Friends! I’m at the start of the 24-hour journey halfway around the planet to Iran. When I get there, I won’t have access to Facebook, either my personal or Author page (waahh), but I’m pretty sure I’ll have access to this blog, and plan to post frequently. I’m also told I’ll have access to Twitter (@monicabyrne13) and Instagram (also @monicabyrne13), where I plan to post daily. So come stay in touch there!
I’ve been practicing hijab-wearing with Berber headscarves I bought in Morocco, way back in 2002. I really love how they look. They make me think of all the women I knew at Wellesley who chose to wear headscarves and patiently explained to the rest of us why it wasn’t “antifeminist” to do so. That it was a choice they embraced and celebrated. That it was a means of personal identity and aesthetic expression. That they, and only they, were the ones who got to decide what it “meant.”
It’s for them that I happily wear mine.
I get ornery whenever anyone tries to talk shit about Titanic. It’s a bloody wonderful movie. It came out when I was sixteen and it might not have the same effect on me now, but it did then, and was so important to me for two reasons.
First: because it was an inversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope before it was even a trope. (If you’re unfamiliar, read this.) Usually it’s a beautiful waifish girl who changes a troubled man’s life and then dies tragically blah blah blah. Whereas in Titanic, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a waifish drifter who talks wealthy Rose (Kate Winslet) down from suicide, then befriends her, then becomes her lover. He dies. She survives. She then turns her back on a privileged but suffocating life and goes on to reinvent herself from scratch. As an old lady, she lives with her cool artist great-granddaughter and wears hip purple caftans. Seeing that last long shot of all the pictures of Rose’s life, all the things she’d done since then—traveling to Africa, flying a plane, posing as a film star, riding a horse in the surf at Coney Island, with different-colored hair in each—made such a deep impression on me.
Second: the 90s, when I grew up, was the age of “heroin chic.” (I mean, it still is, but Kate Moss was somethin’ else.) I loved, and still love, fashion magazines featuring women who are beautiful and also happen to be skinny; but it was the only kind of beauty I saw represented in the media, unless I went to my family’s bookcase full of National Geographic.
But in this midst of that, suddenly there was Rose DeWitt Bukater.
She was full-figured, curvy, and strong—beautiful in a way that I secretly hoped I was beautiful. She posed nude for Jack as an act of agency, rebellion, and self-discovery. And her body looked like mine. And it was celebrated as wonderful. That meant so much to me, at sixteen.
Sixteen years later, here in Belize, it turns out a friend of a friend is a marvelous artist trained in the UK. I thought of Rose. So on a rainy day when I couldn’t go to the cave, I had him up to the third floor of my guesthouse, where there’s a lobby area with couch and chairs, otherwise empty because it’s low season. I posed a dozen ways—standing, reclining, kneeling, lying down on my back, lying down on my stomach, facing front, facing away, against the wall, in a lunge, in a headstand. He sketched and took pictures. It rained outside. We talked the whole time. I was so comfortable. I thought I might be self-conscious, but the only word that came to mind was “easy.”
I haven’t seen any of the sketches yet, but the artist is keeping me updated through the process. His name is Fernando Cruz Crasborn. If you want a print when they’re available, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get you in touch with him!
One of the greatest pleasures of traveling is “swap shelves.” These are hodgepodge collections of warped, dog-eared books found in guesthouses, hostels, motels, hotels, and cafés around the world. I love them because I have such little control over what I’m going to read next—I’m at the mercy of a limited selection. It means I end up reading things I never would have read otherwise. Depending on where you are, too, English-language books are a precious commodity. When I was in Ethiopia to research The Girl in the Road, I used to sneak away to a fancy hotel down the street for ferenjis who had way more money than I did. Their swap shelf was pure gold. Like a collection of all Booker Prize nominees ever.
I also started a habit of writing my name in every book before I swapped it. I even put my email address in it. I kept hoping I’d hear from someone on the road, but I still never have. Maybe someday!* Meanwhile, I’m carrying on the tradition in Belize. I just finished Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation—it was fucking amazing, and lots of people agree—and gave it to a fellow traveler who was also having breakfast at Flayva‘s this morning. I hope she likes it too.
*Here’s a list of all the books I read on that trip and wrote my name in, and where I left them:
The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault (Lalibela, Ethiopia)
Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama (Gonder, Ethiopia)
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)
Mad Ducks and Bears by George Plimpton (Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
The Famished Road by Ben Okri (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Ft. Cochin, Kerala, India)
The Autobiography of Gandhi, or, My Experiments With Truth by M. K. Gandhi (Aranmula, Kerala, India)
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (Aranmula, Kerala, India)
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Aranmula, Kerala, India)
Eternity by Greg Bear (Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India)
Possession by A. S. Byatt (Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India)
Down Under by Bill Bryson (Hampi, Karnathaka, India)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Mumbai, India)
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Wayasewa Island, Fiji)
The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling (Wayasewa Island, Fiji)
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Waya Island, Fiji)
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (Waya Island, Fiji)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (Lalomanu Beach, Samoa)
Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot (Lalomanu Beach, Samoa)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Manono Island, Samoa)
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (Manono Island, Samoa)
The Bone People by Keri Hulme (Rarotonga, The Cook Islands)
A Month of Sundays by John Updike (Aitutaki, The Cook Islands)
Cocktail Time by P. G. Wodehouse (Aitutaki, The Cook Islands)
A Room With a View by E. M. Forster (Aitutaki, The Cook Islands)
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (Rarotonga, The Cook Islands)
This time around, my favorite travel toy is the Steripen. It’s straight out of Meena’s futuristic backpack in The Girl in the Road. I had no idea that a thing like this existed in the present day, but here it is—a handheld UV water purification device that is, for all intents and purposes, actually a tiny lightsaber. I used it for the first time on some cloudy tap water from my hotel faucet. It tasted….sterile. So far, so good.
