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November 3, 2017

Book Notes - Sung Yim "What About the Rest of Your Life"

What About the Rest of Your Life

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.

Sung Yim's What About the Rest of Your Life is a moving and unforgettable memoir of redemption.

David Stuart MacLean wrote of the book:

"Sung Yim has written an enthralling memoir. It's powerful, vulnerable, and deeply pleasurable. It's a harrowing house fire of a book. Everything that Sung Yim burns up with their excellent prose becomes sanctified, gutted, and glorious."


In their own words, here is Sung Yim's Book Notes music playlist for their memoir What About the Rest of Your Life:



In my recently published memoir, I write about how cycles of violence have shaped my life. I write about why I once saw intimacy and abuse as intrinsic to one another, about falling apart and trying to be okay and falling apart again. You could call it a recovery story, but I prefer to call it an interrogation of failure.

These are songs I listened to as acts of self-care during the span of an abusive relationship detailed in my book, and later during the writing and revision process. They brought me comfort in a desperate time, and I hungered for them when I fell the hardest. Many of them made me feel like I wasn't alone in my sadness, and that's what I so terribly want my book to do for you.


Songs to Play at My Murder


1. 'I Fall in Love Too Easily' – Miles Davis

Every hot mess with a broken heart has uttered the words of this title, but the sentiment is rarely true. Did you know Miles Davis was a Gemini? Did you know he beat his wife? Have you read 'When the Neighbors Fight' by Terrance Hayes? You should, it says everything I can't. Its speaker says while listening to Kind of Blue that 'It hurts / To know the music is better / Than him.' Its speaker says, 'The trumpet's mouth is apology.' I know what kind of man Miles Davis was and sometimes I wonder what kind of man he would have been without his trumpet. Sometimes I wonder if Miles Davis ever sang to himself. I picture him cooking eggs in bacon grease. I picture him washing his hands at the sink or putting away laundry. I picture him tying his shoes in the morning. I won't picture his rage—it's already right here, dancing on the surface of my memory with a thousand faces.

2. 'At Seventeen' – Janis Ian

Where does it all begin? There is a special kind of someone who suffers the fate of disordered love. This someone grew up feeling ugly. This someone 'learned the truth at seventeen / that love was meant for beauty queens.' Did you know that we are born perfect, and that ugly is far from the worst thing you can be? Do you think anyone told me? Has anyone ever told you?

3. 'He Needs Me' – Nina Simone

What does it mean to need someone? What does it mean to need?

In her diary, Nina Simone wrote that her husband Andrew 'protected [her] from everyone except himself.' She wrote that he beat her. She wrote, 'He placed a gun to my head, tied me up and raped me.' The trauma of a partner's abuse and the alluring vulnerability that such a partner takes by force forges a bond deep with shame. Violence becomes intimacy becomes violence. You learn to mistake need for a lack of imagination. You can't imagine needing escape. You can't imagine escape. You can't imagine. Imagine.

4. 'It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World' – James Brown

These lyrics have been characterized as chauvinistic in a number of think pieces, reviews, and by many discomfited first-time listeners. But does the song hate women or does this world? Does the dismissive portion of its audience know the name of the woman who wrote its words? Her name is Betty Jean Newsome. She once dated James Brown.

James Brown beat his wives. He tormented the women in his life just as he tormented himself. What is abuse if not self-harm by proxy? What is abuse if not the extension, projection, and displacement of ownership, of agency, of self? What is abuse if not closing the door to your own soul?

When James Brown belts to the melodrama of a hundred strings, 'But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl,' I imagine this is Betty Jean Newsome giving herself due credit in a culture that effaces her voice. When James Brown sings, 'You know that man makes money,' I imagine Betty Jean Newsome standing up in court with papers in hand, arguing for the royalties that Brown forgot to pay her.

5. 'Tame' – Pixies

This is the song I most often listen to while driving away from Pauly's house. It becomes an anthem of rebellion against his emotional tyranny. I listen to it at full volume with Kim Deal's bass line thrumming up my neck and I shake off the bitter taste of Pauly's raging mouth to the wind rushing through my windows. I thump the steering wheel to the crashing drums and scream myself hoarse. I blast it during revisions of my memoir to keep momentum from petering out and to keep myself grounded as my own words wage mutiny against my hijacked amygdala.

What does it say of me, of us, of power, that the words to this song describe a woman with 'hips like Cinderella' swaying for the spiteful gaze of a man? A woman who '[talks] sweet about nothing'? A woman of whom the speaker sings, 'Cookie I think you're tame'?

6. 'A Change Is Gonna Come' – Otis Redding

This is the song I want to put on when it begins. 'Otis Redding?' Pauly says, 'Oh, do you know the one that goes . . .' and he hums the whistling refrain of '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.' He plays it on the stereo once all the way through and I say, 'Do you want to hear my favorite?' He takes a sip of his drink and says, 'Play this one again.' Otis Redding's sharp whistle tears a gaping hole into my narrative. We play it again. And again. Pauly sings along, cajoling me to do the same. When I don't, he snaps. When I do, he claps for my shaky rendition and apologizes.

'My little songbird,' he calls me.

