June 18, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sonya Chung's novel Long for This World is a delightfully complex and many layered book about a Korean family. Chung's debut novel combines elegant writing with fully-developed characters as it explores themes of familial ties and cultural identity.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Switching deftly between different characters’ points of view, Chung portrays with precision and grace each character’s struggle to find his or her place in the family and in the world."
I rarely listen to music while writing, except to drown out street-noise, or TV noise from the next room; in which case I'll listen to something instrumental, or music whose lyrics are not in English. Like most writers, I am hyper-absorbent of language, so musical lyrics tend to clash with the words I'm forming for the page.
But music nourishes me like nothing else during the interstitial (non-writing) spaces; it's almost purely emotional and physical for me, whereas writing tends toward cerebral-intellectual. Music pulls me into a looser and wilder space, where nothing is about control, everything is about movement and feeling and surprise. If writing fiction draws me to darker places – life as "an unintelligible and largely painful business," in Chekhov scholar Avrahm Yarmolinsky's words – music is about joy (even expressions of rage or fear can be joyful, after all) and the wondrously irrational.
Long for This World is an intimate family story that takes place in a context of global unrest. Jane Han is a war photographer who finds herself on forced hiatus after being injured in a bombing in Iraq. She returns home to New York, only to find that her father has left her mother and fled to S. Korea; Jane follows her father there, both characters running from and toward what they can't quite name. The characters are multi-generational and poly-cultural; the quiet interiority of some characters collides with the flamboyant externality of others. The following soundtrack thus spans these moods, generations, and modes of expression.
I wrote Long for This World in the midst of life upheaval, and then stark solitude. Everything was up in the air. I was vulnerable in that good way, that impressionable way, when it comes to absorbing and being "worked on" by music. During a particularly solitary 9-month stretch – literally, a kind of gestation and birthing period -- I created a playlist for each season – winter, spring, summer. Following are selections from each playlist.
Bach Suite I in G Major by Matt Haimovitz
The prelude to this piece will be familiar to most, via TV commercials, performances by Yo-Yo Ma, etc. But the following five movements are revelatory, and maverick cellist Matt Haimovitz indulges both the music's playfulness and its rich, underlying sadness. (It always amazes me when a musician can find and express melancholy in a major key, and conversely, a kind of thrilling elation in a minor key).
"Casimir Pulaski Day" by Sufjian Stevens
What is this song about? God, evangelicalism, teen love, teen lust, bone cancer, loss, anger, beauty. The narrative structure is stunning (the opening line: "Goldenrod, and the 4-H stone, the things I brought you when I found out you had cancer of the bone"), which makes some sense, since Stevens started out as a fiction writer. This is a song to listen to in your headphones – it wants to go straight into your ears, then to your heart.
"Femme Fatale" by The Velvet Underground & Nico
When you disappear from your life, your friends begin to worry about you. When you don't answer their emails, they get desperate and start sending you music. During that winter solitude, compilations began arriving via CDs and online uploads. "Femme Fatale" arrived from a few different sources, writers all. I love the dreaminess mixed with doo-woppiness here, all wrapped up in mean-girl lyrics. And while I can't think of anyone with whom I have less in common than Edie Sedgwick, this was, after all, a time of reinvention.
"Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead
There's a gorgeous wanderingness to this song, and terrific humor. What's real, what's fake, who cares, and isn't it exhausting trying to figure it out? As winter wore on, this line (joyful rage, as above) resonated: "I can't help the feeling I could blow through the ceiling if I just turned and ran."
"Only Got One" by Frou Frou
Pretty much any of the characters in Long for This World (along with its author) might embrace this as his or her anthem. It's a song about living – choosing, claiming, waking up. Imogen Heap's breathy urgency is a sweet kick in the ass.
Chopin Nocturne No. 1 Opus 37 in G Minor
"Only the Lonely" by The Motels
"Anna Begins" by The Counting Crows
"River" by Joni Mitchell
"Let's Get Lifted" by John Legend
"Pendulums" by Sarah Harmer
This is a song that works on you before you even know what it's about. "I'm thinking like a swinging door, hinging on these changing thoughts… I am a good little clock, ticking off time." The song itself is like a pendulum swing, between restlessness and inertia, Sarah Harmer's sweet falsetto and low whisper. A perfect entrance into spring, and into the quiet wilderness of the last third of the draft of Long for This World.
"Keep on Movin'" by Soul II Soul
Why do people
choose to live their liiiiiiiiiiives
I had to write that out phonetically(ish), because there's a screaming plea there in the question ("lives" is held for 11 beats). When the playlist hits this song, it's time to stand up (if you're sitting), dance in the street (if you're walking). The character Han Hyun-kyu, Jane's father -- 65 years old, choosing to either live or to bide the rest of his time on the planet – just might himself start popping to the funk on one of his morning walks.
"It Matters Now" by Jonatha Brooke
"It won't matter when we're old…." This is a song about trying to get through the present by projecting into the future. Which is one of those tragically earnest, abjectly impossible strategies. I seem to be a sucker for the tragically earnest, abjectly impossible. It's likely that much of my writing motivation comes from this place.
"Paris, Tokyo" by Lupe Fiasco
Rhythm, rhyme, and romance. What's not to like? Not to mention the jet-setting backdrop of this song, the perfect whimsical companion to Long for This World. But also, there's something about the conspicuously imperfect rhyme, the near-rhyme as bald-faced move here, that delights and encourages – as if to say that the imperfect can be better than the perfect – in writing, in living.
Use the dame who's the username to all my pass-words.
The reason I get fly as Ivan Jasp-er,
I even keep your picture in my pass-purt.
"Killing Me Softly" by The Fugees
"Stay or Leave" by Dave Mathews Band
"Save Me" by Bird York
"What I Need" by Nicki Gonzales Band
"Stay Cool" by The Roots
"Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps) by Nat King Cole
I don't speak Spanish (which is why the thick American accent of Cole's version doesn't bother me much), so this is one that seeped into body and psyche, bypassing brain almost completely. The arrangement is light on its feet, both formal and informal, thick with heat and sensuality, longing and suspension. I did also see Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung from "In the Mood for Love" in my mind as I listened – Asians, Cubans, Nat King Cole – a simmering stew of effortless trans-racialness, something I'd hoped would emerge in Long for This World.
"Wore Me Down" by Rachael Yamagata
I saw Rachael in concert once, and she went super-awesome-crazy on the tambourine during this song. I thought, "Anything is possible," and I still feel that whenever I listen to this.
"Rock n Roll" by Mos Def
I worship at the altar of Dante's intelligent, if youthful, ballsiness; what can I say. Art is long, courage is contagious, and crucial. If Mos is putting it out there, seems to me it's good for the taking, whether or not you share his particular opinion on originals versus derivatives: "You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they ain't come up with that shit on they own."
"Last Goodbye" by Jeff Buckley
The ultimate summer rock song, I say. Jeff Buckley found rapture in everything, including heartbreak. And isn't that finding, that winding-road discovery, the kernel at the center of all good art?
"Babylon" by David Gray
Disco meets the pop ballad. You could actually do the electric slide to this, and you'd want to be outside near the ocean with a vigorous and salty sea breeze blowing through.
If you want it, come and get it, crying out loud…
Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now.
"Heard ‘Em Say" by Kanye West
"Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson
"Hope There's Someone" by Antony and the Johnsons
"Light My Way" by U2
Sonya Chung and Long for This World links:
BookDragon interview with the author
Bookslut interview with the author
Coffee With a Canine interview with the author
The Millions posts by the author
The Millions interview with the author
Newtonville Books Community Blog interview with the author
The WETA Book Studio interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists