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May 20, 2013

Book Notes - Ru Freeman "On Sal Mal Lane"

On Sal Mal Lane

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane vividly covers the years leading up to the civil war in Sri Lanka through the inhabitants of one diverse neighborhood, and deftly blends beauty with sorrow to produce an unforgettable book.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Freeman's gift for verisimilitude is manifest with searing clarity . . . And in fictionalizing Sri Lankan history, Freeman accomplishes what reportage alone cannot: she blends the journalist's loyalty to fact with impassioned imagination."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In her own words, here is Ru Freeman's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, On Sal Mal Lane:


I wrote the entire first draft of On Sal Mal Lane, which had come into its name by then, after being Good People for awhile and then A Bend in the Road, at Yaddo. It was my first residency, and the only other time I'd spent away from home and among creative people had been at Bread Loaf which meant I was among people who may have played the occasional guitar or fiddle, but were primarily writers. At Yaddo I met composers, painters, documentary film-makers, and critics, as well as writers. Each evening we would gather at the ornate dining table, drink each other's wine, and talk about our work. The composers I met introduced me to some of the musical pieces that made it into this book, a classical education that reminded me of my own piano lessons as a child, as well as how I had cultivated a passable singing voice, or perhaps a certain confidence that my passable singing voice was still worth listening to. Much of the music in the book came from the interplay between these two forces: memory and education and these are a few of the compositions or songs that made their way into the novel itself.


Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor Op. 27, No. 2

Popularly known as "The Moonlight Sonata," this piece was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1801 and was dedicated to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. I never learned how to play more than the first few pages, by my oldest brother, Arjuna, who was - and is - a gifted musician, would play the entire sonata, start to finish. I envied his facility with the instrument, though I was far too lazy to ever achieve that kind of skill and, frankly, lacked the talent to make it worth my while to even try. This sonata was one that my mother, like Mrs. Herath in the book, asked my brother to play on the first night of the riots in 1983, when our Tamil neighbors were sheltering in our home. It is interesting that Beethoven had instructed that the piece be played Quasi una fantasia, which means, "like a fantasty." That evening, those days, and this music being played... we were all yearning for that fantasy, the one where all was well, where music mattered, where music could soothe and erase such terrible pain.


Beethoven's Bagatelle in A Minor, Op. 59

Another popular composition by Beethoven, and known most recognizably as 'Für Elise,' I gave this piece to Devi, the youngest daughter, who plays an abridged version of it while her brother listens. This was also a piece of music I listened to a lot while growing up, though this time it was played by my other older brother, Malinda. He, like me, had no abiding interest in the piano, and in addition he had the weakest fingers of us all. Still, he chose music as his single elective for the G.C.E. O/L Examination, which meant he had to learn one piece of music by heart. Our piano teacher chose this one for him and our whole family had to listen to him practice it repeatedly, ad nauseum, the ta-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa...ta-la-la-laaa...ta-la-la-laaa ringing in our heads. He had the notes down, but he never managed to acquire the feeling beneath it and I realize now that I still hear his rendition of it when I think of this piece. It reminds me of the way an instrument can begin to feel monotonous when there is no passion behind the playing, and it reminds me of the quiet earnestness of this particular brother, a quality that found its way into Nihil.


Chopin's Ocean Wave Etude, Op. 25 No. 10

This is a piece that captured the difficulty of what I was trying to do with this novel (to intimate everything that preceded and outlasted the tragedy that occurs, to give the immense sorrow of what happens down this lane its due place, and also keep sight of the lightness and innocence of children), while also reflecting the singular relationship between Nihil and Devi, between a brother who is trying to take care of a sister, and a sister just out of reach of his concerns. This particular etude is the longest of Chopin's etudes, and is one of the most difficult to play, middle notes being held while octaves are being played around those notes, and the pace quickening and deepening intermittently. It was a perfect representation of all the impossibles that were hurtling toward the characters in the book, in smaller or greater measure.


"The Maple Leaf Forever"

This was an anthem (the unofficial Canadian one, composed by Alexaner Muir), that I learned as a child, along with "The Star Spangled Banner," (all the verses, oh yes), "My Country ‘Tis of Thee," and "God Save the Queen," among others. We Sri Lankans have a real passion for the stirring ecstasy of patriotic fervor and, it seemed, at least in my house and as far as my mother was concerned, a disregard for the larger realities that may have yielded some of these war-celebrating lyrics. I had a particular affection for the notion of "the thistle, shamrock, rose" entwining "the maple leaf forever," perhaps because of the way it invoked a tapestry to me, some pretty, colorful embroidered fabric that was beautiful. In the book, Suren, the oldest Herath boy, the musician in the family sings the opening lines to the Bolling girls, his response to their question about whether his parents fought. I think this came to me because in my own volatile family, we did have this strange caesurae in the midst of my parents' battles with each other, that were punctuated with singing.


