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Perfume Provides a Map of Memory and History in This Powerful Memoir

Our sense of smell is the most direct window to our memory. In Sensorium, Tanaïs’ collection of thoughts, prayers, historical mapping, scent studies and reflections, is the wooden frame to this window, a gateway weathered by hundreds and thousands of years of storms, sun, wind and floods. As a self-identified queer Muslim South Asian femme perfumer, Tanaïs uses their craft of scent composure as a mean of inviting us into a rich account of their intersectional identities.

We’re engulfed in the thoughts of a true contemplative, someone who traces histories and experiential knowledge through the physicality of memories. They narrate these by prefacing each chapter with a scent profile, as if they are creating and composing the base, head, and heart of their own, their family’s, their people’s histories. For example, “Ngozi–Perfume Interlude” is a chapter of their life recalled through their friendship with their college friend, Ngozi. The title prepares a scent profile:

White Grapefruit 
Fir Needle 

Ylang Ylang 
Milk of Jasmine 
Tahitian Gardenia 
Cannabis Flower 

Somalian Myrrh 
White Musk 
Black Frankincense 
Madagascar Vanilla 

The text reads as a dynamic cross between vulnerable vignettes, spiritual meditations and historical retellings. Tanaïs invites us into the ever-changing scenery of their childhood, exploring their sexuality, navigating their current relationship, sharing stories about their parents, grandparents and ancestors affected by the violence against Bangladeshi people. We’re given full sensory glimpses into their travels throughout India, Bangladesh, and across the US, as well as small moments of intimacy in their Brooklyn apartment.

While there are many throughline themes including colonialism, classism, sexuality and generational trauma, something that really struck me was the depth in which they tie their faith into their life’s work. Everything they write, observe, mull over, is inherently spiritual. They make this association between divinity, scent, and identity as one entity, ebbing and flowing within one another. The relationship Tanaïs holds with each of these is gentle and striking; claiming the identity of queer Muslim South Asian femme is only a title in which to convey hundreds of stories of violence, oppression, supremacy, isolation, anger, and devastation.

As someone who is not Muslim and not predominantly South Asian, a lot of the history and politics recounted in this book were new to me. The subtitle, “Notes For My People,” gives way to an experience between the writer and reader that is meant to be either painfully familiar or creatively demanding. As an outsider to their experience as a queer Muslim femme, I am actively given the choice to confront what I don’t know. However, it would be an insult to call In Sensorium educational, as it is a work of passion and documentation far more complex and personal. Despite it being “notes for [their] people,” this journey of scent as told through generational violence, trauma, and healing calls for readers to become familiar with a smell — an experience — completely new to them, a place where the only option is to listen. Tanaïs possibly anticipates this moment within the act of perfuming itself:

“When I compose a perfume, I want to transcend families and classifications. Perhaps that makes my scent memories illegible to some. This smells more like a place, than a perfume I read in a review of one of my fragrances, Mala, inspired by fragrant flower garlands and trails of incense, a dirty rose inspired by New Delhi. Precisely, bitch, I want to tell her, I made that perfume as a brown-skinned woman in a brown-skinned land, and I wanted to hold the city close to me. For some us, language, trauma, labor, and land cannot be extricated from, why we perfume (145-146).”

As a lover of fragrances from independent artists, I decided to purchase their scent, Mojave, solely based on the description of the place: “Stargazing the night sky at Joshua Tree, the air punctuated by herbaceous high desert notes, with sacred Brazilian black copal, wild white sage, eucalypt and palo santo piercing the cool air, grounded by base notes of leather, mitti attar and oud.”

Indeed when I smell it…I can believe I’m really there. This is exactly what makes it true craftspersonship. Everything from the scent profile to the viscosity holds a history that is visceral.

This is no different from their writing. As a devout memoir enthusiast, I can honestly say I’ve never read a book like this: pieces of life strung together through senses and stimuli. In Sensorium is robust, assured and sacrosanct.

In Sensorium is available now.

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Em Win

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Em now lives in Los Angeles where she does many odd jobs in addition to writing. When she's not sending 7-minute voice messages to friends and family, she enjoys swimming, yoga, candle-making, tarot, drag, and talking about the Enneagram.

Em has written 73 articles for us.

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