Welcome to this month's book club! On the fourth Monday of each month, we post a round-table discussion about a speculative work (or work of interest to readers of SF), and we invite you to join us for further conversation in the comments. December's book will be Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam, and other forthcoming discussions are listed here.
This month's book is The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, joint winner (with Jo Walton's My Real Children) of this year's James Tiptree, Jr. Award. From the blurb: "In a world where global power has shifted east and revolution is brewing, two women embark on vastly different journeys—each harrowing and urgent and wholly unexpected." From the Tiptree jury's comments: "Through the eyes of two narrators linked by a single act of violence, the reader is brought to confront shifting ideas of gender, class, and human agency and dignity."
But what did our group think? And what did you think? We hope you'll join us to discuss the novel further in the comments, but to kick things off we have this month's book club participants:
- Aishwarya Subramanian is a critic and PhD student working on post-war British children's literature. She blogs at Practically Marzipan.
- Gautam Bhatia is based in New Delhi, India. When not at his day job as a lawyer and legal academic, he tries to lay hands on the latest works of historical and speculative fiction—with a particular taste for high fantasy and Orwellian dystopias—and read them from cover to cover. He has reviewed before for Jadaliyya Magazine, and blogs about books at anenduringromantic.
- Vajra Chandrasekera is a writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Black Static. For more, see his website or follow him on Twitter.
- Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is editor and co-founder of Omenana.com, a magazine of African speculative fiction. Her writing has appeared in Kalahari Review, Ideomancer, and several anthologies. Follow her on twitter @chineloonwualu.
Could someone (with spoilers) start us off by briefly summarizing what this book is "about"?
Vajra Chandrasekera: The Girl in the Road is about two women, mother and daughter, separated at birth and in time. The daughter, Meena, is trying to walk the Trail—an energy-generating bridge across the ocean from Mumbai to Djibouti, which can only be traversed with great difficulty and privation. Much of the book is about the sheer physical and psychological travails of this journey. She's running away because she killed her girlfriend, who was cheating on her, and can't cope with it; she's running toward Ethiopia because she believes her parents were murdered there when she was still unborn.
There's a building theme of climate change and waves, as well: the Trail generates energy from waves; average wave heights are rising across the world; characters warn of warming seas and expected catastrophic waves—this from both sober scientists and extreme-sports types who want to surf the tsunami. The narrative is obsessed with waves, and revelations are revealed in a wave-like pattern, too, slowly wearing away layers of misdirection and delusion.
Mariama's story, which takes place a generation earlier than Meena's, is told in parallel. It begins with Mariama as a young girl living with her mother in Nouakchott, where they are fleeing from slavery. But one day the man they ran away from tracks them down; he attacks and rapes Mariama's mother. Mariama runs away from this traumatic moment, and with the help of kind strangers, runs all the way to Addis Ababa. She grows up in Ethiopia and falls in love with a young Indian doctor, Gabriel, who gets her pregnant. When she realizes that Gabriel is with another woman, she kills them both and cuts her baby prematurely out of her body, leaving the child with the bodies. The child is Meena, who survives and is sent back to India to grow up with her grandparents, while Mariama escapes onto the newly built Trail and lives out there on the ocean, becoming an urban legend to other Trailwalkers.
By the time they meet on the Trail, a much older Mariama (too far gone into delusion and denial, and too near death) can't recognize Meena as her daughter. Mariama dies soon after, and Meena discovers that while she walked the Trail, the promised disaster has struck the outside world: Djibouti and many other coastal areas have been destroyed by tsunamis.
Meena survives this, too, and eventually goes looking for Mariama's mother in post-tsunami Nouakchott. The story ends here, with Meena being recognized and welcomed by her maternal grandmother, who has survived and made a new life for herself.
(Wow, this is a difficult book to summarize—all this without so much as mentioning Yemaya or Semena Werk or the kreen!)
Gautam Bhatia: I'd like to add a bit on the politics of it. The Girl in the Road imagines a mid-twenty-first-century "scramble for Africa," with India and China the new colonisers-in-chief. Its showpiece is an ocean "trail" built out of metallic hydrogen, running from Mumbai to Djibouti. This world order provides the setting for the individual journeys of both protagonists, which ultimately end in a meeting upon the Trail.
It is also a time when the incipient surveillance state has been nearly perfected: people have "chips" implanted into them, the better to be tracked with, and their social status is visible in the form of a halo around their heads, called the "Aadhaar" (which, as a matter of fact, is the name of a contemporary Indian government program aimed at creating a mass biometric database of all its citizens).
[Moderator] I assumed the Aadhaar was a voluntary/commercial social media development that was only involved with state power inasmuch as such things always are—do we think otherwise?
Gautam Bhatia: Now that you mention it, it's true that the book makes no mention of whether Aadhaar is private or state. Meena can evidently "turn it off," although that only speaks to the voluntary nature of it. I'm probably unduly influenced by the fact that the real-world Aadhaar is a state-sponsored program, and there's an ongoing Supreme Court battle over whether the government can make it mandatory!
Vajra Chandrasekera: I'd also assumed that the Aadhaar was a direct reference to the Indian government program, given that it'd been in the news for some years before the book came out!
Aishwarya Subramanian: With Vajra and Gautam on the deliberateness of the Aadhaar reference—though as I understand it, Meena can't really turn it off so much as she can make it slightly more private; i.e., not visible to casual acquaintances, but still tracking her finances and pinpointing her whereabouts to any entity (state or private) powerful enough to access that information! Which feels important.
In a certain, formal way, The Girl in the Road adopts the basic structure of the classic fantasy novel by placing the "quest" at the front and centre of the narrative. (In fact there are two quests, which are always meant to intersect—though when they finally do, it's in a rather unexpected way.) And of course the quest ends up becoming our window into the protagonists' personal journeys.
That said, Byrne complicates matters considerably: the two quests are defined in only the haziest of ways, and the protagonists continually revise them throughout the novel. Even at the novel's end, it's quite impossible to judge whether these quests have come to fruition. So what role—if any—does the "quest" play in The Girl in the Road? Despite its formal centrality to the novel, should we be focusing on it at all?
Gautam Bhatia: What strikes me about The Girl in the Road is how, despite its subversiveness (especially in its treatment of sexuality and relationships, the amount of attention paid to geopolitics, and—formally—the amount of interior monologue), it nonetheless cleaves to classic fantasy in making the quest its formal centrepiece. It was Lin Carter, if I remember correctly, who observed that the theme of the quest has been a staple feature of fantastic fiction from the time of Amadis the Gaul, and that it serves not only as a narrative device, but also to highlight the protagonist's discovery of herself. We have both of those functions in The Girl in the Road. Furthermore, it also invokes another classic theme: Meena's quest is a quest for origins—the journey to Africa is ostensibly about discovering her unknown parents' murderer (which of course, at the end, transforms into discovering her own mother).
Of course as far as Mariama's story is concerned, what the quest is is never defined—apart from a vague, hazy notion of getting to Ethiopia. And unlike in most fantasy novels that feature quests, Mariama's journey has no real significance beyond itself. Nothing really turns upon the success or failure of her effort to reach Ethiopia (although, of course, by the end of it, we know that her journey is equally integral to Meena's story as well). Despite that, though, it continues to bear many of the hallmarks of fantasy quests—journey, series of obstacles, narrow escape from death, actual death of a fellow-traveler, loss of another, and so on. I feel that the quests, ultimately, are more than merely formal devices, and end up doing a fair amount of the narrative legwork. As I wrote earlier, though, in so many other ways, this book pushes boundaries: sexuality and identity-and-geopolitics are given the kind of attention that we rarely see in the genre. And in that context, I have to say that the interposition of such a well-worn trope as the quest in a novel that is otherwise genre-bending makes for discordant reading, at times. This isn't at all a bad thing—in fact, it's rather pleasurably discordant!
Vajra Chandrasekera: "The quest" is definitely a well-worn trope, but I think I read it here as a deliberately conservative structural choice—it organizes the story in a predictable way to compensate for the almost excessive unreliability of the narrators. Both Meena and Mariama deceive themselves (and us) in various ways, and experience hallucinations, manic states, etc., that might otherwise have been more confusing to follow. Besides, it's lampshaded by the title as well, right? Granted, there's a whole cloud of associations in the title, I suppose: movement and adolescence, vulnerability and loneliness, runaways, hauntings, the weeping woman in white—there's even a character called Mohini, though that wasn't the reference made in the story itself—so it's probably not quite right to say that the title is specifically and solely denoting journeys, but at least it's in the mix.
Hmm, I think I disagree that Mariama's quest is undefined, though. Or that either quest is hazy. Or rather, they're only hazy if we presuppose that they are in fact quests rather than just having a certain structural questiness. Meena has both a "running toward" and a "running from" in her journey, but the gradual revelation is that the former is a mask for the latter, right? I think this is less about Meena revising her goals and more about the stress of the journey eroding her pretenses. Maybe you could look at the quest-like structure as an argument that these quests are coping mechanisms for fleeing your sins and/or your traumas (arguably this is a thing of quests in general). And maybe Mariama is simply more honest about this from the outset: she was always running-from, and her running-towards is just whatever she thinks will make her feel better at that time, whether it's Indian sweets, Ethiopian activism, Gabriel, or Yemaya. The only consistent pole of her life is that she never ever looks back at her mother. A quest in reverse, if you like, a grail left for Meena to find in the end.
Aishwarya Subramanian: The two interweaving "quests" are almost the opposite of quests, aren't they? Mariama wants to get away and joins onto someone else's cross-continental road trip in order to do so, regardless of where her companions are going. Meena (about whom much more in a couple of minutes) mentions the mystery regarding her origins more than once, but I think it's implied quite early on (I may be misremembering terribly) that the whole "discover your roots/face your past" idea is more Mohini's sort of thing than Meena's. And when she does embark upon her journey the reasons we're given start with her supposed persecution by Semena Werk. As we learn more we discover that the events around the end of her relationship with Mohini (I was delicately avoiding spoilers but then noticed Vajra had mentioned this in his summary, so: Meena murdered her girlfriend) are in themselves a pretty good reason for her to be fleeing the country. As with Mariama, then, it's easily read as a journey away from, not to something. Anti-quest? Tseuq?
Which, for me, opens up a few interesting possibilities.
As Vajra says above, all the ingredients of the classic quest (movement, journey, road, adolescence) are already right there in the title; we come to this book at least in part as readers of a quest story. The reader's aware of it, the book is aware of it—and Meena's aware of it as well; I'm thinking of this scene, early in the book:
He nods. "You'll find like-minded souls out there."
"What do you mean?"
"Travelers. They're all searching for something."
I think this is shitty and simplistic but I don't say so. (pp. 59-60 of my edition)
I flag this up in part because, as we figure out, Meena's not the most reliable of narrators. And this is a story being told to us (and/or to Meena herself, as she works very hard at not thinking about certain things) and it makes sense that a familiar structure like the quest narrative should be deployed for such purposes. We're not allowed not to think of the Trail as a place for Facing Your Demons and Finding Yourself—everything about Meena's journey (the language, the trancelike states and lightheadedness, the shutting oneself in a literal cocoon suspended in the ocean on a regular basis) demands that we see this as a sort of voyage of discovery. And I think that the fascinating discordance (which is a great word!) that Gautam identifies may lie somewhere in here?
All of which ties up (or doesn't, which may be the point) in the book's ending, but I'm sure we'll get to that.
Chinelo Onwualu: I think the quest structure is supremely important to this book, because it's the one thing that's consistent and clear where everything else is deliberately vague. I agree that having a classic structure is probably the only way a book this complex would be able to work.
I think the quest trope in fantasy is well-worn for a reason—it works and it's easily recognisable across a wide variety of cultures. And for a book that is trying to span a lot of different places, it's a good way to link everything up. It is interesting that both Meena and Mariama are not just discovering new things, they're remembering old things they've forced themselves to forget.
How would this book have been different if written by a woman of colour—of Indian or African heritage? What did you make of the concept of "transracial" in this book? Is it the same kind of "transracial" that Rachel Dolezal claimed to be? Is the idea of a white woman writing a book with African and South Asian protagonists a kind of "transracial" move in itself?
Chinelo Onwualu: I think the biggest way this book might have been different is in terms of nuance. There are always subtleties that anyone writing from the outside in will fail to grasp—fine-tuned turns of phrase, political and cultural references, in-jokes that only a person intimate with a society would know.
For instance, it was interesting that a book partly set in India made little mention of its film industry—which is such a big feature of its pop culture. I imagine it would remain so in the near-future. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision on Byrne’s part to avoid stereotypes, and if it was, I think that is another way the book would have been different. A person more at home with the culture may not have had the same compunctions around portrayal—what's there is there, no need to curate it for a Western audience or tailor it to avoid offendin—the people you're writing about. It comes down to a sense of confidence within the work that the writer is dealing with a world they feel part of - that they know and understand.
