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November 29, 2018

Julietta Singh's Playlist for Her Book "No Archive Will Restore You"

No Archive Will Restore You

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.

Julietta Singh's No Archive Will Restore You is a brilliant and thought-provoking combination of memoir, poetry, and theory.

In her own words, here is Julietta Singh's Book Notes music playlist for her book No Archive Will Restore You:

No Archive Will Restore You is a meditation on the body—a hybrid mix of memoir, poetic prose, and theory that urges us to think about ourselves differently by summoning up all the things that have entered and left our bodies. All the things, in other words, that we are trained to forget or disavow, but that make us who and what we are. The book spins on evocations of race, sexuality, bodily violation, physical pain, and queer mothering… At its core, it’s an experiment in articulating a desire for more and better forms of communal care and love.

I drafted the book between Richmond, Virginia and Brooklyn, New York, much of it written as I rolled back and forth on the east coast train. I had just started listening to Julie Byrne’s album, Not Even Happiness, and the first track, “Follow My Voice,” must have played a hundred times in my headphones on those long train rides. Across all musical genres and artistic mediums, I have a special fancy for intense girls who don’t fit easily in the world. Julie Byrne’s album is the embodied sound of not fitting right, and of angling to find another form of fitting.

When I’m in the act of writing, I need quiet music—sounds that create a vibe but don’t distract from the words and feelings I’m trying to get down on paper. I kept returning as I wrote to Brian Eno’s “1/1” from Music for Airports—really the whole album—which I once played on a loop for 24 hours in 2012 as I labored to deliver a small human into the world. It turns out that I both gave birth and later wrote about giving birth listening to this album, which is written “for airports,” but can be more broadly conceived as music for bodies in transitive states: bodies in airports, bodies giving birth, bodies composing the past and anticipating the future.

ANOHNI steals my whole heart, and this beautiful theft started when I first heard the haunting track “Hope There’s Someone” (released under Antony and the Johnsons). There’s a section at the end of my book called The Ghost Archive that is a fragmented series of scenes and sketches that angle toward those things that haunt us, that affect us deeply but remain just out of our reach. When ANOHNI sings of “that middle place/ between light and nowhere,” I think of the ghost archive—the things we are afraid of, the things we can’t quite speak of, the things we wish so badly to set free, and to free ourselves from.

My best friend Nathan has become my gateway to music in the advanced digital age. Because Nathan is so central in my life—musically and otherwise—he appears many times across No Archive. Over a decade ago, we were in grad school spending a significant amount of time swapping and burning CDs for each other. The first album I gave him was Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. It pretty much sealed the friendship deal. It’s an album to live by, and the sound of our friendship. The first track “Flume,” begins “I am my mother’s only child/That’s enough”—and we thought of this, Nathan and I, when we decided to become co-parents of just one little person who has changed the world for us. It’s enough.

To my astonishment and dismay, my lightweight MacBook doesn’t have the capacity to play CDs. So Nathan has implicitly consented to stocking my iTunes with music, because I’m too much of a technological granny to find it on-line on my own. He dropped Julien Baker’s album Sprained Ankle into my iTunes a few years ago the day before she was scheduled to play an outdoor show in a sloped alley beside a local record store in our neighborhood. My daughter Isa was 3 at the time, and she sat on my lap on the concrete in front of Julien, nothing but a big mud puddle separating us from the singer and her guitar. It was the first time my kid sat still for anything. She watched the set like Julien was a mesmerizing cartoon character. Mid-way through the show, Isa’s little snack container filled with black olives went tumbling out of her hands into the mud puddle. In the sweetest gesture, Julien stopped singing, crouched down, scooped up the container from the mud puddle and wiped the dirt off on her shirt before handing it gently back to Isa.

On the track “Everybody Does,” Julien sings “I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you never/touched.” Part of the impetus for me to write No Archive came from this embodied feeling that we are “filthy wreckage,” we girls who have been trained into un-loving relations to our bodies and minds. In that alley, as Julien rescued Isa’s dropped object, I had the strongest feeling of wanting to teach them both to love themselves in ways I had never learned to love myself. It was the first time I felt like a mother, not only to my daughter but to the world around us.

