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June 3, 2009

Book Notes - Shawna Yang Ryan ("Water Ghosts")

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

Had I not read the book jacket, I would have never guessed that Water Ghosts was Shawna Yang Ryan's debut novel. Ryan skillfully melds fact with illusion, the past with the present in a book filled with Chinese-American history.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"As elegant are the ways in which the past reclaims the present. Ryan's subtle use of water and ghosts as intertwined motifs of the ancestral is drawn from Chinese myths and deftly crafted, while her vignettes from prior years are seamlessly placed."

In her own words, here is Shawna Yang Ryan's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Water Ghosts:

Compiling a soundtrack for Water Ghosts, I have to admit, was a difficult task. When I submitted the first draft of the book as my master's thesis, I also submitted a mix-tape soundtrack (on cassette!) to each of my advisors, but my own copy (and my tape player) are long gone, so I had to re-think it, now eight years after the original. I still have a few of the cds I know I referenced, but otherwise, my entire music library is now on computer. Cassette to ipod—just goes to show how long it took me to take the book from draft to hardcover.

I do recall, however, the songs I listened to the summer I was in the tiny town of Locke writing the book. In the midst of my own heartbreak (I ended my month-long stay crying on the shoulder of a burly Hell's Angel at the local biker bar), I was listening to The Nields, Yo La Tengo, Tom Waits, and Deana Carter. I'm sure bits of all of them can be found in the book, which tracks a number of lives in a small California town of Chinese immigrants in the summer of 1928. The town actually exists, and in 1928, men, most of them Chinese farm workers, outnumbered women twenty-to-one. And many of the women in the town were white prostitutes, creating a place of fascinating race and gender power dynamics.

But here, I've decided to create a playlist mirroring the time and mood of the novel, rather than the writer.

Plum Blossoms (Three Variations)

The book opens at dawn in Locke, a small farming town in the Sacramento Delta. Richard Fong, a Chinese immigrant who has been in the US for ten years, is in bed with the young white prostitute, Chloe Howell. I imagine this Tang Dynasty melody, played on the 7-string Chinese zither, drifting in the background like the tule fog that presses against the brothel windows.

Wandering Songstress by Zhou Xuan

From the end of the earth, to the farthest sea/ I search and search for my heart's companion….

This song post-dates the book, which takes place in 1928, but the lyrics, originally sung by Shanghai starlet Zhou Xuan in the 1937 film Street Angel, perfectly reflect the sentiments of Richard's wife Ming Wai, who arrives from China, out of the blue, after not having seen her husband for a decade.

Jubilee Stomp by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra

In a flashback, Chloe leaves her hometown in California for New York, where she falls in love with a mysterious man and they eat, drink and dance their way through mid-1920s New York, spending evenings at places like the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington and his Orchestra would have played songs like "Jubilee Stomp."

Bleeding-Heart Blues by James P. Johnson

Between the haberdashery and Locke's oldest building was a restaurant with a dance floor on the second floor. On the weekends, hundreds of farm workers of all races would flood the town for entertainment. I imagine a more mournful song like James P. Johnson's "Bleeding-Heart Blues" playing for all these bachelors, many of whom were separated from their wives by discriminatory immigration acts. In the book's dance scene, Chloe finds a brief moment of joy among the dancers:

It is just Chloe dancing, alone, eyes closed in a rising euphoria of hot bodies and loud music and the ground thumping beneath with the movements of a hundred feet. She wants to clasp this one moment of joy and not think of what comes next: a man too impatient to make it inside the brothel, tumbling under the levee-side porch, Chloe crying because her dress'll be ruined in the dirt, and she had to pay three dollars for it out of the Bernard-Hewitt catalog. She closes her fist a little tighter and keeps dancing.

Breathing Underwater by Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale

Though "Breathing Underwater" is played on the sitar--which may not seem to fit with a novel about Chinese immigrants--both its title and languid quality embody the dreamy, otherworldly feel of Water Ghosts' climax, which takes place—of course—underwater in a final confrontation between Richard and his wife.

Shawna Yang Ryan and Water Ghosts links:

the author's website
the author's blog

After the Pencil Soars through review
The Avid Reader review
Bookmarks Magazine review
Boston Globe review
Carp(e) Libris review
Muse Books reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
Read It News review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Worducopia review

Page 69 test for the book interview with 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
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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