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.
The March 2015 issue of Wired is about sex. They asked me to contribute an anecdote dealing with sex and science, so I immediately thought of how I lost my virginity. (Though I hate putting it that way. Can we say “made my sexual debut”?) HOW it deals with science is something you’ll have to see for yourself—scroll to the bottom of the page here.
I love this story because it’s about being entirely in control of one’s sexuality, something I also owe to my partner at the time, who was patient and gentle. I wish every virgin the same.
Hugo nominations close at midnight on Tuesday, March 10th!* So here’s a loving reminder that The Girl in the Road is eligible for the ballot. So far, it’s made the Locus Recommended Reading List and the shortlist for the Kitschie Award. All the crazy good press is here. And if you’re a SFWA member, head here to start reading.
Thank you for your consideration. :)
*Sad to say, I’m not eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as my first pro sale was in 2009.
Me and Land Arnold arm-wrestling, refereed by Skylar Gudasz. (Land is the wonderful proprietor of Letters Bookshop in Durham, not the man to whom I refer in the following.) Photo by Crystal Dreisbach.
In the signing line at my paperback release, which had gone swimmingly so far, with Prom dresses and Krispy Kreme and singing and reading and arm-wrestling, I had really lovely conversations with each person who sat down. Then, as one man was standing up to go, he said, “I saw your last play and gosh, it had one of the worst third-act problems I’ve ever seen.”
I stared at him.
He explained further, “I mean, it didn’t have one. A third act. And it really needed one. You undid everything you were trying to do in the rest of the play.”
I think I said, “Huh, okay,” and then motioned to the next person in line.
Afterward, when we were cleaning up, I told my co-performer Skylar about it and she nodded. She said that happened to her all the time: strange men coming up to her after performances and giving her “tips.” That she should open her eyes when she sings. That she should wear her hair down instead of up. The issue of unsolicited advice by men, following any public appearance, is not new to her or to me.
I don’t know what’s passing through these guys’ minds. Do they think they’re being helpful? Are they trying to connect? Do they understand that we’re artists who make our own decisions on whether our work is suitable for public presentation, and wouldn’t have presented it, otherwise? Does it occur to them that what they’re suggesting to us are things that aren’t right for us as artists or the work of art in question or we’ve considered them already and rejected for excellent reason?
Does it even occur to them to just not do that?
Because it never occurs to me to go up to a man I don’t know and explain to him how to fix his art. Ever.
Most artists who’ve had a measure of success are on the receiving end of this, to some extent. But it’s an especially acute problem with older men and younger women, and exists within a larger societal context of men feeling free to try to control women in public spaces. Skylar said, “I’m sure women do it, too…it’s just…never happened yet.”
So I’m just going to say it right now: don’t do that. I will not think well of you.
I’m in this month’s edition of Cosmopolitan, on page 140, in an excellent article about sexual harassment in work and professional situations. The journalist Michelle Ruiz interviewed me extensively via chat—while I was in the remote Philippines, sitting on my friend’s porch to get better reception—about my experiences of sexual harassment in freelancing, theatre, and science journalism, the last of which is long public, and resulted in the offender Bora Zivkovic’s resignations from the board of Science Online, as well as his position as blogs editor at Scientific American.
Ms. Ruiz came under fire from some commenters on Twitter because Bora is also quoted in the article, basically denying that any of the situations in question were professional or work-related. I’d go on, but I don’t want to spend the energy. I mean, what’s there to say? There are screencaps all over the Internet of Bora admitting his own wrongdoing, though many of the original sources have since been deleted. Like here. And here it’s pasted below, in case the archive goes down.
So it seems to me that his public and private performances of contrition did not net him the desired result, which was…retaining his positions? his respect in the field? I don’t know—so now, his performance instead consists of blanket denial, as we see in the Cosmo article.
My conclusion being: Liars gonna lie. Manipulators gonna manipulate. Shrug and move on.
But as for those going after Ms. Ruiz because she “gave him a platform,”—honestly? She had to do so, as a journalistic duty. That it gives the impression of a “he said, she said situation”? Actually, it’s a “he said, he said” situation. Disproving his claims is as easy as batting a whiffle ball. And I have nothing to lose by doing so.
At least, nothing I’d consider worth keeping.