In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In prose both precise and alive, Gina Chung’s novel Sea Change is one of the year’s standout debuts.
Debutiful wrote of the book:
“Sea Change is a standout of the 2023 debut class. It will pull you in from the first page and not let go as you traverse through a sea of originality. It’s filled with stunning and scrumptious prose.”
In her own words, here is Gina Chung’s Book Notes music playlist for her novella Sea Change:
My novel Sea Change is a story about love, loneliness, and cephalopods. My main character, Ro, is a 30-year-old Korean American woman dealing with heartbreak and loss. Her boyfriend, Tae, is leaving not just her, but the planet, on a privately funded expedition to colonize Mars. Meanwhile, Ro’s best friend and coworker Yoonhee is pulling away to focus on her upcoming wedding, leaving her to spend most of her days alone, ignoring texts from her mother, caring for the creatures at the aquarium where she works, and drinking too many sharktinis (a drink consisting of Mountain Dew, a hint of jalapeño, and way too much gin). The one bright spot in Ro’s life is Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus at the aquarium who also happens to be her last remaining connection to her father, a marine biologist who discovered Dolores and disappeared fifteen years ago on a research trip. When Ro learns that Dolores has been bought by a private investor, she begins to spin out of control, and by the end of the novel, she must come to terms with her father’s disappearance and the role she has played in her own failing relationships. Ultimately, Sea Change is about learning how to show up for yourself, and how to stay in the world when it feels like everyone else might be leaving you behind.
I wrote the first draft of this novel during the fall of 2020, when I was experiencing several changes of my own—including a breakup—and loneliness, loss, and the importance of finding connection and hope in unexpected places were very much on my mind. Working out of a small Brooklyn apartment I shared with roommates, I felt like the world of Sea Change was one of the few places I could escape to safely during that time period. When I wasn’t writing, I spent a lot of time in the park near where I lived, listening to an elaborate playlist I had crafted for the book that reflected, for me, the emotional beats of the story. It felt like a way to inhabit the world of my novel, even when I wasn’t in it. Here are 10 tracks from that playlist, each of which have a special significance for me.
- I’m Not In Love – Kelsey Lu
Ro’s ex Tae first turns her on to the original version of this song by 10cc, which is fantastic, but this cover version by Kelsey Lu feels particularly resonant to me. It’s a fairly straightforward cover, echoing the original’s heartbeat-like rhythm and use of multilayered vocals that sound both ethereal and slightly ominous. But hearing the famously contrarian lyrics (“I’m not in love, so don’t forget it / It’s just a silly phase I’m going through”) sung by a femme, queer person of color feels incredibly powerful to me (it’s worth noting that the idea for the original song came from 10cc band member Eric Stewart, who, when his wife asked him why he didn’t say “I love you” more often, decided to write a song about saying “I love you” while saying the complete opposite). Kelsey Lu’s delicate vocal phrasing transforms the song from a defiant, if still romantic ballad, into a tender confessional. I listened to this song repeatedly while drafting and revising Sea Change. It’s a song about love and all its contradictions, as well as how scary it can be to admit your love for someone, all very resonant themes in my novel. “It made a perfect kind of sense to me that sometimes the best way to tell someone how much you need them is to tell them the exact opposite, defining your feelings for them the way you’d describe the shape of something by using the negative space around it,” says Ro, in describing her feelings about the song.
- Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen
Sea Change is set in my home state of New Jersey. Growing up, I never thought much about my relationship to New Jersey, and it took leaving the state to develop a stronger appreciation for it. New Jersey, for me, is wrapped up in all the beautiful memories I have of cruising down highways in packed cars with my friends, the windows rolled all the way down and music blasting as we headed off for the beach, the mall, or whatever other adventure we had planned. I didn’t discover Bruce Springsteen until much later in life, but the first time I ever heard “Hungry Heart,” it felt like I was coming home to something I hadn’t even known I was missing. From its opening chords to the triumphant yell that jumpstarts the song, “Hungry Heart” is an anthem for the lonely, the searching, the wanderers in all of us. The protagonist of the song isn’t a great dude (he leaves his wife and kids in Baltimore for seemingly no reason, only to drift into a loveless affair that also ends), but it’s his unabashed hunger for something more, as well as his simultaneous certainty that he’ll find it out there, that really sells the song, as well as the huge, compassionate chorus that reminds us that “Everybody needs a place to rest / Everybody wants to have a home / Don’t make no difference what nobody says / Ain’t nobody like to be alone.” Like Dolores, the giant Pacific octopus she cares for, Ro is a solitary creature, but she’s often more alone than she should be. It’s only in recognizing her own hunger, her own need for a place to call home, that she can actually find what she needs.
- Try – Nosaj Thing, Toro y Moi
This is one of my favorite songs on this playlist, and also one of the most mysterious. I’ve looked up the lyrics a million times, and every time I forget immediately what they are. Even when I’m reading the lyrics while listening to the song, their meaning seems to slip from my mind like water through a pair of cupped hands, which feels intentional. One of the reasons I gravitated to this song when I began drafting Sea Change was because sonically, it reminded me of feeling suspended in water, or of watching something beautiful move through water and light (try listening to it while watching a YouTube oceanscape with the sound turned off on the video, like this one, or the Monterey Aquarium jellyfish cam). The lyrics are sparse, and seem to hint at a relationship that’s running on empty (“For you and me, I’ll be tryin’ always,” pleads Chaz Bear), despite the speaker’s best attempts to keep it going. “I know I treat you right / I know I did you wrong / I know I did you wrong / I know treat you right” goes the repeating refrain of the song, as if the speaker is trying to quantify the blame for what did go wrong, as if this analysis will save them. In the end, both sentiments can be true, as Ro learns throughout the course of Sea Change as she tries to determine what went wrong with her own relationship. No matter how much can be right or wrong in a relationship, when it’s over, sometimes it’s just over.
- Sweet Thing – Van Morrison
“Sweet Thing” is a song that for me, encapsulates what it feels like to be in the early stages of being in love with someone—when it feels like no matter what you do, you have no choice but to hurtle headfirst into that kind of heady, dreamy love that makes everything gold-toned and fools you into thinking the universe revolves around you, when even the rain seems to fall just for you and your beloved (I know, I know, gross). But even for the most hardened of hearts, it’s an irresistible feeling, that terrifying, utterly delightful sensation of getting completely swept off your feet. In Sea Change, “Sweet Thing” is another song that Ro associates with her ex Tae, and it’s one she can’t help but cling to in the days after their breakup, despite the fact that she’s so far away from those feelings now.
- In Heaven – Japanese Breakfast
“In Heaven” is about wanting to believe in what feels like the impossible, in a life in which our loved ones never really leave us. This emotionally devastating song is about Michelle Zauner, the lead singer of Japanese Breakfast, processing and mourning the death of her mother, and the recurring lines of “Oh, do you believe in heaven / Like you believed in me? / Oh, it could be such heaven / If you believed it was real” get me every time. As someone who grew up in the Christian church and has since left it, I do often miss believing in heaven, in the idea that life and reunion after death is possible for us. At the same time, part of me still believes that the ones we love are with us all the time, even after they’re gone. Sea Change deals a lot with Ro’s desire to believe that her father (who went missing years ago during a research trip at sea) is still out there, and about how that belief can be both a comfort and a burden.
- Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
If you haven’t yet seen the 2014 video of Future Islands performing this song on Letterman, please do yourself a favor and go watch it—it’s four minutes and twenty seconds of pure, sweaty, unadulterated joy, featuring some pretty incredible squat-dancing, chest-thumping, and unexpectedly death metal-esque vocals from frontman Samuel T. Herring. The lyrics of the song are a reminder of the inevitability of change, but also the cold, hard reality of the fact that most people simply don’t change for others: “People change / But you know some people never do / You know when people change / They gain a peace, but they lose one too.” Like many of us, Ro is both terrified of change, but also terrified that she’ll never change, that she’ll always be making the same mistakes. Sea Change is about learning how to grow alongside the inevitable upheavals of life, and how to be less afraid of them.
- Drunk II – Mannequin Pussy
This song makes self-destructive behavior sound almost fun—until it really, really isn’t. “Drunk II” is about someone who, like Ro, in the throes of heartbreak, is hell-bent on getting wasted to forget. There’s a particularly funny yet deeply sad moment in the song when the speaker even calls their ex, forgetting they’re no longer together (“And do you remember the nights I called you up? / I was so fucked up / I forgot we were broken up / I still love you, you stupid fuck”). This song perfectly captures that sensation of trying to act like you are so fine, that you are having fun, while inside, you are coming totally unglued. All the speaker wants is for someone to recognize how much pain they’re in (“And everyone says to me / ‘Missy, you’re so strong’ / But what if I don’t want to be?”), and yet they’re totally unable to escape their own self-imposed isolation. The last line of the song, however, hints at a moment of understanding, or maybe even of acceptance: “I am alone (I have the answer now).” Sometimes you have to come to the absolute limits of yourself and your own bullshit to find grace.
- Night Shift – Lucy Dacus
The ultimate breakup anthem. (This song happened to be my number one song in my Spotify Wrapped for 2020, just saying.) The thing that really makes “Night Shift” transcend the usual postmortem relationship ballad though, is the sheer ecstasy that the song reaches in its last third, around the 4:10 mark, when the guitar and drums really kick in and Lucy’s beautiful, plaintive voice soars above them, telling her ex, “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers /
Dedicated to new lovers.” Who hasn’t been in the depths of heartbreak, when the only thing that comforts you is the idea that someday all of it will just be a distant memory? Around 4:53, when Lucy croons a wordless, “Oooh” over the sounds of her guitar shredding away, the anger and sadness of the song give way to an ecstatic howl, paralleling the kind of anguish that feels so all-consuming that it becomes a reminder of your own aliveness, your sheer capacity to hurt and love.
- Hotel California – Eagles
I love a song that tells a story, and “Hotel California” has it all—plot, twists, world-building, and ghosts! In my novel, this song makes an appearance while ten-year-old Ro is on a rare family vacation in Hawaii with her parents, whose dysfunctional marriage informs the emotionally turbulent backdrop of her childhood. While on vacation, however, Ro begins to see her parents soften toward one another, even dancing to a live cover version of this song while at dinner. Like most kids would be, Ro is both embarrassed and fascinated at first by this rare display of affection between her parents, and she doesn’t know yet that this will be one of the last times their family will be happy together, before her father disappears. “Hotel California” is about hauntings, both literal and figurative, and the things we can never outrun, and so is Sea Change.
- More Than This – Roxy Music
“More Than This” is such a soulful and introspective song—the perfect closer for a night at karaoke, when everyone is tired but not quite ready to go home, or the ideal accompaniment to a solo night drive, when you’re thinking about everything and nothing all at once. As a confirmed nighttime writer, late nights are when my mind feels most alive and free to wander, which might be why there are a lot of scenes in Sea Change that take place with Ro alone in her car, or in a parking lot at night. Some of my most transcendent moments have happened on the way home from a night out, when I feel acutely aware of the passage of time and of how really, there is nothing more to life than the moments that slip between our fingers, the moments that we might be lucky enough to share with others. It’s a lesson that Ro has to learn over the course of Sea Change, as she realizes that a life spent in solitude and hiding is not nearly as rewarding as one spent in connection, however risky it might be, with others.
Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Catapult, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Idaho Review, The Rumpus, Pleiades, F(r)iction, and Wigleaf, among others, and has been recognized by several contests, including the American Short(er) Fiction Contest, the Los Angeles Review Literary Awards, and the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest.