“I was born Tanwi Nandini Islam, but I’m Tanaïs now. It's a moniker that I'm using as a kind of liberatory space that’s free of patriarchy, free of lineage. My parents are immigrants from Bangladesh. My dad is trained as a chemist, and my mom spent most of her time in the US as a banker, but that has all shifted throughout their time here. I lived in Missouri and I have very distinct memories of encountering racism. I went to Robert E. Lee elementary school. I encountered people who didn't know what to make of me. In first grade, my teacher thought I didn't know how to read and she called me Tony. I'm not black, I'm not white, and when people asked me what I was, I would say, ‘I'm tan, I'm brown.’ I would name crayon colors because I didn't know how to talk about myself. It wasn’t until I was 14 when I said I was bisexual or bi-curious—these are 90s terms. And then I went to Vassar, which is like the gayest place ever. I was like, 'I'm home.'
EDUCATION + CAREER
There's a point with every writer, where you realize that if you don't speak [your truth] aloud, write [your truth] aloud, then it becomes a thing where you feel like you won’t be able to live with yourself. It becomes this burning idea you need to tell, and for me I always knew I wanted to write a novel. In college, I actually gravitated towards theater, so I was writing plays that really brought in my Bengali culture, but also queerness, sexuality, and walking away from religion. I grew up with Islam as my religion, and anyone who has broken free from a religious milieu knows the pain and terror of that. I had walked away from religion around the time I became sexually active in high school. That was a fraught experience, but as soon as I wanted to explore my sexuality, and not wear modest clothes, and not pray, and not fast, I thought, 'Oh, I don't know if I can love myself in this [religious] context.'
My agent was blowing up my phone, saying that I had a deal from Penguin, and did I want to take it? I knew that day my whole life was going to change.
After I graduated, my first job was at Make The Road New York. It's a nonprofit community organizing center that works on a multitude of issues, from environmental justice, to workplace justice, to youth justice. I worked with youth starting in 2004, doing theater, creative writing, organizing—all to help activate their desire to protest. After 10 years of that, I decided that I needed to start thinking about what I want to be. I got my MFA at Brooklyn College, and that helped me pivot into writing. I couldn’t live off my writing though, so I got a job at a startup as a brand manager, but six months later everything fell apart there, and right around my 30th birthday I became unemployed. I was living off $400 a week, and unemployment, and Medicaid. That is when my [fragrance and beauty line] Hi Wildflower came about. I tried to get other jobs in media and brand management, but no one would hire me. So I taught myself Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator... I started Hi Wildflower in the most basic way, and each time I made money I would re-invest into what I was doing. My mom gave my $5,000 to start, and it's been humbling because you can't help but feel shitty about how hard it is as a woman of color to establish yourself as a person in a professional sense. But also creating something from scratch without people actually believing it's possible is shitty. Now we're in over 100 stores. People have supported my business with such love and openness. All of my models are writers or people I really respect. It's not about being young and perfect. I'm a writer! I'm half scumbag and half creative person! And I needed people who could embody the complexity of that.
My novel Bright Lines came out a year after I started Hi Wildflower. I remember I was running a conference for Step Up Women's Network, which was a place where I would work with young women of color to get them jobs at places like Google and LinkedIn and West Elm, and my agent was blowing up my phone, saying that I had a deal from Penguin, and did I want to take it? I knew that day my whole life was going to change.
Psychedelics help me think, in terms of multiplicity. Also, queer people and queer people of color have wounds that have been created from rejection and abandonment. That pain needs to be rectified spiritually, and these drugs can help with that. I went to this conference a few weeks ago in San Francisco called Queering Psychedelics. I listened to a doctor who gave psilocybin, the chemical in mushrooms, to gay men who survived the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Hearing how they got a sense of community and peace that they hadn't felt in decades... that to me was a very beautiful way of realizing the multiplicity, the rainbow in everything. It's complicated, and that's what queerness is.
