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April 30, 2018

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's Playlist for Her Novel "The Map of Salt and Stars"

The Map of Salt and Stars

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.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's novel The Map of Salt and Stars is an ambitious and moving debut.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Nour’s family constantly endures hardship. . . but her young, honest voice adds a softer, coming-of-age perspective to this story of loss, hope, and survival. . . This imaginative yet very real look into war-torn Syria is a must."


In her own words, here is Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Map of Salt and Stars:



When I started writing The Map of Salt and Stars, I wanted to write about the things we take with us when we are forced to redefine home—our memories, our heritage, our language, our maps both internal and external, and our music. Joy, in times of trauma or oppression or violence, is a form of resistance, and music is a conduit to the creative expression of joy. So to make music is also to resist trauma. To sing is to resist sorrow. To dance with either the body or the spirit is to say to the oppressor, “I’m not dead yet.”

Poetry is central to The Map of Salt and Stars, which is fitting because Syria, the place my father was born, has a rich poetic and musical tradition. The first poems were songs written down. What is poetry, then, but the music of the human heart made visible? This is the reason my characters write poems, sing songs, and dance with each other: to resist pain, to remind themselves that the world can be a beautiful place again, to remind themselves that their voices still exist even if the world closes its ears.

Umm Kulthum / Enta Omri (You Are My Life)
Translating Arabic music and poetry can be difficult, because many words in Arabic have multiple meanings that give each phrase a multiplicity of textures and interpretations. Enta Omri, sung by Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum—widely regarded as the most revered Arab singer in history—is no exception to this, and that is why I love it. I would be hard-pressed to find an Arab who didn’t appreciate or at least know Umm Kulthum’s music. She’s an icon. In The Map of Salt and Stars, the protagonist’s parents dance to this song in their apartment in New York City. I remember listening to it in my family’s studio apartment when I was growing up in Manhattan, still unable to speak much Arabic but straining for the meaning behind the rich floodwaters of Umm Kulthum’s voice. This song contains what I feel is the most romantic line found in any song, translated into English as: “You are my life, whose morning began with your light.” Name a line more gorgeous than that.

Naughty Boy, Sam Smith / La La La
Here, a boy turns his back on trauma by finding chosen family and singing to drown out the words of those who hurt him. Songs, like stories, can support us when we are overwhelmed and in pain. They can call us back to ourselves. In The Map of Salt and Stars, the protagonist, Nour, tells herself a story to give her strength when her family loses their home. Some songs we sing to ourselves in celebration, but others we sing to ourselves when we are afraid, like prayers.

Tom Day / Going Home
I wrote the final two chapters of the book to this song on loop, as its unassuming beginning gives way to a steady build of pressure that is eventually released in what feels to me like a claiming of strength. Incidentally, there was supposed to be another poem at the end of the novel that described what home meant to Nour, but after I drafted it, I realized that a concept like home was not only impossible to put into words, but that it would be unfair to give the reader a definition of home when the whole point of the novel was to allow the reader, like Nour, to come to their own conclusions of what home means. So just as the reader is allowed to imagine what they might include in such a poem, so, too, this song about home—and finally reaching it—is fittingly wordless.

Naseer Shamma / Al-‘Iraq ‘ala Maqam Wahid (Iraq in a Single Maqam)
The oud is a lute-like traditional Middle Eastern and North African instrument. Naseer Shamma is a reknowned Iraqi Kurdish musician and oud player who trained in Baghdad. Much of his music is tied to poetry or played alongside poetry. A maqam is a type of melody and an improvisational technique. Just as with the music of Umm Kulthum, I often wrote to a soundtrack of traditional Arabic-language music and wordless instrumental music from the Levant and North Africa. I wanted to mix traditional musical forms and more modern forms, as well as both English- and Arabic-language music, in my own mind while I was writing, because this reflected the reality of my protagonist’s (and my own) Arab American identity.

Kiran Ahluwalia / Saffar (Journey)
The word saffar means journey in multiple languages, including Arabic. Everything in life is a journey, but it is harder to think of a traumatic journey (like a refugee flight, exile, forced displacement, or homelessness) as a journey. Nour, the protagonist of The Map of Salt and Stars, struggles to redefine home so that she can take something of it with her, regardless of whether she will ever be able to return. In this novel, I wanted to explore the question: in what ways is it possible for those of us who have lost home(s) to both grieve what the journey has cost us as well as to celebrate what cannot be taken away?

M.I.A. / Borders
Refugees fleeing violence and displacement face cruel borders at every turn. I see this in America in the form of the Muslim Ban, which prevents innocent people not so different from me from entering my country and finding safety. There is a nonsensical violence to this. This novel gave me an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which borders, particularly in the ways they are drawn and enforced, can be violent institutions used to further marginalize refugees, migrants, people of color (particularly Black folks), the disabled, those who are economically disadvantaged, and religious and ethnic minorities, for whom borders are differentially enforced.

Bombay Bicycle Club / Home By Now
The official music video for this song—a kids’ theater production of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—has always intrigued me, in part because it speaks to the ways that children are more than capable of feeling complex emotions like loneliness, grief, and an awareness of their own mortality, something adults tend to forget as they grow older. In writing a story about a twelve-year-old coming to terms with loss, displacement, violence, and the loss of family, this song felt particularly relevant. When we are children, we feel the same things as when we are adults, but we often lack the words to communicate our emotions, so they feel closer, more insistent, more vivid. So much of the writing of this novel involved attempting to return to that state of emotional permeability, remembering how it feels to experience trauma as a child, with all the vulnerability we feel as kids. Music helped to return me to that state of emotional openness, including openness to deep and wordless pain—as well as joy.

Fairouz / Bektoub Esmak Ya Habibi (I’m Writing Your Name, My Darling)
I close this playlist with a beloved Lebanese singer, Fairouz, and a song about love. In this song, the singer is lamenting that her love is constant while her lover’s is not, that her love will outlast theirs. Loving a place one has left behind can sometimes feel like that: I will love this place and its people forever, but will this place and these people remember me? In our hearts, everything lives forever just the way we remember it, and sometimes that is both a balm and a wound.

Still, to sing is to tell a story, and to tell stories is to bear witness to the joy and the pain of what happened, of what we saw, of what we lived. This is the gift at the heart of music and of storytelling: the refusal to forget.


Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar and The Map of Salt and Stars links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Kirkus review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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