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September 16, 2016

Book Notes - Laia Jufresa "Umami"


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.

Laia Jufresa's dark, funny, and poignant debut novel Umami smartly explores themes of grief, family, and community.

Vogue UK wrote of the book:

"The debut novel of Mexican-born Laia Jufresa is a darkly humorous tale about five neighbors living in the heart of Mexico City. Taking place during a hot rainy summer, Jufresa's evocative portrait of contemporary Mexico lends whimsy with poignancy. Guaranteed to challenge and move you."

In her own words, here is Laia Jufresa's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Umami:

translated by Sophie Hughes

"Rolandskvadet" - Trio Medieval

My main focus when I started working on Umami was to construct a believable polyphony. The novel is told by five different voices. It probably makes sense then (although I didn’t think of it in these terms back then) that the CD I listened to most during those years was “Folk Songs” by Trio Medieval. After the book was done, I couldn’t listen to it for months. But when I started in on another project, it quickly became my daily ritual again. This particular song (the only one I could find on Spotify) feels like a sort of call to war, others in the CD seem like a soothing meditation. Both work for me. Just like other writers light a candle or pour themselves a whisky, I play this CD to signal to my body that it’s time to sit still, and to my mind that it’s time go wild.

"Chamarrita de una bailanta" - Soledad Villamil

…And then sometimes, on the contrary, you need something that gets you up from the chair for a much needed dancing-singing break. I play this one (a cover of Alfredo Zitarrosa’s song) pretty regularly for those moments.

"Extraordinary Machine" - Fiona Apple

I´m not the kind of writer that plans plots or maps out things. I just write until I find a tone, the right voice, and then I follow it to where it may lead me. (And then, of course, I spend tons of time rewriting). Not very efficient perhaps, but the one method that feels authentic and actually works for me. This means that for long stretches of time I have to get comfortable with having no clue as to where I’m headed. It’s a bit like driving at night, seeing only the small portion of the road that’s right in front of you, trusting that the rest of the road is there and viable. But sometimes I can’t get comfortable, I’d like to know more, take decisions, have an answer for people who ask what I’m working on… This song has sometimes helped me to calm back down and trust on those parts of the process. “If there was a better way to go then it would find me.”

"La prietita clara" - Amparo Ochoa

This song, written by my father, Jorge Jufresa, takes the form of a traditional ‘son' — a kind of Mexican folk music that varies by region. There are many versions, but Ochoa’s is the classical one. I’ve known it long before I understood it, and I still probably break into song with it more often than any other song. Moreover, the fact that I feel utterly unable to translate even a bit of the lyrics is perhaps a testament of how well my father writes, and how his style deeply influenced me in ways I often forget about but that I can trace clearly when I try to: the free mix of colloquial and high-flown languages, the licenses with the diminutives in certain serious phrases, etcetera. In a way, because he sang them every night since I can remember, his songs have been an earlier influence on my use of words than books, and for it I am deeply grateful.

"Al vent" - Raimon

Half of my family spoke catalan as I was growing up, a language I didn’t understand until I learned French years later. It was quite frustrating. Songs, however, I could learn without fully understanding the lyrics. My aunt (a tall, outspoken, red headed actress) would sing this song very loudly when driving her WW truck, the wind (“el vent”) blowing in hard through the open windows. That VW truck, that free spirit, that willingness to literally drive yourself away to a new life, all made it to Umami, in different ways.

"Chilanga banda" - Café Tacvba

I’d be surprised to find any Mexican artist from my generation who doesn’t feel at least tangentially in debt towards Café Tacuba. A strong, eclectic, highly original band that taught us a lot about creative freedom and our right to mix local influences with whatever else may tickle our fancy… Or at least that’s the lesson I always took from them. This song (a cover from the also great songwriter Jaime López) features two things that relate to Umami: wordplay (notice how all words feature the sound “ch”) and a look at “chilangos,” inhabitants of Mexican City, which almost everyone in the novel is.

"Hu Hu Hu" - Natalia Lafourcade and Julieta Venegas

I knew Natalia growing up, her mother was my beloved piano teacher, and I have since followed her career with much admiration. Here she pairs up with Julieta Venegas, another singer that has grown up in the public eye, along her way giving thousands of girls the feeling they too have a right to a voice, in a country where women are still systematically silenced.

But besides the singers, something on the lyrics of this song (“I want to gift you an extra hour to breath… flowers, books that trap you… I want to gift you a garden.. I want to make up words…) has always made me think of Ana’s spirit. Ana is the first narrator in Umami, she is recovering from her little sister’s death (this isn’t a spoiler, you’ll learn that in the first pages) and decides to plant a vegetable garden in her back yard, which sets the novel in motion.

"Magpie to the Morning" - Neko Case

Because of the chronological structure of Umami, which flows backwards, Luz gets a voice in the novel, during the summer she dies. She is five years old and lives in a whimsical world that is half made-up, half totally alert of her surroundings. I cannot explain why this song relates to her without giving the end of the book away, which I won’t because I’d like to believe you may be tempted to read it!

"Know the Wild That Wants You" - Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop

I didn’t know this song when writing Umami, I just recently discovered it, but it makes me think of Pina, Umami’s fourth narrator. An only child, her mother left her when she was 9, leaving behind only a letter which Pina’s father decided to hide. On the one hand, her mother was never much of a stable or reassuring figure, so Pina has long learnt to take care of herself (“Heal yourself, heal yourself”), but on the other hand she’s always hoping her mom will come back (“And come home, and come home”).

