October 4, 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.
Joanna Luloff's The Beach at Galle Road masterfully gives individual perspectives into Sri Lanka's civil war in this collection of linked stories.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"In her debut, Luloff weaves a montage of stories into a cohesive whole as she explores the roles of tradition and family and the destructive power of war through the lives of each character."
The years I spent in Sri Lanka as a Peace Corps volunteer (1996–1998) were musically challenging for me. My host family kept the radio blasting for most of the day, so most of the background music surrounding me was dominated by Bollywood hits and local Tamil pop songs. I had an old Walkman that was almost always out of batteries, but when fueled up, suffered through a relentless rotations of tapes I had absent-mindedly packed tapes for my trip—The Throwing Muses' The Real Ramona, Robyn Hitchcock's Queen Elvis, and Luscious Jackson's Fever In, Fever Out, to name a few. It was one of the hardest adjustments to my life in Baddegama—to be surrounded by so much music and to have so little choice over its selection.
I've divided my playlist into three sections, which, in many ways, reflect the three sections of my story collection—the domestic spaces of family life, the public spaces of school, travel, and beach escapes, and the private space of a Walkman connecting me to the music of home, albeit at slow speeds. These are the songs that surrounded me for the years I lived in Sri Lanka, and these are the songs I imagine surrounding my characters in The Beach at Galle Road.
My host father Ranjan's radio began its assault at 6:00 a.m. each morning, and when I returned from work at the nearby village school in the afternoon, it was the first sound that greeted me when I came home. The local stations played a range of Bollywood and Tamil pop songs, top 40 hits from America and England, and a whole lot of Bob Marley. In my story "Counting Hours" the grandmother's main company is her son Mohan's radio, and I imagine her surrounded by many of the songs on this playlist. The members of my host family were the inspiration for many of the characters in my stories set in the south of Sri Lanka. The following selection comprises their favorite tunes.
"No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley
Ranjan was an enormous Bob Marley fan. He found Marley to be soulful and political and claimed that even though he wasn't a Sinhalese, Bob Marley would have been at home in Ceylon.
"Brimful of Asha" by Cornershop
My younger host sister, Malsha, who was nine when we first met, couldn't get enough of this song. After school, she would search the radio stations until she found it, strip off her school uniform, throw on her favorite blue shorts and a Pac Man t-shirt, and pull me onto her makeshift dance floor.
"In Aankhon Ki Masti" by Asha Bhosle
My other host sister, Amali, who was fourteen at the time, was a very serious and contemplative teenager. She appreciated an overwrought love story and was transfixed by the melodramatic intensity of Bollywood romances. One of her favorite singers was Asha Bhosle, a famous playback chanteuse in Hindi films, and she loved this particular song for its mournful sincerity.
"Irene Josephine" by Wally Bastiansz
My host mother, Dhamika, loved classic Sinhalese pop music from the 1950s and 1960s. Her favorites were Baila songs that, she explained to me, were combinations of Sinhalese and Portuguese traditions. Wally Bastiansz was both a police officer and pop star in the 60s and Dhamika continued to find him rather dreamy.
School, Travel, Beach Discos:
"Blowin in the Wind" by Bob Dylan
The British-Council-produced English textbooks had occasional lessons on poetry. In one chapter, contemporary American poetry was introduced through Bob Dylan's "Blowin in the Wind." I had a friend send me a cassette tape of The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, and a co-worker brought in an old boom box. Our school had no dividing walls between most of the classrooms and over 50 students per class, so one afternoon, we had an expanse of 200 eighth grade boys learning American poetry through Dylan's echoing croaks (and I mean croaks as I compliment).
"Billy Jean" by Michael Jackson
My students' favorite musician was Michael Jackson. They loved everything from "ABC" to "Man in the Mirror." We all enjoyed an awkward English class when one of them asked me to teach them the lyrics to "Billy Jean."
