August 25, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Neela Vaswani's memoir You Have Given Me a Country is a powerful, socially relevant book about the personal search for identity as a biracial person.
Beautifully written, the book shares Vaswani's personal history as well as her parents' with a keen eye for detail and poetic elegance.
The Rumpus wrote of the book:
"The memoir blurs borders of genre and identity, exploring what it means to be bicultural in America. The book follows the paths of Vaswani’s Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father on their journey towards each other and the biracial child they create."
For my playlist, I picked songs that helped me access memories, created an atmosphere of in-betweenness, and generally influenced my writing—from theme to structure.
1) Woody Guthrie, "This Land is Your Land" Lost verses included.
In 2009, I was teaching at Knox College in Galesburg, IL and working on final revisions for the memoir. One weekend, my husband and I drove to Red Cloud, NE to see Willa Cather's childhood home. We stood in her attic garret next to her shell and starfish collection. We visited the family graveyard and sat beneath a cedar tree, a strange, tall immigrant on the windswept prairie. At the Red Cloud Opera House, we admired a photo, dated 1888, of Cather in male drag as a cast-member of "Beauty and the Beast."
Near this photo, framed on a back wall, were the original hand-written lyrics of "This Land Is Your Land." Warts and all; the song's many iterations on display. You could see Woody Guthrie's process as a writer and American original. The full lyrics, including: "Was a big high wall there ("there" inserted with a sharp-peaked little carat) that tried to stop me/a sign was painted said Private Property/But on the back side it didn't say nothing…" and the verse about the Relief Office and people standing in line wondering if this land was made for them, too. I was reminded of which America I was writing about in the memoir. Not the sugar-sweet version of "This Land is Your Land" we were taught to sing in unison in elementary school. I was writing about Guthrie's America, the one of the lost lyrics—inclusive and questioning.
I'll never forget the feeling of looking at that song. Guthrie's handwriting was neat and even; it was beyond handwriting, it was penmanship. He had signed the paper in the bottom right corner:
N.Y., N.Y., N.Y.
Feb. 23, 1940
43rd st & 6th Ave,
Above his signature was an asterisk, dark and hairy as a spider, and next to it, Guthrie had written:
*all you can write is
what you see
It was news to me that Guthrie wrote, "This Land is Your Land," in New York City, my home, where everyone in my family, Indian and Irish, landed first and stayed longest. It made the song even more beloved to me, and I returned to revising and teaching full of inspiration, and Guthrie's simple reminder: "all you can write is/what you see."
2) Sinead O'Connor, "Scarlett Ribbons"
I've never not worshipped a song by Sinead O'Connor. I have all her albums. That voice, that raging heart and mind. The way she tears a word in two, the first half whispered, the second bellowed. She always reminds me of church bells: clangs and echoes, punches and calls.
In 1992, I bought Sinead's album of covers, "Am I Not Your Girl?" As soon as I heard "Scarlett Ribbons," it was my favorite. A song of mystery and faith, it reminded me of my mother's stories of her family, the Irish-Catholic, Hell's Kitchen Sullivans, most of whom I'd never met.
I found my mother, out in the garden, and made her come inside. I sat her on the couch and said, "Wait till you hear this song. It's as Irish as Paddy's pig." When Sinead's muscled, whispery voice sang the first line, "I peeked in to say good night…" my mother's face changed. She looked at me as if seeing a ghost and said, "This was my mother's favorite song. I haven't heard it in twenty-five years. Since the day we buried her."
Is it genetic, to love a song? I feel my ancestors through "Scarlett Ribbons." The song helped me capture their essence for the memoir.
3) The Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan, "Double Flute (Algoza)"
This song is pure joy. I write best to music without words so this was on repeat a lot. I especially kept it on while writing about being a child in India and my time in the Rajasthani desert as a nineteen-year-old student. The song helped me access memory and mood, smells and sounds. One flute works as a kind of harmonium, a hum and backdrop. The other swirls, twists, sings melody. Tabla beats like the stately gait of a camel. It brings back the races at Pushkar and the boy I met there whose vocation was cleaning out people's ears with a stick and a swab of cotton. It was perhaps a bit unsanitary but it was the best ear-cleaning I'll ever have, and the amount of sand he dug out could have made a tiny castle.