To be honest, I found Mariama's ethnic background difficult to reconcile. I also had a difficult time reconciling Bryne's portrayal of the region—even beneath the shine of future tech and geopolitics. For instance, it seemed strange to me that none of the characters during the part of her journey that crossed West Africa referred to the patois or pidgins that are common street languages of the region—one which is already gaining prominence and set to overtake more structured forms of English and French. It's not the big things that draw the eyes, it's the small nuances.
I think there's also a larger point to be made about current trends in genre writing that seem to favour western writers writing characters and spaces of colour over narratives produced by writers of colour themselves. But that may be beyond the scope of this discussion. . .
Gautam Bhatia: I think this is a very interesting question. Without a doubt, in making her protagonists South Asian and African, Byrne takes upon herself a significant burden of authenticity. Taking for our purpose here Raymond Williams's definition of a "national culture" (which he in turn draws from Burke)—"the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people" (Williams, Culture and Society, p. 12)—it's obviously going to be extremely difficult to create characters that are rooted in their culture without yourself being part of that culture. I'm reminded of another science fiction novel that I recently read—Anthony Trevelyan's The Weightless World—which is also set in India, but where the first-person protagonist is British. That's certainly an easier task to pull off than what Byrne is attempting here.
I'd further say, however, that at the same time Byrne—rather cleverly—constructs her world in a way that significantly lightens the burden of authenticity that would otherwise rest on her. In this world—the action of the book taking place around fifty years hence—there has been a geopolitical re-alignment. India is now one of the dominant powers. Along with China, India is engaged in a twenty-first-century scramble for Africa. Meena, Byrne's Indian protagonist, is an urban, upper-class, educated citizen of a rising imperial power in what is presumably an even more globalised world than the one we live in. This, in turn, means that Byrne doesn't really need to get markers of identity accurate to the extent that she would if her story was set in the present day. So—at least in my reading—Meena has been written as a generic world citizen, and not as somebody specifically or identifiably Indian.
On the subject of the transracial, I think this is what distinguishes The Girl in the Road from the Dolezal. In her critique of Dolezal, Ellie Freeman defined transracial as "a term to describe interracial adoptees [. . .] commonly used in organisational and academic contexts. Simply put, a transracial person is someone raised in a culture or race different from their own." I think that, in a similar way, Meena is transracial in the sense that her own set of privileges (ones she is born with and those that she acquires, in the further context of her surrounding environment) sets her apart from the race into which she was born. And I think that from this point of view, Byrne's drawing of Meena is a success. This, of course, is a window into the ongoing conversation about the alienation of a privileged global elite, who travel effortlessly between and across borders, from their own native "culture," but I don't suppose we can go into that here!
(I cannot, however, resist a minor bit of nit-picking. Meena's chosen expletive, chutiya, and the sheer number of times she says it, was jarring. I know I've just spent three paragraphs making the opposite point, but "chutiya" is a distinctively North-Indian choice of swear word. But I suppose this distinction has probably dissolved in 2065!)
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think the novel sidesteps a lot of potential Capital R Representation issues because this is the Future and, as Gautam says above, distinctions that exist in 2015 may have dissolved (or evolved) by 2065. Meena also suggests that this India has changed drastically from the one we know: "while I was growing up India was undergoing its third or fourth cultural revolution of the century and even twentysomethings were shocked at what teenagers were doing and teenagers looked at toddlers and wondered what cocktail of traditional and radical and appropriational they'd serve up one day."—the question, for someone seriously thinking about the worldbuilding here, is probably not so much whether it's authentic (whatever that may mean) but whether it's plausible. I actually think that the North culturally influencing the South to the extent that chutiya becomes a default expletive is plausible (I hope that the cultural exchange worked both ways—I know that Tamil and Malayalam at least have rich expletive resources—but I worry that it might not have).
There's also the fact of the type of characters that we're dealing with. Meena—because she's a lot of specific things (has a Brahmin surname, got into trouble at school, went to IIT-Bombay, reads particular sorts of books, has particular sorts of politics, is kind of an asshole) is freed from some of the burden of having to be an Authentic/Representative Indian; and because she's self-contained/self-absorbed and also hiding a lot of things from us even in her first-person narrative, Meena is also freed of the burden of having to depict Authentic India. Mariama, meanwhile, is freed from much of this burden because when we see her she's always displaced, always new to a place.
