August 10, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Roshi Fernando's novel Homesick impressively explores the experiences of first and second generation Sri Lankan immigrants in south London through a series of interconnected stories.
The Guardian wrote of the book:
"Roshi Fernando, winner of the 2009 Impress prize, doesn't shirk from the harsh realities of the outcast, but this collection of stories is tender, uplifting and funny, too."
I have a song reflex. It's sometimes a complete pain – I wake in the middle of the night to a phrase from a song and I have to trace it back, find the words that my brain is repeating, and they will relate to the dream. In the day, I'll be walking along and a phrase of music comes, and I find the words – sometimes I have to stop and sing out loud until I get to the moment in the song my brain was playing, and here's the thing – it is often wittily relevant. It's happened since I was very small – I took piano lessons from the age of six, and I found phrases of music practised often would stick and get stuck, and I remember clearly finding a 'clean' phrase – a piece of music not too cloying, which I could rinse my brain with. I still do it. If my kids get stuck on a song in the charts and play it too many times, I have to rinse my brain with that phrase of Bach.
A good example of my song reflex is a moment during my father's funeral in Sri Lanka – a phrase from a song came and went in between the great Methodist hymns we belted out. I had watched two, bossy, saree-ed cousins of my mother crying with their ostentatious handkerchiefs waving in the air, and a phrase swam up at me every time I looked at them. I knew it was Queen. As they followed the coffin out, their large hips swaying in the funereal white, it occurred to me that the tune my head had been singing was 'Fat Bottomed Girls You Make the Rocking World Go Round'. Yes, and with that realisation, I heard Freddie Mercury's voice shout 'Get on your bikes and ride!' and as I cried I laughed.
New songs in the charts I find derivative. I appreciate the geniuses, the originals, the people who strive to make something new and different – but the XFactor manufactured stuff – it's like listening to a dentist drill. Occasionally I hear a record the kids are liking and I do that old bloke thing and take them to my computer and make them listen to the original song: I did that the other day when my 13 year old played 'L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N' by Noah and the Whale – I bought Paul Young's 'Living in the life of the common people', which is the exact same song, just came out twenty years before. I'm the sort of woman who says sternly 'Madonna wanted to be Blondie, but she was never as cool.'
I wrote Homesick with songs weaving in and out of each chapter. In fact, as I got nearer to publication, I realised that a lot of them had to come out. A writer friend said 'You're letting the songs do the work,' – and this advice was very important. But my characters sing. My characters are the sort that sing around the supermarket. They will shuffle a quick foxtrot while waiting in line. If they happen to have a child with them, they will sing out loud with a Frank Sinatra hand waving at the stars, as I often do, while watching the pre-teen crumple in dismay. Those of Sri Lankan stock tend to enjoy a party. Bring a Sri Lankan up with Methodism as their backbone, and they will sing as heartily as a Welsh male choir – and in tune.
The first chapter of the book is called 'Homesick' and juxtaposes the old and the new. Songs mentioned in the chapter are very much part of this juxtaposition – 'Ma Ba Le Kale' by C T Fernando, a Baila singer of the late sixties in Sri Lanka, whose record held a permanent place on the record player in my parent's sitting room and 'Don't stop till you get enough' by Michael Jackson. Those two in opposition just about sum up the themes of the book, and the dichotomy of my teenage years.
'The Bottle of Whisky'
There is a lot of dancing and partying in this chapter, based in the late fifties/ early sixties. Basit and Rita go to a Jamaican club in London's East End, where they dance to 'fast calypso beats' – I was thinking of Ska – something by the great Ernest Ranglin – 'Ska Wey Dat'. Growing up in south-east London, we were surrounded by Ska, Reggae, Blues. I'm married to an accountant who used to play in a blues band. Every Sunday morning we play old blues – Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters. The other day, B B King came on the radio and my youngest daughter said 'Why am I tasting pancakes? Oh yeah - that's Sunday breakfast music.'
'Love Me Tender'
There's no need to guess who was the biggest influence of all. If I'd had a second son I'd have called him Elvis. When each of my kids was about three, they could recognise an Elvis song – and I'd say 'Who is he?' and they'd say in their gruff voices 'He's the king of rock-a-roll'. At Dad's funeral in London, we played 'American Trilogy' to walk him out. Dad was born in the same year as Elvis and was a teddy boy, as were all his friends, wearing their quiffs well into their forties. If I see an Elvis photograph, or Elvis movie – that smile, that glint in his eye – well, it makes me sigh.