"Flow Gently Sweet Afton"

This was originally a lyrical poem written by Robert Burns, which was later set to mysic by Jonathan E. Spilman. The poem describes the river Afton, which flows north from Alwhat Hill in the Carsphairn and Scaur Hills, in Ayrshire, Scotland. For reasons best known to the Irish nuns who once set the music curriculum at the Holy Family Convent that my grandmother, mother, and lastly I attended, "Flow Gently Sweet Afton," was a necessary part of my education and I learned to sing of a girl named Mary who was sleeping by these waters that I did not know of, in a country I had not visited, with great sentiment. It is a very lovely melody, actually, and my mother would sing it as a lullabye, something I also learned to do. I gave this song to Rose, a somewhat scruffy, ragamuffin of a girl in the book, who only learns to articulate her consonants and vowels perfectly when she is taught this song.


"Forever Young," by Alphaville

Oh my. Everything came to Sri Lanka a lot later than it does now - yes, I grew up in a time of no gmail and Macbooks - and this one I heard first on the top-forty run down on the radio at a friend's house. I loved the lyrics and would sing it anytime I could as a sort of personal anthem, the angst-filled bemoaning of the violence around me (very real), that I did not quite understand and did not want to understand either. All I ever wanted to do then was to wear blue jeans and sweatshirts, because that's what American girls wore, I'd heard, and sing songs like these as I strutted down the narrow streets of my neighborhood, or went to get bread from the bakery. I had a red and grey striped t-shirt that had a tiny picture of Snoopy over where my heart would be, and I remember very vividly that everytime I put on that shirt, this song would come to mind. I know, utterly hilarious now, but back then this song encompassed everything: desire, imagination, predicament, anti-establishment/parent outcry, wild independence, everything. It still does. And it seemed only right that the children of Sal Mal Lane, in the throes of their rebellion against their parents, and their celebration of their friendship with each other, ought to be allowed to sing this particular song during their forbidden variety-show.


"Kalu Kella," by Indrani Perera

This is a popular Sri Lankan song, and one my mother sang to me as a child. I was not considered a pretty girl, being very dark-skinned in a country that liked girls to be what we call "fair" (i.e. light-skinned), and boys to be dark. This song, written for a dark-skinned girl is all about how beautiful she is; her radiance lights up the room and soothes the hearts of those who behold her; her demeanor and acts are compassionate and wrapped in good cheer; and in all these ways she is better and more beautiful than those other fair-skinned/white girls. Maybe it was because I had this song sung to me so often that I went from considering myself positively hideous to considering myself far more beautiful than I actually am, when the truth is somewhere in between! It also so happened that when I was home for my wedding to a Caucasian American, a band suddenly struck up at our dining table at the hotel we were at, and with broad smiles they began to sing this particular song which they didn't know he already knew because I had sung it to him. In the book the song is requested by Devi, who behaves some of the time as I did as a little girl, and whose dark-skin and boyish looks are noted with some disparagement by one of the neighbors.


"Where the Streets Have No Name," U2

I first heard of U2 when my oldest brother began to play "Mothers of the Disappeared," on his guitar. We didn't have a radio at this time, but someone had procured a cassette-player with head-phones and I would turn up the volume on The Joshua Tree, and lie on the cool cement floor of my bedroom, to counter so many kinds of heat: the physical, from the searing afternoons, the conflicts between my parents, my sense that I was losing my brothers who were grown up enough to leave the house for extended periods of time, and the violence building and raging outside our homes both the escalation of the battle with the LTTE and the government crackdown on the left-wing uprising from the South which lead to so many disappearances and brutal murders of many young people. Those first raging lines, "I want to run/ I want to hide/ I want to tear down the walls/ that hold me inside/ I want to reach out/ and touch the flame/ where the streets have no name," they were everything I was feeling. Everything I had right there, I wanted to leave behind, I wanted to go where my brothers and their friends went, fight alongside them, chant slogans, bring down the government. This, even though the one I wanted to "go there with," was my first love. So there was this love/politics romance in this song for me. In the book it is Suren who wants to add this particular song to the repertoire, but it is a song that spoke to what was beginning to happen down Sal Mal Lane among and around all the children who were both falling in love and beginning to understand fear and hatred.


Ru Freeman and On Sal Mal Lane links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
ForeWord Reviews review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Oprah.com review
Publishers Weekly review

Bookslut interview with the author
The Diane Rehm Show interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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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