Shobha Rao's debut novel, Girls Burn Brighter, is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. In addition to it being our choice for the best book of March, it's number five on our list of the best books of 2018 so far. Here's our interview with Rao, originally published on March 15.
Set initially in a rural town in modern India, Rao's novel gazes upon two girls, Poornima and Savitha, who become fast friends when they start working side by side in Poornima's father's weaving hut. Savitha comes from an extremely poor family—she was a garbage picker before her weaving job. Poornima has a good marriage to look forward to, as her father and aunts remind her, even as they make her feel far less worthy than the men they are considering for her.
An attack on Savitha causes her to flee, and separates the two girls. As they try to find each other again, the power and anguish in Rao's novel builds, breaking your heart on one page even as it mends it, stronger, on the next.
I spoke with Shobha Rao—who is at once full of positive energy and fierce with determination—during one of our few lovely March days in Seattle. We dived straight into one of the core questions of Girls Burn Brighter.
Adrian Liang: Your previous book, An Unrestored Woman, was a collection of short stories about the division of India and Pakistan and how it separated characters. In Girls Burn Brighter, you have these best friends who are also divided. What is it about the concept of separation that appeals to you as a storyteller?
Shobha Rao: What I think of a lot is borders. And of course borders are the most literal separation we have. So when I think of the short story collection, for instance, I think of the border between India and Pakistan. With the novel, the border becomes far more, in some ways, alive and menacing. There's crossing international borders—being trafficked. And the border of the body. Certainly for a woman, the body becomes the border when you are nationless, when you are poor, when you're not educated. When you have very little agency, then your body becomes the thing that is negotiated, and bought and sold, and somehow becomes the only country you have. Having my formative life in India and then moving to the US very poignantly emphasized the role of borders. Profound separation from one's homeland—those experiences, and what it can do a person's consciousness—it altered me utterly at the age of eight. But I write very much about women, generally, who are horribly aware—terrifyingly aware—of separation and the borders that they have and are forced to flee and to negotiate on a daily basis.
There were a lot of men who abused Poornima and Savitha in Girls Burn Brighter, but women did as well. What were you trying to say there?
One of the lines that struck me even when I wrote it was, "The world is full of middlemen." What I'm trying to say is that we all do what we can to survive. In and of itself, that urge or the impulse to survival is not bad, not intrinsically bad. But sometimes women have to commit acts of greater terror or behavior that is more disturbing because they denigrate their own gender in order to pursue that very basic survival on the knife's edge. So I'm not judging the women any more than I do the men in writing those characters who abuse women or are part of that machine: the underworld machine of trafficking and prostitution. Because we all do what we must do. My problem is with what the world forces us to do to survive. And I think the conversation begins there, right? Why are these women—and men—in situations that are so depleted that they have to sell out and sell their own daughters?
It was shocking how little value girls had until they went into some sort of situation, like prostitution or housecleaning, which was just horrifying.
Adrian, I really do think—I do know—that this is what the calculation of life looks like in many parts of the world. Girls are devalued to such an extent that they actually have no inherent value until someone hands currency over for them. That is a systemic horror in much of the world. And an insidious horror all around us, too. We're not in any way excused or immune from that as women in the developed world or Western world. But it is up to us to fix the gaze on the most heinous of these situations, which are truly chronic in so much of the world. I make myself witness. I worked in domestic violence for many years. These things, they taught me that the surface is fine to live on, but we must, in moments that require it, go beneath. And be outraged. First witness; and then be outraged.
I don't want to make Girls Burn Brighter sound like a heartbreaker from beginning to end, because the novel is about the two girls and their moments of hope and power and determination. What do see as the positive and hopeful parts of Girls Burn Brighter?
Honestly, I think that it is a hopeful book. And it is a joyous book. Because they have that bond of friendship that is truly unbreakable. And the ability to love. And the ability to walk through the world and know that they are worth more than their circumstance.