Is this a narrative cop-out of sorts? Possibly, or a statement about authenticity and belonging, or both; but I also think it's the only way a book like this could be written. I agree with Chinelo when she says above that a writer from a particular place might feel less bound by these compunctions (but then I imagine writing a novel set in India myself and realise I'd immobilise myself with precisely these questions, so maybe not); but this is a book that involves a road trip across a continent as well as spending time within another country—it's hard to imagine a writer with the sort of "local” knowledge that could encompass such a wide range of experience.
(Relatedly, and this is possibly a tangent, there's also the question of readership. Within a group of Asian and African SF readers [though Asia is more heavily represented in this particular group!] I'm much more comfortable talking about this book and its possible successes and failures; within a wider [and Anglo-American-centric] SF community, I'm wary of being the Indian Who Declares This Book Passably Authentic and having those words deployed to silence other commentators. Criticism is complicated!)
Regarding the question of transracial-ness: I think it's interesting that the definition Gautam gives, for, e.g., adoptees who grow up in cultures other than their birth ones, parallels Meena's situation—because when the term itself is used in the book (only twice, that I can find), it's in a very Dolezal sense. Mariama describes it as being "like the transsexuals who underwent expensive treatments to change their body to reflect their soul"; Meena also describes it as the same sort of thing as being trans. Which, even if we assume that Meena doesn't endorse this position (of a former transracial partner she only says "He was misguided") and read it as plausible worldbuilding for fifty years into the future, is a problematic connection to insist upon in 2015. As we learnt when The Dolezal Thing happened and there was a flood of thinkpieces and poor opinions, and trans people had to patiently defend their identities/existence and explain the difference once more.
But obviously much of this is tied into questions of race and privilege as they exist in the world of the book, and the shifts in global power dynamics that are hinted at in the background. We know that in this future (and in this present) it's a lot easier to be brown in India than it is to be black, but are wider racial/cultural shifts that are less relevant to the immediate plot visible? I'm not sure they are.
And then there's that other question: if this had been a book by an Asian or African writer living in one of those two continents, would it have had the wide readership that it has had?
Vajra Chandrasekera: This gets at the fracture at the heart of "diversity" in fiction, doesn't it? On the one hand, there's been a call for representation in the fiction itself—non-white protagonists, non-male protagonists, etc., the avoidance of clichés and hoary old tropes that, when unexamined, support the many bigotries out of which what we facetiously call our civilization is composed. All of which is a good thing, of course. But on the other hand, there is also a call for inclusion in the field, to support writers, artists, editors, publishers who are non-white, non-male etc., to encourage the scenes and the industries themselves to become something more than the imperial remnant as which, in our time, they inevitably begin.
These two ideas are often blurred together when people talk about these issues, but they are not the same. They can and often do support each other, but they do not always. There is certainly no automatic alliance between them; they can be at odds, because the first is both easier to accomplish and less important than the second. Worse, without the second, without meaningful change in the industry, the first is merely a façade of progress. That's why I call the gap between these two huge, continental-plate ideas a fracture; you could call it the Matt Damon Faultline, after his celebrated (and sort-of-apologized-for) remark that "when you're talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show"—i.e., that it's always about the roles that actors play, not the choice of directors for the film. I think it's fair to say most of seemingly progressive pop culture lies within this gap. There are far more white writers writing non-white characters than there are non-white writers being published at all.
Not everybody will agree that there is a problem there, not even everybody who otherwise agrees that "diversity" is a good thing. And certainly, I don't mean to point fingers at the "casting choices" of individual writers: this is not really where the problem is located. The problem is that these choices are being made in a context that is wildly uneven to begin with, by a population that is tremendously and unnaturally skewed away from an even distribution. I think that at the least it's important that the distinction be made—that the Matt Damon Faultline be recognized, though maybe not by that name, lol—when the subject is discussed, so that the tension or even outright opposition between the two ideas in a given context can also be talked about.
I think the others have addressed the first aspect thoroughly by addressing questions of representation, of "authenticity," of plausibility. I don't have a lot to add there. I really liked Meena. She was alive and intense (and kind of an asshole, but in a charming way). I found her more so than Mariama, maybe because Mariama's a child for much of the story and seemed in any case less grounded in reality. Talking about Meena as authentically Indian or not does run into (as Aishwarya said) the danger of Being Heard as Declaring Things (In)Authentic, which is a problem especially for a group like this—I'm sure that a book club that read The Way Inn or The Peripheral never had to worry about authenticating whiteness or Britishness or Americanness from Neil Double or Flynne Fisher. I rather enjoyed the general discussion on plausibility or narrative coherence, however. Expletive drift as a technology of measuring time!
