Author Playlists

Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Playlist for Her Story Collection “When Trying to Return Home”

“I can’t write without creating a soundtrack to my work.”

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.

Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s collection When Trying to Return Home is an indelible debut, a book that imprints itself on your memory, the stories unforgettable.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

McCauley writes with a lovely lyricism and musicality, an adroitness of construction that brings a lightness to her heavier subjects. Within a crowded field of collections that explore family, motherhood and identity, this debut makes the case for one more.

In her own words, here is Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Book Notes music playlist for her story collection When Trying to Return Home:

I can’t write without creating a soundtrack to my work. I love music playing in the background when I type and I love jigging and jumping and flapping my fingers to flailing sounds. Writing can be such a visceral experience; it fully inhabits me and music whisks me into a sort of trance. I go to concerts and live music often so I can drench myself in the spike and strum of good music.

In When Trying to Return Home, the characters are all in a state of flux. They’re looking for something fulfilling; they’re failing, they’re trying again, they’re grasping and searching and running. They’re mashing up different languages, they’re creating their own sound. Nobody is stable, they roil in a liminal space.

I wanted my playlist to reflect a book that has this kind of liminality. There’s rap, there’s reggaeton, there’s blues and country and R & B. These songs all show characters grappling with in-between spaces and discovering themselves.

“Place I Belong” by Michael Kiwanuka

Belonging is a major theme in my short story collection. In this song, Kiwanuka swoons and soars. He says “look all around, I get the feeling something is wrong” and this ill at ease pushes him to move along, to fight time and secure his own path. My characters in When Trying to Return Home are all looking for communities, family and friends to tie themselves to, sometimes in vain. Kiwanuka’s song captures this feeling of longing for a home.

“Reality” by Rap Noir

Rap Noir (which is comprised of Tajai from the legendary Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics and Unjust, the producer who is part of Chosen Few and First Light) is one of my favorite artists. In “Reality,” the speaker was raised on “the evil side” and he sees the real and now as a projection of our imagination. Our world has been controlled by institutions and by our own expectations, he asserts.  He implores, teasingly, “keep telling yourself it’s make-believe” and tells his listeners “this shit’s just a lie…” In When Trying to Return Home, the characters are often in dire straights and try to escape their life-prisons by reaching for others to save them. They in turn make other people mirrors of themselves and turn reality into “the make believe.”  This song spoke to me clearly.

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

I’ve always loved this song. This piece goes with “Torsion,” a story in which a young woman helps her mother steal back her brother from his foster mother and they make a wild dash to get away from the site of the crime. While the story is fast-paced, this song is slow and unfurls with a certain measured grace. Chapman paints a picture of folks in discord and she talks about “what it finally means to be living.” This song goes beyond fragmented familial dynamics. She says “we can leave tonight or we can die this way,” a feeling the mother in “Torsion” has as she seeks to take back her child and start anew in a different city. The quiet power of this song stays with me.

“La Diaspora” by Nitty Scott, Zap Mama

This short story collection largely features Afro-Latine characters. Nitty Scott, an Afro-Latina, provides a soaring anthem for characters from this background. She talks about how Blackness spreads across the globe and says she is “la hija de la Diaspora,” or the daughter of the diaspora, an identity that many of my characters share. At the end of the piece she proudly claims “Yo soy Negra y Latina (I’m Black and Latina.)” In this book, characters struggle with their ability to relate to both sides of their identity but ultimately proclaim “Yo soy Negra y Latina.”

“Adore Me” by Pierce

In “Adore Me” the speaker, a domineering parent, tells his kin “child you are mine you must adore me.” Pierce, with crisp, insistent, and delightfully scuff-voiced vocals, perfectly embodies  this parent. In my short story “The Missing One”, the character Kal is pushed to desegregate his school by the state, and by his mother who think he’s off to find a better future in a white school. However, Kal quickly realizes he is treated poorly and seen as a little boy symbol of the changing times. Kal’s struggle to escape his family’s hold is vibrantly captured in this song.

“Ven Comigo” by Daddy Yankee

Reggaeton always brings me back to Puerto Rico and Miami, two places where I’ve spent extensive time. In “Ven Comigo” Daddy Yankee tells a young woman that she should come with him and leave everything behind, that he’s the right one for her. In the short story, “Good Guys” a group of rough-talking brutos in Miami try to get a beautiful nun to find interest in them. While the guys don’t succeed, their animated come ons and bubbly Spanglish is reflected in this song.

“I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” by Johnny Cash

Joe Clifford solicited me for a Johnny Cash anthology and he asked me to pick a Cash song and write to it. I picked Johnny Cash’s lesser known “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” and I created a Black woman Johnny Cash who falls in love with a young Nashville singer but can’t connect with her fully. Mavis, the protagonist, is used to bouncing around from city to city without settling down in one place. This song, about a drifter who simply wants to “find a place of peace/until then my travelling won’t cease”, captures Mavis’s desire to settle somewhere and give herself to somebody. This song will always be a treasure to me.

“Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson

I grew up listening to Robert Johnson and hearing about his legend. In this song, the speaker wrestles with the devil who “knocks up on my door.” In my take on Little Red Riding Hood “Last Saints”, morality is skewed, when a young woman named Sugar Red tries to love her grandmother but accidentally kills her. Her friend, an old huntsman named Potato, tries to cover up the crime and at the end of the story they both muse on how they might have been possessed by an evil force. Robert Johnson’s haunting voice and pitch-perfect performance beautifully capture this conflict.

Zulu Screams by Goldlink, Bibi Bourelly, Maleek Berry

This song inspired an entire story in When Trying to Return Home. When I listened to Goldlink’s thumping, shadowed beats that rage with Afro-beat and hip hop, I imagined a Black woman, with her legs spread defiantly wide as she dragged on a cigarette in the back of a club. This image appears in the story “Liberation Day,” in which the character Mavis watches “moving bodies” wriggle and shake at a party. This song sounds like Africa, like America, like the South, like the North; it contains so many influences and brings them all together into a delightful sancocho. I love it.

Zora by Jamila Woods

In Jamila Woods’ brilliant album LEGACY! LEGACY! each song is devoted to a Black icon. Her “Zora” gives tribute to the amazing Zora Neale Hurston. When I finished my PhD I went to Fort Pierce, Florida and lived there for a year, teaching remotely and trying to figure out what to do next with my life after I’d gone through a five year degree. In her last years Zora Neale Hurston lived in Fort Pierce too. In the story “Liberation Day,” the main character Estelle, a nun who leaves the convent, also finds herself in Fort Pierce and she realizes she has to discover who she is without an identity stamped on her. She finds strength in Zora Neale Hurston as I did. In this song, Woods says, “You will never know everything, everything/I will never know everything, everything…” and this place of not-knowing and strength is gorgeously presented in this song.

Home Again by Michael Kiwanuka

In this final song in my playlist, Kiwanuka says “home again/home again/one day I know I’ll feel home again.” In a short story collection called When Trying to Return Home, all the characters are seeking home in idealized places or people. This song, aching and painfully tragic describes what it means to move on from the places and people that used to bind you or define your personhood. Ultimately, all of my characters want to “smile again” and be in calm, soft spaces after the turmoil in their lives. Kiwanuka explores what finding “home” really means in this song.

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a writer, poet, and university professor. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Kimbilio, CantoMundo and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. She holds an MFA from Florida International University and a PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Missouri. The author of the cross-genre collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, she is an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

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