They have an inner sense of worth that is far greater and far more sacred and beautiful than anything that the world has told them, ever, really, and that is certainly what I meant to explore in the book. To my great delight, they refused to be worth whatever the world told them they were worth on a constant, almost brutal, level. And both the characters were like, "No, that's not all I'm worth!"
That, to me, is incredibly hopeful. And they don't give up. They don't give up on each other, and they don't give up on themselves! I can't think of a more hopeful way to construct a character or a life, and to say, "I will be undefeated. And whatever defeats I do experience, it will only make me burn brighter. It will fuel that fire." That's what I wanted the book to do. Every time they are in some way abused or society or the circumstances try to abolish them in some way, I wanted them to come out more resilient. And that is hope.
This question gets a little more personal.... You moved from India to the US when you were younger. And sometimes a person's home is not where they are at the moment. So where do you consider your home to be?
I'm going to have to quote Roberto Bolaño here. He said, "Literature is my only homeland." And when I read that, I thought, "Finally, someone has said the thing that I didn't know I was thinking or felt." Certainly, I've lived here for over 30 years. America is a kind of home, but India still is an incredible part of my daily consciousness. Certainly when I look in the mirror, I'm unavoidably Indian [laughs], of which I'm incredibly proud as well. But as you say, it's not always a place. And it's sometimes not even a time. The one the most resonates happens to be literature.
When I moved to the US, I didn't know any English—maybe a handful of words—and once I learned, I started reading. And books formed my understanding of my new home. The first book I read was Little House on the Prairie. My understanding of the pioneer spirit that America has always been known for, and the West...all of that was formed by books. It's that first entrance, the first gateway through which we walk, and a new world is described to us. Every world I've entered since then has been through literature, be it Paris in the 1920s or exploring the Congo. So I feel like my sense of wonder and curiosity and love for fellow man...all of that is, for me, through literature. It might be a cop-out to say that, but it doesn't have to be a place. And sometimes it's good when it's not.
I almost didn't ask you that question, because I didn't want to make you feel you had to be pinned down to one place or another.
Right! And that was my problem with answering the question for myself for several years. Sometimes I feel more Indian. Sometimes I feel more American. Sometimes I feel like I'm walking down a street in Paris or somewhere, and I sigh and think, "This feels like home," because there's something about the ivy on the building. How do you explain something like that? There is no explanation. We find it in small and large ways every day all around us. But that doesn't mean that the bed on which we sleep is any lesser than the bird's nest that felt like home when you're walking through the park. And so I think home is a moving target, for most of us if not all. And to me, the best of that target is literature and dwelling there and finding deep comfort in words.
It's interesting about how you say home can change, because the way that people approach literature changes, too, as they get older or they have different experiences. What you really appreciated earlier in a book, you could look back at later and think, "Eh, not anymore." But you rarely think, "What am I going to appreciate 20 years from now?"
I'm one of those people who feels that you come to a book when you're meant to come to it. You'll hear about it many times, and you'll see it on a library shelf or bookstore shelf, and then one day you'll just pick it up. That happens to me. I just finished reading Moby-Dick. I've known about it since I was a kid, but why, all these years, decades later, did I pick it up? I don't know, but I loved it. It was such a delight, and I understood it—which maybe at a younger age I would not have—and it was hilarious. And yet, I understood Ahab's ambition. I was old enough and wizened enough to get it. I'm sure that if I read it 30 years from now, I'll get something else entirely. That's the great adventure of books and reading. Entry and reentry and finding how we've changed through the mirror of a book. What books we come to can shape our lives. What we're reading at any given time can make us see the world differently and maybe react to it differently.
I hope that your book helps people see the world differently.
I hope so, too. I really do. People ask me, "What do you want readers to come away with?" And I think, "If they can just walk through the world and see it a little bit differently.... Maybe see the person at the gas station. Really see them. Or just see the homeless mendicant on the sidewalk. Really see them." That would be enormous. Just that small act of gazing is such a mercy.
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