The first Stake Reading Club is wrapping up, and it’s been quite a journey. We’ve been lucky to have chosen such an interesting, discussable book as The Girl in the Road for our first book club outing—but even luckier to have such a great partner in author Monica Byrne. Here, having finished the book, we ask Monica some final questions about the ending, the themes, the writing process, and what’s next for her.
Suffice it to say: there are many, many SPOILERS. Read only after you’ve finished The Girl in the Road.
Now that I finished reading, I’m more curious than ever to know how you discovered the story of The Girl in the Road. Did you know, when you started, how Meena and Mariama’s stories would ultimately intertwine? Or did you, like us, unearth the mysteries of the story as you went along?
It was always a story about a mother and daughter. In fact, I’ve had to bite my tongue when summarizing the novel to other people, because placing that reveal at the end was a pretty late development in the process. (An early prospective agent told me she loved my writing, but that the book “had no plot.” Bless her. In the next draft, I resequenced all of the information in order to make one.)
What I didn’t know was that Meena had attacked Mohini. The reader goes through each level of understanding that I did about what had actually happened in the bedroom; when I understood the full truth of it, I felt sad, but also knew it was exactly right. I also only realized very late the connection between Mariama’s kreen and Meena’s birth. I remember that moment–I was like, “Ohhhhhhhh, shit.” And once I knew the full truth of the end, then it was a matter of retro-engineering the whole book to point in those directions (e.g., five snakebites, not six).
Our discussions of The Girl in the Road along the way have often focused on how we felt about Meena and Mariama—as narrators and as people. Sometimes, even when we were feeling for and with them, we didn’t trust or even like them very much. Is that a reader reaction you welcome? How do you feel about these two characters? Do you feel the love and tenderness some authors report for their characters?
Oh, I love them dearly. I don’t think the book would work if I didn’t. (To me, that’s a mark of amateur writing–when an author clearly feels contempt for their characters. Why would I want to read that?)
I also like them as people. Mariama has a childlike open-heartedness I identify with deeply, assuming good faith from everyone she encounters; but there is a deep and tremendous violence in her that emerges when that good faith is betrayed. Meena, meanwhile–oh, she’s the kind of woman I’d have had an obsessive crush on in college. Equal parts Karen Denoon and Meshell Ndegeocello–aloof, awkward, brilliant, careless, complicated, sensual, fey. And looks like a butch Rosario Dawson. I mean come on.
As for how other readers receive them, I can’t say I think about it much. I just have to tell my characters’ truths. And again, if I’m telling their stories in the first place, I must love them, by definition. I wouldn’t know how to work, otherwise. They’re my children and myself.
Let’s talk about Yemaya—specifically, about the woman in Mariama’s story who goes by that name. This strikes me as an extremely complex and ambiguous character. She becomes a surrogate mother and goddess for Mariama, yet she abandons Mariama as soon as they reach Addis Ababa. She’s the victim of abuse, yet she herself crosses the line into abuse in the scene in the hotel room. What is your take on this character? How do you reckon with who she is and what she does?
I think she’s just a confused and lost twenty-year-old woman. She wants to do what’s best, she wants to do what’s right–but, she’s twenty, and she has a lot of unprocessed trauma. She sees Mariama as a younger version of herself and wants to save her. Her motivation in the hotel room isn’t prurient (which doesn’t excuse her actions, by any means); she’s trying to inoculate Mariama from traumatic first sexual contact, but in her misguided attempt to do so, just replicates it. In other words, she just conveys the energy given to her, instead of stops it.
Her abandonment of Mariama is a graceless but age-appropriate acknowledgment of how ill-suited she is to actually take care of her. I think Yemaya–whose real name is Yvonne Sauvage, which never appears in the text–does exactly what Meena said: drifts from one city to another on the fringes of art scenes, throwing herself into causes, getting by on her beauty, deeply unhappy. Poor woman.