Here is some night action. And here is me laughing manaically because I was thinking “I’m making travel porn” and then couldn’t put the wand in the right hole. I am twelve, basically.
This is my travel necklace. I put it on as soon as I leave the house on an adventure. My Dad gave it to me years ago, and when I was headed to Ethiopia, I wanted something from him to keep close to me at all times. This became it. I’ve never traveled without it since.
The funny thing is, the peas started dropping out. The first one dropped somewhere in Belize; the second dropped while I was in New York, putting up What Every Girl Should Know. These are both places I have since returned to and, in some way, have become intertwined with my future, as if I’d dropped part of my heart there to grow.
So the necklace has become not only a talisman, but a fortune teller. I have to pay attention to where the next pea drops.
I remember an incident from two years ago: in response to Facebook changing one of its features, a Well-Known Male Science Fiction Author posted a tasteless rape joke on Another Well-Known Male Science Fiction Author’s status. I commented, “Wow, that is disgusting.” In response, WKMSFA went a little farther with the joke (slow clap); meanwhile, other readers jumped in to defend him, call me “rude,” or explain to me what he’d “really meant.” I looked them up. They were also mostly WKMSFAs.
I wrote, “What concerns me about this whole thread is the kneejerk defense of a well-known figure in the community…until people start calling [this behavior] out, in public, on well-known figures or not, people will keep getting hurt by comments like this. And—I might add—young writers like me will keep not wanting to identify with the spec lit community.”
I signed off feeling angry and helpless and disillusioned.
A year later, SFWA—Science Fiction Writers of America—had a stretch of scandal, concentrated around a problematic sexist column in the SFWA Bulletin. It was embarrassing. And The Girl in the Road had just gone under contract, so I was watching the controversy closely. The aftermath could easily have been a replay of the interaction above. But somehow, there’d been a shift in the community. People really showed up—loud people, important people. K. Tempest Bradford. Mary Robinette Kowal. Amal El-Mohtar. Kameron Hurley. Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Jim Hines (who collected all these links). Benjamin Rosenbaum (who also happened to be the only person who stood up for me on the aforementioned thread). John Scalzi, then-president of SFWA, stepped up and took full responsibility.
And that really, really impressed me.
I saw people fighting for what was right. Even at the risk of their careers and their reputations. Would that those in the literary fiction community had the self-awareness and bravery to do the same.
So? I just paid my first dues for SFWA. Because I want to be part of the change. Thank you to those of you who fought for a welcoming space.
Here’s to the future of literature.
A couple weeks ago, a fellow author friend came to town, and we had a great time talking over afternoon drinks. I’ve always been really impressed with the way he handles being a public figure—especially how clear and unapologetic he is with his fan base about who he is and what he writes. A lot of readers love him. A lot of readers don’t. But he’s a good dozen books into his career, now, and very successful by any measure; he did that by cultivating a fan base that loves what he writes. And more importantly, loves what he loves to write.
As the reviews for The Girl in the Road keep trickling in, I’m struck by how powerfully it makes people feel. The critical reviews have been almost universally positive (see here!), but individual readers are sharply divided. However they feel about it, they feel very strongly. To me, that’s a good thing. As my sister Clare once said: When I have a strong reaction to art, in any direction, it’s very useful for me to know, insofar as it teaches me what kind of art I want to make.
I’m working on Novel #2 and it’s very tempting to satisfy everyone, to take each furious Goodreads review to heart and say, “I should be clearer this time,” “I should make it simpler,” or “I should leave out the uncomfortable parts.” But that’s the road to hell. I know that. My work isn’t for everyone; no one’s is. But those for whom it is?—wow, it is really for them. I keep hearing variations of “I’ve never read anything like this,” “I’ve waited my whole life for this book,” and “This is the future of literature.” And then they tell everyone they know about it. And that makes me so excited for the future. I have fans. Or as I like to think of them, companions.
So for all of you wondering what kind of writer I’m going to continue to be, here’s a handy list of ten things that probably won’t change:
1. Unreliable narrators.
2. Polyphonic POV.
3. Ouroboral plotting.
4. Genre promiscuity. Literary, science fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, thriller, fantasy, ghost, horror, erotica, mystery—all of the above.
5. Frank, graphic, sometimes joyful, and sometimes uncomfortable depictions of the lived experience of sex.
6. No easy distinctions between what is “real” and “not real.” (That’s a whole other post, for later.)
7. Fidelity to my characters’ emotional truth, whether that makes them “likable” or not.
8. Lots of non-English words that aren’t italicized.
9. Lots of non-Western references and settings.
10. Shitloads of ideas. Sorry, NPR.
So if these things aren’t for you, no worries! Go forth and read whatever it is you love.
But as for those of you who are on board? Welcome. I have so many more stories to tell you.