4) Bob Marley, "Small Axe"
A biracial hero of mine. This song always reminds me of the Indian Jataka Tales I read as a kid. The message and prophecy of it. The clean simple wisdom. I love how Marley sings out "Sharp and ready" in between the chorus, on the off-beats. The lullaby of "oooh ooooh oooh," soft in the background. The song has a sense of humor, wrapped around a social message. "Whoseover dig at the pit shall fall in it." He's the voice of the dispossessed knowing they're not dispossessed at all—just seen as so. "If you are a big big tree, we are a small axe. Waiting to cut you down. To cut you down." I love the way Marley uses the word, "We." It moves and shifts, his "We." Sometimes it's everyone, sometimes Jamaicans, sometimes Africans. I love that he sings his own kind of English—Jamaican-English. It's a song that can make you feel good again, strong again. It helped me to write the more socially progressive and history-based parts of the memoir—without getting bogged down in polemics. Focusing on the art and human aspects, as Marley always does.
5) Hazel Dickens, Ginny Hawker, and Carol Elizabeth Jones, "Forsaken Lover"
Sometimes, working on the memoir, I needed to be reminded that we are all the bearers of our own stories. That we have no choice but to own our stories.
Hazels Dickens, Ginny Hawker, and Carol Elizabeth Jones singing Old Time music with a pinch of bluegrass, did that for me.
The song is guitar, fiddle, mandolin. Three female voices blending so completely, they sound like one creature. Hazel sings lead: high-lonesome, pro-union, feminist: "I will tell a sad sad story, I'm gonna tell a story true, 'bout an old forsaken lover and his heart broke sad and blue…" I love the song's storyteller voice, one I tried to cultivate in places in the memoir. And in the next line, that storyteller mask is dropped and we realize the singer is singing her own story: "How I miss you, how I miss you, how I wish that you were here. For you're my own forsaken lover and my heart is sad and drear." Hazel sings those lines with the ache of a howling dog. She owns them. That truth helped ground me in my writing; sometimes, you just write it out because it is your tale; nothing more, nothing less.
6) Billy Joel, "The Downeaster ‘Alexa'"
Long Island is defined by the water that surrounds it. Rocky north shore, smoother south. Atlantic gales off the two forked points, calm bathtub of the Sound. Coves, inlets, harbors. Bridges and tunnels going west. The first and second sections of the memoir spend time on Long Island. And this song gave me Long Island. As only Billy Joel, Long Island's bard, can. I always liked him as a child because his father was an immigrant like mine, and Joel was from Hicksville, where my mother was raised. "Downeaster Alexa" is a sea-shanty-oral history-social-protest-pop song: "I was a Bay man like my father was before, can't make a living as a Bay man anymore, there ain't much future for a man who works the sea, there ain't no Island left for Islanders like me." I listened to this song to go back in my memory and to bring the complex heart of Long Island to my book.
But what really solidified my emotional attachment to the song was seeing Billy Joel
play live at Shea Stadium, just before Shea was torn down in 2008. My husband got us tickets through some miracle. We took the 7 train out to Queens, condemning John Rocker. The subway was packed; we all just leaned into each other to stay upright. Someone said they'd heard that in the crowd that night would be a woman who had been at the Shea Beatles concert as a nine-year old—in 1965.
It was hot, about 97 degrees. NY1 had issued a "smog alert." The way into Shea was madness. People with THE END IS NEAR and REPENT signs and cops and ushers everywhere. Vendors and tailgaters; water balloons flying through the air. I was feeling the memoir in a big way because a section of it features the 1964-65 World's Fair that had existed on the ground beneath my feet forty-four years earlier.
