When I first speak with Shobha Rao, author of the debut novel Girls Burn Brighter, out now from Flatiron Books, she tells me a story. It’s a story about a king who has tasked each of his three sons with filling an entire room in his castle on a budget of 100 rupees — whoever is able to best fill the room by spending the fewest rupees, the king explains, will inherit the kingdom. So, the oldest son purchases piles and piles of old papers, filling the room and returning 80 rupees to his father. The second son fills the room with garbage he’s bought, giving his father back 90 rupees. When the king gets to the youngest son, the son gives him back 99 rupees. The king is shocked, confused, skeptical — until he opens the door and sees a lit match. His son has filled the room with light.
“That has always stayed with me,” says Rao. “I must have heard it when I was five- or six-years-old, and I shudder still to think of that story, because that is, truly, the most magnificent way to confront any challenge or trauma. Just turn it into light, and hold on to that light despite your awareness of the dark.”
That is, perhaps, a long way of explaining that Rao is a natural storyteller.
Girls Burn Brighter begins in a small, Indian village where women work the hardest and are valued the least, where the birthdates of girls aren’t even recorded; and introduces readers to two teenage girls: Poornima, who has left school to face an impending arranged marriage and Savitha, who is hired by Poornima’s father to work at the family’s looms. The girls become fast, if unlikely, friends — each inspiring the other to hope and to dream beyond the confines of the lives they were born into.
"Just turn it into light, and hold on to that light despite your awareness of the dark.”
But then Savitha leaves — fleeing Poornima’s home in the aftermath of a moment of profound violence that leaves both girls reeling. Savitha loses herself in India’s human trafficking trade and Poornima, after leaving her arranged marriage-turned violent, runs away herself in order to find her friend.
“I worked at a domestic violence agency in the Bay Area many years ago and one of my clients was a South Asian trafficking victim — she was part of a huge trafficking ring that was based in Berkeley, California,” says Rao, when I ask her about her initial inspiration for Girls Burn Brighter. “She just had such incredible warmth and such a profound humanity, she had this brightness — her eyes and her laughter could fill up a room. I was so deeply touched by her sense of life and endurance, that it stayed with me.”
Rao’s inspiration is twofold — like her novel, beginning from a space of intimate specificity and translating that specificity into something universally understood. “I think anybody walking through the world and witnessing the many, many crimes that are perpetrated against women — and certainly against women without much agency in their lives — would find it extraordinary difficult to not see that there is an insidious violence all around us,” Rao says. “You can live anywhere in the world and see it in many forms. I wrote about two Indian girls, but in my mind I truly wanted to convey to the reader that this is not some sort of unique, Indian cultural situation, at all. The novel is very focused on what is, undeniably, a chronically violent environment all over the world for women.”
In addition to navigating the underworld of human trafficking, Girls Burn Brighter dives deep into more of the darkest and most urgent issues facing women in the world today: poverty, access — or revoked access — to education, domestic abuse, sexual violence, immigration, inequality, and more. But in the face of such darkness Rao, and her characters, always find a way to move towards the light.
"The novel is very focused on what is, undeniably, a chronically violent environment all over the world for women.”
“Light and dark, in their own way, both illuminate our lives. Whether we mean ‘light’ in a religious context or actual light from the sun — no matter what, it has a quality of illumination. But even dark can inspire us, it can push us, it can imbue us with the kind of inner fire needed to combat it. In writing the novel, what I wanted my characters, and hopefully the readers, to experience is that neither in itself is good or bad, it is what we do with each force in our lives,” says Rao. “In the lives of girls — and certainly the most disenfranchised, and impoverished, and vulnerable girls in the world — this is a constant battle. I think girls and women have an intimate awareness of the challenges involved in walking through the world. This awareness is our own light, our own brightness. It’s something that I think most girls in the world have to fight to keep — and we do a pretty good job of it.”
This interplay between light and dark is a dynamic that is even reflected in the names Rao has given her characters — Poornima, a girl named after the full moon, and Savitha, born during a solar eclipse and named after the sun.
"I think girls and women have an intimate awareness of the challenges involved in walking through the world. This awareness is our own light, our own brightness. It’s something that I think most girls in the world have to fight to keep — and we do a pretty good job of it.”
