Author Monica Byrne bids farewell to Durham
When I reached Monica Byrne on Zoom, she was packing up an East Durham flat she had lived in for more than a decade. “I got the golden ticket 11 years ago,” she says. “I moved into this flat 11 years ago when East Durham wasn’t what it is now, and my landlords are amazing. They knew I was a struggling artist and they kept my rent low .
Byrne’s immediate destination is her hometown of Annville, a Pennsylvania community of 5,000 at the 2020 census. In January, she travels to Ireland and Portugal until her tourist visa expires. Then probably somewhere in the Middle East. She’s not really sure.
Byrne’s feelings on the move are complicated. He will miss his comfortable apartment and relatively cheap rent. But, she says, “even taking that into account, it will cost me less to live down the road than to live in Durham.”
But more than a home office, she will miss Durham’s arts culture which she says peaked in 2014. After putting on, say, Byrne’s play Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, “which was a sex prank about polyamory,” she and her friends were heading to Motorco for a night of drinking and arm wrestling. Looking back on that time, Byrne emphasizes the sense of possibility. “We’re in this wonderland where we can do whatever we think of,” she says. “And it’s wonderful.”
But now? “Things seemed possible then in a way they don’t now,” she says.
During her tenure at Durham, Byrne published two novels and saw five of her plays performed at theaters from Durham to Dublin. His latest book, The actual star, follows three timelines, with stories set in 1012, 2012, and 3012. In the first timeline, a trio of Mayan royal siblings attempt to stabilize their crumbling empire. In the second, a troubled teenager visits Belize to connect with her father’s culture and meets two twin tour guides who show her an ancient cave. In the latest, society as we know it has been replaced by a world religion of pacifist, Maya-inspired travelers called La Viaja, and there may be dissent within the ranks of the faithful.
In a recent talk for Flyleaf Books, Byrne said she originally envisioned this story as another play, with the three narratives taking place across three unique floors on a stage. Then this novel consisted of three novels, until an editor rejected the trio and suggested they be made into one. Today is a journey of 576 pages.
The long, slow journeys are partly the subject and partly the inspiration of his two novels. In 2012, Byrne took a trip to Belize to visit the place where his mother taught in 1963. Byrne’s mother had talked about coming back for years and never had the chance, so the trip was in part a tribute.
“I expected to go to Belize and see where she was teaching, to see some of the places she mentioned while she was alive, and never to go back there again,” Byrne says. “And instead, I fell head over heels in love with the land, the air, the people, and the cave, especially the cave.” She booked another flight as soon as she landed in Durham.
The cave is Actun Tunichil Muknal, a rumored entry into the Maya afterlife, Xibalba, in traditional Maya belief and in the three timelines of The actual star.
After “seven or eight” trips to Belize, a dozen to the cave, and years of reading (she had packed three boxes of research books just before our call), Byrne embarked on the writing process. She based several contemporary Belizean characters on her friends with permission, “because it would be really exploitative otherwise”.
“Everything about Belize is real except for the real characters, and the names of rival tour operators have been changed. Everyone there knows who they are,” she says. The novel was not published in Belize, but Byrne sent over a dozen copies to thank his friends and cherish the photos they sent back with their copies.
Despite being told by Belizean friends to stop “thinking about it too much,” Byrne is careful not to use proprietary language when it comes to Belize, “because white people have for so long felt entitled or at home in tropical places and the Global South.. And this is just another manifestation of colonialism. Byrne uses The actual star to question many of his interests and anxieties. One of the 21st century tour guides, Xander, wants to study the gaze of tourists and the agency of landmarks like the once-sacred cave he shows visitors from around the world, but he can’t get a visa to study. nowhere. Travelers of the 31st Century reflects his interest in a society that values mystical freedom, conscientious travel, and independence above all ties: place, possessions, culture, or even biological family.
This world was a direct response to Trump’s election. In 2016, an exuberant Byrne attended election night at her shared alma mater with Hillary Clinton, Wellesley, and left devastated. “My art thereafter couldn’t be insensitive to what had just happened, so my way of coping became the invention of a future world where everything that had brought us to that moment was undone,” says Byrne. “And it just required a radical re-examination of everything that we take for granted.
