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February 17, 2014

Book Notes - Liza Monroy "The Marriage Act"

Promise Land

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.

Liza Monroy skillfully melds the personal with political in her new memoir The Marriage Act, a magnificent book about friendship, love, and marriage.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Despite its breezy style, Monroy's provocative memoir offers more emotional food for thought than can possibly be digested in one sitting. After only reading the introduction, one might wish to remain quiet for a few minutes and ponder her use of the phrase gender-neutral marriage…As such, this phraseology perfectly embodies Monroy's intentional marriage to a gay man. Though fraught with one psychological or legal time bomb after another, the marriage worked, despite the unimaginable odds. The book is bright. It's chatty. But Monroy manages to deliver a hefty emotional wallop."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Liza Monroy's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took to Keep My Best Friend in America, and What It Taught Us About Love:

The Marriage Act, my second book, was a labor of love in both the lived experience that led to the book's creation and the writing process itself. I was so obsessed with getting it right that the journey from first to final draft took six years. I finally realized perfection is an impossible standard—as is the ability to perfectly replicate reality on the page—and that I had to write it anyway. The story begins when Emir, my close college friend, is threatened with deportation to a homeland where he would have to live with his father, and in the closet. Refusing to let this happen, I propose marriage even though my mother works for the State Department and had then recently won an award for her work preventing immigration fraud.

When I tried to write this book as fiction (protecting identities, not really caring about genre, etc), early readers said that this premise was just not believable. The story was good because it was true. They were right; and I'm glad I listened.

The resulting book came to an intersection with the national conversation about marriage rights—we were one man and one woman, so technically legal, though our marriage would actually be less "traditional" than one Emir would have had with his male partner. The Marriage Act is my contribution to the conversation, in the form of a love story. Many of the accompanying tracks are, in one way or another, love songs.

"Love Don't Cost a Thing"—J. Lo.

Think you gotta keep me iced you don't/ think I'm gonna spend your cash I won't/ even if you are broke, my love don't cost a thing—I still get this song stuck in my head sometimes. Emir and I started listening to it all the time after we first moved to L.A. in our early twenties. We listened to it in the car when I taught him how to drive on the freeway. We listened to it when we drove from our temporary apartment complex in the Valley to sign up at Central Casting after we decided to be extras. We listened to it as we got ready to go out at night. It was our karaoke song. It became "our song." We had no idea it would come to have the meaning it later did. There was a prescience I never would have imagined I could later attribute to a saccharine pop song. This meaning was, of course, that the typical "green card marriage" involves a stranger paying someone to be married to him or her on paper for the green card, in exchange for a sum of money. This is—and should be—illegal. But what Emir and I did fell into a gray area, which is what I told him when he at first rejected my marriage proposal. Emir was worried our marriage would be considered illegal in the eyes of the law. Paying me would make it so, I told him. But lucky for you, "my love don't cost a thing."

"L.A."—Elliot Smith

Part of the story deals with my loneliness my first year out of college, living in a strange new city, which happened to be L.A. I was only supposed to stay for four months and ended up staying two years. A lot ended up cut from the book about "the dark time" in L.A. I was twenty-two, obsessed with how to turn an affair with a successful director ten years my senior into an actual relationship (note to former self: you don't), and seeing, because of this director, some interesting, famous, and empty places for the first time, like his suite at the Chateau Marmont. I know I spent a lot of time with friends, Emir included, but I felt isolated, cut off from something, some part of life, but what exactly, I couldn't say. What I did know is that while jogging around the Hollywood Reservoir with Elliott Smith's song "L.A." playing on repeat, I knew someone else was like this, too, and for a moment, or at least three miles, I felt a little bit less alone.

"Can't Get You Out of My Head"—Kylie Minogue

This song played all the time at The Abbey and other gay bars Emir and I frequented around West Hollywood and, some months later, New York City. I just couldn't get it out of my head. It was a catchy, sunny sounding tune, but Kylie sings of "a dark secret in me"—which I had concealed beneath a poppy exterior, too.

"Viva Las Vegas"—Elvis Presley

The name of the chapel where Emir and I got married was taken from the 1964 musical movie featuring the song. The movie poster tagline reads, "It's That ‘Go-Go Guy And That ‘Bye Bye' Gal In The Fun Capital Of The World." That was us!


"All Shook Up," "Hound Dog," and/or "Blue Suede Shoes"—Elvis Presley

"I'm in love, I'm all shook up," was the cue for Emir and I to walk down the aisle. I always say we didn't have to fake anything about our marriage because we definitely lived up to our vows: Elvis asked us if we promised to walk each other's hound dogs and polish each other's blue suede shoes. Sure, no problem!

