Durham-based author and playwright Monica Byrne was unemployed when she started her first novel in 2010. She drew on a long tradition of artists who have sought patronage and asked her friends and peers to help fund her work.
Byrne had earned fellowships to conduct research in India and Ethiopia, and friends she made along the way chipped in. She eventually got a day job, and has made waves with her work for the stage, including “What Every Girl Should Know,” about religious idolatry and reproductive rights, and “Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo,” which uses the Olympics as a backdrop for a biting commentary on monogamy.
The financial contributions she solicited in 2010, along with a Durham Emerging Artist Grant, eventually led to publication of “The Girl in the Road,” a book that is fierce and flamboyant, with a main character who is smart, highly sexualized and perhaps more than a little unbalanced.
The futuristic narrative follows the journey of Meena, who is Brahmin by birth but fearful of persecution because of her dark skin: She purposely turns off her aadhar, a device that publicly displays ethnic identity. Convinced she’s being stalked amid political unrest in Mumbai, she decides to leave India by way of The Trail, a treacherous floating bridge over the Arabian Sea that’s illegal to cross. Her destination is Ethiopia, where her parents were murdered just after she was born.
Armed with an arsenal of high-tech Trail gear, she starts out, and the tale momentarily evokes images of an open-world role-playing video game, where victory is often dependent on a player’s cunning use of fantastical tools to fight off enemies.
A parallel narrative gradually unspools: Mariama, a girl much younger than Meena, is an African runaway befriended by Yemaya, a beautiful woman named for the mother goddess of several mythologies. In Mariama’s chapters, she directly addresses Yemaya in a way that lays bare her worship of the woman.
Meena and Mariama are destined to meet, but their paths are strewn with hazards. Meena, haunted by her ex-lover, battles the elements while encountering other Trail pilgrims (using her glotti, a real-time translator, to communicate with them). Her thoughts carom from lover to family to sex to religion, across and back again. She conducts imaginary conversations with people from her past. She rides out a fierce storm in her state-of-the-art airtight pod only to lose her scroll, an amped-up electronic device holding her entire library. Battered and hallucinating, she keeps going.
Conversely, Mariama is ceaselessly vulnerable, first as a child being smuggled through Africa and later when Yemaya abandons her. But Meena and Mariama are both nomads looking for meaning and identity, hyperaware of their surroundings.
“The Trail becomes sentient, like a great sea snake,” Meena observes. Snakes, which symbolize rebirth in Hindu mythology, appear throughout the book. Meena is convinced the wounds on her chest are snakebites. Mariama chokes down portions of sea snake, her only rations early on in her journey.
There’s a lot going on in “The Girl in the Road.” The cast of characters is vast, and the movement from present to past to pure imagination is dizzying. Byrne’s story is nominally speculative fiction, but it is also feminist, mythological and geopolitical. As such, it’s more labor than pleasure to read, but small rewards come in graceful descriptions and the characters’ startling, piercing insights.
Byrne, whose creative life is clearly churning, has earned broad exposure for her debut novel, and with support from mentors such as author Neil Gaiman, she’s on her own journey – as a writer, defying literary convention and shaping worlds out of uncomfortable truths.
Michelle Moriarity Witt, a former copy editor for The News & Observer, is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.
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