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May 29, 2018

Jen Silverman's Playlist for Her Story Collection "The Island Dwellers"

The Island Dwellers

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.

Jen Silverman's stunning The Island Dwellers is an intimate and funny collection of linked stories.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A shimmering collection that speaks with humor and, ultimately, tenderness."

In her own words, here is Jen Silverman's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Island Dwellers:

The Island Dwellers is a collection of interlinked stories, set half in the US and half in Japan. It's about nomads, travelers, people caught between the known and the deeply unfamiliar - in their relationships, their geographies, and their identities. I wrote some of the stories during the time in which I was living in Japan, and some after I'd returned to the US. For me, they're about intimacy first and foremost – how we navigate it, how we resist it, how desperately we require it, and how we reach for it across languages, across all boundaries.

This playlist has a lot to do with place and language. These were the songs I was playing on loop, first in the places where I was living, and then years later when I was writing about those places again.

Sénégal Fast Food – Amadou & Mariam

This song contains the exhilaration and confusion of an international life. One day you're somewhere, the next day you're somewhere else, languages change and reference points shift, and – thanks to globalization – you find yourself surrounded by foods and t-shirts and words lifted from one place, taking on a new life in another. Lyrics are always important for me – the songs I love best often contain language I love as well – and this sums up both what my life was like for a long time, and the impulse the book was born out of: Il est minuit à Tokyo, il est cinq heures au Mali, quelle heure est-il au Paradis? Demain je serai parti.

Black Limousine – Dragonette

I love the pure charge of this song – it's all adrenaline and swagger and vulnerability. It's essentially about someone who is getting herself in over her head, whether or not she knows it. It makes me think of the character Maria, from the story "Maria of the Grapes." I was writing that story around the time "Black Limousine" came out - I'd just left Japan and was living in Boston with my friend Erin. I was bewildered, depressed, and constantly worried about money. Erin has been my conduit for new music since high school – she remains one of the tastemakers in my life, in most ways - and she introduced me to Dragonette. This particular lyric resonated with me at that time (and on occasion since then): Cash, last I checked I was overdraft, spent more money than I guess I have, whadda I do about that?

Driving and Destitution Road - Shadwick Wilde (Quiet Hollers)

These two songs are pure Iowa for me. My friend Basil was at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop with me, and he introduced me to Shadwick's music (they're long-time friends.) Basil and I spent a lot of time driving around Iowa City back-roads in his busted-up car and listening to Unforgivable Things, the album these songs are from. Years later, I listened to them again when I was writing the story "A Great History of American Mistakes," which is set in Iowa City. "Destitution Road" in particular is all about owning up to your failures – confronting and then living with a history of your mistakes. The resonances with the story weren't planned, but it strikes me now.

La Bonne Étoile – M. (Matthieu Chedid)

The song has a cool mystery that appeals to me, but it's also a surprising and beautiful love song: Et toi la bonne étoile / autour de toutes ces figurantes. It captures the loneliness of being a human in the world, but also the surprising and exhilarating moments in which we find someone who shines for us, draws us closer, demands that we reach out. It makes me think of Yuliya meeting Risa in "The Safest Place in the World," or the relationship between the narrator and Agnes in "Surveillance."

White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

I love the matter-of-fact absurdity of this song, how the language is encoded. In writing the stories set in Japan, I sometimes struggled with the question of how much to "translate" how the gaijin characters talk. In my particular circle of friends, most of us were multi-lingual to varying degrees, and all of us living a large part of our work-lives (and in many cases love-lives) in Japanese. When we all got together, our language was a complete mash-up. We would have entire conversations where we just used the first word that came to mind, even if it wasn't necessarily the English one. We'd use each other's words, even if we didn't speak each other's languages fluently. For example, a cell-phone was always a keitai, regardless of who needed to charge it, and weed was usually dagga, whether or not you were Afrikaaner. In the stories I ended up using more pure English than we did, but I remain fascinated by how to translate (or not translate) what happens when you get a lot of internationals and expats in a room, and they borrow words from each other.

Steak Knives – Man Man

I listened to this song on loop the entire winter I was editing the book. Even though it is about mourning and a certain kind of surrender, it has a sheen of dark humor. When I first heard it, it felt like someone wrote it for me. I like stories and sentences like that as well: if you feel like they are yours, they'll be yours forever – but it takes a certain kind of person to belong to them.

Pierrot the Clown – Placebo

I rarely connect songs strongly to certain characters. But this song for me was and always is Ancash (from "Maria of the Grapes" and later "Mamushi"). I'm not sure that he'd listen to it, but if someone wrote a song about him, it would sound like this.

Hatachi no Sensou – Olympos

There's an extravagant loneliness here that feels connected to all the stories. This lyric always makes me think of "The Wolf" - Minna kono machi de katte ni ugoku dake. A rough translation would go like: Everyone in this town just moves around in their own way. New York and Tokyo both feel like that – a current of relentless motion, everybody just doing their thing. It's both immensely isolating and completely electrifying.

Late Show – Lewis & Leigh

I was writing "The Pike" at an artists' residency called Space on Ryder Farm, and the cooks were in the kitchen playing this song while they chopped vegetables. Now when I hear "Late Show" I remember how I played that song obsessively during the week that I was there - while writing a story about obsession.

Aleb – Yasmine Hamdan

I love this whole album (Ya Nass). Yasmine Hamdan performs her song "Hal" in the Jim Jarmusch movie Only Lovers Left Alive; the scene in which Tilda Swinton stumbles across Yasmine performing is so strange and captivating. Yasmine has a two minute cameo, but she became the whole experience for me. During my "Girl Canadian Shipwreck" days (both of extricating myself from the situation that inspired the story, and then eventually writing the story), I listened to "Aleb" and "Hal." I wanted to be far away from where I was, and the only way I could get there was getting on the N train, closing my eyes, plugging into Ya Nass, and getting the fuck out of Brooklyn. (Sorry Brooklyn.)

$O$ by Die Antwood

The whole album is the sound of summer 2010. I was in Osaka with my friend Marilu, who is South African. That summer Die Antwoord had just hit Japan in a real way. Coupled with the World Cup (also happening in South Africa), there was a new current of curiosity about what the hell was happening over in that part of the world. Marilu had spent years explaining to people that South Africa was a country, not just a general direction, and suddenly for the first time she was hearing her country talked about on the news and in the streets.

We spent the whole summer playing $0$, Marilu translating lyrics from Afrikaans into English for the rest of us. We'd be sharing earbuds and dancing on the subway and then we'd get off the subway and I'd go sit in front of my laptop and write "Pretoria" (which is the only story I've ever written with a single audience member in mind - I wrote it to and for Marilu.) Later in the summer, Die Antwoord came to Japan and played the Summer Sonic music festival/ bacchanalia. When Ninja rapped: "Ninja's motherfucking big in Japan," the whole crowd completely lost it, Japanese and gaijin alike, and I will never forget that. I threw my bra at Yolandi Visser. If she'd caught it, my life would be completely different.

212 – Azaelia Banks

This song is a masterpiece of queer defiance, regardless of the general controversy.

That's all I have to say about it.

Jen Silverman and The Island Dwellers links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Out of Print interview with the author
Powell's interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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