Our seats were nosebleeds, behind the third base line, right where my Grampa and I always sat for Mets games. In front of us were three brothers, all Long Island firemen who had worked on 9/11, and their wives. Behind us were Long Islanders in their 70's, retirees (one from Entenmanns; the factory that recently closed near my mom's house). Across from us, a big Italian family, seven kids, ranging from about six years old to nineteen. A guy sitting across from us suddenly grabbed his wife and said, "LOOK, LOOK, LOOK. It's Mrs. Weinberg. It's my sixth grade teacher!"
The smell of beer and hotdogs and fresh green lawn. Everyone living in the past, holding tight to it, not wanting to let go. Taking in the last of Shea. Screens flashing with pictures of Gary Carter and Strawberry and Wilson and Piazza, of the '69 and'86 Series.
When Billy Joel first came out on stage, wearing his usual black uniform and a pin that Ringo had worn at the show in 1965, it was thunderous. He sat down at the piano and sang the national anthem. Then he played some wild ragtime, a black towel draped on his head to keep the sweat from pouring in his eyes. He talked about the Beatles at Shea, the Mets, Hicksville. About Jews and Italians and Irish. About working-class Long Islanders. Fishermen and soldiers. He told stories and cracked jokes. During "She's Always a Woman to Me," a man up front proposed to his girlfriend and she said yes. At the end of the song, Billy said, "So you're going to marry her?" I guess the man nodded and Billy said, "Congratulations," with genuine feeling. Then he played a few chords, thoughtfully, and added, "Get a pre-nup." He said it the way only a NYer can, with sarcasm and irony and self-awareness and grief and loss and cold-hard-look-you-in-the-eye truth. It was amazing to hear 60,000 people laughing at once, with understanding and appreciation.
The whole night was so regional, so specific. Music and place: inextricable. When Tony Bennett came out to sing "New York State of Mind," I thought the stadium would uproot and fly away. The moon rose above the top of the bleachers, giant and yellow.
Garth Brooks did "Shameless." Steven Tyler did "Walk This Way." Roger Daltrey did "My Generation." People couldn't believe it. Everyone's mouths were hanging open. "Paul's coming," started going around. You could feel it. Billy swung between beautiful ballads and rocking out all night long. He kept giving and giving of himself. Everyone in his band were from Long Island or Brooklyn. He introduced each person and told their NY story. There was one guy on violin from Australia who just that morning had become an American citizen. He got a standing ovation.
For an encore, Billy sang "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." The big screens showed his chubby little hands bouncing and flying over the piano keys. We were just one voice, one people, at that point. Like we didn't even know how to talk anymore. All we knew to do was sing those songs, say those words and love Shea and music and Long Island and New York and Billy Joel. You could look out and see people moving in unison, bands of 10,000 bodies swaying at once, and everyone singing the same words at the same time with this huge amount of feeling.
Then Paul McCartney stepped on stage. As he started singing, "I Saw Her Standing There," the firemen and their wives in front of us went completely crazy. We all did. But they felt it generationally, too. Then Billy did "Piano Man." We sang it to him. He stopped singing for a few verses and let all 60,000 of us sing it to him while he played the piano to back us up. Then Paul did "Let it Be." You could feel the Stadium crying, the concrete and plastic seats and green turf and pitcher's mound. Saying goodbye. And then Billy thanked Shea, thanked history, thanked Long Island and Queens and NY. The place was roaring.
7) Nina Simone, "Suzanne"
This is a song my mother would hum while she ironed. She loved the Judy Collins version and would only sing out one line, "And she feeds you tea and oranges, that come all the way from China." I love Nina's version best. For me, Simone is comfort food, someone who makes the world make sense. I love the repeated piano of Nina's composition. Six single notes and two chords, going up the scale. A strumming, relentless guitar following behind. The song builds its own geometry, and Simone gives it her brand of style-blurring—a little bit gospel, a little bit classical piano, a little bit jazz, and a whole lot of Nina. Her voice like a drum—deep, smooth, righteous. I love how neatly and completely the song ends, too. The memoir travels from 1945 to 2008. This song, set by the Hudson River, sung by Simone in 1969, and hummed by my mother throughout my childhood in the 70s and 80s, helped me to span decades.
8) Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5, "The Emperor." Played by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Conducted by Zubin Mehta
I'm always inspired by the huge amount of energy a pianist needs to play this piece.
And the shape and structure of the concerto gave me the shape and structure of the memoir. It's formed in three movements, with repeating themes that act as a kind of glue. The concerto is scored for a solo piano, and everything else is two by two--two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. Throughout the concerto, the piano leads the way, but is never bossy, always collaborative. The piano sings a theme; violins pick it up and finish out the phrase. Same line, different voice. No one version is enough. It's multi-voiced, like honest history. I wanted the memoir to feel like a chorus of voices, too. It's not really my story, it's a family story, an American story, and full of mood swings. I wanted the way voice works in the book to reflect a multiplicity of experience.
The concerto also reminds me of my father. His favorite music is Beethoven. He used to listen to Beethoven records as a teenager in India. And once in the U.S., he would get transported back to India by way of an 18th century German composer. When I was a kid, I used to go with my father to rounds at the hospital late at night. We'd blare "The Emperor," on the tape deck, the whole way there. We liked that Zubin Mehta was also Indian. But our tape had a quirk. Once played, it unraveled. It spilled its brown, glossy guts out the deck. So while my father saw patients, I'd sit on a gurney watched by brisk, efficient nurses. I'd stick my pinkie into the plastic wheels of the tape and spool it back up so it would be ready for the journey home.
9) Punjabi MC Remix, "Mundian To Bach Ke" by Labh Janjua with Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and the "Knight Rider" theme
This song is a genius of synthesis. Punjabi Bhangra mixed with Detroit rap and a dash of 1980s David Hasselhoff. My family and I danced to the original "Mundian To Bach Ke" in my uncle's apartment building in Calcutta during my first wedding. I write about this in the fifth section of the memoir, titled, "What Hands Are These?"
During my second wedding in Montana (to the same man), my friends and family danced to the Punjabi MC remix. My husband, mother-in-law, step-father-in-law, and myself had made the dance floor in their backyard in Montana, facing the jagged beauty of the Rocky Mountain front. By the time this song blared from the speakers, it was dark and we were twice married. The Meti fiddlers had put away their instruments and were eating paneer tikka with their feet up on hay bales. The Montana sky, thick with stars. Our little group of forty wedding guests, our U.S. family and oldest friends, started dancing to "Mundian To Bach Ke." The moment when Eminem's percussive, nasal voice enters over the bhangra beat, "If you had (pause) one shot, to seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it, or let it slip…" the moment when the song slides into rap, and hangs between electronic backbeat and tabla thump, was sizzling. The crowd howled like kin, like a pack of displaced wolves, and started jumping up and down. Two things that didn't seem to fit with each other, did. And they were beautiful, even better with each other than apart. I couldn't stop laughing as I wondered if our handmade joists and spars would hold. They did. And at the end of the song, everyone collapsed in random head-to-foot configurations like dumped out matchsticks. My husband unplugged the string of bulbs above the dance floor and we all looked up at the sky and counted shooting stars. This kind of syncretism, this capturing of family and friends and the moment of connection between a tabla and a Roland TR-808 machine is what I try to portray throughout the memoir.
10) Simon and Garfunkel, "The Boxer"
My mother got my father into Simon and Garfunkel. He loved this song, and sang it as only an immigrant could. He taught himself the chords on his second-hand guitar, and sat, cross-legged, on the living room floor: "In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame, I am leaving I am leaving but the fighter still remains." An immigrant, standing, fighting, staying. Li La Li.