The buses and the beach discos often blared the same pop songs, and I began to associate the stretch of Galle Road with the following favorites. I'm going to keep this short because I wouldn't really wish this section of the playlist on anyone:
"Mmmbop" by Hanson
The pop exuberance of "Mmmbop" and the catchy aggression of "Tubthumping" were good accompaniments to bus travel. Traffic zigzagged on narrow roads, far too overcrowded with buses, lorries, bicycles, mopeds, and the occasional cow. If I closed my eyes as my bus veered into and out of oncoming traffic, I could pretend the intrepid driver was keeping the beat to Hanson's playful melodies or challenging an oncoming truck to a game of chicken encouraged by Chumbawamba's refusal to stay knocked down. I imagine Sam, the protagonist in "I Love You, Come Home Soon" bumping along Galle Road to and from Colombo, arriving at the teacher training college with "Mmmbop" stuck in his head.
"Everybody" by Backstreet Boys
"Coco Jumbo" by Mr. President
The gentle stretch of beach at Unawatuna became an escapist retreat for many of my Peace Corps friends. It was also the place we were all instructed to go when the island was put under curfew during elections or a more aggressive bombing campaign from either the Tigers or the government army. We camped out, sometimes five to a room at our favorite rest house, like the characters in "The Sunny Beach Hotel." During tourist season, the restaurant next door—The Happy Banana—hosted beach discos every Friday night. At the height of the evening, the DJ would always pair up "Coco Jumbo" with "Everybody." I'm nostalgic for the unembarrassed bliss of dancing barefoot on a sandy floor to some of the worst music I've ever listened to. And I'm still amazed by how easy it was to dismiss the larger reasons for us being there under curfew.
"Naked Eye" by Luscious Jackson
Fever In, Fever Out was one of the only contemporary albums I packed for my trip. I found it on cassette before I left, and it was the one tape that made it through my Peace Corps journey with me. K, the manager at The Sunny Beach Hotel in Unawatuna, always let me play it over his speaker system when I came to stay at his rest house.
"Isis" by Bob Dylan
I had a cassette tape with Bob Dylan's Desire on one side and Blood on the Tracks on the other. "Isis" is still one of my favorite Dylan songs. I love how packed with narrative it is, a short story put to song. Many of the tracks on Desire feel like short stories and are excellent lessons in plot compression. One of my saddest days was when, during a monsoon, the violent rains soaked the desk in my bedroom and destroyed my Dylan tape.
"Counting Backwards" by The Throwing Muses
Another homemade tape had The Real Ramona on one side and Robyn Hitchcock's Queen Elvis on the flip side. This tape made me feel incredibly homesick, perhaps because The Real Ramona had gotten lodged in my clunker car that took me back and forth to high school during my senior year. For six months straight, my day began with "Counting Backwards," and I associate it with the winding shortcuts between Southboro and Northboro, Massachusetts. Many of the American characters in my collection are caught in the push and pull between memories and the desire to create a new sense of home in the present. Carol, in particular, the protagonist from "Where She Went From Here," throws herself into a kind of exile from her childhood home, rejecting homesickness and countering it with reinvention.
"Madonna of the Wasps" by Robyn Hitchcock
This song still makes me a little weepy. It became my "it's okay to hole up in your room and cry for a little while" track. Like the Throwing Muses album, it made me think of driving around my hometown, but more than that, it took on the symbolic weight of feeling lost and disconnected and unrecognized. The lyrics don't make a whole lot of sense, but together, they conjured up feelings of regret, of abandonment, and of being at a distance from your own self. I spent a lot of time feeling all of these things in Sri Lanka, particularly during my first year of service, and I imagine many of my characters experiencing this distance between past and present, between a former and current self. There is longing and relentless questioning in Hitchcock's song, but there are also moments of communication and calm like when the "Wise Madonna of the flies" meets the singer's eyes and recognizes him. It's an appropriate culminating track for this story collection's playlist, then, with its reflections on isolation as well as connection. I think of Nilanthi in the final story of the collection, euphoric in her isolation, in her not-so-lonely version of solitude.
Joanna Luloff and The Beach at Galle Road links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music & DVD release lists
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