October 13, 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.
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Amina Gautier's short story collection Now We Will Be Happy is a vivid examination of Puerto Rican identity.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Gautier's linked stories deftly capture her characters' internal struggles for identity and home."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
There are many who view songs as poems that have simply been set to music. While I don't dispute that viewpoint, when I listen to a song, what I hear is not a poem, but a short story. In music and in song, I hear narrative; I hear plot; I hear dramatic action, conflict, and resolution. That is to say, I hear story. If there were no such thing as music, I could not exist as a writer. Music is vital to my life as a writer and to the material I create. With my diction and syntax choices, I build my sentences and paragraphs to have lyrical components and rhythmic aspects so that there is music to them when they are read aloud. Just as cigarettes were used in post-World War II Germany as an alternate form of currency when the Reichsmark was devalued, so too did music serve as something like an alternate form of currency in my world (Reagan Era New York City) when I was a young girl. As a young girl growing up in predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn during the eighties and nineties, music was the key to enter the world of grown-ups and be taken seriously. All of the adults I knew delighted in making children sing, dance and perform the crowd's favorite songs when company would come over. Learning, knowing and appreciating the songs the adults knew and revered would take a child who was meant to be seen and not heard and give that child an audience. Of course there were other ways of getting attention such as throwing tantrums, acting out, getting into trouble etc., but displaying one's musical knowledge garnered attention for the right reasons. In my world, music was frequently the bridge that allowed children to cross over into adult company, and when the soul songs of the seventies became remixed into the hip hop songs of the eighties and nineties, music became a translatable language, one dexterous and flexible enough to speak across generations. Given this background, it can be no wonder that I so frequently write about characters in relation to the music they hear and/or love and the songs that define them. This is true of many of my stories, but especially true of my newest collection Now We Will Be Happy, a short story collection whose very title is derived from a song. Songs are prominently featured in many of the stories in this collection. Just as the content of Now We Will Be Happy describes the experiences of native Puerto Ricans, Nuyoricans and Afro-Puerto Ricans, the music alluded to in the various stories also reflect this combination. Within the collection I make references to African American soul music group Earth Wind and Fire, African American R&B/pop group Destiny's Child, old school hip hop artists Run DMC and Big Daddy Kane, as well as iconic Puerto Rican singers, composers and musicians such as Rafael Hernandez, Tito Puente, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Tito Nieves, Marc Anthony, and La India. Now We Will Be Happy depicts moments of diegetic sound, where characters turn on stereos, play records, or listen to bands and dee-jays and the music becomes part of the narrative world. Here is what the characters and I are listening to:
"Now We Will Be Happy" by Rafael Hernandez (El Jibarito)
The title story takes its name from Rafael Hernandez's song"Ahora seremos felices," which translates into English as"now we will be happy." Hernandez was an important Puerto Rican composer, who is deeply revered in Puerto Rican culture. This song is a lovely bolero of his; to my ears it is a hopeful song. There aren't too many lyrics and verses, but there is hope in each word. To me, the song has a fanciful quality, whose essence I tried to capture in the content of my story. In the title story"Now We Will Be Happy," we see a couple comprised of two complete opposites—a young married woman with an abusive husband, and an older bachelor and retired veteran who is the most gentle person she's ever met. Despite the danger their relationship invites, they are each hopeful about the other and in the story they use their hopefulness to transform simple moments into significant ones.
“Nadie Como Ella" by Marc Anthony
This is one of my favorite salsas. It's a beautiful song about a woman who is unique. In the song, the singer states that there is"nadie como ella," nobody like her. The singer says he will give his life for her and that she has made him believe in love again. In my story"The Luckiest Man in the World," the adults are playing this song in the living room, while two kids are playing"doctor" in a back bedroom (don't worry, they keep their clothes on and don't actually have sex). The song mirrors the narrator's feelings for Yali, a girl who he has adored all of his young life and who he secretly thinks is one of a kind.
“Somebody's Watching Me" by Rockwell
In 1984, Berry Gordy's son Rockwell released this song on his father's Motown label. It's famous for Michael Jackson's hard-to-ignore voice on the chorus singing"I always feel like somebody's watching me." The song had a creepy video full with lots of floating heads, and stuffed animal heads watching a paranoid Rockwell. In"Muñeca," Rosa's husband Pedro's paranoia at constantly being under the surveillance of his wife's parents makes it hard for him to breathe in his in-law's home (where he and his wife are forced to live) and eventually fuels his growing abusiveness.
“Real American" by the World Wide Wrestling Federation
In 1985 the WWWF produced a Wrestling Album. There is of course, no more WWWF. It morphed into the WWF and then the WWE. But back when it was the WWWF, the wrestlers took time out from their busy schedules of suplexes, body-slams, pile-drivers, and figure four leglocks to make videos. The song"Real American" appears on the album and later aired as Hulk Hogan's theme song. All the young Hulk-a-maniacs (of which I was one) knew the song and its accompanying video featuring Hulk Hogan playing an American flag guitar while iconic American images, such as pictures of JFK, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Native Americans, cowboys, astronauts landing on the moon, Martin Luther King, Coney Island, the St. Louis Arch, Mount Rushmore, and the Washington Monument all appear in succession."Real American" depicted Hulk Hogan in all types of ‘real American' poses and is the song I was thinking of when I described Nelida Torres watching WWWF wrestling with her young grandson in my story"Bodega." It is unthinkable that they would not have encountered this song and video during one of their many viewings. I also had"Real American" in mind because Puerto Ricans are not immigrants, but US citizens and Americans at birth, since Puerto Rico is a US territory and commonwealth, which makes a Puerto Rican as much of a"Real American" as any other natural born American.
“Aguanile" by Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon (later covered by Marc Anthony in El Cantante)
I simply, purely, love this song. Obviously, right? I wrote about it. There was a period of time when I was in graduate school earning my Ph.D. in literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where fellow grad school friends and I would go salsa dancing several nights per week in Philadelphia. For about five years—from 1999-2004—I went salsa dancing some four nights a week (Wednesday through Sunday). Despite the various clubs, certain songs never escaped rotation. Every week I heard Celia Cruz's"Carnaval" and Elvis Crespo's"Suavemente." Every night, I heard"Aguanile." Each evening, it was inevitable that some dee-jay would feel the need to play this song before the night could end. The clubs I went to were mostly populated by Puerto Ricans with a few Dominicans and Colombians thrown in, so the dee-jays knew which musicians to play to please the crowd. It was the same whenever I went home to New York; I couldn't go salsa dancing one single night without hearing the dee-jay play"Aguanile." heard this song for so many years every time I went salsa dancing in Philadelphia or New York with friends or relative that it became part of me, haunted me with its Santeria chants, transported me to jungles and plains; its Yoruba words flew me back to Africa and the root of all things. Whenever the song is played in a club, it becomes clear without fail who the real salseros are in the room. It has a faster beat than the typical salsa and you have to keep up in order to dance it. It's a fast song, meant for spins and whirls, and dizziness. It's hard for some; many trip, cross their feet over themselves and stumble. In"Aguanile," you move from the slow call of nature in the beginning (Elephants! Birds!) to this awesome frenzy that comes from a place you don't know that then lodges itself in your chest and sweats itself out through your pores. Every time I hear that song, I love it more. I love both the Hector Lavoe and Marc Anthony versions. I don't know how a song can be so serene and frenzied at the same time.
Amina Gautier and Now We Will Be Happy links:
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