Another Simon and Garfunkel song my father sang with great depth of feeling was "America." It's a perfect short story. That line, "Cathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I'm empty and aching and I don't know why, Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all gone to look for America," is sheer brilliance. I love the idea that America is something you have to look for, even when you're right smack dab in the middle of it. That America is something you can never really find. And that scene, of two sentences: "Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy, I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera." A funny little oboe lick sounding just afterwards adds to the playfulness.
11) Sade, "It's Only Love That Gets You Through"
I loved Sade all through the 80s and respect the years between her albums. They are always worth the wait. When I was a kid, I knew she was biracial, just by looking at her. The same way I knew Jennifer Beals was biracial the first time I saw "Flashdance." It wasn't the way they looked, it was something in their eyes, how they saw the world. And I had huge crushes on the both of them. I love the slow unfurling of this song—the organ, the words, the hymn of it. And the lines, "Girl you are rich, even with nothing, and you know tenderness comes from pain." One theme of the memoir is beauty: haggard, hurt. And how beauty comes from juxtaposition. "And though you had every reason, you didn't come undone. Somehow you made it to the other side." This is one of the lesson's of my family. To not come undone. To make it to the other side. It gives me strength to think about all that my grandparents and parents came through—illness, refugee camps, poverty, racism—to know that I come from them, to hope I have some of the same stuff inside me. I learned from the spirit of the song. Not hate, not anger, not stubbornness that gets you through. Only love.
12) Preservation Hall Jazz Band, "Olympia on Parade"
There are days we all hold inside and revisit. This song brings one such day back for me. Second line. New Orleans. My friend Ranjana and I had spent the day soaking up the city—a first visit for both of us. It was early evening. In a downpour, we drank our coffee black to better taste the chicory and waited in a long line to get into Preservation Hall. At last, we squeezed inside. A tiny close room. The music so big it pulsed the walls. Wrenched the soul out and put it back in all shiny and new. The man on trumpet used a red plastic ashtray for a plug. The man on coronet kicked off his shoe midsong, threw it up into the air with his foot then caught it with his hand (still playing, mind you), dropped it on the floor and stepped back into it. We sat in the front row on a hard little bench, and danced while seated. The musicians kept sweeping their instruments in an arc in front our faces. We could feel the wind of the notes, their breath, the song, holding us all together, as we sweated and steamed and stomped our feet.
This song gave me energy when I was at the minute level, revising just my sentences, word by word. It gave me the brave, bold, mixedness of New Orleans. The city's resilience. And for some strange reason, it always reminds me of that line of Hercule Poirot's from "An Appointment With Death," uttered with great compassion, and an emotive twitch of moustache: "Alors, mademoiselle, there is nothing in this world so damaged that it cannot be repaired…" That goes for cities, families, one's own sense of self, and messy sentences.
13) Queen, "Those Were the Days of Our Lives"
My parents' bought me a Queen album when I told them that Freddie Mercury was Indian—a Parsi born Farrokh Bulsara. This song always makes me think of my cousin John. John and his coming out to the staunch Irish-Catholic Sullivans was the reason why my parents met, why I exist.
The unabashed emotion, nostalgia, and sweetness of this song were important to me when writing the memoir. I needed to try to attain the level of openness and bravery Freddie had; I couldn't let myself shy away from what touched, saddened, or frightened me. Freddie's voice alternates between light and high, deep and strong. He comes close to sentimentality and cheesiness but never falls into it. He is always genuine. His operatic moments are like Indian ragas—made over in Freddie's own image. They are vocal performances, bolstered and fed by Brian May's guitar, John Deacon's bass. and Roger Taylor's drums.
The fact that Freddie whispers, "I love you," at the end of "Those Were the Days…" feels to me like a great risk. And it pays off. It's impossible not to be moved by it. I aspire to the honesty and power of Freddie's voice. He had so much charisma, exuberance, theatricality. He was who he was. Just a singer with a song.
Neela Vaswani and You Have Given Me a Country links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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