"I think the first primal place to start is to recognize one another as human beings. We are not infestations, we are not illegal, we are not alien. . . We are human beings. " -- Shobha Rao
The following highlights are from a conversation with Shobha Rao about her novel, Girls Burn Brighter. To hear the full interview, click to listen now or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: Shobha, what is love?
Shobha Rao: Love is an overcoming and an endurance in the face of incredible obstacles for another—to reach the other.
Charlie Jane Anders blurbs the book with the following:
“Girls Burn Brighter blew up my heart. Heart shards everywhere.”
What do you know about the instinct to plant gernades in people’s chest and was this really your intention for the reader’s experience?
It’s interesting that you bring up the analogy of weaponry because I did think a lot about weapons in the writing of this novel. We each have them. One of them, for these girls, which I hadn’t anticipated, but one of them is patience. They wield their waiting and their patience as a weapon. Even though circumstances are horrible for them, they wait and they watch for the right moment. I feel even in my own life that patience has been an incredible weapon.
I want to know how you’ve wielded patience in your life. . .
I grew up in rural Indiana, in the middle of these corn fields. That was my adolescence and a lot of my childhood, and I thought, “There’s something out there. I know there is. There’s something else out there.” Instead of running forth into the world trying to find that other, that something, I waited. And I waited knowing that the grace of waiting—the grace in waiting—would bring me to it.
Where does that knowing come from? I feel like culturally there is so much about instant gratification . . .
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that might be a Western ethos.
Certainly in India, in Eastern culture, there’s no sort of mad rush to individual gratification. It’s an incredible communal society, and the familial unit is the heart of it. Everything you do is for the greater good, for the good of the family. Bridging those two cultures, as I have as an immigrant, I couldn’t run in either direction because the pursuit of the instant gratification/individual gratification was not in my DNA. I wasn’t born or raised in that cultural context but then, I was raised in the United States, mostly. I couldn’t really subscribe wholly to the whole familial pursuit being the center. I think being sort of stuck in the middle made me think “Maybe I’ll just sit and be still and see if the answer presents itself, if the path presents itself.”
You lived in India until you were seven. How has India lived in you since then?
Obviously it was my formative years and my early childhood—there’s a romance to that, like there’s a sort of suspended-in-amber quality to early childhood, before you are aware of true sorrow, or damaging conflict, or any kind of brokenness. It was an ordinary childhood so it wasn’t like I was confronted with a war or anything like that, and it was economically stable. My memory of my childhood has sort of a silvery romance to it. I visited India quite often growing up, and in fact I was just there in late March, so it’s been updated, that vision, but certainly that enchantment with India continues to this day because of those first seven years.
Where do some of the scenes of cruelty come from for you?
I worked in the field of Domestic Violence as a legal advocate for some years. I’m not going to say they all came from my work with the victims of abuse, but Sarah, it’s around us, right? If we open a newspaper, if we read a book, if we read a poem, if we listen in a café to eavesdrop, we will hear harrowing stories of incredible emotional, spiritual, physical violence. Speaking only to violence, I think it’s just come from a deep awareness of the struggles that many people face in their lives illuminated by my work in the field of Domestic Violence because that kind of violence is very specific and it’s with intimate partner violence. Violence is a horrifically prevalent, universal theme in all of our lives. I think we as humans, and certainly myself as a writer, are tasked with not flinching when we explore violence.
There’s a line that really stuck out to me, which comes from a parable in the book.
“Let them eat you. Let them, but be sure to eat them back.”
I’ve been trying to put that into the frame of the current cultural and political crisis, in context. what might this eating look like for women and girls, and people of color, and immigrants, or humanity in general. . . what is the eating?
I think where we have to start—whether you’re part of the class of people who is trying to obtain certain rights, or the class or subset of people trying to deny others a right, or a set of rights—the first primal place to start is to recognize one another as human beings. We are not infestations, we are not illegal, we are not alien. . . we are human beings. To recognize incredible forces have shaped each of us, and we cannot know what has shaped another’s life, and to acknowledge the beauty of each journey and the wholeness of each life.
As for eating them back, I think standing firm. I think, again, the not flinching, saying “I am worthy, regardless of what the world tells me, or what one specific man in one specific house tells me. I am worthy and I will not let you forget my worth.”
About the Book:
An electrifying debut novel about the extraordinary bond between two girls driven apart by circumstance but relentless in their search for one another.
Poornima and Savitha have three strikes against them: they are poor, they are ambitious, and they are girls. After her mother’s death, Poornima has very little kindness in her life. She is left to care for her siblings until her father can find her a suitable match. So when Savitha enters their household, Poornima is intrigued by the joyful, independent-minded girl. Suddenly their Indian village doesn't feel quite so claustrophobic, and Poornima begins to imagine a life beyond arranged marriage. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves behind everything she has ever known to find her friend.
Her journey takes her into the darkest corners of India's underworld, on a harrowing cross-continental journey, and eventually to an apartment complex in Seattle. Alternating between the girls’ perspectives as they face ruthless obstacles, Girls Burn Brighter introduces two heroines who never lose the hope that burns within.
About the Author:
Shobha Rao is the author of the novel Girls Burn Brighter and the short story collection An Unrestored Woman. She is the winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and her story "Kavitha and Mustafa" was chosen by T. C. Boyle for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2015. She moved to the United States from India at the age of seven and currently lives in San Francisco. This fall, Rao will be the Grace Paley Teaching Fellow at the New School.