“You can’t have the moon without the sun — it would not be illuminated,” says Rao. “You could certainly have the sun without the moon, but without that contrast it would not be as striking, as overpowering — it’s the giver of life, really. So, I did want these characters to lend to one another. I wanted each of them take strength and courage from the other. While Poornima starts out with that light she becomes, over the course of the novel, incredibly fierce and cruel and relentless; and Savitha, in some ways, is broken. But they persist and I think light in any form persists.”
Following that light is a choice for Rao’s characters, and never a choice either girl makes lightly, or easily. Each have to fight through incomprehensible adversity, from practically the minute they’re born, in order to continue moving towards that light.
In one especially telling moment in Girls Burn Brighter, Poornima’s father shares a story about when she was just a baby, playing on a riverbank. As she toddled into the water, her father, for a moment considered not saving her, saying: That’s the thing about girls, isn’t it? Whenever they stand on the edge of something, you can’t help it, you can’t. You think, Push. That’s all it would take. Just one little push.
“I remember writing that scene and closing my eyes and imagining what it would look like to have a baby at the water’s edge, who just crawled there during a moment of inattention. He or she would look like nothing. They would just look like a little piece of debris of something,” Rao says of that moment in her novel. “So of course, when girl children are liabilities — when that is all you know, perhaps a person who is unable or incapable of taking on that liability would think that it’s just like unhitching a wagon tied to a car, something that’s more of a pain than it is useful.”
But while Poornima’s father imagines pushing his daughter into the water, that same daughter — and her friend — so often push themselves as well, albeit in different ways. They push themselves, inadvertently, directly into the face of darkness, and then, standing at the edge of disaster, they manage the herculean task of pushing themselves back towards the light as well.
“I think the act of pushing away or pushing towards can require awful choices for girls and women in the world. They can be incredibly unbalanced, they can be made out of powerlessness, and they can come with incredible costs," says Rao. "I think we are constantly being forced to make those choices: do we walk down that dark alley; do we go to someone’s house who we don’t know very well, maybe a guy we just met; do we report the behavior of somebody who might affect our careers? And I’m just talking about choices in our developed world. These calculations are made: to push forward, to push away. These are just the small calculations that women and girls are forced to make on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes they preserve our wholeness and sometimes they shatter it — and there is no knowing which it will be, really, beforehand. But every push that comes after is defined by an initial decision, an initial decision to push towards or push away, that we all have to make, and that we all do make. The ramifications are not always as dire or heartrending as those in the novel, hopefully, but they’re choices we’re given in small and large ways on a daily basis.”
"These calculations are made: to push forward, to push away. These are just the small calculations that women and girls are forced to make on a nearly daily basis."
Rao says that none of the choices her characters make in Girls Burn Brighter was written without intense deliberation and forethought. One of the choices Savitha makes in the novel results in the loss of one of her hands — something that would be devastating for anybody, but particularly to Savitha, who is a weaver and whose monetary worth is, quite literally, placed on the value of her hands.
“I wanted to explore that question: what is a hand worth? Because that becomes the greater question: what is a girl worth? Not just her hand, but what is a girl’s body worth; what is a woman’s body worth? And not just the body, but also who is she? What are her memories worth? What is her melancholy worth? What is a girl worth? That was, to me, a central question that I wanted to explore in the novel," she says.
Rao, not surprisingly, didn’t arrive at an answer. But, she says, that’s the best of fiction, after all: raising questions and leaving readers to answer them on our own.
“The best of fiction leaves us walking through the world asking the same questions over and over again, and as we grow, and we see more of the world, and experience more of the lives around us and within us those questions should recur. I would be distressed if anybody ever gave me a number. But, at the same time, girls are bought and sold every day, for various purposes. So, somebody has put a price on girls — and we each have a price. We are each worth an actual, monetary amount. We don’t know it. We don’t ever want to know it. But we are worth something. And I think that is unacceptable — that it can and does come down to that for a lot of girls in this world is absolutely unacceptable to me.”
"The best of fiction leaves us walking through the world asking the same questions over and over again."
Without giving anything away, I will say the end of this novel will clobber you — it will haunt you, and leave you wanting to begin Girls Burn Brighter all over again, if only to discover if you'll arrive at another ending the second time around. And the third.
“I want everybody to walk into a new country with this ending: let’s all walk through this new country," Rao says. "I want each reader to live in that moment just as I do. I think fiction stories should leave us reeling. They should destabilize us.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.