Monica Byrne on Normalizing Queer and Racial Identity in 'The Girl in the Road'
Before she was an author, Monica Byrne was a playwright: Her recent play What Every Girl Should Know, about young women who canonize birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, rocked at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Before Byrne was a playwright, she wanted to be an astrobiologist and study the possibilities for extraterrestrial life in the universe. Both of these paths inform her first novel. The Girl in the Road is an engrossing speculative/science fiction tale about an Indian woman, Meena, who embarks on a massive, 3,000-kilometer Trail spanning the Arabian Sea to confront her parents’ past in Ethiopia. The novel’s technology is close enough that we can feel it creeping up on us, and its characters are refreshingly nonwhite, feminist, and queer.
Abandoning her astrobiologist dreams was difficult: Byrne admitted that “I thought that I should do something with my life that would be the hardest thing for me to do, and I totally dismissed art as a career because it was easy for me.” And yet, writing The Girl in the Road wasn’t easy: She traveled alone through India and Ethiopia for months, learning to rely on herself in much the same way that Meena does. We spoke with Byrne about the trickiness of writing unreliable narrators and whether she would ever go full-on sci-fi in a future book.
Bookish: How did you come up with the premise?
Monica Byrne: The premise came out of nowhere. I was on a plane to New York to see my sisters in a show. I was just getting out of a really hard time, coming out of a real emotional fog, and was just starting to want things again, which was really wonderful. I was reading the Buddhist magazine Tricycle; there was a poem on the page where the words “bridge” and “ocean” were juxtaposed, and I just thought, What if there were a bridge that spanned the entire ocean?
It was just one of those moments where I stopped and stared into the middle space in front of me and was like, That’s something. That idea has really, really deep roots. It’s like an archaeologist scraping off the top [of a find]—it looks just like a rock, but they know there’s a whole city underneath.
Bookish: Your book is futuristic sci-fi in the manner of “five minutes into the future”—relying on technology that’s currently just out of our grasp. For instance, the characters use “siriuses” (and later “scrolls”) in place of smartphones, and everyone has an “aadhaar” linking them to what we know as “the cloud.” Why did you decide to have so much of the plot and stakes hinge on technology?
MB: The only reason it’s set in the future, period, is because the technology for the Trail doesn’t exist yet. I had to invent technology and then posit plausibly when it might exist. I thought, 2068 seems like a good guess for this kind of technology, for metallic hydrogen to be metastable… I’m not an engineer; I’m making shit up, you know. Plausibility is the criterion by which I measure all of these things. And you know, science fiction writers very often can’t prove that technology works; then we’d be scientists, or futurists.
The Trail technology and all the other technologies play the same role that I see technology playing in my life—they’re part of the background. I don’t know if there’s always been this fear of technology that there seems to be… But then it just becomes part of the landscape. iPhones are early siriuses, which becomes a universal word for smartphone. There aren’t siriuses in Meena’s time; there are scrolls, by then. They’re just like clothing.
So much science fiction—and literary fiction (Margaret Atwood, for example)—deals with really sinister implications of technology in a way that I’m really glad exists; that’s so not my experience with technology. Maybe it will be, in the next 10 years, and I’ll experience it as a really sinister force. But in general, I experience it as a really unifying, entertaining, lovely presence. So, that’s how I portray it in the novel.
Bookish: A lot of this kind of speculative fiction features white protagonists. When in the process did you decide to set this book in India and Ethiopia instead?
MB: I wrote a whole essay about this for The Atlantic. I can certainly say that one of my impulses for the novel was to be really bold and do something that hadn’t been done before, in multiple dimensions. One of those dimensions was writing a hero who looks like the actual, most common female type of the human race, which is a brown-skinned woman. There’s a lot of baggage around that—understandably and validly so—because so many white writers have abused that. They write either characters of color or stories set in Africa that are just power-trip fantasies, and it’s completely gross.
