“I can’t think of a happier story”: Shobha Rao talks GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER

After 15 years of writing and 15 years being rejected, Shobha Rao made her fiction debut two years ago with An Unrestored Woman, a collection of a dozen impeccable stories—savage and empathetic, brutal and lyrical, mournful and celebratory. Presented as six interlinked pairs, those stories reverberated beyond borders, cultures, countries, and generations.

Rao’s new novel, Girls Burn Brighter, hits shelves today. Another literary achievement of extremes, it presents a radiant love story amidst searing inhumanity. Poornima and Savitha are still young girls when difficult life circumstances bring them together in a tiny Indian village. They meet when Poornima’s recently widowed father needs help weaving saris. Clever and talented Savitha is also kind, and the two girls are soon inseparable, bolstering and nurturing each other in a society where girls are little more than financial liabilities to be bartered off.

Shobha Rao

When Savitha suffers a horrible act committed against her, she is set her adrift alone through a life of unrelenting cruelty. Poornima, meanwhile, is thrust into a loveless marriage, where she’s abused almost beyond recognition. When she finally escapes, her unwavering determination to find Savitha keeps her alive, as she painstakingly plots her path through the international underworld of sex slavery and trafficking to reunite somehow, somewhere, with her missing soulmate.

Amidst talk of sleep-stealing nightmares and hoped-for happy endings, I caught up with Rao to talk about her Girls on the eve of her impending, second national book tour.


TERRY HONG: So did the fabulous success of An Unrestored Woman empower your novel-writing? And how did your process change when you took on the longer form?

SHOBHA RAO: Certainly! Having the short story collection in the world helped me to feel more confidence and assurance around my writing and reinforced my devotion to telling the stories of women and the lives led by the most vulnerable among us. As for the change to the longer form. . . it seems to me to be a matter of endurance, [of] keeping flames burning longer—sometimes years—in order to tell the story we are yearning to tell. For me, though, the short stories were written over many years, [while] the novel happened over the course of two months in the Badlands of South Dakota. It was the stillness of the landscape and the sudden storms that I see on every page, which focused and animated my writing.


Speaking of stillness and storms, you’ve placed the two opposing sides of humanity side by side in Girls: our need to connect through love, and our ability to disconnect in order to both inflict and / or survive unspeakable horrors. How did you write such polarizing elements into your narrative?

I do believe that inside each of us, inside our imaginative lives, dwells every possibility in the human journey. It is a matter of access, I suppose. And the courage to access. I think we all have the same weapons: patience, imagination, hope, and the ability to be crucified and yet resurrect. I strive to be open to all of these.


Both Poornima and Savitha suffer inconceivable trauma. Living with their terrifying experiences must have been debilitating for you at times. How did you survive your fictional world? What antidotes did you find to lift yourself from the darkness?

Quite honestly, their strength fueled my own. While I was in the Badlands writing every day—no television, no internet, no radio—I found that Poornima and Savitha began to live with me. I would talk to them. Travel with them. The time—the actual, physical time—in which I was living became utterly suspended, and the only time I knew was the one in which they lived. And so we shared the darkness. The radiance. Our three heartbeats became one. What made them live, made them go on living, was the same thing that gave me life.


You left Girls fairly open-ended. Might that mean you have a sequel in mind for the future?

I would consider it. . . except I would want us—all three of us—to grow older. I want to encounter them as women, older, having lived through the days and nights and years that follow. I want to see where my own years lead. Maybe they will lead me back to Poornima and Savitha. I will always be open to embracing them again.


Today’s headlines trumpet a constant barrage of bad news: gun violence, dirty politics, racism, terrorism, nuclear threats, and too much more. Do you think writers have a responsibility to address such issues in their works?

I think the only responsibility that writers have is to our own truth. If that happens to merge with contemporary issues, then yes, write that truth. But what we are haunted by is not a thing we choose. And that choice is most certainly not made by the latest headlines.


Might your truth ever haunt you into writing a happy story some day?

Oh goodness! A happy story! Would you believe it if I told you that I think I do already write happy stories? I mean, here are two girls, driven to near-annihilation by the world, by overwhelmingly malevolent forces, and yet they persevere, they find beauty in the smallest things: a banana, a piece of cloth, the scent of a river. They retain their capacity for love and friendship and human goodness. And they rise; they are determined to rise. I can’t think of a happier story.


Let me clarify: I once interviewed Edwidge Danticat, who told me that after writing many titles in which horrific things happen, she needed to write a happy story that didn’t focus on “children in distress,” that had “[her] version of a good resolution” which became her Claire of the Sea Light.

Yes, I see. . . happy! I suppose that is possible, but I firmly believe that our strongest, most complex, and most feral selves are revealed during times of great duress, the self that is driven to the knife’s edge. I am intoxicated by that edge. By what we become—the weapons and the poems our bodies and minds become—during such times. I think, even in a happy story, I will write from there. And maybe what will make the story happy is that the character will walk away from that edge, will choose not to place themselves in peril.


So you’ve got a hectic schedule coming up with the new book tour. Have you had time to consider what your next title might be?

Yes, I do feel like there is a story building its steam inside me. I can only feel its outline, and I know (for now) I just have to give it air, allow it to form. This is always a rich time for me—the embryonic stage of a story, when I get to just walk along the sidewalk or cook dinner or watch a film and feel its whisperings, its low humming. I wish I knew more! But then again, I wish it all the time it needs.




About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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