I'm not a purist on anything. I hate the branding of things as ‘clean’ or ‘green’ or ‘non-toxic’—I find it to be weirdly triggering. I am a devotee of a line that my friend started, called MS Skincare. Her name is Anit Hora, she's a trained Ayurvedic herbalist. The Skin Perfecting Cleanser has geranium and rose, and it smells lovely. It's balancing and made to work with my skin type, which is oily. So I start with that, and then I use Sofia rosewater, followed by this Illume Radiance Enhancing Moisturizer—you really only need a pea-sized amount. If I’ve had a rough week, I will do this beautiful brightening cleansing enzyme mask called MS Skin Jaipur, which has pumpkin and papaya, and all these beautiful ingredients.
Before I go to bed, I do Anit's glycolic treatment that has hibiscus and rosewater. I can use that pretty much every night because it's really gentle. And then for my bougie moments, I have Omorovicza Acid Fix. Embryolisse for me is just an easy hand cream moment. And maybe I'll put it on my eyes. I don't really go hard with that one, because it has a lot of stuff in it that feels like silicone. I have First Aid Beauty's Facial Radiance Pads for when I'm wanting a little chemical-meets-physical. I do have one oil—neem oil. It smells like ass, but if I have any kind of scar, I'll just throw that on to brighten it. And for SPF, I'm really into Supergoop Setting powder right now—it’s tinted and I put it on top of my makeup. Once I do that, I just spray the Sofia on top to kind of seal in everything.
When I was younger, I asked an auntie why she didn’t wear eyeshadow. I must have been 19, and she goes, "Honey, when you're old you don't want to wear eyeshadow that much." I thought to myself that I never want to be old! I love eyeshadow! But now I'm like, "Yeah, eyeshadow feels like I'm trying too hard sometimes." So if I use it, I'll put one line on top of my eyeliner to give it a very dramatic mod look. Or I’ll put NYX Shimmer Down Pigment in SDP03 in my inner corners. Just really simple. I love all different types of makeup, but for me, I prefer a lip, a wing, and that's it. I use Pat McGrath liquid black eyeliner—I might choose this over sex. It has a felt tip, it's jet black, and it doesn't come off unless you're sweating your ass off.
I use Pat McGrath liquid black eyeliner—I might choose this over sex.
For foundation, I have Fenty Pro Filt'r in 370, and I use it for oily days. I will say that my skin is a little too old for this to look great. I think I'm in that transition period of needing more moisturizing stuff. The matte look is beautiful, but it can start to look very dry and severe. I don't use a Beautyblender because I don't want to put plastic in the ocean, so I use my fucking hands because they're my Beautyblenders. Then I mostly use this NARS concealer in Caramel to cover my little hyperpigmentation on my cheeks. And Lovejoy from Nars is such a nice blush. I have a Fenty stick I use when I'm going to the beach or summering, and it's just a peachy glittery shimmer. I just do it on my cheekbones—it’s called Yacht Lyfe. On my brows I use a mascara really lightly—Better Than Sex. I get them threaded at Shobha, which is an Indian-owned threading salon. That's the basic routine, and then lipstick.
I wear lipstick every day. First of all, I was conditioned to wear it. [When I was younger] my mom would say, ‘Where's your lipstick? You need lipstick.’ I think it comes from a place of wanting to be powerful, presentable, and beautiful, and just ready to fucking go and meet the world with a fierceness that lipstick instills in whoever wears it. I use Hi Wildflower, and this is probably my most neutral one, Amber Dusk. I like lipsticks to be matte, and this actually is not drying. Oh, and my go-to when I want a matte liquid is Nars Lip Pigment in American Woman. I kind of love that it's called American Woman, because I can see anyone wanting to wear that color. Any race. It's like a rich, pinky color and I love that kind of tone.