This chapter takes place in Oman. I know this is getting my middle eastern countries mixed up a little, but the music I had in my mind was Fairuz – the great Lebanese singer – her album The Legendary Fairuz really is gorgeous. You have to picture me with all the windows thrown open in our house on a gloriously sunny day, blasting Fairuz out into the English countryside. I swear the hollyhocks sway in time.
There is a party in this, and the songs of my teen-angst years are mentioned: 'If You Leave Me Now' by Chicago and 'I'm Not in Love' by 10cc – if I hear the opening phrases, even now, I feel that glorious worry and anticipation: will I be asked up for a slow dance? I was hardly ever asked. And when I was, I always ended up kissing the wrong boy.
There is a mention of a Beatles song in this chapter: 'All You Need Is Love'. The mother of the bride sang it at the night-before-the-wedding party. I didn't quote it because it costs something ridiculous like £1000 to quote a verse of the Beatles in a book (although I've heard Bob Marley is the most expensive). I cut the actual scene of the mother singing – it is mentioned in passing – but actually, that was one of those times where I was leaving the song to do the work. Sure, love is all you need – and money and patience and a good deal of compromise and empathy and time and energy and discipline and … I won't go on.
'At the Barn Dance'
I left the song in, in this chapter. There are two reasons: first, I was very happy for the song to do the work. It is a song called 'Rolling Home', and is a traditional British folk song (or so I thought). 'Round goes the wheel of fortune, don't be afraid to ride…' it says. Its sentiments are simple and exacting: we're here, don't be afraid. Life is seasonal, we get older and we die. It feels safe and accurate. When I did my research, I realised that the song was written by the great John Tams and was in fact not that old. I contacted him and his wife Sally to ask how much it would cost to quote their song. I received a reply that said – 'We're delighted at your success'. They gave it to me to quote for free. There is something beautiful and meaningful about their generosity. As I have started to climb the literary ladder, the kindness I have encountered has taught me generosity. I like to think that beyond free markets and commerce there is a world that turns relentlessly, whether we exist or not. And we can choose to live good lives.
'The Terrorist's Foster Grandmother'
This story is set on 7th July 2005, when the bombs went off in London. It was a day of disbelief and sadness: London had won the Olympics the day before. As a Londoner I was so angry with those bombers – that they could do that to our hometown. I couldn't get over my anger – and my sadness for the lives lost. The song which summed up that time, that terrible moment, is 'Fix You' by Coldplay.
In this chapter, Rohan and his son Carl are at a cricket match. The Barmy Army song is part of the story – it is a song that the England supporters sing. It is one of those football type chants. This chapter also is unique for showing a brief glimpse of one of the characters actually in Sri Lanka – Rohan is there for a few months on his year off. He climbs the rock fortress Sigiriya. When I was on my year off, I climbed it by myself and when at the top, I heard the coke vendor's transistor radio playing my father's favourite song 'Parvanna' by a classical Sri Lankan musician, Amaradeva. I think it means 'clouds' – it sort of summed up the moment.
The chapter about Dorothy touches on genealogy and fifties porn, but that's neither here nor there. This chapter is about love and loss and the repression of the true self that can happen when love is near to perfect. How to pick just one song that accurately portrays love? When I think of Dorothy in this story, I hear Tom Waits singing 'San Diego Serenade'. 'Never heard the melody till I needed the song' makes me think of the cussedness of love, the sheer, angry heartbreak of trying to live with someone, and trying to live without them while trying to preserve your self and who you are within the relationship.
Ok. Here's the thing. Beyonce. She's a queen, a wonder woman. Her concert at Glastonbury was the best concert I've ever seen: consummate performer, modest, exciting, alarmingly brilliant. That little excerpt of 'Survivor' she played at that concert – if you're a woman of a certain age, as Preethi is in this story – it's what you need to hear…!
'At the Funeral'
The novel comes full circle, and at Gertie's funeral, the younger generation and their children remember their uncle Victor playing his CT Fernando record – and they sing it together, the old people and their children and grandchildren, gently mimicking – because they can't play it for real. They don't know the words, the chords, they're just pretending they have a connection to the country over the other side of the world that claims them as their own.
Roshi Fernando and Homesick links:
Financial Times review
Guardian review (by Alfred Hicking)
Guardian review (by Sophie Martelli)
Kirkus Reviews review
The National review
Of Books and Reading review
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