Author Playlists

Asale Angel-Ajani’s Playlist for Her Novel “A Country You Can Leave”

“While writing, I often listened to the music that is in the book and shapes certain scenes, but I also imagined the kinds of music these two women would fight about in the car while they drove from town to town looking for a place to call home.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Asale Angel-Ajani’s novel A Country You Can Leave is an impressive debut novel, a nuanced and wholly captivating work of fiction.

BookPage wrote of the book:

“Angel-Ajani’s unflinching portrait of this hypernuclear family is captivating and complex, with a richly drawn supporting cast and occasional arch humor that leavens the intensely emotional backdrop.”

In her own words, here is Asale Angel-Ajani’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel A Country You Can Leave:

As a semi-nomadic duo, Yevgenia, and her daughter, Lara, in my novel, A Country You Can Leave, needed road music to accompany their often long angry silences as they drove up and down the West coast and the South Western states, through Mexico and back again. Though much as they are on the road, before the book opens, the true setting of the book takes place in the “fugitive” community of the Oasis Mobile Estates, a sort of forgotten collection of mobile homes at the desert foot hills in Southern California, where Lara and her mother try to forge a life for themselves, together and apart.

While writing, I often listened to the music that is in the book and shapes certain scenes, but I also imagined the kinds of music these two women would fight about in the car while they drove from town to town looking for a place to call home. I imagine, like every parent with a teen in the car, that Yevgenia, a Russian immigrant whose formative years were spent in the Soviet Union before she accidentally defected to Italy and then the US, refuses to listen to the “crap,” Lara, her Black, bi-racial teen is into. It’s only when Yevgenia gets out of the car, a pitstop at a bar, or on her way to perform a roadside seduction, that Lara can listen to her music freely.

“California Girls” by NoMBe

There are too many songs that go by this title, but this is truly the best. It’s the heartbeat of the novel, and I played it on constantly when I was trying to understand the nature of the relationship between Yevgenia and Lara. The song is about women trying to figure out their friendship, their sexuality, their relationship to vices, and who they are supposed to be in a world that largely values appearance over substance. It’s not an obvious choice for a mother-daughter story, but I promise you, if you read the book and listen to this song, you’ll get it.

“El Desierto” by Lhasa de Sela

Lhasa de Sela’s voice is a mix of rage and longing that matches, I imagine, Lara’s voice as she looks out at the barren landscape that is the California desert. The title and the lyrics of this song make it a natural fit for the book. It’s about a person who turns to the desert for comfort when their love is declined. The song has the heat of the desert, the sexy slow burn that makes this, and all songs by the late Lhasa de Sela, extraordinary gems.

“Pachka Sigaret” (Пачка сигарет) by KINO/ Viktor Tsoi

It’s impossible to not include Viktor Tsoi not just on this list but also in the novel. While the albums of Kino are Yevgenia’s road music, it’s this sly, pensive song that accompanies Lara and her mother when they are embarking on one of those journeys that will change Lara’s life. I love listening to this song in both the studio and live versions. Viktor Tsoi embodies a kind of deeply Soviet moment that was both shaped by the West but also so fully removed from it. It’s embarrassing, but I do cry nearly every time I hear this song.

“One Way or Another” by Blondie

If my character, Yevgenia, aspires to be like anyone, it would have to be Debbie Harry. Yevgenia is an immigrant who arrived in New York City in the 1980s, already a young woman who hungered for experiences, so any music by Blondie, but this song in particular would have been what she listened to on her Walkman as she rode the subway. What’s great about Blondie is that it’s among the best in the genre. It’s aged well, has staying power, and in my novel, is an excellent stand-in for traditional holiday music.

“Vsiegda Z Gitaroi” by Lida Goulesco

The cover of her album Gypsy Songs, where Lida has a cigarette dangling from her fingers with a bare background, seems to solidify her place as one of the greatest Russian gypsy singers. The inclusion of Goulesco is important to me—not only does her music play an important role in the book but conceptually, I wrote to reframe the sort of dominant understanding held by many Americans—that Russia is not a land mass made up of many, many different ethnicities and that there is, still, discrimination and xenophobia that Jews, Muslims, Central Asians, and other non-Russian immigrants continue to face.

“Give Me the Night” by George Benson

Imagine this glorious song playing streaming out of a seaside disco in Ostia on a hot summer evening in the late 1970s. It’s the song of Yevgenia’s first weekend of freedom after she walks away from her life as a seamstress for the Moscow Ballet while they were on tour in Rome.

“Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious

This is one of those pieces that just kept me energized during the writing. I listen to this at top volume like a fighter getting ready to enter the ring after I have been sitting at the desk too long. It’s a feat of lyrical speed and does not demand much from me emotionally so it’s a good song to remind me what words can do.

“Under the Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers

I’m not proud of this selection. Not because it’s the Chili Peppers but because, as a novel that takes place in Southern California that features a scene where Lara goes to look for her father under a freeway overpass, it kind of feels a little on the nose. In my defense, I will say that in real life, I went to look for a father who lived under a freeway underpass in Los Angeles and I promise you, this song came on the radio.

“Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child

As the late 1990s and the early aughts go, there is nothing better than Destiny’s Child. In my novel, the song, “Say My Name” has a kind of running thread for the “young folks” in the book. On the one hand, it’s a kind of battle cry for the character Charles, with his schemes and dreams of making it out of the hell that is the Oasis Mobile Estate. On the other hand, it is a song that orients Lara, who is questioning her own naming practices.

“I Think I’ll Call It Morning” by Gil Scott-Heron

The sun blooms in this song. It’s the perfect Saturday morning song, the soundtrack for that post-Friday night where the party ran a little long, got a bit out of hand and the pounding hangover is the embodiment of regret. But the truth is that you have to press on, get to the job, and maybe, even worse, tend to the kids. This song isn’t going to let you off easy, but it’s going to wake you up.

“Count Me Out” by Kendrick Lamar

If there could be an anthem for the people that inhabit the community—the Oasis Mobile Estates, it’s this song. The people of the Oasis are folks who have already been discounted, shoved aside, and forgotten unless to pathologize. This song is about seeing inside a person who has been told, by many—the failed state, teachers, courts, bosses, the church to just keep your head down, work hard, don’t question the system that extracts so much from us and gives back so little. Like a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s songs, it brilliantly gets to the heart of the pain of living.

Asale Angel-Ajani is a writer and Professor at The City College of New York. She’s the author of the nonfiction books Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade and Intimate: Essays on Racial Terror. She has held residencies at Millay, Djerassi, and Playa, and is an alum of VONA and Tin House. A Country You Can Leave is her first novel.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation to keep the site strong.