Fresh from the success of her debut short story collection, Shobha Rao (An Unrestored Woman, 2017) suffered a powerful bout of writer’s block. Her remedy? A change of venue.
“I didn’t realize I was changing it up so dramatically,” says Rao, laughing, by phone from her San Francisco apartment.
Rao, who grew up in India and the United States, had never been to South Dakota. But when a friend offered use of a cabin on the edge of Badlands National Park, she accepted. In an isolated, hallucinatory three-month residency, she wrote the entirety of her novel Girls Burn Brighter.
“The writing of it felt like one long day, rather than three months,” she says. “Time sort of lost meaning, I didn’t see people for days at a time. There was no sound on the prairie, and that incredible silence was like nothing I’d experienced in my life.
“It’s re-carved who I am,” she says, “the experience of living in isolation with these two girls.”
Intense, poetic, and profound, Girls Burn Brighter is the intimate story of a friendship between two young women from a small village on the banks of the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh. Sixteen-year-old Poornima and 17-year-old Savitha are born into an aggressively oppressive patriarchal society, where girls are generally seen as a burden to be passed from father to husband and the marriageable age is 15.
“[T]hat she, a girl, could earn anything, anything at all, lent her such a deep and abiding feeling of importance—of worth—that she sat at the charkha every chance she got,” Rao writes of Poornima, whose father, a weaver of saris, makes a modest living as the owner of two spinning wheels.
When Poornima’s father hires Savitha to operate the second charkha, the two girls form a fierce friendship that nourishes the inner radiance their world threatens to starve.
“What Poornima liked most about Savitha—in addition to her hands—was her clarity,” Rao writes. “She had never known anyone—not her father, not a teacher, not the temple priest—to be as certain as Savitha was...about everything, Poornima realized, that she herself was unsure about.”
They spend their scant resources on one another: scraps of food and cloth; their talents, time, and attention. But a violent assault rends them apart, forcing them to face a subsequent series of horrors alone.
“I’ve always been interested in the specific challenges and vulnerabilities that we [women] face,” says Rao, who served as a legal advocate at a domestic violence agency serving South American emigrants in San Jose, California before becoming a published author. She worked with women who’d been raped, beaten, mutilated, drugged, and trafficked, yet remained resilient.
“These women maintained their radiance and audaciousness despite any number of attempts to extinguish it,” she says. “To exist as a woman in the world takes a kind of strength I have witnessed in the streets of every place I’ve been in the world. It’s incredibly inspiring and really humbling. This book celebrates the ability of women to survive and prosper.”
Separated by immense hardships over thousands of miles, over years, Poornima and Savitha strive to reconnect. Written in “resplendent prose” that “captures the nuances and intensity of two best friends on the brink of an uncertain and precarious adulthood,” Girls Burn Brighter is “an incisive study of a friendship’s unbreakable bond,” Kirkus writes in a starred review.
“There is no greater bond of love and regard than to say, Have my strength, take my strength,” Rao says. “That is what Poornima and Savitha give each other, when each of them needs it most.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.