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November 9, 2007

Book Notes - Dedra Johnson ("Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Dedra Johnson's Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow is a moving and powerful debut novel. Possibly the most emotionally-charged book I have read all year, Johnson's young narrator faces incredible hurdles as she chases her academic dreams, yet in the end her hope is rewarded.

Of the book, Robert Olen Butler wrote:

“Reading Dedra Johnson’s Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow, I was fully in the presence of the mind, heart, and soul of a richly rendered, fascinating fictional character. I knew I was also in the presence of the brilliant voice and sensibility of a major new American writer. This is an important novel by a true artist.”

Upcoming readings by the author:

Saturday, Nov. 10, 2:30-2:40 PM--NOLA Bookfair, Cafe Negril, 606 Frenchmen St.
Tuesday, Nov. 13, 1 PM--Dillard University, Lawless Chapel Social Room, 2601 Gentilly Blvd.
Thursday, Jan. 10, 5 PM--Lemuria Books, 202 Banner Hall, 4465 I-55 North, Jackson, MS 39206
Thursday, March 6, 7 PM--McNally Robinson, 52 Prince St. (between Lafayette and Mulberry), New York, NY 10012

Kudos to iG Publishing, for putting out yet another wonderful book.

In her own words, here is Dedra Johnson's Book Notes essay for her novel, Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow:

I rarely refer to music in Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow but music is a central part of the New Orleans experience and daily life. Though the songs below may not all appear in the book, they informed my sense of Sandrine’s world and often harked back to my own 70’s childhood and the music I loved most then and now.

1. “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups

Lots of versions of “Iko Iko” exist but the one I remember most and that I meant to refer to in the book is the Dixie Cups’ version. It’s the Mardi Gras that tourists and people across the country do not see and don’t know—Mardi Gras as a family event, as cultural expression, as a diversion from what for some people is a hard daily life. When I was a kid, all the radio stations played Carnival/Mardi Gras music, sometimes starting the weekend before. [Carnival is the 2-week or so period before Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday.]

2. “If You Want Me to Stay” by Sly and the Family Stone

Like many writers, I write to instrumental music but the playlist I used while drafting Sandrine started off with this Sly and the Family Stone song. It brought me back to the funk of the 70s, Black is Beautiful, black faces on TV and in movies, Blaxploitation, and the assumption of greatness. It also echoed the save-myself attitude Sandrine learns over the course of the book.

3. “A Lovely Day” by Bill Withers

Bill Withers is also the 70s to me, for whatever reason. And this song was on my writing playlist and got me moving. The soaring joy in the lyrics and Withers’ voice feels like Sandrine free and hopeful at the end, adults in hand, for one of the few times in her young life.

4. “Carnival Time” by Al Johnson

This song to me is Mardi Gras morning, getting ready for Zulu, a day of parades, king cake, red beans and rice, potato salad and adult supervision that got looser as the day went on: “Oh well it’s Carnival Time and/Everybody’s drinking wine.”

5. “Fire Water” by the Wild Magnolias

New Orleans is more than sloppy drunks puking and asking for “tits” on Bourbon St., looted WalMarts and hot sausage po-boys. Mardi Gras Indians parade in intense, intricate costumes, a decades-long ritual separate from but parallel to the more familiar parades with floats, beads and doubloons.

6. “Mardi Gras Mambo” by The Meters

After “Carnival Time,” I think “Mardi Gras Mambo” is the quintessential Mardi Gras song, another strong memory from childhood: “Down in New Orleans where the blues was born/It takes a cool cat to blow a horn/On LaSalle and Rampart Streets/ Combo’s playing with a mambo beat/Mardi Gras Mambo, Mambo, Mambo/ Mardi Gras Mambo, Mambo, Mambo / Mardi Gras Mambo/Down in New Orleans….” Gert Town, the Zulu king…Oh, yeah.

7. The Young Tuxedo Brass Band

Another New Orleans tradition is the brass band jazz funeral. My grandfather, Herman Sherman, Sr., led the Young Tuxedos when I was kid. (The current leader is Greg Stafford, an incredible musician and human being.) Before my time, the band was recorded for Jazz Begins (Atlantic 1297), also available on The Atlantic New Orleans Jazz Sessions, Disc 1. From the liner notes of Jazz Begins: “Herman Sherman, the baby of the band (b. 1923), is considered among the best men on alto in New Orleans.”

a. “Medley: Free as a Bird/Nearer My God to Thee/Pleyel’s Hymn”

The band played this medley on the way to the cemetery.

b. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Bourbon St. Parade,” “It Feels So Good,” and “Joe Avery’s Place”

I heard these songs all the time when my grandfather practiced alone, with a few guys or the whole band. These songs and others were the upbeat, dare-you-not-to-second-line songs the band played as the funeral procession left the cemetery, a celebration of the life now gone. “Bourbon St. Parade” is especially hot on this recording.

8. “Shut Up, Ho!” by The Soul Rebels

I never let my 10-year old hear this song and cringe a little with each “Shut up, ho!” but the woman near the end cursing one of the men out is classic pissed-off New Orleans woman—burning mad, fluent, ranging from ribald to wincingly obscene, and dead on: “Bitch, didn’t I just f*ckin’ beep you, why you ain’t called me back/I heard you was ridin’ around with some ol’ stupid-ass hos/Don’t act like I ain’t f*ckin’ see you/In that ol’ raggely-ass, beat-up ass car/…You need to stop f*ckin’ playin' before I shank your ass up/You think I’m playin'?/And I told you to stop f*cking frontin’ in front of those stupid-ass, low-life, broke-ass, no-f*cking-ass friends…” Ouch!

9. And anything by The Soul Rebels, the kings of brass hop, or The Hot 8 Brass band, the hardest working parade band in the business.

Dedra Johnson and Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow links:

the author's blog
the book's page at the publisher

Booklist review
New Orleans Times-Picayune review
Publishers Weekly review

"Lucky" short fiction by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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