June 19, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tania James' debut novel Atlas of Unknowns has drawn lavish praise. The compelling story of two sisters, one in India, the other in New York, is filled with surprising twists and turns, and is one of the most impressive debuts I have read all year.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:
"Once in a while, a novel comes along that makes you wonder why people don't read more fiction - why, given the right book, anyone would choose to do anything else. Atlas of Unknowns, the dazzling, original and deeply absorbing debut by Tania James, is this rare book."
Atlas of Unknowns, an abbreviated mix tape
About music, I've always been rather promiscuous, and for that I blame my mother, who never gave me the money to buy a cassette tape when I was in middle school, at a time when the ownership of certain cassette tapes would have meant a lot to my social cachet. My means of musical acquisition was confined to the following: 1) to tape songs off the radio using blank cassettes I found around the house, or 2) to occasionally buy a cassette from the dollar bin at the local music store. So I ended up making mix tapes that were far more eclectic (including the occasionally taped commercial) than those of my friends, whose tapes were comprised of a 90 minute stretch of Phish, dividing only by the flipping of sides.
What I'm going to offer now is a mix tape of that nature, a seemingly discordant list that I've been listening to over the past two years, while I've been writing and editing Atlas of Unknowns. The novel is the story of a family in crisis, primarily due to the disappearance of the youngest member, Anju, who briefly attends a New York City private school before running away to Queens. While the members of this family might not listen to all the music I'm putting on the mix tape (they're from a small town in Kerala, India, where T. Rex hasn't quite caught on), each song has a particular resonance to the book and to myself.
1. "Til I'm Laid to Rest" - Buju Banton
Til I'm laid to rest, yes / Always be depressed / There's no life in the West. / I know the East is the best, yes / All the propaganda dem spread / Tongues will have to confess...
When Anju bids her family goodbye, before leaving to catch the flight that will take her to New York, she remembers her grandmother's warning: "The West is not the best." I lifted the spirit of that line from this song by Buju Banton, though the song is also an elegy to Africa, which is a common Rastafarian theme. The idea behind the song kept returning to me, particularly as I was writing about Ghafoor, a former playwright from Kerala who later runs a beauty salon in Queens, and finds himself thinking: "How many like him are out there, behind cash registers and brooms, with the best part of their lives behind them? How do they bear the weight?"
2. "Something About What Happens When We Talk" - Lucinda Williams
If I had my way I'd be in your town / I might not stay but at least I would've been around / Cause there's something about what happens when we talk...
Gracie and Bird are two women in my novel--actresses in a traveling drama troupe in 1970s Kerala--who develop an intense friendship as they spend their nights talking and imagining futures that will never, in reality, be available to them. There's a mystery to that magnetic pull and a sadness to its inevitable end, both of which are captured in the scratchy strength of Lucinda Williams' voice.
3. "Everything's Alright" - from Jesus Christ Superstar
Now we're going to make a sharp right turn into the arena of musical theater.
Midway through their brief friendship, Gracie and Bird discover a used record on a bookseller's table: the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. This album was huge for me in my catholic school days; I was sort of scandalized by the fact that I felt a kinship with Judas rather than Jesus. Judas had this incredibly tortured, sometimes yowling kind of sound (I'm referring to the Judas played by Carl Anderson), against which all the other voices paled, at least to my ear.
4. "Kannanthumbi " - Chitra
This one Linno would know--a famous Malayalam film song from the 1980s. It's a song I know word for word, from tirelessly rewinding and playing the cassette tape over and over again as a child, until the ribbon wore out. The film is about two sisters, and though I don't remember much more about the plot than that, I was thrilled to rediscover the song on YouTube, complete with cheesy sister montage of slow motion running and hand clasping and soundless laughing. I have to say that I love the cheese; there's something genuine and earnest in the voice behind it, which belongs to Chitra, one of the greatest playback singers in the industry.
5. "Darshan" - Jassi Sidhu, B21
I can't write about Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens, without mentioning at least one bhangra song, of the variety I hear echoing from the Raaga Super Store on 74th Street. Bhangra and old Bollywood music are essential to my creative process. When my head gets too heated after a few hours of writing, some full throttle bhangra dancing can provide a great relief. Though this doesn't work too well in the Rose Room of the New York Public Library.
6. "Mystic Lady" - T. Rex
Now let's hit rewind and head back to the seventies, for a song that I accidentally recorded on one of my radio mix tapes, when I went to the bathroom and forgot that I was recording. Somehow the local Golden Oldies station slipped me "Mystic Lady" by T. Rex, a song that I listened to repeatedly, if only to make out lyrics like "Riding sliding sorceress / In your dungarees / Got me on my knees..." I became infatuated with the song and with the voice behind it, about whom I knew nothing, not even a name, as this was the pre-Google early nineties. Years later, a friend made me a CD that included this song, and I became infatuated all over again during the writing of this book. And though no one in my book wears dungarees, I do think there's a mystic lady at the heart of it.
7. "Ain't No Sunshine" - Bill Withers
In Atlas, many of the characters are trying to recover someone they've lost. So there's no better way to end than with the words of Bill Withers: "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / And this house just ain't no home / Anytime she goes away."
Tania James and Atlas of Unknowns links:
Bookmarks Magazine review
Denver Post review
Ferentz Lafargue review
A Garden Carried in the Pocket review
Genre Go Round Reviews review
Medieval Bookworm review
The National Newspaper review
The New Leader review (PDF link)
Publishers Weekly review
Richmond Times Dispatch review
S&S Book Talk review
Sacramento Book Review review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Desiclub.com interview with the author
Lewis Burke Frrumkes' Radio Show interview with the author
Metromix Louisville interview with the author
NPR Weekend Edition interview with the author
The Stimulist profile of the author
Page 69 Test for the book
also at Largehearted Boy:
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