When I reached Monica Byrne over Zoom, she was in the midst of packing up an East Durham apartment she’d lived in for more than a decade. “I got the golden ticket 11 years ago,” she says. “I moved into this apartment 11 years ago when East Durham was not 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 as of the 2020 census. In January, she’s headed to Ireland and Portugal until her tourist’s visa runs out. Then, probably somewhere in the Middle East. She’s not really sure.
Byrne’s feelings on the move are complicated. She’ll miss her cozy apartment and relatively cheap rent. But, she says, “even given that, it will be cheaper for me to live on the road than it will be to live in Durham.”
But more than a home office, she’ll miss the Durham arts culture that she says peaked in 2014. After putting on, say, Byrne’s play Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, “which was a sex farce about polyamory,” she and her friends would walk over to Motorco for a night of drinking and arm wrestling. When she looks back on that time, Byrne highlights the feeling of possibility. “We’re in this wonderland where anything we think of we can do,” she says. “And it’s wonderful.”
But now? “Things seemed possible then in a way that they don’t now,” she says.
During her tenure in Durham, Byrne has published two novels and seen five of her plays performed in theaters from Durham to Dublin. Her latest book, The Actual Star, follows three timelines, with stories set in 1012, 2012, and 3012. In the first timeline, a trio of royal Maya siblings try to steady their crumbling empire. In the second, a troubled teenager visits Belize to connect with her father’s culture and meets a pair of twin tour guides who show her an ancient cave. In the last, society as we know it has been replaced by a Maya-inspired global religion of pacifist travelers called La Viaja, and there may be dissent among the ranks of the faithful.
In a recent talk for Flyleaf Books, Byrne said she initially pictured this story as another play, with the three narratives happening on three unique floors on a stage. Then this novel was three novels, until one publisher both rejected the trio and suggested they become one. Today, it’s a 576-page voyage.
Long, slow travel is partly the subject of and partly the inspiration for both of her novels. In 2012, Byrne took a trip to Belize to visit the place where her mother taught in 1963. Byrne’s mother had talked about going back for years and never got the chance, so the trip was part tribute.
“I expected to go to Belize and just see where she taught, see some of the places that she had mentioned while she was still alive, and never go there again,” Byrne says. “And instead I just fell head over heels in love with the land, and the air, and the people, and the cave, in particular the cave.” She reserved another flight as soon as she landed back in Durham.
The cave is Actun Tunichil Muknal, a rumored entrance to the Maya afterworld, Xibalba, in traditional Maya belief and in all three timelines of The Actual Star.
After “seven or eight” trips to Belize, a dozen to the cave, and years of reading (she’d packed up three boxes of research books right before our call), Byrne embarked on the writing process. She based several contemporary Belizean characters on her friends with permission, “because that would be really exploitative otherwise.”
“Everything about Belize is real except for the actual characters, and the names of the rival tour companies have been changed. Everyone who’s down there knows who they are,” she says. The novel has not been published in Belize, but Byrne sent over a dozen copies to thank her friends and treasures the photos they sent back with their copies.
Even though Belizean friends have told her to stop “overthinking it,” Byrne is careful not to use any proprietary language when it comes to Belize, “because white people have for so long felt entitled to or at home in tropical places and the global South. And that’s just another manifestation of colonialism.” Byrne uses The Actual Star to interrogate many of her interests and anxieties. One of the 21st-century tour guides, Xander, wants to study the tourist gaze and the agency of landmarks like the once-sacred cave he shows to visitors all over the world, but he can’t get a visa to study anywhere. The 31st-century travelers reflect her interest in a society that values a mystic freedom, conscientious travel, and independence over any ties: to place, belongings, culture, or even biological family.
That world was a direct response to Trump’s election. In 2016, an ebullient Byrne had attended an election-night party at her and Hillary Clinton’s shared alma mater, Wellesley, and left devastated. “My art thereafter could not be unaffected by what had just happened, so my way of coping became inventing a future world where everything that had gotten us to this moment was undone,” Byrne says. “And that just required a radical reexamination of everything we take for granted.
