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March 23, 2018

Tyler McMahon's Playlist for His Novel "Dream of Another America"

Dream of Another America

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

Awarded the Gival Press Novel Award, Tyler McMahon's Dream of Another Americais an unflinching and unforgettable story of immigration.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"McMahon’s contribution to the body of immigrant literature is entrenched in questions of nationality, poverty, and family. He achieves a storytelling feat by creating an incredibly realistic narrative that is as poignant as it is breathtaking."


In his own words, here is Tyler McMahon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Dream of Another America:



My new novel, Dream of Another America, is the story of a Salvadoran campesino who travels to the United States in search of work. His story is interwoven with episodes of his wife and child struggling to make ends meet back home in El Salvador. When I started working on this novel, I was thinking a lot about American texts--novels, oral traditions, songs--and how many of them celebrated journeys not so different from what my characters go through.


"Migrants" by Sam Baker

I listened to a lot of Sam Baker while I was writing this book. This is one of his best songs. It covers the sort of tragedy that often occurs along our southern border--and that is thinly fictionalized in the first few chapters of my novel. Baker's spare, coarse voice is particularly well suited to this material. The song's refrain, about how lost we are, can refer to both the plight of the the travelers in the desert, or to the policies that have put them there.


"Do Re Mi" by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie was often on my mind while I worked on this novel. To me, it's a great tragedy that we haven't seen the obvious parallels between Dust Bowl-era Okies and post-NAFTA Central Americans. Both are, ultimately, reluctant travelers driven from their homes, motivated by survival. This song echoes some of dark humor that Salvadorans use to describe the journey north. I hope that history will validate their struggle in the way that it has that of Dust Bowl refugees.


"Clandestino" by Manu Chau

This album was super popular during my time in El Salvador--mostly among expats. What I like most about this song is the way it paints immigration as an ongoing, worldwide phenomenon, not something that's unique to one border or one continent. It shows immigrants as part of a worldwide community, besieged by absurd forces such as imaginary lines and decorated pieces of paper.


"Full English Brexit" by Billy Bragg

Like Manu Chau, this one takes on immigration from the other side of the Atlantic. Bragg sings in character, as a xenophobic Englishman uncomfortable with the changes to his neighborhood. It's not a parody so much as an exercise in empathy that could teach many novelists a thing or two. The net effect is completely unnerving. To my mind, it's Billy Bragg at his risky, messy, provocative, irreverent best.


"Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" by Bruce Springsteen

This is another moving protest song written by Woody Guthrie. Woody's version seems to have been completely scrubbed from the internet, but the Springsteen cover is an acceptable substitute. The song covers a plane crash in the late forties, in which 28 migrant farm workers were killed. Woody was apparently outraged by the way that American news dehumanized the passengers. Almost 70 years later, and we still haven't managed to show gratitude to those that come from afar to grow our food, all for pennies on the dollar, at a great risk to life and limb.


"Santa Cruz" by Poor Man's Whiskey

There's a scene in the second half of the book in which the protagonist meets up with a group of hippie musicians in California. I was thinking of Poor Man's Whiskey when I wrote that scene. This song roughly corresponds to the geography of that fictional encounter. It also captures the energy I intended for that scene: boozy and cathartic, with a touch of melancholy.


"Tres Veces Mojado" by Los Tigres del Norte

I put this on the playlist for my last novel, Kilometer 99, but it's even more relevant here. The song is referred to several times in Dream of Another America, and in many ways it sums up the story of my novel. The Tigres are by far the most popular band in rural El Salvador. This song is something of an anthem for Salvadorans who make the journey. More than any other musicians, Los Tigres have carried on in the Woody Guthrie tradition of celebrating the struggle of the American underclass.


Tyler McMahon and Dream of Another America links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for How the Mistakes Were Made
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Kilometer 99


also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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