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February 17, 2015

Book Notes - Monica Byrne "The Girl in the Road"

The Girl in the Road

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Monica Byrne's debut The Girl in the Road is a sharply written novel comprised of parallel narratives, one in the present and the other in the future, and has been lauded by Neil Gaiman and others.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The most inventive tale to come along in years. . . . The writing is often brilliant, as Byrne paints wholly believable pictures of worlds and cultures most Westerners will never know. . . . Engrossing and enjoyable."

Stream a playlist of these songs at YouTube and Spotify.


In her own words, here is Monica Byrne's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Girl in the Road:


"Michelle Johnson" by Meshell Ndegeocello

On page 1 of The Girl in the Road, Meena leaves home in a terrible hurry. This is her soundtrack, already self-justifying, making little admissions to herself ("Sometimes I love too much") and repeating to herself the line: "I'm just a soul on the planet. Imma try to do good, be good, feel good." She catches the express maglev train and then steps into the chaos of 2068 Mumbai, just in time for a terrorist attack. Meshell Ndegeocello's music was my guide in expressing Meena's beautiful, angry, sensual spirit.


"La Fête au Vilage" by Amadou & Mariam

Mariama also leaves home in a hurry. Her caravan heads to Senegal, whose music scene is heavily influenced by Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam. I hear this song as they pass through villages on their way to Dakar and Mariama watches children running and women carrying bundles on their heads by the road, amazed at how much bigger the world is than she ever knew.


"I Will Not Be Sad in this World" by Djivan Gasparyan

I listened to this song on repeat when first writing Meena's scenes on the Trail. The melancholy in this melody is overwhelming, which makes the title ironic; of course, that's also Meena's problem. She's deeply and irrevocably sad. But she doesn't express it in the ways people often recognize. Her sadness is active, reckless, and destructive. This stillness is what lies beneath.


"Fifa" by Angelique Kidjo

I heard this song in my head when writing the scene on page 82: "We were all quiet, all watching. The land was changing." Here, the wonder Mariama feels deepens even further as they cross into true Sahara and watch the sun rise over the dunes . . . and as she begins to imprint on Yemaya, the beautiful new stranger who joined their caravan in Dakar.


"Kajra Re" from Bunty Aur Babli, with Alisha Chinai, Shankar Mahadevan, and Javed Al Bunty

I listened to this song on repeat whenever I wanted to conjure Mohini, Meena's lover, who was a connoisseur of classic Bollywood movies. Of course, in 2068 "classic" means what's coming out now, including the film Bunty Aur Babli from 2005. (By the way, this music video illustrates both why Aishwarya Rai is one of the biggest stars on the planet and why I think India will set global pop culture in the next century. I mean . . . watch it. I just did again. Four times.)


"Afirika" by Angelique Kidjo

Out of all the Angelique Kidjo songs that Yemaya has on her sirius (a future smartphone), this is the song Mariama loves most. To her it symbolizes the new "family" that she's constructed around her, with Yemaya as her mother and Francis as her father. On page 136 they sing it out loud together on the way to Agadez and it puts everyone in a good mood.


"Suprabhatam," sung by M. S. Subbulakshmi

Meena sings this mantra to herself on page 101. To her it's less of an explicitly religious devotion—she calls herself "a nominal Hindu"—than it is about comforting herself with something familiar. Meena grew up with this recording, specifically, which her Hindu grandfather played every morning.


"Brown Is the Color of My True Love's Skin" by Sparlha Swa

On her Live from New York album, Swa talks about how when she was in Cuba, the land "gave" her songs directly. In my head, the connection made a few hops: from Cuba the country to the practitioners of Yorùbá religion there to the orisha Yemaya, goddess of the sea. Somehow this song always reminded me of my character Yemaya and her tortured soul-searching.


"Afralehu" by Teddy Afro

When I was in Ethiopia to do research in 2009, this was the inescapable single playing on every radio station in the country—in minibuses in Addis, in hotels in Debark, in storefronts in Gonder. I surmise that in 2026 it's an old pop classic, which is why Francis uses it to teach Amharic to Mariama on page 133: "Tey fit ateshigne, afralehu": "Don't turn your back, I am afraid." Though, here, "afraid" means something more like "shy" or "nervous." (I think Francis feels exactly that way about Yemaya!)


"Mary Magdalene" by Meshell Ndegeocello

This is one of Meena's love songs for Mohini. It's both tender and deeply problematic, as it exposes ways that Meena fetishizes Mohini in ways she's not entirely conscious of or responsible about: as a "Mary Magdalene" figure to whose beauty she is drawn and of whose body she is possessive. Tell me I'm the only one.


"Migoten Manyawkal" by Bezunesh Bekele

As an adult in Addis in 2040, Mariama goes to an Ethiopian jazz listening party hosted by her handsome new Indian friend Gabriel, who collects old jazz vinyls. He plays Bezunesh Bekele, a hero of the Ethiopian musical renaissance that flourished just before the Derg took power. This song plays while they eat pakoras and thali.

"Awara" by Kiran Ahluwalia

This is the song that Gabriel plays on page 288, hence the chapter title. I can't listen to it without crying now. To me it means how the world opens up in first love, and no matter how tragically it may end—"awara" means "fickle"—nights like that are eternal. See? I'm crying right now, writing this entry. Dammit.


"Hummer" by Smashing Pumpkins

This might seem a strange song to end this playlist. But sometimes inspiration is like that: totally oblique to the source material. I was driving home late one night and this song made me feel the exact feeling I wanted to capture when Mariama meets the woman she thinks is Yemaya, on page 300. As if everything in the world is put to right.


Monica Byrne and The Girl in the Road links:

the author's website

Duke Chronicle review
NPR Books review
PopMatters review
Raleigh News and Observer review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Wall Street Journal review

Independent Weekly profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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