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October 26, 2018

Mohamed Asem's Playlist for His Memoir "Stranger in the Pen"

Stranger in the Pen

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

Mohamed Asem's memoir Stranger in the Pen is much more than the story of his airport detention, this important book is a treatise on identity and culture.

Ben Parzybok wrote of the book:

"In spare, moving prose, Mohamed Asem takes us through a suspenseful journey of airport immigration detention while painting an endearing and sometimes sad portrait of a life between cultures. Stranger in the Pen is a meditative look at nationality, home, and how we collectively treat strangers."


In his own words, here is Mohamed Asem's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Stranger in the Pen:



In July 2016, three days after the terror attack in Nice on Bastille Day, British immigration officers in Gatwick Airport detained me overnight without cause. Stranger in the Pen narrates the events of that night, along with the accompanying existential reflections I went through (on my Arab-European identity, on Kuwait, my home, and the path I have set on in life) as I tried to understand why I was detained.

I tend to focus better in an environment where there’s music or activity in the background, so, during the writing of this book, I’d usually play a Google-curated radio station through my headphones or the speakers of my laptop. Occasionally, I’d come across a gem (to name a few: “Changes” by Charles Bradley, “See Me Out” by Hales Corner, “Caught a Long Wind” by Feist), but, for the most part, the tracks did not go beyond serving their utilitarian purpose of setting an introspective mood in my studio. Even so, there were a few songs (and albums) that I’d regularly play, or keep in the back of my mind while I worked on the book. It’s a pleasure to be able to share them and explore their influence on Stranger in the Pen.

“Nobody Else Will Be There” by The National

After my morning routine of brewing coffee and tuning in to the BBC, I’d sit at my writing desk, put on my headphones, and listen to this track. Its calm, brooding and atmospheric character would ease me into the introspective mindset I needed to be in to write. It’s my favorite off their latest album due to its subtle details: the change in the melody’s key, the addition and subtraction of ambient sounds, the singer’s voice coming in an octave higher than before. These effects are all used with great economy and precision to create a rich atmosphere and powerful drama.

“Song Seven” by Interpol

Chekhov’s short stories, Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Interpol’s Black EP are among the works of art I revisit, every now and again, to be dazzled and inspired. I’ve heard the songs in the Black EP more times than I can remember, yet I’m still blown away. Sometimes the music veers from the wistful to the manic (sometimes psychotic) all in one song! I definitely have Interpol (and, to a certain degree, Christopher Nolan) to thank for my interest in playing around with narrative structure and the habit of looking for unexpected paths and tangents in my own storytelling. Although “Song Seven,” musically, is more restrained than other songs on the EP, I really enjoy listening to how its reflective mood suddenly gives way to an outpouring of yearning. This transition and contrast compliments well the emotional journey I took myself through in my book, from being aloof and analytical to yearning for the intimacy of communication.

“How to Disappear Completely” by Radiohead

In my book, there are scenes of me sitting alone in a busy café, drinking wine and gazing out the front window; me walking up a street past lively restaurants and bars; me in my apartment, looking out the window and observing people going about their lives. “How to Disappear Completely” has always, to me, evoked the image of someone who is still while the rest of the world moves by without noticing that person’s presence or existence.

“Fall In Love Too Easily” played by Miles Davis

Around the mid-point of my book, bored out of my mind from waiting in a pen-like sitting area for immigration officers to let me go, I recall my first love and the first time we met. That memory, on the page, comes across as a scene where two people meet for the first time and develop what could be the start of a special relationship, but, to me, it comes attached with underlying sadness, for my mind cannot divorce that memory from the knowledge of how the relationship ended. The love and heartbreak I experienced while working on that scene is wonderfully evoked by Miles Davis’s interpretation of “Fall In Love too Easily.” His playing imbues the song’s melody with a melancholy and sensuality I understand so well that it’s haunting.

“Ya Rayah” played by Rachid Taha

The Arabic title of this song roughly translates to ‘Oh, Departing One.’ The lyrics, written by Dahmane el Harachi (1926-1980), an Algerian singer who immigrated to France around the mid-twentieth century, provide a message to people who choose to leave their home for the hope of finding a better life in a foreign land. The lyrics refer to the hardship of travel, the feeling of alienation from living in a foreign culture, and the eternal call of home. These themes were very present in my mind during my detainment, as I wrestled with the nature of my difficult relationship with Kuwait, my home, and why I keep on leaving it for the Western world.

“Ne me quitte pas” by Jacques Brel

I suspect that everyone has a song, out there, that musically or lyrically (or both) speaks to the core of their person in a way that no living person can. In my case, “Ne me quitte pas,” sung by Jacques Brel, is that song. The romantic/Dostoyevskian lyrics (“let me become/the shadow of your shadow/the shadow of your hand/the shadow of your hound”) and Brel’s straightforward singing are so moving, so gut-wrenching that I struggle to listen to this song without getting emotional. Nevertheless, in one of the more dramatic moments in my book, I attempted to channel my inner Brel and Dostoyevsky into a pathetic yet heartfelt scene.

“Don’t Move” by Phantogram

In my high school, a loud and clang-y bell would ring at the end of each class and at the end of recess. Although each ring sounded the same, the last one of the day was special. When it rang, we felt an immediate release of tension, a surge of relief that learning had finally ended (at least for the day) and that we could finally return home to remove our school uniform (white shirt, maroon trousers, black socks, black shoes – the meaning of those color combinations remains a mystery to me). During the writing of my book, the song “Don’t Move” was that last bell of the day. I’d turn up the volume, put the song on repeat and prepare to go out for a walk, or busy myself with some mundane task like cooking or cleaning my place, anything to distract me from my work until the following day when, early in the morning, I would return to my writing table, put on my headphones and listen to The National’s “Nobody Else will be There.”


Mohamed Asem and Stranger in the Pen links:

Portland Mercury review

Think Out Loud 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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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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