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May 23, 2016

Book Notes - Jillian Keenan "Sex with Shakespeare"

Sex with Shakespeare

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jillian Keenan's Sex with Shakespeare is an insightful and fascinating memoir that examines the sexuality in the Bard's plays alongside the author's own life experiences.

The New Republic wrote of the book:

"Keenan is at her most confident. Her prose soars with a clarity of vision and purpose… Keenan writes a story of language and lust, and the pain of trying to get to that thing you want but you can’t quite put into words."


In her own words, here is Jillian Keenan's Book Notes music playlist for her book Sex with Shakespeare:



Music plays a central role in my writing process. I've often joked that the only difference between the times when I can't write at all and the times when words flow out of me so fast I can't keep up with them is whether I have a song addiction at the time. When I get addicted to a song, I overindulge. I put it on a repeat and listen to it over and over and over again—for days. For weeks, even. (Luckily, headphones spare people around me the tedium of my writing process.) Bingeing on music this way has a meditative effect on me: I slip into a state where it's very easy to focus on work. Before I know it, hours have passed and I have twenty new pages. It's glorious.

The downside, of course, is that if I don't have a song I'm obsessed with at the time, I'm out of luck. I stare at blank pages and drink too much wine. That is less glorious.

The songs in this playlist aren't necessarily songs that I binged while writing my bibliomemoir, Sex with Shakespeare, but some of them are. Others evoke the feelings or ideas that I wrestled with during my writing process, or are songs that I listened to a lot during the period of my life reflected in that chapter. But each is a song that I adore.


A Midsummer Night's Dream: Stand and Unfold
"Witton Woods" by 64 Stitches

Sex with Shakespeare is my love letter to the Shakespearean canon, and "Witton Woods" is a love song. It explores the consistency and reliability of love in a way that is almost idealistic: "No fear darling, I'm here." In most relationships, of course, it is impossible for all involved to be so constantly available. Even the best romances have moments of logistical or emotional disconnect.

With one exception: books. The relationships we build with the authors and characters we love are accessible in every moment, every mood, and every circumstance. In my first chapter, A Midsummer Night's Dream: Stand and Unfold, I find myself in the middle of an Omani desert and greatly in need of a friend. I find that friend in Shakespeare's Helena, who follows me wherever I go—even Oman. My relationship with her is every bit as rich, and as reliable, as the perfect one that "Witton Woods" imagines.


The Tempest: Were I Human
"Inside of Love" by Nada Surf

"Inside of Love" is a quite literal choice for The Tempest: Were I Human, but it matches the feelings of this chapter so well that I can't resist. This chapter describes my childhood and adolescence—a time when I longed to know love but felt certain that it would never be available to me. My non-normative sexual identity (which I did not recognize as such at the time, but rather thought was a "disgusting" mental illness) would make it impossible. By sixteen, I was certain.

Of course, I was wrong. But a lot of things would have to happen, and years would have to pass, before I realized it. I was standing way too close to the canvas to see the whole picture—a dilemma captured in the lyrics of this song.


The Winter's Tale: An Aspect More Favorable
"Buleria" by David Bisbal

This one is easy: "Buleria" by David Bisbal. In this chapter, I move to Spain and leap (or fall?) into an intense relationship with my first boyfriend, John. It was an extraordinary year in my life, and this song was its soundtrack. Everyone in Spain in early 2004 heard this song. To this day, when I hear it I am immediately transported.

But I chose this song for more than the sense memories it evokes. Its lyrics remind me of how the exhilarating freedom of Spain (and de-facto "adulthood") made me feel. Bisbal sings about the value of merely knowing that someone else exists, and that's how I felt in Spain. I was certain that I was deeply, hopelessly "fucked up"—but it was okay, because my boyfriend was too. The mere discovery that he existed—that I wasn't the only one after all—changed everything.


Romeo and Juliet: These Violent Delights
"Joga" by Bjork

The intensity of my first relationship deepens in this chapter, so the tone of my playlist also deepens, with Bjork's "Joga." The vocals are powerful, of course, but Joga's lyrics strike me most. They describe my relationship with John—its intimacy, and its silence—perfectly: "You don't have to speak / I feel."

There are times when, to me, pain speaks more intimately than language. John and I shared a language that speaks without words.


The Taming of the Shrew: Rough with Love
"Hurricane" by MS MR

Read the lyrics of this song. They say it all.


Hamlet: Nothing, My Lord
"Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan

This book deals with the sexual (and literary) experiences of people who deserve discretion. When they walked into my life, they had no idea that my memories and relationships with later show up in a book. So, of course, I protected their identities with pseudonyms. But I wanted to choose synonyms that would spark the same emotions and nostalgia as their real names. And when I had to choose a pseudonym for the second man I ever kissed, "Dylan" was a clear frontrunner.