I grew up in Winnipeg, a mid-sized central Canadian city that, in its relative geographic isolation, has a thriving arts scene. My upbringing in that city is captured by the music of the Weakerthans, a Winnipeg indie band I’ve seen play across decades, and that sound-tracked my young life. The band went on hiatus in 2014, when its lead singer John K. Samson released a solo record, Winter Wheat. The record has all the flavor of a Weakerthans album (no surprise, because John’s voice is its own unmistakable prairie landscape, and the band’s incredible drummer, Jason Tait, also plays on the album).

My father died suddenly and under rather extraordinary circumstances just before Winter Wheat was released, and the track “Requests” immediately became an elegy to my father that I listened to continually as I walked my way through his death — “I want you to know what I forgive you for/ Now that you’re all ashes anyway/ Every step into the river pushes you further away.” I wrote about my father’s death in No Archive, and the melody of “Requests” is indelibly inscribed in that writing. I’ve always meant to write to John to tell him this, so perhaps this is finally the note I intended to send his way years ago.

No Archive was a deep dive into intimate issues about embodiment and belonging, so for as much as all of these meditative musical modes scored the book, I also needed power writing breaks that had an altogether different soundtrack! During these writing breaks, I played what my daughter and I most agree on and like to move to together on our makeshift dance floor:

Isa is a huge Sia fan—even before Sia was brought into the corporate fold of My Little Pony! We pump “Burn the Pages” in the car, it soundtracks our family dance parties, it cooks our dinners. “Yesterday is gone and you will be OK/ Place your past into a book/ Burn the pages, let em cook” – we talk a lot about song lyrics, and I’ve had a fun time trying to translate Sia’s raw intensity for a six year old’s imagination! Perhaps it’s not coincidental that my book ends with a meditation on book burning, on wanting to learn about everything that’s gone up in flames.

A.W.’s “Who We Are” is a queer mantra over here, and I’m always singing it with my daughter: “Take my hand, I’ll take you so far/ Let’s go find out who we are.” The infinite openness of this togetherness marks the promise of the future, perhaps most importantly because the future is otherwise looking so bleak. A.W. played a living room show at our place recently, and it felt like our home was receiving a queer blessing. Part of what I’m trying to do in No Archive Will Restore You is to think about how we circulate in or are confined by space, how we’re shaped by the politics of space and place. This has everything to do with race, with class, with gender, with ability. So, there was something quite magical in opening the doors of our home and letting in a motley assortment of strangers to experience something together, all of us there to listen and feel together in a private space made public. All of us finding out who we are.

Kehlani! There’s no power break list without “CRZY”: “Everything I do, I do it with a passion/ If I gotta be a bitch, I’ma be a bad one” YES! This track is as pedagogically inspired as it is sonically transfixing. Kehlani encourages brown and black girls to own their shit—all of it—and to transform everything that’s been used against us into something that can be mobilizing and self-empowering. You tell us we’re crazy bitches? Let’s use it, let’s throw it back and thrive.

Of course, there’s also that strange temporal moment after the book is done, when it’s waiting to find its way into the world. This time needs a soundtrack too. All this week, just before and just after receiving my first hard copy of No Archive in the mail, I’ve been looking back to look forward. I’m listening every single day to Tracy Chapman’s unbelievable first album. My partner Silas and I were driving down the I-95 last week listening to “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution,” and as we sang at the top of our lungs I started to cry. He knows well that I’m prone to big emotions, and so he joked “I’m losing you, aren’t I? I’m losing you right here in front of my eyes to Tracy Chapman!” And then he laughed again, and said “It’s okay, I’m falling in love with her too.” The opening track, “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution,” is everything we all need right now—we’re watching the administration try to shut us down, taking away our rights, trying to tell us who we are and who we can become. And you can hear our whispers, you know it’s going to come.

Julietta Singh and No Archive Will Restore You links:

excerpt from the book (PDF)

Women & Performance interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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