"All I Want" - Joni Mitchell

Pina’s mother, Chela, actually makes an appearance in the book. In a simplified view, Chela is the immature parent that left, but some of the characters manage to feel empathy towards her. Specially Marina, the third narrator, who —perhaps because she’s 20 years younger— identifies with Chela’s confusion and sense of quest. Marina wants to finally settle down, grow up, while Chela is always on the road. They’re both permanently looking for themselves through men. Through the book Marina’s admiration transforms into contempt, then determination… They’re both sometimes selfish, sometimes brave. This song makes me think of them.

"Do You Remember" - Ane Brun (Official Video HD)

When you’re deep into a project, there is this byproduct, an ongoing delirium where everything around you seems to relate to whatever you’re writing. I remember stumbling upon this song’s video while writing Alfonso’s voice for Umami, and thinking the man in the video was him. He’s sleeping, then a group of drummers and a chorus of young women drug him and he’s transported to the seashore, becoming by moments his younger, former self. At the end of the video he’s alone at a foggy beach, his arms held high by a bunch of colorful balloons (which I take to be his memories). Alfonso, we learn early in the book, has recently lost his wife and he spends the whole book trying to reconstruct her through writing. Readers and reviewers continually rank him as their favorite voice, and ironically, it was the easiest one to write. That was a magical time for me, not unlike being drugged by some good demons and having his stories poured into my ears. You may not believe in muses and think I’m exaggerating, but just watch the video, it was all a bit like that.

"Je me suis fait tout petit" - Georges Brassens

Reminds me of Alfonso as well. He often muses about how much Noelia, his late wife, influenced and ultimately transformed him during their 30 years of marriage. This song is about that kind of transformation, but it’s also about a man “shrinking in the face of a doll” (inside joke for those who’ve read Umami). Alfonso also holds a PhD in food anthropology, is the founder of the mews where all the characters live and, in a sense, the only intellectual of the whole bunch. So it fits him well to have the one song in French.

"Open Up the Window, Noah" - Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge

One of the difficulties of writing Umami was that every time you read a chapter by Luz, you already know she’s about to die. This provided a sort of suspense that I wanted to use but not abuse. For me — and totally ignoring any biblical connecitons — this song relates to that feeling I wanted to create for those chapters: of knowing the worst is coming yet making space for more subtle, luminous things, and actually enjoying them.

"Los chiles verdes" - Jordi Savall and Ensamble Continuo

I love anything by Jordi Savall and anything by Ensamble Continúo, and was thrilled that they did a CD together. It is full of beautiful songs but I’m picking this one because, just like Umami, it takes elements of traditional Mexican food to tell a story.

"Feeling Good" - Nina Simone

This song should be in any playlist in the world as far as I’m concerned. But I’m also putting it here because the year I wrote Umami I had a grant, and often, after reading chapters in a workshop, the male participants would argue that Ana sounded too mature for her age. The female participants didn’t agree, and this spiked debates that I mainly observed silently because you’re not supposed to talk on those occasions. However, I remember going back home from one of those workshops and stumbling upon a Youtube video of a 13 year old girl singing a spectacular rendition of Feeling Good on American Idol or something like that. Even the mean judges agreed she had to be an old soul. And I remember feeling like: “See? You have no idea what a 13 year old girl may hold inside”.

"Duerme, negrito" - Mercedes Sosa

Umami is, amidst other things, a novel about motherhood, offspringhood (that’s one of many made up words you’ll find in the book and which the great Sophie Hughes managed to translate so gracefully), and the debate between remaining only-a-daughter or also becoming a mother. This traditional lullaby is unique in that it manages to paint a more interesting and complex view of motherhood while still remaining simple and lovely. In it a tired, hard working mom is torn between lovingly putting the baby to bed, menacing with monsters if he doesn’t fall asleep promptly, and going back to her underpaid work so she can provide for him… all put into one single tune with infinite tenderness.

"Hard Times" - Gillian Welch

I had to include one song by Welch because it’s probably the singer I listen to most. This one I love and it has to it, at least for me, a bit of the spirit of Umami: the sadness of the past, the brightness of deciding to move on.

"Canción de las simples cosas" - Buika and Chucho Valdés

BUT, if I had to put the whole novel —particularly the mix of crying and laughter that readers continue to report and that, naturally, makes me weep from joy— I’d go with this one. Many singers have recorded this short, beautiful piece. The original authors are Armando Tejada Gómez and César Isella. Buika’s is my favorite version. I can’t, at least for today, think of another song that sums up Umami —its many absences, the whole dance between daily life and grief and renewal — as powerfully as this one. Here’s my unprofessional translation of the lyrics for you:

We say goodbye, insensibly, to the simple things
Just like a tree in autumn dies by its leaves

At the end, sadness is the slow death of the simple things
Those simple things that remain aching in the heart

We always come back to the old places where we once loved life
Only to understand how absent our loved things are

So don’t leave now, girl, dreaming about the day you’ll come back
For love is simple and the simple things get devoured by time

Stay a bit longer here, under the brightest light of this midday
Where you will find, with the bread under the sun, the table all set up

Laia Jufresa and Umami links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

The Rumpus review

BOMB interview with the author
Brazos Bookstore interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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