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May 7, 2018

Brendan Kiely's Playlist for His Novel "Tradition"


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.

Brendan Kiely's powerful Tradition is a timely and important young adult novel that addresses rape culture.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"This novel is a timely road map for those looking to find their places in this rapidly changing world… A thoughtfully crafted argument for feminism and allyship."

In his own words, here is Brendan Kiely's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Tradition:

A spirit of rebellion inspired the writing of this novel, especially as I reflected on how men all too often encourage an attitude of misogyny in each other, an attitude that informs the way they behave, the way they joke, the way they talk about women, the way they act with reckless thoughtlessness—all behavior that fuels rape culture. You don’t have to be a perpetrator of violence to be an enabler of it, and in Tradition I wanted to write about two teens struggling to comprehend and expose just how deep and pervasive this culture of violence towards women runs. Jules and Bax, one girl and one boy who are in their final year of boarding school, take it upon themselves to shake up the culture of silence around them and wake up the people who have too often protected harassers and abusers.

I wanted to rebel against how I was taught to be a man, I wanted to rebel against the kinds of institutions that protect the people who work for them rather than the safety and justice of the people those institutions are supposed to support, bolster, and empower. I wanted to rebel by looking to the leadership of those, especially women, who have been fighting this fight for so long. Not all rebellion is loud and spectacular, some of it is, and some of it needs to be, but there are so many other moments of rebellion that, although they often go unnoticed, make great changes in the world around them. As Toni Cade Bambara said, “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible,” and in my novel, by writing about quiet rebellions and well as loud ones, I hoped to catch a little of the spirit of Bambara’s line.

When I sat down to write Tradition, I thought about the women who organized and invited me to join Take Back the Night marches in college. I thought about the bravery and tenacity of Emma Sulkowicz as she dragged her mattress to graduation at Columbia University to remind the whole world that no amount of institutional cover up could silence her. The boarding school culture Jules and Bax grapple with in Tradition mirrors our broader society—it’s riddled with insidious and deeply entrenched misogyny—and I wanted to write about people who challenge that status quo. I wanted to write about the strength of women who stand up and speak out about misogyny, and also, especially as a man writing this book, I wanted to write a novel that asked, “How can men be better feminists?” What are men’s roles in this time of necessary cultural reckoning?

The songs on this list fed that spirit of rebellion and self-examination as I wrote.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – Holy Roller
I have to start here because the boyant, plucky spirit of this song and its insistent refrain “I want love in the aftermath” fits the mood at the start of the novel and, more importantly, is the message I wanted to keep in the front of my mind as I worked on a story that grapples with assault and abuse—that survivors get to dictate their own futures.

Lisa Hannigan – Home
For a novel that takes place at a boarding school, a song about “home” and how far away it is (or can feel, even when you’re in it) was one I kept returning to, over and again, a song full of lies, broken promises, and hope heavy with melancholy—exactly the kind of atmosphere I wanted to create at Fullbrook Academy. Hannigan’s voice floats and soars and drifts back down, all in the same long breath, and there’s something of that lilting wail I hear in Jules’s heart in this book.

The Pixies – Where Is My Mind
This song has intoxicated me since I first heard it when I was in middle school. But no matter what age I am, it still seems to perfectly fit that same feeling of having the ground yanked out from underneath you—a feeling that is growing for both Bax and Jules in their final year of high school. While Black Francis/Frank Black’s voice whines in a way that feels urgent and necessary, the haunting background vocals do something to create the strange effect of isolating the lead vocals—and again, it’s that feeling of isolation that both Jules and Bax are grappling with in the novel.

Ibeyi – Away Away
Though the music is very different at the party Jules, Bax, Javi, and Aileen check out at the college party (I imagined something more like an electronica Scissor Sisters type band) the escape from Fullbrook, even for one night feels liberating, uplifting, affirming, and is fueled by doggedly determined instinct to survive, no matter what claustrophobic pressure they feel at Fullbrook. This song captures that spirit, and in fact, all of Ibeyi’s music rises and rises and rises with resilience and joy.

Hozier – Take Me to Church
Even before I saw the video for this song, the first time I heard it, I heard tragedy—violence at the hands of the mob. For me, this song and the atmosphere it suggests, swoops through the entire section of the book that is the party at Horn Rock. “I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife.”

Valerie June – Pushin' Against a Stone
This song announces itself in the most haunting way. It’s static-filled, electric guitar rips to life in the way I see the bonfire crackling at the party at Horn Rock, and June’s voice, so clear and determined following it seems to gain it’s strength from sounding so earnest (at least to my ears) and that is the same place from which I think the friendships (the only true ones in the book) emerge from: a space in which two scared and nervous people have the strength to be vulnerable and earnest with each other.

Be Good Tanyas – Human Thing
I absolutely love the Be Good Tanyas and every time I listen to them I pause, catch my breath and remember to take pleasure, reverence even, in small, quiet and often overlooked things. It’s like that in a friendship too, when a friend can anticipate your needs, when a friend remains quiet for as long as you need to formulate the words for whatever is going on inside. This song rattled through my mind as I was trying to find ways for a few of the characters to reconcile their differences with each other, to find some bit of peace with each other after the storm of Horn Rock.

Milky Chance – Stolen Dance
As is usually the case when I’m writing, I end up liking characters who are not main characters and for me, while working on Javi’s arc in the book, this song kept cycling and cycling—especially as I worked toward the end of the book. He’d been denied too much happiness and denied it too regularly, without people (even some of the people closest to him) acknowledging it, so, in a sense, this song feels like something Javi wants to sing himself near the end of the book.

Bjork – Army of Me
I remember a party I went to my first year of college and this song was playing. I already knew the song, had seen the video; I already bumped it in my own car’s speakers—but at this party, it was the first time I saw a room full of women stomping, dancing, shouting along with the lyrics, and there was something awesome (in the real sense of the word) about their collective, unfettered energy. It is this same kind of I’ve fucking had it with you guys attitude that Jules’s has as the school year hurtles toward the winter ball and Jules decides to take matters into her own hands.

The Arcade Fire – Wake Up
This power anthem speaks to me about the necessity of reflecting on who we are and what we’ve been taught, especially as a man writing about toxic masculinity, the line, “someone told me not to cry/ but now that I’m older I see that it’s a lie,” lands right where I want Bax to land as he’s reflecting on his life being cultured to be a violent machine on the football field and in the ice hockey rink. It’s this toxic masculinity that’s at the heart of all the problems at Fullbrook and when all else seems to fail and Jules asks Bax for his help doing something big, loud, and unforgettable the night of the winter ball, their rebellious and irreversible act that night seems filled with the energy of this song.

Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate
I can’t get enough of Kiwanka’s voice, and though I was introduced to his music by watching Big Little Lies last year, I was editing Tradition and this song in particular captured the kind of emotional crossroads I was trying to hit in the final third of the novel, where there is love and hope, but the melancholy brought on by the seemingly impossible odds of being an outsider who wants to speak up in a powerful place that reinforces and rewards silence. The hard tug on the heart here is exactly where I hope people land as the read the end of the novel too.

Brendan Kiely and Tradition links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
School Library Journal review

Electric Literature interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist for The Last True Love Story

also at Largehearted Boy:

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