September 30, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lenore Myka's short story collection King of the Gypsies, winner of the 2014 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, is an impressive debut.
Booklist wite of the collection:
"Linked by quests for identity, Myka's 11 tales effectively capture those moments in life when we find ourselves frozen at the edge of a cliff."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
A lot goes into a book besides the actual writing. Since I began writing King of the Gypsies more than a decade after being a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania (where most of the stories are set), I needed to refresh my aging memory of the place and its people. I read old (embarrassing) journals and letters, dusted off gifts from students and friends, thumbed through photos, researched Eastern European current events. I also came upon a box of cassette tapes, many of which were bootlegs purchased in Romania, or were mixed tapes (remember those?) sent to me by loved ones.
I've heard smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, but for me and this project it was sound. Those cassettes were my soundtrack to life in Romania, and they subsequently became the soundtrack to my story collection. While I didn't listen to them when writing, I did frequently when I wasn't. Some of these songs ended up in the stories; others were simply inspiration. Here's a short list:
"Be My Lover" by La Bouche and "Macarena" by Los del Rio: In "Rol Dobos," "Be My Lover" plays in the café where most of the story takes place. At one point Irina, the main character, thumps her feet to the beat. All of these pop and disco songs were played ad nauseam in Romania in the early to mid-nineties—on the streets, in restaurants, at parties, on Euro MTV—usually loudly and through the distorted speakers of some boom box imported from South Korea. I cannot remember a single party where I wasn't dragged off of a couch to dance the "Macarena," usually in the tiny space of the living room of a one-bedroom apartment. Romanians loved to dance and danced to these songs joyously, un-ironically, in the same unabashed way that the character Gabriela does at the stuffy D.C. cocktail party in "National Cherry Blossom Day." I miss this aspect of Romanian culture. When was the last time you went to a dinner party in the United States and ended the night dancing in someone's living room to ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me"? Don't you wish you could?
"Cotton-Eyed Joe" by Rednex: Much like the previous songs, "Cotton-Eyed Joe" was a staple of Romanian discos, bars, parties, and, it would appear, impromptu square dances. During my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, my students begged me to teach them how to square dance and wanted to do it to the bass-thumping disco version of the bluegrass original "Cotton-Eyed Joe." The problem was that the last time I had square danced was in second grade gym class. Computers, much less the Internet hardly yet existed in Romania circa 1995, making a quick Google search out of the question. I tried to recall what I knew and came up with the following: bow to your partner and your corner; do-si-do; swing your partner round n' round; promenade. My first and last stab at choreography: Elena Ghiba Birta High School's holiday show. Though there's no square dancing in "Lessons in Romanian," this memory was not far from my mind when I wrote that story.
"The Sweater Song" by Weezer: I was an alternative music fan in college, thriving mostly on indie bands out of Canada (Lowest of the Low, anyone? Northern Pikes? Blue Rodeo? Oh, never mind…). But once in Romania, I relied on the generosity of friends and family back home to send me current music. Mixed tapes were better than peanut butter resupplies; I wore them down listening over and over and over again. My best friend from college sent me my favorite mix, one that included Weezer's "The Sweater Song," which I imagine Stella from "Manna from Heaven" listening to while she does her laundry. Romanians in the 90s hand-washed, which resulted in stiff fabric, muted colors, and sweaters stretched to XXXL sizes.
"Numb" by Portishead: After his return to Great Britain, a friend I made while in Romania sent me Portishead's "Dummy." I listened to it in my gloomier, more pessimistic moments, usually with a glass of cheap red wine. The main character in "Lessons in Romanian" might've listened to "Numb" while smoking her evening cigarette and drinking her suc de concentrat, feeling dark and sinister.
"Philadelphia Story" by The Wild Colonials: One of my older brothers, long a supplier of my music collection, sent me The Wild Colonials "Fruit of Life" while I was overseas. I cannot listen to "Philadelphia Story" today without being transported back to my old apartment in Arad, Romania, the one with the wrought iron bannister and the bench outside the kitchen window that overlooked the garden courtyard below. It's a song of love lost and found, and might ring true for the narrator of "Tutors," who is on the cusp of leaving Romania, returning to a home that has forever been altered by the death of her grandfather, a man that was, in a way, the love of her life. Rather than sinister and dark, this song evokes in me melancholy and hope, if both can stand side by side.
"Țara te vreau prost," by Sarmalele Reci: What would a short story collection inspired by Romania be without some Romanian rock 'n' roll? Wanting to absorb the culture in which I lived, I bought the debut album by the band, "Sarmalele Reci" ("cold cabbage rolls"). "Țara te vreau prost" ("The country wants you, stupid") is the title song. A punk-pop-rock mish-mosh, the album consists of punchy tunes with rough vocals, a lot of guitar jamming and the occasional accordion. Whether their lyrics explicitly state it or not, the music from this album seemed to me to capture a weariness and disaffection among younger generations of Romanians who perhaps expected more from a their new capitalist free market. I could well imagine Stefan of "Wood Houses" plugging in earphones to block out the world, Sarmalele Reci blasting in his ears.
Ion Pop and the traditional Romanian folk music of Maramureș: Readers cannot help but wonder how much truth exists in a work of fiction. Little of what appears on the pages of King of the Gypsies is fact; most of what I wrote was written over a decade after I'd lived in Romania and was born from my memory and imagination. But the story "Song of Sleep" does capture some truth: while there I did meet a British fiddler named Lucy (in the story Lucy is from the States), who had married a Romanian peasant and was making her home in Maramureș. Friends and I stayed with a musician famous in the region, a man named Ion Pop who, when he wasn't plying us with beer and țuică (Romanian diesel fuel made from plums), would entertain us with his guitar or his zongora (what looks like a guitar but consists, most often, of three to five strings the musician manipulates to strange, sometimes haunting effect). His wife sang; Lucy, a friend of theirs who had formed a band with Ion, played fiddle.
Theirs was the music of the past, a past that people both romanticized and resisted. It was music apt for the still agrarian and traditional lifestyle of the region. While staying with Ion we attended an Orthodox Easter service, rising at four a.m. to get to the church where the women among us sat in the back, behind the men, kneeling for four hours on the cold cement floor. It was common in this region to light a house with candles, cook over a fire, harvest crops by hand with a scythe. The bathroom was an outhouse. I wonder how much it has changed since we were there nearly twenty years ago now; I wonder how much longer it can remain as deeply connected to the past as it was then.
The music of Maramureș is infused with Celtic sounds but is uniquely by and of the Romanian people, both ecstatically happy and deeply mournful. The singing is pitchy and variable; sometimes singers simply shout out the lyrics, calling and responding to each other. Inevitably dancing ensues, footsteps and stomping used to keep rhythm along with the drum. One can well imagine bumping along in the back of a horse-drawn cart through the hills of Maramureș, this music as an accompaniment.
Lenore Myka and King of the Gypsies links:
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
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