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September 18, 2017

Book Notes - Ariel Gore "We Were Witches"

We Were Witches

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.

Ariel Gore's novel We Were Witches is inventive and profound.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Gore's magic-infused narrative. . . .is a moving account of a young writer and mother striving to claim her own agency and find her voice."

In her own words, here is Ariel Gore's Book Notes music playlist for her novel We Were Witches:

A friend of mine called We Were Witches: a "90s revivalist novel." I'll take that. It's a based-on-a-true-story tale of a queer teen mom trying to make her way in a violent, misogynist world and discovering—through magical feminism—not only the secrets to survival, but the secrets to happy failure & the imperfectly divine supernatural superpowers needed to kick oppressor-ass.

"Cosma Shiva" - Nina Hagen
I was living in Italy and seven months pregnant with my daughter, Maia, when the Berlin wall came down. I wanted to go there, but it was wintertime and I had laundry to do. I put on Nunsexmonkrock instead. The mother of German punk, Nina Hagen was in every way my first mama-artist idol. She was like, I can't even hear your tired old ethics over my synthesizer! So what if I was impregnated by aliens! I'm bringing the baby to the recording studio, and if it means we need a new aesthetic in art and music--one in which you can hear the baby gurgling or screaming right through the middle of it—so be it! Years later, I gave my son the middle name Cosmo after Cosma Shiva, the complete merging of art, family, life, and the universe.

"Blacks Boys on Mopeds" - Sinead O'Connor
This beautiful bipolar girl who I went to college with turned me onto Sinead O'Connor in 1990. She tossed the cassette tape onto the table in the cafeteria where she shared her lunch with baby Maia and me—shared because only the kids who lived on campus could eat there for free and students like me with babies couldn't live on campus—anyway, my friend said, "You'll like her. She has a baby." And it was in part that Sinead O'Connor had a baby that made that album so influential, changing the way I understood art, and the way I understood what was allowed in mainstream art. I was coming out of Beijing and London myself, having misspent my youth traveling broke and political, and here Sinead O'Connor was singing about protest and poverty and racism and motherhood—things I'd maybe never heard on a mainstream album. And the subtext was Sinead O'Connor saying, You can be an artist and mother and tell the truth about the world as you see it. I mean, sure, she warned that it wouldn't get us any love. But the possibility existed. I hope Sinead O'Connor is doing ok.

"Survive" – The Bags
Do you ever wonder how progressives got to be so genteel? Worrying about every word, seeking a kind of unattainable purity, silencing themselves for fear of the pushback from other lefties? Women in punk--and L Alice Bag in particular--have always been, like, To hell with purity. Sometimes it's just about survival. And while we're surviving and after survival feels like a given, then we hold the door open for other women who want to make something expressive, who want to give voice to their anger and their boundaries and their refusal to be shamed.

"Down to Zero" - Joan Armatrading
To me, Joan Armatrading is pure introvert power. And even when she sang about men it was so clear she was so gay and I loved that. It was a closet we understood in those days--a professional necessity--but Joan Armatrading never fooled anyone and never really tried. Her albums became my baby-to-sleep lullabies, my self-esteem shots, my reminder of the sweetness of solitude, and my instruction to always walk with my feet on the ground.

"Tyrone" - Erykah Badu
When Erykah Badu came on the scene with her African Queen style and her big ankh on stage, I was in love. Sometimes her lyrics read like the best kind of public service announcements. She said, Yeah, I'm femme, I'm powerful, and if you don't have anything to contribute to the household, well, you can get your shit outta here. When the world made me feel like femininity meant just giving, Erykah Badu said, Oh, hell no, Ms. Badu is gonna show you how it's done.

"Both Hands" - Ani DiFranco
Finding that first Ani DiFranco album in 1990 or so felt like a revelation. I'd never heard a lyricist like that--an out queer who intended to build a career completely outside established record-label mafia. She was punk philosophy, folk sound, and she had that excellent musical aesthetic that acknowledged the intimate as political and the political as intimate. That was the first concert I ever took Maia to. Ani DiFranco at a packed church in Oakland, California.

"Doll Parts" - Hole
Now, Courtney Love always seemed more like a cautionary tale than a deep inspiration, but there's no denying that Live Through This was a great album. And I'll be honest: Hole totally inspired Muffy Bolding and I to start our notorious underground all-womyn band, Box. You may recall our classic rage ballad, Lavender. Well, we might have only performed it once, drunkenly, in Austin, but given its success in our minds, I'd be tempted to choose "Violet" here, but I'm going with "Doll Parts" because I always wanted to be the girl with the most cake and sometimes the only solace comes in telling ourselves that, yes, some day our adversaries will ache.

"Teenage Welfare Mother" - Little Red Car Wreck
Little Red Car Wreck's album, Motor Like a Mother, is one of the great underrated albums of the 90s with its quintessential Olympia sound. You can find it at It's one of those albums that built to be listened to from start to finish. Recorded in part, I think, on one of those little Fisher-Price kids recorders. For me at the time, hearing another demonized welfare mom singing, basically, "fuck you, I'll have more babies if I want" was completely refreshing.

"Butch in the Streets" - Tribe 8
Tribe 8 was playing around San Francisco in the days when We Were Witches is set, and those women and that time redefined for me what a queer world could look like. I'd always thought that if I wanted to be queer I'd have to date one of those sporty gender-neutral girls who wore chinos or a land dyke with serious armpit hair, but in San Francisco desire felt expansive. Butch/femme culture was very much alive, reviving, and whose fantasy wasn't a butch in the streets and a femme in the sheets? I sure didn't know.

"What are Little Girls Made Of?" - Spitboy
In the early 90s, this Bay Area women's punk band, Spitboy, pretty much wrote the anthem for my early single motherhood with baby Maia: We were second-class citizens, we were pink for weak, we were red for whore. We were swaddled in red, like targets. As fortune would have it, Todd, the drummer from Spitboy, aka Michelle Gonzales, was in the magical little writing group where I wrote We Were Witches. It wouldn't be the book it is—might not be a book at all—if it weren't for Michelle and Karin and Tomas telling me every month, Let's peek around that corner of the psyche, let's open that door, let's go further into that cave of a closet…

"Mama's Always on Stage" - Arrested Development
Wendy DeJong and Julie Bowles and I had a Hip Mama hour on Free Radio Berkeley, this pirate station near where we lived, and with "Mama's Always on Stage," Arrested Development gave us our theme song—pure lyrical acknowledgement and support. Isn't that a great move for an artist? Just think, Who needs our love and support right now? And then bust out a song for your marginalized sisters.

"If That's Your Boyfriend He Wasn't Last Night" – Meshell Ndegeocello
Towards the end of the book, Ariel finally meets a sweet lover, not someone who will be around forever or anything like that, but someone who makes art about consent and is happy to eat rice and beans at a cigarette-burned table. The first time she comes over, she asks to put on this Meshell Ndegeocello album, Plantation Lullabies, and Ariel knows she'll be all right.

"Fast Car" - Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman's first album came out in the late 80s. I remember the first time I heard it—in a youth hostel in Shanghai—and I knew something was changing, culturally, back in the U.S. and that album emboldened me to think I could try and live in my country again. Even though "Fast Car" is a song of escape, or the hope of escape, it's a song that portrays an America we all knew, but an America most people were still lying about then. I thought, all right, yes, I can live in my country if we can start telling the truth about it. So, after Maia was born, with this song of escape on my Walkman, I headed home.

Ariel Gore and We Were Witches links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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