All of Huda's colors really hit the spot. I love Passionista. And then I have this thing I got in Greenpoint on my way to my studio. This color is called Trespass, and it’s literally my favorite color on the planet. It's like ultraviolet. I will fucking rock a neon purple lip color—Nars Silvia is another one. But you can see the kind of colors I'm into. It's pinks and purples, and it kind of just adds to colors already happening in my skin tone.
Thank you to Kinloch Salon—I see Lorna. I had really bad alopecia from stress in my early 20s—my grandma discovered it when she was braiding my hair and screamed. I have huge bald patches—about nine of them. I have so much hair in general that I can cover them, but they’re there. I got steroid shots, I did head massages, I did meditation, I did cinnamon and all the things people tell you to try. That process of learning how to deal with it has been a very huge education for me for the past 15 years. I think you can be beautiful with alopecia, and I definitely had to learn how to love myself in that stage. And that was fucking hard, because you're not told that a woman who's going bald is beautiful when you're growing up. I literally just did all the things—got out of a bad relationship, got my healing together, and my hair started to grow back. And I think that's probably why I'm really into this long hair phase, but I will say, I use R+Co’s Atlantis shampoo and conditioner and air dry. Then I use R+Co Tinsel as an oil, but my favorite thing is Skinfood’s Argan Oil for hair. It just has a really silky texture. But I also don't wash my hair much. I got my hair done yesterday, and I probably won't wash it for three or four days. I did biotin for a while, but I think it was giving me pimples. I think the biotin activated this massive hair growth that I had, but now I'm like, 'No, let me let my body do the rest.'
I was using one of those razors that have the soap and the shaving together, and there's something very delicious about one thing getting rid of [body hair], but then there’s the microplastic... I thought, ‘Why am I doing this every time I need to remove hair? Let me use some cloth and wax like my ancestors.’ So I stopped shaving my legs and get waxed at Shobha. Then I use one of two oils—AUM Lavender from MS Skincare, and then DOHA, which is a luxurious sandalwood rose.
My go-to spa in New York City is Pratima Spa. I bow down to Pratima, she started a movement. I do Abhyanga massage, do Shirodhara, the head oil massage. That is a treatment to impart relaxation and clarity—they drop hot oil on the top of your head and it just melts down. But you know how it feels to get a little rub on the top of your head, and it just goes to your core and your toes? It's very orgasmic.
My summer fragrance right now is How You Love, from Jazmin Saraï. The perfumer, Dana El-Masri, is a friend of mine and she's an Arab woman. Yes, it's clean, but there's a honey jasmine sexiness to it. I met Dana at a trade show, and she was working with a fragrance company at the time as their master perfumer. We started talking about where we came from, and what it meant to make fragrances from places that have been the site of where these things are mined from, like the Middle East and India. We're using these materials to tell new stories. All the fragrances are based on songs, so this one’s based on a Sade song, and [Dana] wrote in a note to me to listen to ‘It's Only Love That Gets You Through’ as I sprayed it on for the first time. That song was really significant to me because the first play that I wrote played that song as a hymn in the background during a choreographed sexual assault scene. And to spray it on as a new way of experiencing the song was really a thing for me. So that's my summer scent.
And then I have to rep my own stuff because I wear it. It's all unisex and agender, and non-binary. I have Mojave in oil format, and it’s inspired by the desert. In there there's notes of palo santo. Night Blossom is another summer scent, and it’s inspired by the women in my family. Jasmine, neroli, just super classic, ripe, rich florals. Very narcotic. I love Frédéric Malle. Vetiver Extraordinaire is when I want to smell a little bit more woodsy, more rich. In the winter, I wear Jeke—it's discontinued by Slumberhouse. There's tobacco, diesel—it's very dark and heavy. They're all different, but they're all bodied. So I wear that in the wintertime. Another one from Jazmin Saraï is Neon Graffiti. It’s very citrus, kind of has a mango note to it. I don't know if that's what she was going for, but that's why I liked it.”
—as told to ITG
Tanaïs photographed by Tom Newton in New York on July 11, 2019.