July 9, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Zoe Zolbrod's debut novel Currency is a true literary thriller set in Thailand, a captivating tale of one couple's entanglement in exotic animal smuggling.
NewPages wrote of the book:
"Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel is a fantastic, sensual romp through Southeast Asia. It is a novel of naive ambition and desire."
Set in Thailand, Currency is about an American woman backpacker and a Thai guy who get involved with each other and with an endangered animal smuggling ring. The Thai character, Piv, has long been fascinated by Westerners and their culture, and he's organized his life to get his hands on that kind of cool. When the novel opens, he's hanging out in the Bangkok rock scene and he looks the part, with his long hair and faded Levis. But unlike his friends, he's drawn more to tourists and the opportunities they present than he is to playing music, and he's making his living, such as it is, by accepting payouts from Western women he's charmed and from the local businesses to whom he refers his many foreign acquaintances. Currency is loosely inspired by my experiences backpacking around Southeast Asia, and the novel takes place in mid 1990s, when cassette tapes were still a common denominator.
"Country Roads," by John Denver
When I first went to Thailand in the 1994, one thing I found that I hadn't expected to was a campfire scene. All over the country, it seemed, in the more bucolic locations, Thais and tourists could be found gathered around an evening fire, everyone singing along to a Thai guy playing guitar. There was a semi-standard set list, and, hands down, the song on heaviest rotation was "Country Roads." I must have heard it ten times. The first time it took me aback. What was John Denver, that most American of groan-worthy cornballs (I thought at the time), doing here? But it made sense: Like many developing countries, Thailand was undergoing a painful switch from an agricultural to an industrial economy. People frequently relocated to work in the cities, but they retained a connection to the country, maybe sending money to support family who still lived there, maybe traveling back at harvest time to help out.
take me home
to the place
And anyway, it's just a great campfire song. There's a scene in Currency where an international handful are gathered around a cute Thai guy with a guitar, and Robin, who has spent her adulthood ashamed of and escaping her podunk Florida home, has a rare moment of convergence, where she can accept her roots and reconcile them with her desired future. It's the moment she falls in love with Piv. It's also the moment that made me purchase John Denver's Greatest Hits—I wrote the scene in the pre-MP3 days— and torture my husband with it on a few road trips.
"Hotel California," The Eagles
This was another song on heavy campfire rotation, and it was less immediately clear to me how it became a staple, a tune that every Thai boy could pluck out. Eight years old when it became ubiquitous in the States, I remember sitting in the back of our family's station wagon, blocking out everything as I pondered the lyrics, trying to understand their greater meaning, and how they related to the stinging guitars. I don't think I ever made the connection to my satisfaction, and my gnawing sense of missing something reminds me of Robin's inability to fully understand Piv. She has a hard time taking his statements at face value, always believing there's something he's not expressing, and this feeling eats away at her, to disastrous effect.
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place
The campfire circles sang the song sweet and sad, without the menace of the American 1970s, but I had no better luck in connecting the lyrics to the acoustic strumming than I had connecting them to electrified chart-topper of my youth. I'm tempted to read into them in the context of Thailand, though.
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
Well, actually, some of us would be leaving on the next air-con bus. Some of us were traveling the world. Others sitting around the fire, not so much, the cost of an international airplane ticket equivalent to months' wages. Piv spends his life in hotels paid for by others, always a guest even when he's a host. Currency is more aligned with the recorded version of the song—menace, decadence, and bitterness retained.
If the campfire circle included more than a couple Thai people, there'd often be a point where they sang in Thai and the foreigners just listened. The Thai song I heard most often was fierce and proud with a slow, pounding rhythm. It contains an English phrase, "Made in Thailand," and at one point it lists the names of the old Thai capitals: Sukhothai, Lopburi, Ayutthaya. Recognizing these words gave me a thrill. I liked the song's sense of protest, believing it was criticizing tourists, the commodification of the culture. I tried to ask Thais about the lyrics' meaning, but their answers were vague. Sometimes this seemed due to the limits of their English. Sometimes it seemed they were being polite, not wanting to recount lines that were telling my kind to sod off.
It became my mission to find a recording of the song. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to explain what I was looking for to the cassette tape sellers at local markets, I found a guy who could write out for me the name of the artist in both roman and Thai script: Carabao. The next time I was in Bangkok, I went searching. The vendors on Khao San Road, backpackers' row, didn't have it, but they liked that I was looking for it, and they told me where to go. I wove my way there, to a shop on a narrow street filled with young, arty Thais, close but yet far from the tourist ghetto. With a sales clerk's help, I found what I was looking for, an album by the same name as the song, released in 1984 but still popular. I treasured this cassette tape for years, until it was destroyed in an apartment fire.
Nowadays, the internet reduces mystery. With the translated lyrics widely available, I can see the song is not an admonishment of tourists; it could care less about tourists. Instead, it admonishes Thais who are too willing to see value only in foreign-made things. Piv certainly falls into this category. The Thais are known for being such nice people: pleasure-loving, polite, pleasure-giving. I found that to be true. But there can be a knowingness, as well. I like this song because it captures that.
"Rebel Warrior," Asian Dub Foundation
In Currency, the owner of the rasta bar on Khao San has to play reggae during the peak hours to keep his crowds happy, but he has broader tastes. He's just discovered Asian Dub Foundation, and when Piv and Robin visit his bar, he wants to play it for them. "Rebel Warrior" opens with some asian-y synth—is that a sitar? Is that a marimba?— before breaking into a dub-infused hip-hop that seethes with post-colonial anger. It's urban music, and it would never be heard around a campfire.
"High Anxiety," The Eternals
I don't listen to music when I'm writing. The lyrics and music compete too heavily with the words and rhythms in my head. But the work I've done to promote Currency has had a soundtrack, and it stars The Eternals. I was so happy that they let me use "High Anxiety" for my book trailer, because the textures, the international influences, and mostly the paranoia fit the novel's themes perfectly. It's an exciting song for what I hope is an exciting book.
"Dude Looks Like a Lady," Aerosmith
Piv hears this song in a go-go club where he sits with Abu and Volcheck, the Kenyan and the Russian smugglers for whom he and Robin are working. Their business dealings have become increasingly unsavory, and he tries to distance himself from what's going on by deconstructing the music, picking out the bass line, the drums. He misinterprets the lyrics, hearing the chorus as Do it funny lady, and he associates this phrase affectionately with Robin, to whom his ties are loosening. As for me, for years I heard the lyric as Do it funky lady. It's the actual line, though, that applies to Piv, who has put himself in a typically feminine role, relying on his looks and charm to get by. It's a perilous position, and the effort is growing increasingly tiring for him. As he waits for his patrons to dismiss him, women in g-strings are dancing on a ledge, listlessly advertising their wares.
"Macarena," Los del Rio
The "Macarena" broke the same year the events in Currency are unfolding. Piv hears it in the Philippines. He's been yearning for years to leave Thailand and become a traveler, and now here he is, in another land, his long-blank passport finally stamped. He knows the Philippines has a great music scene, but it's inaccessible to him: he's there on business, he's completely isolated, and he's been directed to do something that's uncomfortable for him. When he recognizes the hit blasting from a store's speakers, he takes courage from it. Even though it's not his kind of music, he wants to be like the song, traveling over the world. It's an innocent, understandable urge—I had it. I got to do it. But we're not all so lucky. It's easier for songs and movies and clothing styles to hop borders than it is for people.
Zoe Zolbrod and Currency links:
Big Other guest post by the author
Maiden Voyage interview with the author
Nomadic Chick interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
Time Out Chicago interview with the author
The Traveling Writer 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