I wrote a piece for Wired about this year’s Hugo Awards craziness. My conclusions are not what you might think. Go check it out.
It’s awkward to do taxes. The tax system is built on the assumption that work and life are separate things. But for me—and for artists, in general—travel for pleasure is the same as travel for business. Coffee with a friend is also a meeting with a collaborator. My new grown-up bed is also office furniture. There’s no part of my life that’s not also a part of my work.
I’m not cheating. I’m actually being 100% honest. But some part of me still feels like I’m cheating.
I wonder if the folks on Wall Street ever feel that way.
The press release says: “[The Girl in the Road] is a painful, challenging, glorious novel about murder, quests, self-delusion, and a stunning science fictional big idea: What would it be like to walk—walk—-the length of a few-meter-wide wave generator stretching across the open sea from India to Africa, with only what you can carry on your back? The novel tackles with profound compassion and insight relationships between gender and culture, and gender and violence. It provides us, in the end, with a nuanced portrait of violence against women, in a variety of forms, and violence perpetrated by women. 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.”
James Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon, a science fiction writer prolific throughout the 60s and 70s. When “he” died, the revelation that Tiptree was actually a woman was met with widespread disbelief. Especially from the male writers who’d asserted that Tiptree couldn’t possibly be a woman, as the works were too “masculine” to be written by a woman, and/or, ya know, too good.
Como decimos ahora: fuck that.
Since 1991, the James Tiptree Jr. Award has been given annually for a work that expands understanding of gender and sexuality. This year, the Motherboard of WisCon has awarded it to me for The Girl in the Road and to Jo Walton for My Real Children.
It means at least three things:
(1) I get to travel to Madison for the 2015 WisCon, which will be my first-ever convention.
(2) I will get to see many people I love, including Stan Robinson, who’s the Guest of Honor, and meet many more who I’ve only ever known online.
(3) I. GET. TO. WEAR. A. TIARA.
Catherynne Valente crowned as the Tiptree Winner in 2007. Photo by Dmitri Zagidulin.
Geoff Ryman crowned as the Tiptree Winner in 2006. Photo by Liz Henry.
I have some exciting news about The Girl in the Road. NO, it is not a movie option. Yet. (I’ve stated publicly I won’t sell rights without clauses for race-appropriate casting, so that alone is a big deterrent to most would-be producers. And you know what? It’s meant to be. I wouldn’t trust those producers with my story.)
In the meantime, we can dream, right? Tell me in the comments who you would cast! I’m actually at a loss for several of the characters, including Meena. Sarita Choudhury from Mississippi Masala is damn near exactly what I had in mind (even the character’s name is Meena!), but now she’s twenty years older, alas.
For Mariama, there’s no question: Lupita Nyong’o. Absurdly talented and also eerily close to the picture of Mariama I always had in my mind.
Gabriel Ramachandran would be played by Suraj Sharma, who was so amazing in Life of Pi.
Young Mariama would be played by Quvenzhané Wallis. She made me cry multiple times in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Yemaya would be played by Aïssa Maïga, a Senegalese-French actress.
Mohini would be played by the luminous Priyanka Chopra.
Arjuna the lover would be played by the gorgeous (and aptly-named) Arjun Kapoor.
Lucia, the cute lifeguard, would be played by Mindy Kaling.
Rana, the rebellious fisher boy, would be played by Dev Patel.
As for Muthashan and Muthashi, Francis and Mohammed…I’m drawing a blank so far. Actually, I’d love a comedian to play Francis. Suggestions welcome!
Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, who wrote “Awara” (see page 288 of The Girl in the Road). Photo by Fernando Elizalde.
I spend hours at my writing desk with my hands over my eyes, just listening to music and watching the blackness. Here is a list of songs that specifically inspired The Girl in the Road. Individual links and explanations are below (caution: spoilers!), and the full playlist is here on YouTube. Happy listening.
On page 1 of The Girl in the Road, Meena leaves home in a terrible hurry. This song is her, already self-justifying, making little admissions (“yeah, sometimes I love too much”) and repeating to herself the line: “I’m just a soul on the planet / try to do good, be good, feel good.” Meshell Ndegeocello’s music was always my guide in expressing Meena’s dark, angry, sensual spirit.
Mariama also leaves home suddenly. Her caravan heads to Senegal, whose music scene is heavily influenced by Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam. I hear this song as they pass through villages on their way to Dakar, and Mariama watches children running and women carrying bundles on their heads by the road, amazed at how much bigger the world is than she ever knew.
I listened to this song on repeat when first writing Meena’s scenes on the Trail. The melancholy in this melody is overwhelming, which makes the title ironic; of course, that’s also Meena’s problem. She’s deeply and irrevocably sad. But she doesn’t express it in the ways people often recognize. Her sadness is active, reckless, and destructive. This stillness is what lies beneath.
I heard this song in my head when writing the scene on page 82: “We were all quiet, all watching. The land was changing.” Here, the wonder Mariama feels deepens even further as they cross into true Sahara, and watch the sun rise over the dunes…and as she begins to imprint on Yemaya, the beautiful new stranger who joined their caravan in Dakar.
I listened to this song on repeat whenever I wanted to conjure Mohini, Meena’s lover, who was a connoisseur of classic Bollywood movies. Of course, in 2068, “classic” means what’s coming out now, including the film Bunty Aur Babli from 2005. (By the way, this music video illustrates both why Aishwarya Rai is one of the biggest stars on the planet, and why I think India will set global pop culture in the next century. I mean…watch it. I just did again. Four times.)
Out of all the Angelique Kidjo songs that Yemaya has on her sirius (a future smartphone), this is the song Mariama loves most. To her it symbolizes the new “family” that she’s constructed around her, with Yemaya as her mother and Francis as her father. On page 136, they sing it out loud together on the way to Agadez, and it puts everyone in a good mood.
Meena sings this mantra to herself on page 101. To her, it’s less of an explicitly religious devotion—she calls herself “a nominal Hindu”—than it is about comforting herself with something familiar. Meena grew up with this recording, specifically, which her Hindu grandfather played every morning.
On her Live from New York album, Swa talks about how when she was in Cuba, the land “gave” her songs directly. In my head, the connection made a few hops: from Cuba the country, to the practitioners of Yorùbá religion there, to the orisha Yemaya, goddess of the sea. This song always reminded me of my character Yemaya and her tortured soul-searching.
When I was in Ethiopia to do research in 2009, this was the unescapable single playing on every radio station in the country—in minibuses in Addis, in hotels in Debark, in storefronts in Gonder. I surmise that in 2026, it’s an old pop classic, which is why Francis uses it to teach Amharic to Mariama on page 133: “Tey fit ateshigne, afralehu”: “Don’t turn your back, I am afraid.” Though here, “afraid” means something more like “shy” or “nervous.” (I think Francis feels exactly that way about Yemaya!)
This is one of Meena’s love songs for Mohini. It’s both tender and deeply problematic, as it exposes ways that Meena fetishizes Mohini in ways she’s not entirely conscious of or responsible about: as a “Mary Magdalene” figure to whose beauty she is drawn, and of whose body she is possessive. Tell me I’m the only one.
As an adult in Addis in 2040, Mariama goes to an Ethiopian jazz listening party hosted by her handsome new Indian friend Gabriel, who collects old jazz vinyls. He plays Bezunesh Bekele, a hero of the Ethiopian musical renaissance that flourished just before the Derg took power. This song plays while they eat pakoras and thali on page 244.
This is the song that Gabriel plays on page 288, hence, the chapter title. I can’t listen to it without crying, now. To me it’s about how the world opens up in first love, and that no matter how tragically it may end (“awara” means “fickle”), nights like that are eternal. See? I’m crying right now, writing this entry. Dammit.
This might seem a strange song to end this playlist. But sometimes inspiration is like that: totally oblique to the source material. I was driving home late one night and how this song made me feel was exactly the feeling I wanted to capture when Mariama meets the woman she thinks is Yemaya, on page 300. As if everything in the world is put to right.
TED felt like an alternate dimension.
The abstract was made flesh. Like, you hear about powerful influential figures on the news, and here they are, driving their soft meat-cars around, Al Gore in line for a latté, Jeff Bezos on his smartphone, Bill Gates on the escalator. On the first day, I was confused about my badge status—we science fiction writers were only issued day passes instead of full conference badges, which meant our access to certain parts of the conference (the main hall, the coveted “gift cave”) was restricted at first. Which made me feel angry and entitled in a way I wasn’t proud of. Even as I knew most men wouldn’t hesitate to push for more access, so for that reason alone, I did, too. I imagined the convention center as a Borgesian space of ever-upper-levels, ever-innermore chambers, ever-briefer conversations, ever-higher-status badges, ever-more-exquisite hors d’oeuvres.
It also felt wonderful, like getting drunk and lost in the woods at a bacchanal. I didn’t sleep much. Every morning I woke up, it didn’t occur to me to do anything but get to TED. See the talks. Meet the people. Eat the food. I walked fast, everywhere, even when I had nowhere to go. Every talk set off neural fireworks in my head; things I needed to consider anew, see anew, write anew, in all of my projects-in-process. Things that are inevitable: sea level rise, 3D printing, animals as people, driverless cars, the redefinition of marriage. Things I needed to incorporate into my reality. Waves already breaking over our heads.
The story that I eventually read on Thursday night, “Blue Nowruz,” got a standing ovation. It’s about a new form of nonviolent protest—“border picnics”—that originate in Iran and spread to the rest of the world. But in a broader sense, it’s about arbitrary designations of power and access, an irony that was not lost on me, given where I was.
I want to go back.
I have much more to say.
So this is pretty great news: I’ll be speaking at the next TED Conference in Vancouver.
By “speaking” I mean “reading a new story.” Neil Gaiman graciously invited me and I said yes, because what on earth else would I say.
My only prompt was that it has to take place in a world ten to fifteen years from now, a world I’d like to live in. The story takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s all I’m saying for now. I’ve been working on the story for the past three weeks.
And waiting for my custom dress to arrive.