Permanent homes, personal belongings, biological family, everything was up for discharge. The reviews mostly love Byrne’s imagination, but the readers are split over whether La Viaja is a dystopia or utopia. Byrne, who grew up with two progressive Catholic religion scholars for parents and has a sister who followed in their footsteps, realized the religion, La Viaja, had to be complex, partly 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 future-tech suits that heal any injuries. Most of the eight million people left on earth are looking for 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 with equally plausible ideas.
Byrne is glad to leave some things open to interpretation though. “This was what I wanted to convey: how accidental most of history is. None of it is predetermined. None of it. Climate forces so much of it.”
Byrne laughs as she sheepishly acknowledges the similarity between her upcoming adventures and her imagining of our world’s future. “I don’t want to be L. Ron Hubbard, bringing an actual religion into existence,” she says, “but I can’t say that writing The Actual Star has not been influential on this decision.”
That decision, to become an “itinerant writer,” was partly fueled by frustration with shrinking COVID precautions and a lack of affordable health care. “I need to find a place that has a baseline expectation of communal care already,” she says. It was also partly an homage to her mother, who spent years looking through atlases and dreaming of travel. Byrne’s own inherent restlessness, which friends attribute to her Cancer sun, Sagittarius moon, and Taurus rising astrological signs, also played a part. But Byrne says the decision was largely forced by the changing climate of life in Durham.
In Durham County, which is tied with Wake as the third-most-expensive county in the state, the median home prices have risen by nearly 30 percent in the last year, while available housing has declined by almost 12 percent. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Durham proper rose by nearly 40 percent in 2021, higher than Raleigh’s 21 percent rise for the same period.
Durham establishments Arcana, Copa, and Cocoa Cinnamon and Open Eye Café in Carrboro all earned a nod in The Actual Star’s acknowledgments. “There’s nowhere in Durham I feel like I haven’t worked on it,” Byrne says. But the numbers are hard to deny. Right before the pandemic hit, Byrne was looking at either moving downtown or buying a house in East Durham, while helping run a campaign advocating for increased funding for the arts. Today, those same houses are out of reach, and she’s too burned out to go back to the Durham City Council.
After the closing of the Carrack in 2019, Byrne began organizing artists to speak to the 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 granting program for arts organizations and individual artists.” Unfortunately, the council discussed it in February 2020. Any positive momentum was quickly crushed by the urgency of fixing the carbon monoxide leaks at McDougald Terrace and the onset of COVID-19.
Now, Byrne says, she’s just too tired to start the process over again. “Nobody with power cares,” she says. “Nobody with real power cares that we came very close to getting some money for even just the start of an artists funding program. It just went away and the window closed.”
Byrne first moved to Durham in 2005 after a horrible experience in graduate school at MIT. She’d thought she wanted to be an astronaut for years, but her time in grad school revealed she really wanted to be a writer. “Why can’t I just allow myself to do what actually gives me pleasure?” she asked herself. And where is a 24-year-old aspiring writer going to go? A free room in her sister’s dorm in Durham seemed the safest choice. “My oldest sister, Julie, was a professor-in-residence at Duke in religion, so she had a whole apartment on the ground floor of one of the East Campus dorms,” Byrne says.
From that dorm room, Byrne began to find her first artistic home within Durham’s theater community. She fondly recalls putting on shows in condemned garages and in the middle of the street around Rigsbee and Foster Streets. “We were the ones who were making [Durham] cool,” Byrne says. “Manbites Dog [Theater] did three of my plays, and now I can’t even walk down that street because the developers are gouging my former life out of the earth. It’s so depressing.”
But Byrne, who says she’ll always be thankful to Durham for facilitating her artistic development, acknowledges that indulging her disappointment is a privilege. “I can afford to feel very pessimistic about it because I’m leaving,” she says. “There are still people in Durham who are pushing very hard and advocating, so I don’t want to take that hope away from other people.”
She’s tried to manufacture it. “I keep asking myself, like, ‘Well, why don’t you just do it? Why don’t you just round up 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 keeps you ground down constantly, so that you have so little energy …. And those forces have just taken over in Durham.”
With a third novel drafted and her next project, a travel memoir, in mind, Byrne is turning the rest of her energies to writing and travel, seeking community with a sense of possibility on the road.
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