He gushes out loud, mostly to himself, about the time he lived in Georgia. He sings, 'I left my home in Georgia,' and 'Cause I've had nothing to live for,' sweeping the air with his glass while wearing a wide grin that pleads, You get it? You feel me? The whiskey keeps flowing. The manic carousel is spinning off its tracks. We play it again. And again. Seven times. Ten times. Hours tick by. The carousel is too fast to jump from. According to the laws of physics, an object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. The carousel stays in nauseating motion and sleep forces a wobbling ebb. I don't know who nods off first, me or him, but what a quenching relief it is. Years from now my therapist will evoke Operation Nifty Package, which was conducted by Navy SEALS to capture Manuel Noriega during the American invasion of Panama. She says they played AC/DC's 'You Shook Me All Night Long' repeatedly for days at a deafening volume. She calls what Pauly did 'terrorizing me.' Years from now I will be unable to listen to Otis Redding without my heart seizing into a tight knot and try as I might, the words will stay trapped beyond my ability to conjure when I sit down to write that memory into my book.

Sometimes when I can't sleep, I stare at the ceiling counting all the things I've lost. I fear I might grieve my love of Otis Redding for the rest of my life.

7. 'Don't Make Me Over'/'Anyone Who Had a Heart' – Dionne Warwick

I consider these two songs inseparable parts of a medley. They would be buried side by side as sisters. What the hell happened to Dionne Warwick? Who hurt her? I sing these songs in the shower, unafraid of going off-key. They become a prayer. A chant. A metaphor. 'Don't Make Me Over' is a list of don'ts. 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' is a list of anyones. Anyone who ever loved. Don't pick on the things I say. Anyone who ever dreamed. Don't pick on the things that I do. Anyone who had a heart. Don't make me over. Anyone. Anyone. Anyone, please. Don't. Please don't. Please don't go.

8. 'Some Unholy War' – Amy Winehouse

There are times that overtures cross into heartbreak. There are times that heartbreak stretches into months, years, decades. I send Pauly a recording of me singing this song. There are times that music fills the gaps our words cannot fill. Pauly listens to the first twenty seconds and says, 'That's nice.' I offer a weak smile. There are times that music fails to fill the gaps our words cannot fill.

9. 'Little Trouble Girl' – Sonic Youth

Manic pixies aren't just tropes, they're people. But no one asks them how they're feeling, what they think, what they've been through. They are painted up and consumed as pretty tricks of light in the male imagination and this projected coquettishness becomes their only currency to trade for freedom in the starvation economy of love under patriarchy. Somewhere in a parking lot by Lake Michigan a seagull has lost its flock. It squawks and flirts with oncoming cars.

10. '(He Hit Me) And It Felt Like a Kiss' – The Crystals

According to lore, singer Little Eva arrived at Carole King's home to babysit their child one night in 1962. She was covered in bruises. Her boyfriend had beaten her. When King asked why Little Eva was with such a man, she replied in earnest that he beat her because he loved her. So a perturbed King wrote this song with husband Gerry Goffin. The song was subsequently sung by girl group The Crystals and produced by Phil Spector, who insisted repeatedly that it be sung with utmost sincerity. Decades later, former group member La La Brooks, who was a teenager at the time, admitted that the recording session was painfully uncomfortable. Carole King also expressed regret over writing it, having repeatedly experienced domestic abuse throughout her life—she had written the music, husband Gerry Goffin had written the words.

In '03, actress and fashion model Lana Clarkson was found dead in Phil Spector's mansion. They had met that morning while Clarkson was working at The House of Blues in Los Angeles. The driver waited in the limousine outside as Spector and Clarkson entered the home together. An hour later, the driver heard a bang. Spector staggered out the backdoor with a gun in his hand and said, 'I think I just shot her.'

Clarkson's body was found slumped over in a chair with a gunshot wound to her mouth. The carpet was scattered with her broken teeth.
During the investigation, Phil Spector said, 'She kissed the gun.'

11. 'No Below' – Speedy Ortiz

There will come a time when all the old friends of a shattered life fall away. There's only so much people can take.

My friend Amanda says she will take me to the clinic when I call her crying. A week later, she tells me she met this guy named Mark. He has a four hour layover in Chicago on the day my abortion is scheduled and then he's gone maybe forever. It might be her only chance to get to know him. I end up at the clinic with Pauly. The experience is pure psychological torture.

Amanda and Mark fall in love. They meet each other's cats. They move in together. They attend Cubs games and make love well into the early morning. Two years later, they stop fucking and start fighting. They have an explosive breakup some time after Amanda and I have lost touch.

For years, I call what happened between me and Amanda abandonment. I tell myself our falling out was all her fault: she didn't care enough, she treated me badly, she took advantage of me. But in what seem to be the only true words Pauly ever spoke to me, 'It is what it is.'

12. 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' – Neil Young

Franz Kafka wrote to art historian Oskar Pollak that 'we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?' Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poem 'On Pain,' that our pain 'is the breaking of the shell that encloses [our] understanding.' If you never love you will never hurt but you will never love. What's a little heartbreak for the riches of a thousand stories? Through the wound, all things enter. The wound is the door to your life. The wound is the tilled earth where the self grows. The wound is the tender part of you that weeps a nourishing flood.

13. 'This Bitter Earth' – Dinah Washington

The more we sing our hurt, the deeper the snarl of memory. It begins to feel like an exquisite secret, a hoarded treasure, a password we incessantly chant to ourselves. Our wounds rot sweetly. Our healing is a bitter herb.

There is nothing extraordinary about my wounds, or yours, or theirs. What's the use of reading a book like mine? You all know pain. You all know sickness. You all know spite. I offer nothing new. I offer humble solidarity from one idiot to another. I offer my cold hand to your cold hand for a stumbling tango. I offer you the mirage of possibility. The faithful delusion that perhaps, in the immortal words of Ms. Dinah Washington, 'This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all.'


Sung Yim and What About the Rest of Your Life links:

the author's website

Essay Daily interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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