Permanent homes, personal effects, biological family, everything was ready for the dump. Critics mostly love Byrne’s imagination, but readers are divided on whether La Viaja is a dystopia or a utopia. Byrne, who grew up with two progressive Catholic scholars as parents and has a sister who followed in their footsteps, realized the religion, La Viaja, must have been complex, in part because the first draft was “incredibly boring.” La Viaja purists don’t communicate with anyone who isn’t standing in front of them, they don’t stay anywhere for more than nine days, and they have state-of-the-art suits that heal all wounds. Most of the eight million people who remain on earth seek their own entrance to Xibalba. There are deviations from the norm, of course, as all of Byrne’s most visionary characters are always balanced by a foil to equally plausible ideas.
Byrne, however, is happy to leave some things open to interpretation. “That’s what I wanted to convey: how much of the story is accidental. None of this is predetermined. None of that. The climate in so much force.
Byrne laughs as she shyly acknowledges the similarity between her upcoming adventures and her imagination of our world’s future. “I don’t want to be L. Ron Hubbard, make a real religion exist,” she said, “but I can’t say that writing The actual star had no influence on this decision.
That decision, to become a “traveling writer,” was fueled in part by frustration over reduced COVID precautions and a lack of affordable health care. “I have to find a place that already has a basic expectation of community care,” she says. It was also partly a tribute to his mother, who spent years leafing through atlases and dreaming of travel. Byrne’s inherent restlessness, which his friends attribute to his Cancer sun, Sagittarius moon and Taurus rising star signs, also played a role. But Byrne says the decision was largely forced by the changing climate of life in Durham.
In County Durham, which is tied with Wake as the third most expensive county in the state, median home prices have risen nearly 30% over the past year, while available homes have decreased by almost 12%. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Durham proper has risen nearly 40% in 2021, higher than Raleigh’s 21% increase for the same period.
Durham establishments Arcana, Copa and Cocoa Cinnamon and Open Eye Café in Carrboro all deserved a nod in The actual starthanks. “There’s no place in Durham where I feel like I haven’t worked on it,” says Byrne. But the numbers are hard to deny. Just before the pandemic hit, Byrne was considering either moving downtown or buying a house in East Durham, while helping lead a campaign advocating for increased funding for the arts. Today those same homes are out of reach and she is too exhausted to return to Durham City Council.
After the Carrack closed in 2019, Byrne began organizing artists to speak to Durham City Council at every meeting. Three of those speakers — Byrne, Marshall Botvinick, and Akiva Fox — created a proposal asking for $1,325,750 “to create a direct grants program for arts organizations and individual artists.” Unfortunately council discussed this in February 2020. Any positive momentum was quickly dashed by the urgency to fix the carbon monoxide leaks in McDougald Terrace and the outbreak of COVID-19.
Now, says Byrne, she’s just too tired to start the process over. “Nobody with power cares,” she says. “No one with real power cares that we’ve come very close to getting money, even for the launch of an artist funding program. He left and the window closed.
Byrne first moved to Durham in 2005 after a horrific experience at MIT graduate school. She thought she wanted to be an astronaut for years, but her time at college revealed that she really wanted to be a writer. “Why can’t I afford to do what really makes me happy?” she wondered. And where will an aspiring 24-year-old writer go? A vacant room in her sister’s dormitory in Durham seemed the safest choice. “My older sister, Julie, was a residence professor at Duke in Religion, so she had a whole apartment downstairs in one of the dorms on East Campus,” Byrne says.
From this dormitory, Byrne began to find his first artistic home within Durham’s theater community. She fondly remembers holding shows in condemned garages and in the middle of the street around Rigsbee and Foster streets. “We were the ones doing [Durham] cool,” says Byrne. “Dog Manbites [Theater] I’ve done three of my plays, and now I can’t even walk down that street because the developers are ripping my old life out of the ground. It’s so depressing.
But Byrne, who says she will always be grateful to Durham for facilitating her artistic development, acknowledges that indulging in her disappointment is a privilege. “I can afford to be very pessimistic about it because I’m leaving,” she said. “There are still people in Durham pushing really hard and advocating, so I don’t want to take that hope away from others.”
She tried to make it. “I keep thinking, like, ‘Well, why don’t you? Why don’t you gather your friends and do act 2 of Romeo and Juliet on Rigsbee? “, She says. “One of the things about capitalism and poverty is just that it constantly keeps you grounded, so you have so little energy…. And those forces have just taken over in Durham.
With a third novel written and her next project, a travel memoir, in mind, Byrne devotes the rest of her energies to writing and travel, finding a community with a sense of possibility on the road.
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