Author Playlists

Julia Lee’s Playlist for Her Memoir “Biting the Hand”

“…I feel like The Linda Linda’s ‘Racist, Sexist Boy’ IS the soundtrack of my memoir.”

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.

Julia Lee’s Biting the Hand is a smart, powerful, and vulnerable memoir.

Zhanna Slor’s novel Breakfall is a compelling and surprising literary thriller.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

Lee’s memoir ultimately enacts a powerful apostasy…It is a beautiful incantation for the ongoing project of Asian American identity, a matter of infinite becoming, ever in transformation.

In her own words, here is Julia Lee’s Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Biting the Hand:

I grew up in the 1980s, and for one blissful year, we had cable, which meant we had MTV. I used to watch music videos for hours on end and then get on the landline to call in requests. I almost always got a busy signal, but I called so often that eventually, I’d get through. In those days, it felt like the same ten videos were in constant rotation.

Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Wishing Well” is one of the songs I always associate with those days—I remember the video being kind of boring (D’Arby, now known as Sananda Maiteya, just sang soulfully into a microphone) but the song had such a chill 80s soul vibe. It also came on literally every half hour, so it’s part of the soundtrack of my tween years.

“November Rain” by Guns n’ Roses was another song I’d often request. I loved the video because it had a narrative—I remember a bride in a big white 80s wedding dress and Axl Rose dressed as the groom and somehow the song was super tragic (did they get divorced? Did the bride die? Why was it raining?). Guns n’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” was the first album I ever bought—I bought the cassette tape for ten dollars at the now-defunct Wherehouse in the now-defunct Westside Pavilion mall in Los Angeles.

Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” came out in 1993 and was dedicated to the memory of Latasha Harlins, who was killed by a Korean shopkeeper who falsely accused her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. He’s singing about the abuse faced by Black women and he’s encouraging them to keep their head up. The song is supportive, hopeful, and compassionate, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Rest in Power, Latasha and Tupac.

I also grew up loving Prince, and in college, I’d have mini-dance parties in my dorm room with my friend Miki, another huge fan. The two of us would sing along to “Little Red Corvette” and “1999,” but probably my favorite song, to no one’s surprise, is “Purple Rain.” I recently visited Paisley Park outside Minneapolis and almost burst into tears when they started playing the song in a darkened hall with images of Prince in concert flashing across the screen. Prince’s joyfulness, his sexiness, his soul—I love him, and his music made me feel loved.

In college, some of my classmates introduced me to Ani Difranco. I liked that she was so overtly political, that she rebelled against traditional notions of gender and sexuality and embraced her own queerness and feminism. In “Not a Pretty Girl,” she sings, “every time I say something they find hard to hear / they chalk it up to my anger / and not to their own fear.” DiFranco is angry, but her anger is dismissed because she’s a woman and because her anger scares people. She keeps singing anyway. 

More recently, I really enjoyed Kendrick Lamar’s album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” especially his song, “The Blacker the Berry.” Kendrick is angry, proud, defiant, and self-critical—he doesn’t let anyone off the hook, including himself, and when he spits out “hypocrite” at the end of the song, it feels like a punch in the gut. He’s also hilarious—his lyric about how he watches BET because “urban support is important”—always makes me laugh out loud.

Writing my book was emotionally very heavy, so I’ve been making a concerted effort to listen to music that’s more joyful and optimistic. I listened to a lot of Lizzo in the last year because I am trying to heal, and I want to listen to happy songs. Her song with Missy Elliot, “Tempo,” is probably my favorite song off her album “Cuz I love you.” It’s a club song, with a great beat and a great message about loving yourself.

I’m teaching a class on Black Women Writers right now, and we’re reading Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist story, “The Memory Librarian” (co-written with Alaya Dawn Johnson) and watching her “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer. My mind is blown. Monáe’s song “Crazy, Classic Life,” is such an amazing celebration of queer joy, Black joy. Screw the haters, who claim those of us with marginalized identities are somehow “deviant.” We deserve a crazy, classic life! Just let us live our lives! Great video too, it slaps.

Finally, I feel like The Linda Linda’s “Racist, Sexist Boy” IS the soundtrack of my memoir. The Linda Linda’s are a local LA punk band made up of four pre-teen and teenage Asian American and Latina girls. Their song “Racist, Sexist Boy” went viral during COVID and is a big middle finger to all the bigots out there who make girls of color feel small. I wish the Linda Linda’s had existed when I was a teenager, but I am so glad my own 13 year old daughter has them as a voice and an inspiration. 

Julia Lee is a Korean American writer, scholar, and teacher. She is the author of Our Gang: A Racial History of “The Little Rascals” and The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel, as well as the novel By the Book, which was published under the pen name Julia Sonneborn. She is an associate professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, where she teaches African American and Caribbean literature. She lives with her family in Los Angeles.

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