October 28, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In a year filled with moving coming-of-age novels, May-lee Chai's Dragon Chica stands apart with its gripping story of the young Chinese-Cambodian girl, Nea. Her tale of facing bigotry as an immigrant to the United States after surviving the Cambodian civil war and Khmer Rouge is skillfully told and enlightening.
Dragon Chica is an important book both teens and adults will find fascinating, especially if they read (and discuss) it together.
Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book:
"It is very rare that a coming of age novel transcends its inherent limitations and attains the complex emotional resonance of adult fiction. Dragon Chica does this with great aplomb. The book explores with subtlety and depth the mature, universal issues of identity and connection, but it also retains its direct appeal to younger readers. May-lee Chai has performed a remarkable act of literary magic."
When I first started writing my novel Dragon Chica, I knew music would play an important part in the life of the narrator, Nea Chhim. She comes to the U.S. as a young child, a refugee and survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Music (except for a few propaganda songs) was banned by the Khmer Rouge, so music will be a complete revelation to Nea. While many experiences about adapting to a new culture and a new language are painful, I know music would be like the American Dream wrapped up in a bow. Better than candy. Better than Christmas and New Year's combined. Music unleashes the power of the soul to feel again, and Nea's soul needs a lot of healing after all that she has been through.
At one point Nea's mother berates her: "What's the matter with you?" she demanded, and then before I could reply, she listed my sins herself: I wanted to be an American, I talked back to my mother, I never obeyed, I thought of myself before my family, I sang their songs, I danced around just like them.
But to Nea there is no "us" versus "them": Music is for everyone. And that is precisely why regimes like the Khmer Rouge ban music. . . because totalitarian regimes fear the fundamentally democratic, rebellious, uncontrollable power of music.
As I wrote Dragon Chica, different songs came to mind for different scenes and different characters. Some of them ended up in the book, some still play only in my head as I read the passages to myself.
Here's my Dragon Chica playlist:
What could be a more quintessentially American song? In my mind, Nea hears this song late at night on the radio on a Golden Oldies program as she tries but fails to sleep in her family's too-hot trailer in their first American home in Texas. She can't make out the words yet, but she loves the optimistic, almost silly beat, the simple rhymes, the carefree sound of this song. Will her life ever feel as happy as this song? She hopes so.
Since Nea's family first ends up in Texas, it makes sense she'll hear Spanish-language music on the radio. In fact, her introduction to "American" is a mix of Spanish and English words (hence the title of the book, Dragon Chica). Nea won't understand the words of "La Llarona" when she first hears them, but I imagine that later in life, when she revisits this song, with its tale of a beautiful woman whose ghost haunts the river banks where her children drowned, it will have a new poignancy, as it will recall her own family's losses to war, the sacrifices of the women in her life, and the children who did and did not survive.
"Jolene" by Dolly Parton
(This video is of a live performance with Dolly and Mindy Smith)
By the time Nea moves with her mother and siblings to Nebraska in the early 1980s, the music scene changes dramatically. Here country/Western dominates the radio waves. Even though "Jolene" was written a decade earlier, it's a song that has an eternal quality, as its many covers show. How could Nea not hear and like this song? Although the song at first seems like a plaintive lament from a woman with no confidence, Dolly's subversive qualities—her outsize appearance, personality, and amazing voice—enable the listener to imagine a woman who may be in fact warning her rival to back off. There is steel behind Dolly's lilting soprano. The song's not in the book, but I bet you can hear it in the back of your mind as you read.
In the Mood for Love, Movie Soundtrack by various artists
As I was writing the novel, I thought of the music on this CD every time I wrote about Nea's mysterious and once wealthy Uncle. He is ethnically Chinese and the embodiment of a tragic, romantic hero from a different era, one of prosperity, urbanity, and a sophisticated mix of many cultures. Now transplanted to running a Chinese restaurant in a small town in the Midwest, Uncle is too old and too injured to resemble the actor Tony Leung from the movie In the Mood for Love… except for his beautiful, sad eyes.
"The moon always reminds me," Uncle says at one point, thinking of a lost child, a lost love, a lost way of life.
This is the kind of sophisticated, French pop music that Uncle and Auntie would have listened to in Phnom Penh before the wars destroyed their life together.
Nea gets to hear only one Khmer pop song that Auntie has on an old cassette that she bought off a family who immigrated from Cambodia years earlier. Nea doesn't recognize the song or the singer, but she is transported by its mix of electric guitar, go-go drums, and the soft voice of a woman singing about love. For me the song has to be by Ros Sereysothea, one of the most successful Khmer pop singers from the 1960s and early 70s. She was brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge, but her music lives on…in the soundtrack CD to the movie City of Ghosts, in online homages, and in covers by contemporary American bands like Dengue Fever and The Like Me's.
As rap music gains in popularity, in the late 80s even in Nea's small town, this song will herald a turning point in Nea's life, a moment when she must decide to save her beloved older sister, Sourdi, even though it means betraying her mother's trust. On a symbolic level, the song shows the tug of war within Nea's heart because ultimately she can't follow in anyone else's steps anymore; she must forge her own path.
As Nea drives in a borrowed pickup truck down an icy highway in the middle of the night, this song is playing on the radio. Yet all she can think of as the moonlight glints eerily off the patches of snow on the sides of the road is how the minefields in Cambodia looked at night as her sister, Sourdi, carried Nea as a child on her back. Sourdi stepped on the bones of the dead because she knew it was safer that way; after all, the dead had already exploded the mines that lay hidden in the ground. "Lucky Star" cannot seem farther away at this point in Nea's life.
This type of music isn't played on the radio, but it plays an important part in Nea's life as she reaches adulthood. Visiting the Cambodian Buddhist temple in Des Moines, Iowa, as the monks chant, Nea is suddenly able to remember her father's face. But what does this memory mean? As more revelations follow, Nea must decide if her heart has grown strong enough to forgive.
May-lee Chai and Dragon Chica links:
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)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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
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