As for the second aspect, about inclusion in the industry rather than representation among fictional characters, it's what Aishwarya said: could a South Asian or African writer—a debut novelist, no less—have published this book to such a wide readership or acclaim? To a Tiptree Award and a Kitschies nomination and an NPR review (albeit one completely unable to process the book's optimism)? And before you answer that question, let me remind you that we live in the universe where Kuzhali Manickavel, arguably the finest short-form writer alive, has never even been nominated for any of the several dozen awards that litter SFF's eldritch and pallid landscape. Not to uphold the mythology of the awards, but it is at the very least true that they represent attention from the industry, and it's exactly that attention which is unevenly distributed. Without taking anything away from either Byrne or The Girl in the Road, I think it's necessary to mention this so that we're not talking about the book in isolation from the world in which it was written and published and read.
And I don't think it's possible to say anything concrete about how it would have been different if written by an Asian or African writer without falling into some rhetorical trap or the other; there is no reason to assume that an Asian or African writer would choose to write this or any story to be more "authentically" Asian or African than Byrne. (I always choose inauthenticity whenever possible, myself.) All we can say is that it would have been a different book. But that's neither here nor there; it tells us nothing about this one.
Different people respond differently to characters. However it seems that Byrne, at times, goes out of her way to make her protagonists alienate her readers. Is there a consensus that both protagonists in The Girl in the Road are difficult to invest in personally? And what does that do for the novel?
Vajra Chandrasekera: I've certainly seen this opinion expressed, but I think it's far from a consensus. I very much enjoyed the intense interiority of both Meena's and Mariama's points of view, and appreciated them both as characters, particularly Meena. Both "alienation" and "investment" here are based on the idea that the reader must "identify with" a protagonist, yes? The protagonist as a kind of docking bay for the reader's attention, which is then transported through the events of the plot, and anything that threatens a secure docking may leave the reader in freefall. But that's often not a very useful way to look at it, I think. Characters in prose aren't portrayed or performed (like an actor in a role) so much as evoked (in layers, or in waves, paragraph by paragraph). They are not truly separable from the rest of the text, no matter how we choose to disassemble it: plot, setting, whatever. In fact, we can choose to model the text any way we like—privilege mood instead of event, motif instead of character, crescendo instead of plot. To me, prose fiction is more like music than theatre or film.
Or even more simply, we could say that Meena and Mariama are not vehicles for exploring the story; they are the story. It's the quest (the journeys, the Trail, the parents, the lovers, the obstacles) that is the vehicle for exploring Meena and Mariama. That's why the quest is so relatable, so easy to identify with and invest in: it's the protagonist!
Gautam Bhatia: As a general principle, I'd agree with most what Vajra says. I do feel, however, that a book such as The Girl in the Road, which relies so heavily upon interior monologue, presenting us with a near continuous stream of thought from its protagonists, does tread a dangerous line if the protagonists themselves are very hard to invest in or empathise with. This problem becomes more pronounced when the protagonists are foregrounded, relative to all the other characters, to the extent that they are in The Girl in the Road.
I'm not sure, however, that "alienation" and "investment" necessarily equate to "identifying" with a character. I'd peg the threshold a bit lower: investment simply means being emotionally tied to your chosen character's fate, and as the novel progresses, becoming passionately interested in their next move, their next decision, their next mistake or disaster. With Meena in particular, I felt that kind of connection to be almost impossible, in part because it often felt as if the "intense interiority" that Vajra refers to was crossing the line into self-absorption.
I wonder if this is a deliberate choice on the author's part. After all, neither Meena nor Mariama are typical protagonists—they don't fit easily into a type, even with all the diversity that the genre has to offer. Meena, in particular, feels unique in how she makes sexuality central to her identity, how mentally and emotionally out-of-sorts she is and remains throughout the novel, and how acutely self-aware she is about that. A combination of all these factors makes her a forbidding kind of a character (in terms of alienation/investment). But perhaps that is the point—to deny us the lulling comfort of an easy connection with likable protagonists, and to constantly keep us in a state of alert unease as we follow them through the novel.