"Clandestino"—Manu Chao

Immigration is the central issue in The Marriage Actt. I love the way Manu Chao's video for "Clandestino" captures the emotion of something fundamental to the issue, the us vs. them of it. Undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. and work nonstop under inhumane conditions (see Underground America, Peter Orner's collection of oral histories). Their only crime is "working too hard," as one of that book's subjects puts it. My first job, the summer I was sixteen, was in the visa section of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, one of the world's largest. Seeing hopeful immigrants at the interview windows every day raised my awareness of the issue early on, of how much coming to the United States represented hope for a better life for so many people. They just wanted to work. Though Emir's situation was different in many ways, I can trace the root of my initial empathy to this cause. (Though I would have married him, cause or no cause.)

"I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing"—Pet Shop Boys

No, I wouldn't. But I had to.


"Why Don't We Live Together"—Pet Shop Boys

"If we dare, why don't we?"

There's a very weird real estate scene in the book, and this song reminds me of pretending to be a "traditional" couple for our broker while we were trying to rent a closet-sized, overpriced East Village apartment.

"Trapped in the Closet"—R. Kelly

This song is so ridiculous, there's a South Park episode about it! It was very controversial, causing "closetgate"—ie, Tom Cruise getting really pissed off.

The episode also implied some celebrities were gay and in the closet. The song itself is quite hetero: R. Kelly is literally inside a closet hiding from his lover's husband, who got home while he was still over. In The Marriage Act, Emir is closeted when it comes to his father, a prominent Middle Eastern businessman who in the book I call Mohammad. Mohammad comes to visit us rather unexpectedly in New York City, and so we have to take down a bunch of pictures and decorations in our apartment that point to Emir being gay: pictures from Pride marches, Absolutely Fabulous posters, Barbra Streisand collections, etc. I help him put it all in a box we shove into our only closet, underneath our five suitcases. We jokingly referred to it as the "gay box." Emir was also closeted, in a different way, by our marriage. He would have to pretend to the authorities that he was straight, because that's what would make it seem we were married "for real."

"Livin' La Vida Loca"—Ricky Martin

When Emir and I went to the INS, we were brought into an office that was entirely covered in Ricky Martin paraphernalia. "They're on to us," Emir muttered to me as we sat awaiting the officer who we were sure was going to bust us for marriage fraud. Yeah, I agreed. It was too perfect to be a coincidence. Though Ricky was still in the closet at this time, rumors had it he was gay. We should have known the INS doesn't deal in literary subtlety, but I won't ruin it for you by revealing how that scene played out.

"Over the Rainbow"—Judy Garland

Emir and I went through a dark time in 2003, the second year of our marriage. I deal with difficult things usually by trying something I want to do badly but don't think I can. I signed up for singing lessons. I brought a Tori Amos Boys For Pele piano book to my voice coach's Manhattan studio and told her I wanted to learn how to sing by singing the songs in this book. She gave me a now-now-dear type look and sheet music for "Over the Rainbow" and insisted I learn that first. It was an even harder song. Here is an outtake from the book in which I wrote about it:

She had me sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" over and over and over. Over and Over and Over the Rainbow. If I could master "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," she said, there would be no song I couldn't sing.

When I complained, she snapped, "Tori Amos covered it," and I conceded. I wasn't going to win with the voice teacher anyway.

I don't know how long I walked around singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The Judy Garland song. There was Liza again, chasing me down. I sang it under my breath on mail runs, I sang it in the shower, I sang it in my room—that's where you'll find me—and recorded myself, searching days of tape for signs of improvement. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Even Emir asked me to please stop singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Please keep it down in there! he would call out to my closed door. The voice teacher was wrong. To this day it's still the only song I can sing. Still the pitch doesn't sound right.

"Jenny From the Block"—J. Lo

2002—the year this song came out, the Bennifer year, the year the United States invaded Afghanistan, and the year Emir and I moved to New York for a fresh start.

While "Love Don't Cost a Thing" was our song, the new one reminded us to remember where we started from, no matter where our journey took us. "Jenny From The Block" had a campy, silly video that Ben Affleck said nearly ruined his career, and it will always remind me of the beginnings of mine, pushing a mail cart through the halls of the William Morris Agency, dreaming about becoming a writer like my bosses' clients, but with no idea of how to go about doing that. Emir was in the same situation; he wanted the same thing, and we were just young enough to have big dreams and dance around our apartment singing along to the fame-didn't-change-me tune.

"The End"—The Doors

The Divorce Chapter. I would listen to this song while signing the papers, but the story was far from over.

Liza Monroy and The Marriage Act links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Columbus Dispatch interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
New York Post profile of the author
Santa Cruz Sentinel profile of the author profile of the author

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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
weekly music release lists

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