Debut Author Snapshot: Shobha Rao

Posted by Goodreads on March 1, 2018
Shobha Rao
The debut novel Girls Burn Brighter explores the lives of two girls, Poornima and Savitha, who are from a small village in South India. One of them is trafficked into the United States, and the other sets out to find her.

"Though they are poor and uneducated, I wanted them to have a strength and a resilience that is indestructible. In the course of writing the novel, I often found myself asking, 'What is a woman worth?' I set out to answer that question, knowing all the while it was unanswerable," says author Shobha Rao.

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The author, who moved from India to the United States when she was seven years old, says her childhood trips back to her homeland proved to be one of her most formative experiences. "The trips were never one or two weeks—they lasted the entire summer, all three and a half months. No running water, limited electricity—I dreamed all summer of drinking a cold glass of water. But it was there that I began to understand the true meaning of abundance, of poverty, and of the knife's edge on which most of the world lives. These are not meanings one forgets very easily." Rao talked to Goodreads about the tragic news story that sparked the idea for her first novel and just how far you'd go for someone in the name of love and friendship.

Goodreads: What sparked the idea for Girls Burn Brighter?

Shobha Rao: Two girls, in November of 1999, were found unconscious on the floor of an apartment in Berkeley, California. They were poisoned by carbon monoxide, and one of the girls, who was 13 years old, died from the poisoning. They had been trafficked into the United States from India and had been victims of domestic and sexual slavery. I remember thinking, "Berkeley?" And then I thought, "How many more of these girls walk amongst us? Unseen, exploited, and enslaved?" I wanted this novel to act as witness; I wanted this novel to be unflinching in its act of witnessing.

GR: Early Goodreads reviewers are taken with the friendship between Poornima and Savitha. Tell us about how you crafted their relationship.

SR: In thinking about their friendship, I very much thought about lengths: What are the lengths we are willing to go for another human being? There is a saying, "Thus far and no further." I wanted to push the limits of that far-ness. At every turn in the road, I wanted each of the girls to decide, unwaveringly, that yes, I want to go further. Without hesitation. Without regret. I wanted to push them so far that the way back was much more daunting than the way forward. I wanted to push them so far that there were not enough bread crumbs in the world for them to retrace their steps. Or reenter the world they'd known. After all, love is leaving home. Love is finding our no further.

GR: What does the title Girls Burn Brighter mean to you?

SR: I'm horrible with titles, but this one happens to have a cunning quality: Practically any combination of the words makes sense. Burn Brighter, Brighter Girls, Girls Burn, and so on. I also love that it leaves an open question, one that dangles and disquiets, even if all one reads is the title. Namely, brighter than what?

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GR: Although this is your first novel, you've won awards for your short stories. How did writing short stories prepare you for becoming a novelist, and how do you approach the two types of stories?

SR: I'm not sure anything can prepare you for writing a novel. Or even a short story! Each is an incursion into the unknown, and a blank page is always humbling, mystifying, and without a shred of mercy. As for the approach toward short stories versus a novel, the primary difference for me is a matter of endurance. A short story is walking into a house, setting it on fire, and then walking out. A novel is walking into a house, building a fire—matches, kindling, wood—and then keeping it going for a year. Or two. Or ten. Ultimately, they should give off the same thing: heat.

GR: Tell us about your writing process for Girls Burn Brighter.

SR: I wrote the first draft over a two-month period in the Badlands of South Dakota. I borrowed a friend's cabin, and I was alone on the open prairie. Nothing in my life had prepared me for those two months: the isolation, the storms, the silence, the staggeringly beautiful landscape. I felt like I was living on the edge of exigency, just as my characters lived on the edge of theirs. We traveled together—Poornima, Savitha, and I. Our three heartbeats became one.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves within Girls Burn Brighter?

SR: Herta Müller and Roberto Bolaño have been incredible influences in my writing life as well as Elfriede Jelinek, John Cheever, and Flannery O'Connor. Müller's writing of the ruthless and the ominous is brilliant and chilling—and guided my writing of Girls Burn Brighter. Bolaño's storytelling changed the way I thought stories could be told. Jelinek, and her depiction of women's lives, is so truthful, it is a blade to the throat. Cheever and O'Connor taught me the short story. In a way, they taught me what it is to be an American.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

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SR: I just finished Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls. It is brilliant, strange, sensual, and full of feminine ache. I recently found Hackenfeller's Ape by Brigid Brophy for 50 pence at a used bookstore in Edinburgh, and that book is a thought-provoking delight: gleeful and tragic, both at once. Seeing Red by Lina Meruane is a semi-autobiographical novel about vision loss, but also a beautiful and visceral meditation on the body as it moves through the world and through love. And though I generally read only one book at a time—how can one worship at two altars?—between books, I am pecking my way through The Histories by Herodotus. My, oh my. Human folly, human hunger—some things never change.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

SR: It's top secret! Or, to put it another way, I have no idea. Undoubtedly, it will be centered on the rare moments that break us open, brutalize our beating hearts, and watch the blood pool like a poem. And yet we rise. And yet we say, Love.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Ann (new)

Ann Hanewald I would love to be a re-published book reviewer. My interest is in fiction particularly restaurant location. If that is possible please let me know .Ann Hanewald

message 2: by Ann (new)

Ann Hanewald correct ion.

message 3: by Hassan (new)

Hassan Please how can I read this book

message 4: by Monique (new)

Monique I recall that tragic carbon monoxide incident. Everyone was shocked about it happening in Berkeley, of all cities. It just shows one that child trafficking is everywhere!

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