The real Dylan is the person who first introduced me to Bob Dylan's music. (I was an eighteen-year-old who had never heard of Bob Dylan—I know, I know. I promise, I am appropriately ashamed about this.) I listened to "Shelter from the Storm" so relentlessly that year that it will always, I suspect, remind me of "Dylan." Using the musician's surname as a pseudonym for the man I knew gave me the same emotions when I wrote about him as using "Dylan"'s real name would have. It's a credit to the real Dylan that this timeless music still reminds me of him, even a decade after he first played it for me.


Twelfth Night: What Should I Do
"Ma Sar" by Haifa Wehbe

My Arabic is terrible, so I don't understand all the lyrics in Haifa Wehbe's "Ma Sar." But it doesn't matter! The tune alone is enough to transport me back to Oman, where a dear friend first introduced me to this song. The tune is tinged with enough pathos to reflect the anxiety and confusion of earlier chapters, but hints at the positive changes that are to come.


Love's Labor's Lost: Wonder of the World
"Umbrella" by Rihanna

David is going to hate this one, but facts are facts: Rihanna's "Umbrella" dominated the airwaves in 2007, the year that he and I met. The song was so inescapable that I suggested to David that it be "our" song. (I was only half-joking.) He refused, and to this day we don't have a song. Nevertheless, I will always associate this song with the early months of my relationship with David—and, now, with this playlist.


Antony and Cleopatra: Here Is My Space
"Midnight" by Coldplay

I listened to "Midnight" by Coldplay more than any other song while writing Sex with Shakespeare. When I listen to it now, I understand why I so effectively pushes me into the meditative, trance-like state that is best for my writing: it is rhythmic, repetitive, and inoffensive.

It pairs well with my Antony and Cleopatra chapter precisely because it so predictably dark. Repression and violence are like that, too: repetitive cycles that we see, but often cannot break.


Macbeth: Double, Double
"Sound of Violence" by Dennis de Laat

I picked "Sound of Violence" by Dennia de Laat for my Macbeth chapter because, to me, it sounds endemically urban. I can imagine this song playing at a club or a restaurant—in any of the places, really, that come to mind when I recall the year I lived in Singapore.

But this song also feels hesitant, like it is on the brink of something important. Perfect.


King Lear: Speak
"Great Headless Blank" by Makeunder

King Lear—both the play by William Shakespeare and its chapter in my book—are heavy with rage, fear, guilt, and grief. The thought of tying this anchor to a song feels more than difficult: it feels cruel. How dare I burden someone else's art with the heaviest and most controversial part of my book?

"Great Headless Blank" can bear the weight. This song is like Shakespeare: it challenges me. And the more I start to untangle its complexity, the more I realize how little I truly understand it. "Great Headless Blank" captures the banality of violence, which I tried to illustrate in King Lear, better than any song I've heard in recent memory. I describe some songs as "inoffensive," which is a good and necessary thing at times. But "Great Headless Blank" is proudly, aggressively on the offensive. It transformed my preconceived notions of what music can be.


Othello: Beast with Two Backs
"Ojalá" by Silvio Rodríguez

The time in my life I describe in my Othello chapter was a very reflective one. I spent much of that year on airplanes—and a lot of time alone—and listened to music during all of it. More often than not, I was listening to "Ojalá" by Silvio Rodríguez.

This song isn't what you'd expect. If you only listen to the tune (or don't speak Spanish), "Ojalá" sounds like it might be a love song. But things aren't always what they seem to be. Its lyrics betray the pain, longing, and disappointment that spill past the edges of this song. If I had to choose an all-time favorite piece of music, "Ojalá" (which, roughly translated, is Spanish for "hopefully") would be it. It comforts me to pair it with a chapter in which I am ashamed of my own behavior.


Cymbeline: What We May Be
"Interlude [YUNGFWAYGO]" by Afros and Hair Picks

"Interlude" by Afros and Hair Picks is all wrong. This song stutters, coughs, and transforms itself so often that I struggle to keep up with it. It sounds like something breaking down.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. In my Cymbeline chapter, something breaks down—and in its place, something better starts to grow. Its final lyric—"let's just stop and think"—could be the motto for this chapter.


As You Like It: What You Will
"Chalomot Shel Acherim" by The Idan Raichel Project

Real stories never have perfect endings, but they can come damn close. The tone of "Chalomot Shel Acherim" (which means "Other People's Dreams"), by The Idan Raichel Project, reflects this balanced joy. It is upbeat and optimistic, but not idealistically so. And its lyrics stun me—particularly the message that life, even at its most challenging, is not to be avoided, but embraced.

It is, as the song says, "better to run to the fire."

Or just light the match yourself.


Jillian Keenan and Sex with Shakespeare links:

the author's website
the book's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
National Post review
New Republic review
New York Times review

Bust interview with the author
Longreads interview with the author
Quartz profile of the author
Refinery29 interview with the author
The Toast interview with the author
Vogue profile of the author
Washington Post profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

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)
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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