Gina in The Horsehead Nebula in Infrared from Hubble, © NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team
Gina and I have not yet met, but she left a lovely, smell-related comment on a link to V.V. Ganeshananthan's interview and, when I immediately pounced, asking if she'd be willing to write more on fragrant matters, she was gracious enough to accept. (Readers, please remember that I welcome your nominations for potential nosy interviewees!) Gina is currently at work on The Volcano-Daughters, a novel set in El Salvador, Hollywood, and France, during the 1930s and 1940s. While you wait, you can read more of her nonfiction on the Michigan Quarterly Review blog.
What do you smell like?
I consulted several close friends to answer this question, and the consensus was nearly unanimous: rose. (My sweetheart, however, said that I smell “nice,” and “like the best.” Outlier). This rosy ruling flattered by vanity. My efforts have been rewarded! I tend to spray myself several times a day with a neon-pink plastic bottle of rosewater that can be found in many health food stores. The mysterious text on the bottle’s label reads: “Recommended in the Edgar Cayce Readings” and “Vor-mag Water (water that has been vortexed and magnetized to raise the energy to a higher vibration that we believe to be more beneficial).” Beneficial for what purpose, I am not sure. But I do find it refreshing, and I am fond of its reviving, rosy scent. I use this magic water in lieu of hairspray, and, often, in lieu of smelling salts. I use a German rose oil in a green glass bottle on my body instead of lotion, and I like rosehip oil on my lips. In a pharmacy in Geneva, I bought two cheap, tiny vials of perfume oil, which I like to dab on my wrists and neck after the shower: one is amber, the other vanilla. I love that amber in a glass bottle looks exactly as it should, honeyed and luminous, and smells just like the color of the veined golden stone. There are no cheap and luminous vials of perfume oil in the pharmacies of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I now live. A dear poet friend of mine, Gala Mukomolova, who smells like sweet milk, told me that in addition to roses, I smell of baking bread. Perhaps this is also true. In the grocery store’s personal care aisle, I like to pick up those expensive handmade bars of soap and hold them to my nose--I usually go home with almond or bee pollen or camomile or red clay with rose, or sometimes, more rarely, cucumber. My very favorite soap is made of sandalwood, but I’ll get to that in the next question.
What do you like to smell?
I love smelling cardamom and real vanilla, good gin that is particularly rosy, honey, honey, honey, Mysore sandalwood soap that comes in a red cardboard box with pink roses and a tiny elephant, amber oil in the glass bottle, violets, the Redwood forest, the sunwarmed calico head of my favorite cat, Olive, olive oil, truffle oil, creosote, a Sonoran desert plant that smells just like summer monsoons, and fresh rosemary. Leather guitar cases (and the shiny wood and inner felt and nylon strings of a classical guitar), a special tea made from bergamot oil and sage. Library books, of course, who doesn’t? Especially in the spring and summer, I love the scent of a golden hour picnic on a wooden porch: rosé, cantaloupe, strawberries. Also, lavender, champagne, fistfuls of mint, purple thai basil, lemongrass, cherries, and ruby-red grapefruits sliced in half. I am pleased that my plan to smell like roses has succeeded in the noses of my friends, because I like the smell of large, velvety roses in surprising colors--violet-streaked, magenta, and cream--best.
I like the smell of a new broom, which I suppose is just straw. My friend, fiction writer, Jide Adebayo-Begun, told me about a Hausa idiom which means the knot at the center of the straw broom, typically referring to a deep and lasting bond of friendship or love between people. There’s also the tinny, winterfresh smell of cheap men's shaving cream, but only on the skin of my sweetheart. A few years ago, I gave him one of those fancy-hippie shaving kits that smells of cedar and pine and the earthiness of some sort of real hair that was collected to make the brush. He didn’t really use it, and his beard smells sometimes like Walgreens shaving cream, when it is neat, and like a dense human forest--rosewood, clean wool sweaters, and river stones--when it is tufty.
In childhood, I was fond of a particular marker, a bright, Lisa Frank turquoise, that smelled precisely as that color should, like the Pacific Ocean, juicyfruit gum, and strawberry lipgloss, but was named, curiously, “mango.” Another strange dissonance: as a kid, I used to walk up a hill to eat ice cream, past an auto body shop with oily rainbows on the sidewalk. Then and now, the smell of diesel exhaust makes me crave ice cream, usually cherry.
When I was a bad teen, I would go to bonfires on Ocean or Baker Beach, and return home smelling exactly like a Honeybaked Ham. What did you do tonight? My parents would ask. Nothing, I would say. Once or twice I smoked those clove cigarettes, to which many sensitive, melancholy teenagers find themselves drawn for a quick moment of cliché, and which are terrible, but which attempt to smell, via crude, poisonous, chemical shorthand, mystical and leathery and like a good autumn cake. These days, when my nose desires such fiery warmth, I prefer the scent of lapsung souchang tea, which is campfire smoke and spice, or the scent of actual autumn cakes baked in my oven with real cloves and cinnamon and cardamom.
Two old chestnuts most everyone enjoys smelling: chestnuts roasting beneath beaten-up pans on chilly city street corners and hot coffee. Right now, I’m working on a novel in which coffee plays an important role. Coffee is magic and nose-magnetic in the cup, but in the fields of El Salvador, just after the harvest, the rotting berries smell truly terrible, in a bodily sense. I was on a train there a few years ago, and the ticket-collector arrived beside my seat, a gust of something truly foul blew in through the window, and for a moment I thought that the ticket-collector was ill. But that foul gust was the coffee outside, those soft, red berries.