Aishwarya Subramanian: More often than I'm comfortable with I find myself enjoying (and in part identifying with) a character, only to find other people who have read the book discussing the author's bravery in making their main character so unlikeable. This is one of those times. Somewhere above I describe Meena as an asshole, and while I stand by that position, it was one I came to in large part through hearing other people describe her as unpleasant. But mostly I think she works as a character—as an abrasive, self-absorbed type myself, I found those things about her convincing and recognisable. Which is irrelevant to how that character works within the text, of course.
The attentive reader will probably pick up early on that there's more to Meena and Mariama's narratives than we're being told—but this book's structure relies partly on those big reveals at the end. Gautam suggests that Meena denies us "the lulling comfort of an easy connection," and I have to wonder if invoking precisely that sort of comfort, letting her be "likeable," would make the final parts of the novel more shocking (and, relatedly, whether "more shocking" would in this case mean "more effective").
I read you both as suggesting that one of the things both of these characters achieve is shifting the focus from the novel's world to something much more interior. And I find myself both interested and frustrated by how little I know about the world they live in besides the little snippets of information that are scattered through the text—there's enough here to speculate with (tell me more about geopolitics! how do the ways in which racism culturally manifests itself change in response to these changed power dynamics? what governments are in power, what new technologies other than the Trail are in play here?), and we could probably go on for hours doing so, but we'd be drawing those conclusions based on very little. Which, on the one hand, is great—as SFF readers we need to have our worldbuilding instincts thwarted at times. On the other hand, what is this SF novel doing with its SFnal elements?
(That's not a rhetorical question.)
Chinelo Onwualu: I'm afraid I might have to be a bit of a lone voice here in that I found the intense interiority, selfishness, and difficult natures of both protagonists a major barrier to my ability to follow the plot of the work or immerse myself in the world.
While I agree that it takes a great deal of bravery to make a character as deliberately unlikeable as both these women are, I do think that as a reader I reserve the right to treat unlikeable characters the way I'd treat unlikeable people and avoid them unless they have other redeeming qualities. I do think that my visceral reaction does mean that these are both excellently drawn characters.
I have to agree with Aishwarya on the fact that this may have been a barrier to the building of the story itself. In many ways, the whole world felt like an exotic backdrop against which these two characters could go about exploring their feelings. It didn't really feel like there was a deep exploration of the altered geopolitics or technology, beyond how these individual characters could use them. Which is appropriate for the kind of characters they were.
I want to resist falling into the gendered critique that female characters should be pleasant or at least "relatable," but I do wonder if I wouldn't have found this book a bit more engaging if I could have found a way into these characters. It often felt like I was being challenged to read on despite their unpleasantness and—as in a conversation or a social encounter—I was often tempted to simply walk away.
Gautam Bhatia: Aishwarya's last question is one that struck me as well. I found the construction of this world, with its altered geopolitical axis, fascinating (and something, I feel, that SF does too rarely, unless we're looking at alternative histories like The Man in the High Castle)—but also incomplete. Byrne is very clearly drawing historic parallels with the nineteenth-century "scramble for Africa," and it's certainly a very plausible account of the world fifty years from now. And there are so many wonderfully tantalising bits about how this has changed the world (such as the Ethiopian Head of State speaking Hindi, and the university riots). But what I would have loved to see would have been, for instance, how this changed power dynamic affects not only the "colony," but also the metropolis (which is now India, where a significant part of the book's action takes place). I am reminded of Edward Said's analysis of nineteenth-century British literature, and his point about how the colony is always a hidden, unacknowledged backdrop to the portraiture of English country life. Applying Said to contemporary SF is probably a bit of a stretch, but I think there's something to think about here: apart from linking the Indian and African bits of the narrative through the personal lives of the protagonists, and the visible imprints of colonialism in the African countries (such as the commemorative plaques), another possible link would have been by visualising how Imperium had transformed India as well.
For Further Discussion:
- The identity of the old woman in the epilogue has been (surprisingly?) confusing for some readers, though Byrne has herself issued word of god on the matter. Did you have trouble with the epilogue? Would you argue for a contrary reading?
- What do you think of the novel's depiction of mental illness?
- Byrne has chosen to set her novel a half-century from now. This places her in the position of having to create a world that is familiar, yet changed. Byrne spends almost no time telling us how this world developed from our own; we're expected to take it as she gives it to us, along with all the things that remain largely unaltered (for instance, the Indian caste system). Is this a realistic expectation to place on readers? Does Byrne's decision detract from the strength of the novel?