I wanted to make really sure that, as far as it was possible for me to do it responsibly and do it well, and to have the product reflect my intentions—which was to reflect the human race and redefine the human hero for the 21st century—that I could do that. I did think, for a moment, I should really make this a woman who looks like me and who walks, I don’t know, Beijing to Los Angeles. That would be so much more topical! But then I felt this gut revulsion of That’s not the story. It was just a deep, instinctual no; don’t make it something it’s not. It’s an Indian woman and an African woman.
Bookish: Why was it important to you that Meena be a queer woman of color?
MB: Part of her being Indian was actually the fact that I was dating a man of Indian descent at the time, and his family was Keralan. As for Ethiopia—I like Ethiopian food, that’s why I picked it. It’s so dumb! But this is how the universe directs us: One thing stands out to us.
The sexuality thing… Honestly, she was just reflecting the people I know in my world around me. I think that’s so important to be honest with ourselves about. I have tons of gay friends who are in gay relationships and/or transgender and/or… any number of flavors of queer. If there were a reason for [Meena’s partner] Mohini to be female, and for them to be the couple that they are, with the sex identifications that they are, the reason is to present them as normative. In my new play [Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo], the central couple in that story are two women. It’s simply because I want them to enter the mainstream as normative as a heterosexual couple.
If being transgender represents anything about Mohini’s character, it represents that she was an ideal, multifaceted lover. This feeds into Meena’s sort of obsession with her, that she’s so beautiful, she’s like a multi-sexed Hindu god. Mohini is an actual name of a transgender Hindu god.
Bookish: In telling two narratives that eventually converge, were you inspired by other dual-narrative books?
MB: Yes. The God of Small Things, for sure. The sort of circular, rounding-the-drain, spiral shape of a narrative in [the book] is something that really inspired me. I wrote the alternating chapters in sequence because I wanted to plant images from one in the other, and vice versa. [The line] How far back do I want to go? was one.
Bookish: Was this your first time writing unreliable narrators? Were there certain things you kept in mind while writing?
MB: I’ve written one or two short stories before with unreliable narrators—neither of them published, but perhaps someday soon. There’s a distinction between the running narrative that a person tells him- or herself about their life, and the things they’re actually doing; and they don’t have to be the same thing. I happen to be hyper-aware of all my actions because I’ve been in therapy since I was 16. People who say one thing and do another—unfortunately, I’ve encountered them in my life. So, a running narrative of rationalizing what you’re doing versus what you’re running from, what you have actually done…
This came up in the editorial process, whether Meena knows what she did the whole time. I think she does, and her narrative is her voice talking to herself. She just doesn’t tell herself, and therefore us who’s reading it, what the actual event is until Subu asks her why she has only five snakebites on her chest. The iterations of what she goes through—of recalling what happened or telling Subu what happened—are the stages I went through as a writer figuring out what happened.
Bookish: Would you ever write a play or a book that’s more explicitly sci-fi?
MB: Oh, for sure. I would love to write in space. I’m amazed, actually, that in the golden age of TV we have right now, there hasn’t been something focused on a fledgling space program. There’s Battlestar Galactica, but… NASA is notoriously difficult to work with—everyone wants a piece of them—and they’re very picky about who they give access to. I’ve always thought that a series about astronaut selection and the first mission to Mars would be platinum-plated gold. I definitely want to write something set in space. [In my] next novel, actually, there’s a section set in 3012, where space travel will probably be present in some way. So, I will get to dip my toe in then.
Bookish: What’s a book you can read over and over again?
MB: Honestly, the book I could read over and over—I feel so boring saying it—is The Chronicles of Narnia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read all of those, but they are—and I don’t mean this in any facetious or metaphorical sense—they are my scripture. I grew up on them; they were always more real to me, way more real, than anything I got in Sunday school or anything I got in religion class. Every time I go back to those narratives, they mean something new to me.
Monica Byrne studied at Wellesley College and MIT. She is a writer and playwright, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.