February 1, 2013
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.
Dina Nayeri's debut novel A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a complex and lyrical study of life in post-revolutionary Iran, an intensely moving and profound book from both personal and political perspectives.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Lyrical, humane and hopeful; a welcome view of the complexities of small-town life, in this case in a place that inspires fear instead of sympathy."
A large part of my novel is about music and its influence on a young girl in post-revolutionary Iran, where all non-Islamic songs are banned. These secular music laws are a particular tragedy because the Persian people have such a rich culture and great love for music as an art form. In the novel, Saba listens to smuggled American tapes as well as traditional Iranian songs. Here are the tracks I listened to while writing the book, and some that have been close to my heart since.
"Fast Car" — Tracy Chapman
This song appears several times in my novel during moments of great sadness. Saba listens to the rich voice of this American woman and thinks of her own life, and about running away. Of course, the song is about escaping a sad circumstance in any way possible, even if it means getting in a car and just driving away. It's about escape, and who hasn't wished for escape once or twice? I listened to this song often in college. And I thought, in some of my worst moments, "I wish I was the kind of person who could just drive away."
"Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" — Otis Redding
My novel is set by the Caspian seaside, where there are many beautiful docks on which to sit and think. And this gorgeous melody captures so much of what I love about the music of the 60's. There's something haunting about the fact that it was recorded just before Redding's death. I include this song in moments in the novel when Saba reaches for peace and struggles to create it inside herself, just as the world around her is exploding. When I need peace, I often put on this song, close my eyes, and pretend I can hear the water.
"Grandma's Hands" — Bill Withers
Oh Bill Withers… how can I even begin to explain my devotion to him? But this song especially speaks to me because I have a sweet lovely grandmother, in a small village in Iran, whom I miss very much. I haven't seen her in twenty five years, but when I was little, I would sit on her lap and she would tell me stories and stroke my hair and give me treats. And she had such a special friendship with my mother, defying every stereotype about Iranian mothers-in-law. That woman is a marvel, as are the four surrogate mothers and grandmothers that circle Saba in my novel. In the story, she tells them her troubles, her hopes, and her stories of her dead sister, and they listen and nod. There is a line in Withers' song that says, "Baby, grandma understands, that you really love that man." I included that line as an epigraph to the final section of the book, because sometimes when everything seems a mess and your heart hurts so much, it's easy to forget that every bad thing has happened before, every pain has once been experienced… and even with forty or fifty years between you… grandma understands.
"Talking Bird" - Death Cab for Cutie
More than one man in my life (fathers and lovers and friends) have called me "joojeh", which means baby bird in Farsi, because apparently I have that lost, chirping, frazzled quality. And at first, this song sounded so romantic to me, so protective and lovely. More than once, it made me cry. But if you listen to the lyrics carefully, you can see that it's about being caged, being afraid to use your wings. As a metaphor, it describes a confused kind of person who can't think her way out of her circumstances. One part of the lyrics say:
"It's hard to see your way out,
when you live in a house in a house.
Because you don't realize,
that the windows were open the whole time."
This describes Saba so well. Stuck in Iran, she can't see her way out, when all she needs is a little strength. Sometimes I too have been stuck and afraid, looking with confused eyes at whoever was around. This song is a constant reminder of the kind of enticements that I don't want to lure me from my true desires for myself.
"Homeward Bound" – Simon and Garfunkel
I've struggled with home for so long. Where is my home? Where will I finally land? I used to listen to this song in college with my roommate, also an immigrant. To me, it went right to the heart of everything that was missing. It still does.
"Le Temps des cerises" — Yyves Montand
I discovered this song during the many years when I was married to a French-American man and began to discover French music. This sad melody haunted me for the longest time. It felt like the kind of song you play after something wonderful is over. "The time of cherries." It has such nostalgia about it. And Montand's voice has that scratchy, old-time quality that makes you think of all that's been lost. I included it in my novel, in a moment when Saba's father is smoking opium and listening to an old french song he doesn't understand, except in the most basic ways: the melancholy embedded within.
"If I Needed You" — Townes Van Zandt
I went to high school and middle school in Oklahoma. So, I have a secret love of country music. I'm starting to really embrace and own it. And Townes Van Zandt in particular hits me right in the gut. I know this song wasn't written or first performed by him, but his version always makes me sad and I listened to it a lot as I wrote my second book, which is set in Oklahoma.
Four Persian Songs:
I'm grouping these four songs together, because I don't think American readers will want such a deep-dive into Persian music. I've included links for these songs so you can listen a bit—something they all have in common is haunting melodies that can be universally understood. The last two songs are included in my novel and are very famous in Iran. They are love songs, but they also speak to a particular time and place. The Iranian way of expressing love is so lush and vulnerable. People throw their whole hearts into it so quickly, because often in Iran there is no time. Because these songs are so famous, there is a lot of history and rumor behind them. Mara Beboos ("give me a kiss") is actually very much like the Spanish "Besame Mucho" but according to Iranians everywhere, the song was written by a prisoner of the Shah, as a goodbye to his daughter just before he was executed. "Sultan of Hearts" is from an old Iranian movie by the same name and it has the most exquisite melody and such sad lyrics, "one heart tells me to go, to go. Another tells me to stay, to stay." The other two songs are about loss. You absolutely don't need the words to understand them. The pain is evident from the first note, the first breath.
"Mendiant de L'amour- Enrico Macias"
This French song became famous in Iran around the time I was born. Hilariously, one of the biggest reasons for its fame was that it sounds Iranian. It has absolutely nothing to do with Iran, but because of that melody, it was a hit. The main lyric, "Donnez Donnez do-donnez" means "give me, give me" in French, but often when I was little, people around me would say that it was the name of a woman. So I got the nickname "donnez." I actually included something very much like this in the novel, a scene where Saba lies about the meaning of the song to her best friend, just to make her feel better. Here is a link so you can see what I mean about the Iranian feeling of this French song:
Dina Nayeri and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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