Looking back, a major theme of your book seems to be the way that trauma is held and passed on to others—from Yemaya and Mariama to Meena, people who’ve been hurt in turn hurting others. The waves coming whether we want them to or not. Do you hold out any hope that this pattern can be thwarted? Is there any hope in the novel’s final scene with the reveal of Saha? Is this the with-ness and equilibrium that the characters have been seeking? Or just the calm before another tsunami of trauma?
I absolutely believe the pattern can be thwarted. That’s what the Epilogue is supposed to convey. The old woman in that scene is Mariama’s mother (who she ran away from in the beginning), and thus, Meena’s grandmother. Her name is Awa. I meant to show that this woman escaped slavery, moved on from the disappearance of her daughter, had more children, and built a peaceful life. We don’t know exactly how she got there (the closest we get is the story of Parvati Rai, told to the lotus eaters), but we can assume that she didn’t give in to delusion like Mariama did. (Though, given how old Mariama was at the time of trauma, can we blame her? I don’t know. That’s a big unanswered question for me.)
Of course, both Meena and Mariama pay a price for their actions: Mariama is incapable of recognizing her own daughter, and Meena is prevented from telling her. They can only relate through delusion. That’s the cost of violence within the moral arc of the book. At one time I thought maybe the book would end with Meena going back to Mohini (who hasn’t died, in my mind–she was just severely injured, but that’s open to interpretation). But I honestly don’t think she’d be ready. I don’t think she even feels sorry. She needs Awa to start to understand.
But, the end is a new beginning. And “Saha” is the calming word. That’s why I say that, while The Girl in the Road is not a comfortable book, it’s a fundamentally optimistic one.
Moving from the personal to the global—how would you articulate your vision of the human and environmental future in The Girl in the Road? Though much has changed about the world you portray in this book, much has unfortunately stayed the same: it’s still a world deformed by war, rape, economic injustice, and the destruction of the environment. And the book ends with an awful cataclysm, when “Yemaya came ashore.” For you, is this a bleak ending, or is there hope for humanity of a new equilibrium after the big wave?
My vision of the human and environmental future is so influenced by Kim Stanley Robinson’s, in Red Mars and 2312, that I’m not sure I can claim it as mine. To wit–it’ll be like it is now, except bigger. A bigger spectrum. A deeper gradient. More people. More intensity. More elements. More passion. More heat. More cold.
And nothing ends, not even after the trauma of the wave. Life will always go on.
Starting to wrap up now, I’m wondering about anything we’ve missed. Are there any strands of meaning in The Girl in the Road that we’ve left unanalyzed, and that are really crucial to understanding this story? Levels to the novel that we haven’t yet explored?
I think you got all of the big ones! (And it’s so damn satisfying to me as a writer to see that–like, “whew, okay, I got across what I was trying to get across, amen.”) There are a couple of little things I planted in there, like that Fatima and Rahel–the Ethiopian radio pirates Meena encounters–are actually Muhammed’s daughters, whom he refers to way in the beginning. But that’s not meant to mean anything deep. That’s just fun.
What have you learned—about writing, about reading, about yourself—from writing this novel? And what’s next for Monica Byrne?
I’ve been asked whether The Girl in the Road is an autobiographical novel, and it very much is. A reader wouldn’t know that unless they knew me very well. The question “Is life worth continuing after trauma?” was hovering in the back of my mind for years after my mother’s death. Mariama and Meena represent two major modes of coping, in my relationships to partners, afterward–the mode of abject devotion, the mode of anger. Yemaya, Gabriel, and Mohini are all very much rooted in relationships I had. I should hasten to clarify that none of those relationships involved abuse or physical violence, at their end or otherwise; but they did involve intensities of pain that haunted me for years. Going on my trip to research The Girl in the Road was the first step in ending that phase of my life; writing the book was my making sense of it.
The kreen does come back now and again, of course, but we’re friends now. She’ll always be a part of me.
As for what’s next? A novel set in Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred cave in Western Belize, in 1012 (the decline of the Maya), 2012 (the high age of tourism), and 3012 (a flooded future where pilgrimage itself is a religion). I’m 20,000 words into the first draft. It’s exhilarating.