June 9, 2014
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.
Cristina Henriquez strikingly captures the American immigrant experience in The Book of Unknown Americans, an exquisitely written novel of hope and heartbreak.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Each scene, voice, misunderstanding, and alliance is beautifully realized and brimming with feeling in the acclaimed Henríquez's compassionately imagined, gently comedic, and profoundly wrenching novel of big dreams and crushing reality, courageous love and unfathomable heartbreak."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My father loves music. When I was young, every Sunday after church, he would turn on the stereo in the living room, raising the volume loud enough that it could be heard from anywhere in the house. He would take my mother's hand sometimes and pull her away from the stove where usually she was making grilled cheese sandwiches, and he would dance with her for a few beats while she held a spatula in her hand. His cheeks would flush with pleasure.
My father came to the United States in 1971. He came from Panama, a place where there was always music playing – from a radio on the windowsill, from a neighbor's car on the street, from the television set. Back then, he was a skinny college student with wavy black hair, and he was in love with The Beatles. He couldn't afford to buy their albums, but he had a friend – an immigrant from England – who owned the LPs, and my father dubbed them onto cassette tapes, writing the song titles on blank paper inserts that he snuggled inside the plastic covers, writing the album titles on sticker labels that he affixed to the outside spine. When I was in high school, he gave me all those tapes. The papers are yellowed and the labels are curling around the edges, but my father's handwriting – his blocky capital letters – is still clear, and the tapes, amazingly, still play.
Because of him, The Beatles song "Here Comes the Sun" appears in this novel.
Even so, it's not that song, but the White Album that most reminds me of my father. He used to play it when we were growing up. Every song on it takes me back to the living room of our split-level house in Covington, Virginia with its burnt orange velvet couch and its floor vase that held wispy peacock feathers, to my brother and me running wildly over the carpet, screaming, "Hey, Bungalow Bill!" I remember my father tidying the house while we whooped it up. I remember him shuffling papers or reorganizing a drawer. The grind of daily life here was always with him, but the music was a raft, something that helped buoy him. It was also, I see now, a thread that connected him to Panama. The presence of music at all, the hum of it in the house, was for him a way of importing the atmosphere of the country he loved. It was a way of filling his soul.
My father came to the United States in 1971. I've been going to Panama since 1978. One thing I can say: In Panama there is always a party. Birthday parties, baptism parties, independence day parties, parties for no reason at all. Elaborately iced cakes, Styrofoam coolers full of ice, bottles of liquor lined up on the kitchen counter, trays of empanadas, the scents of perfume and of cologne, women wearing gold jewelry and silk tops, men wearing guayaberas and tasseled loafers, people spilling onto the patio, laughter, so much laughter. And at every party – every single party without fail – someone puts on music by the great Panamanian artist Ruben Blades.
One of my favorite scenes in the novel is a party. All the neighbors get together on Christmas morning and try to stay warm, drinking alcohol and hot chocolate. They're boisterous and jubilant, and at one point everyone breaks out into an impromptu roll-call of their countries of origin. It's an oblique nod to the Ruben Blades song "Plástico," from the album Siembra, a song so well-known among Latinos that, right away, all of the characters are in on the joke. In the book, the song is never named, but my father, when he reads that scene for the first time, will recognize the song that inspired it. It's there because of him.
My father came to the United States in 1971. He inspired this book. Over the course of the novel I wanted to tell, if not his story exactly, then stories like it. I wanted to celebrate the stories of ordinary people coming to the United States for every reason. I wanted to celebrate my father. But inspiration, I learned, can't be contained. It goes where it wants. I thought his inspiration was limited to his story of immigrating, but my father, it turns out, is everywhere in the book, including in the music.
The Beatles and Ruben Blades. That's my playlist for this novel.
The equation is simple. This novel = my father. The Beatles and Ruben Blades, for me = my father. Therefore, This novel = The Beatles and Ruben Blades.
Even now, when I call home and my father answers the phone, there's often music on in the background. Even now, I think music for him is a way to uncover a sense memory of joy that he associates with the country he left long ago – the joy of being in a place where you feel understood, a place where you don't have to wonder whether you belong. He finds that place in the music. For me, I find him in the music, his ineffable presence – the smell of his aftershave, the full, round sound of his laugh, the way his mustache covers his top lip when he smiles.
Cristina Henriquez and The Book of Unknown Americans links:
Chicago Magazine profile of the author
Chicago Tribune profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Come Together, Fall Apart
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The World in Half
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists