both opulent and unnecessary. Modern advertisements for perfume, since the first Chanel No. 5 ads in 1921, feature lithe, white bodies selling a brand, a perception of wealth. Yet, where one might see a beautiful woman, I see the history of colonialism, an ongoing quest for fragrant materials. As the European appetite for spices, like nutmeg, black pepper, mace, cinnamon, and clove grew from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, so did their violent dominance over the world. In 1792, the Sultan of Mysore[1] declared Mysore sandalwood a holy tree, and forbade its sale to prevent over-harvesting. Sandalwood oil is extracted from its heartwood, which takes 30 years to become viable for distillation.

The strength and scent of the wood led to its prolific use in architecture, Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, incense and, by the 19th century, Western perfumery. When Indian sandalwood no longer became available to Chinese merchants, they started to trade with King Kamehameha, who had conquered and unified the islands Hawai’i. And so, because of a decree on the other side of the world, Hawaii entered a harrowing era of sandalwood trade. After King Kamehameha’s son, Liholiho ascended to power, he struck foreign trade agreements on sandalwood credit, forcing foresters to pay taxes to cover his debts, and to over-harvest the trees, until eventually, the native ‘iliahi was decimated.[2]

“Where one might see a beautiful woman, I see the history of colonialism, an ongoing quest for fragrant materials.”

I source Royal Hawaiian sandalwood from a family farm in Hawai’i. This farming is a new development after centuries of a dormant sandalwood economy. I use synthetic aroma-chemicals that mimic the warm velvet of the sandalwood without depleting natural sources; yet simultaneously, our ozone layer is being depleted by all of the fragrant volatile compounds emitted by nearly every single product we use.

Still, somewhere in this complex sensorial milieu, I have discovered perfuming and writing as ways to escape material borders—and my body. They are acts of ascension. They are psychic spaces unto myself. Each perfume or fictive landscape is a transcendent composition.

*

The women in my family wore perfumes they’d heard of back home in Bangladesh, displayed proudly on dressers when they came to own their own bottles. Throughout my childhood, my father struggled to find steady work as a chemist, while my mother, in typical Bangladeshi hustler fashion, worked in boutiques, movie theaters, and grocery stores while getting her Bachelors degree in Geography. Nina Ricci L’air du Temps stood exalted on my mother’s dresser in a tiny Missouri apartment. The frosted glass doves on the bottle’s cap exuded the elegance and wealth she coveted, away from the tiny apartments we lived in throughout my childhood. The ornate bottle mismatched its surroundings, just like my mother’s gold and saris hiding out in their dingy closet. On nights Ma worked concessions at the movie theater, my sister and I rubbed her feet, scented like buttery popcorn and faded jasmine.

My mother’s love of perfume is undoubtedly an inheritance from my grandmother, our Nanu, who became a U.S. citizen before her children. Nanu’s tastes were village girl through and through: she loved a bright red lip and attar of jasmine, a narcotic floral with an animal stink. I trace its scent back to a memory of having pneumonia as a kid. One morning, when I couldn’t stop throwing up bitter medicine, Nanu dipped a pair of cotton balls in her jasmine attar and tucked them into my ears. I lay with my head on her lap, until the scent lulled me to sleep. Whereas a body cannot escape circumstance—in my grandmother’s case, she married at 13, did not finish school and lost her son and husband at a young age—a perfume lets us do so, if only for a moment. In one breath, I experienced illness, relief, love, and history. A single olfactory moment distills a myriad emotions and experiences, just as one line can illuminate an entire story.

Our sense of scent has a limited vocabulary. Across known languages, anthropologists have found fewer words for our olfactory experience than any other sensation[3]. So, we speak of our olfactory experience in similes and metaphors. We reach for language to describe smells in relation to our other senses. Bright, green, metallic, smoky, floral, fecal, loud, round, sharp, or citrus are words I might use, but these notes can be traced to objects, not the odors themselves. My favorite perfumes are slightly addictive, like the feeling of devouring a book. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, wrote about our sense of smell as “the mute sense, the one without words.” This reminds me of our bacterial ancestors who navigated chemical environments with a primitive sense of smell.

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My family ping-ponged across the country: Texas, Alabama, Missouri, as my father, a PhD in chemistry, sought steady work. We settled in New York in 1992. After 26 years here, I consider myself a New Yorker. New York is where I discovered my predilection for language, music, and perfume. These three tendrils are braided into a ritual I developed as an 11-year-old. I would lock the door to my parents’ bedroom, crank up the stereo, spray my mother’s perfume, and dance. (Not much has changed, though now I have my own perfume). Music that explored Black women’s desires and heartaches lit up my adolescence—Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill. They were my first feminist anthems. Their lyricism made me understand for the first time that our personal experiences were political. The moment when we grasp this, for each one of us, is unnerving.

The disintegration of my Muslim-ness began around this time—I wanted to show my blossoming figure—but my folks forbade skirts above the knee, revealing tops. Perfume let me translate my sensuality and my body into the world. I felt alienated from Islam, yet I shared the desire to express myself through scent. It’s always struck me as no coincidence that in the South Asian and Muslim diaspora, where women’s modesty is central to society, the most popular fragrances are showy and sexy, loaded with jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and oud. This duality is in a liminal space between shame and solidarity. It’s where I search when I write fiction

“A single olfactory moment distills a myriad emotions and experiences, just as one line can illuminate an entire story.”

No matter how many candles we lit or air fresheners we sprayed at home, the sizzle of spices clung to the walls of our house, our skin, our hair. I spent my hard-earned money from a retail job at the mall on clothes, cigarettes, and smelling like the tropics. I wanted to erase the sharp smell of curry. I wore Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers and used coconut-floral shampoos and conditioners. I was in a relationship with an Indian Christian boy who slathered himself in Polo and worked at Burger King. A few months into dating, I started calling myself Indian, trying out an identity that Americans recognized, unlike Bangladeshi. And what was more American than a nice Christian girl? It seemed like a victimless lie to pretend.

“What are you wearing? Take that thing off. You’re a Muslim!” My mother snapped when she caught the glint of my boyfriend’s cross on my neck. Where I saw love, my mother saw sin. When we inevitably broke up, I returned the cross, but kept his last gift to me—16 bottles of the Victoria’s Secret body splashes I coveted: Love Spell, Pear Glacé, and Enchanted Apple among the lot. For a year, I’d left our hookups smelling like the mall. We were not meant to be together, despite our attempt to mask the smell of where we came from.

My scent memories are sites of assemblage, where I honor history and family and self. Where once I tried to hide who I was through fragrance, now, when I compose a perfume, I work from a profound sense of place. Each composition is its own universe, with its own accords. To summon the beach, I might use seaweed or eucalyptus absolute or fatty coconut. To transport the wearer to New Delhi, a blend of henna attar, incense, rose and marigold, like the scent of garlands in a market. Perfume and fiction are both elaborate methods of making sense of this world. They grant me a momentary respite from living in this body.

*

[1] They came for sandalwood : a study of the sandalwood trade in the south-west Pacific, 1830-1865 / Dorothy Shineberg

[2] Kamehameha II : Liholiho and the impact of change /​ Julie Stewart Williams and Suelyn Ching Tune ; illustrated by Robin Yoko Racoma, Kamehameha Schools Press, 2001

[3] Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott, London and New York, Routledge, 1994.

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