Sarah Cypher’s novel The Skin and Its Girl is a stunning debut, a vivid and imaginative queer coming-of-age story.
These songs follow the novel’s emotional contour and trajectory: introducing the blue-skinned narrator, her family, and their predicaments. The list is as eclectic as the storytelling, and while I don’t always listen to music while writing, I played all of these on repeat at different times—while running, or with my head down on my desk, trying to wring some emotional clarity out of scenes that tripped me up. So much of the novel is a dance with queer vulnerability, outsized emotions, and the ways we shape ourselves around cultural taboos. Sometimes music is the only way to pierce through it all to find the quiet clarity in the center. For all the novel’s antics, its central conviction is that a wish for belonging is part of being human, and storytelling is a way to imagine overcoming differences.
“Wonder,” Natalie Merchant
The lyrics animate this project on the most literal level: “Doctors have come from distant cities just to see me / stand over my bed, disbelieving what they’re seeing.“ Betty is a wonder, born with cobalt-blue skin that everyone but her mother tries to explain rationally. It’s her mother alone who gets it right: Betty’s blue skin comes from a higher mystery and needs no explanation. The first-person lyrics swell with unapologetic celebration of difference.
The Systems/Layers album is from 2003, the year after Betty is born. In that year, I was thinking a lot about the post-9/11 conflicts, the US invasion of Iraq, and our protest marches in Portland. I was starting to recognize how much crosstalk existed between my identities as a child of an Arab American family and as the adult citizen of a country so busy with wrecking other countries. In the song, there’s a cacophony of voices threaded with an urgent piano and violin duet that mimics, for me, the turbulence and eddies of information flowing from East to West during that time—broken up by distance, politics, and a sense of helplessness. It forms a background to the political state of affairs in The Skin and Its Girl, too, which takes place mostly in the US during the second intifada in Israel and Palestine.
“Für Alina,” Arvo Pärt
Pärt is an Estonian Orthodox Christian composer influenced by sacred music, but he pares it down to the bones. When Betty is born, her immediate family has been fractured by infidelity, and she spends her first year raised mostly by her grandmother and her great-aunt, Nuha, both of them aging Palestinian immigrants. The purity of this deceptively minimalistic piano piece captures, for me, how women built their lives in the US and their various sacrifices, as well as the undercurrent of loneliness beneath Nuha’s superficial showmanship. “Für Alina”is a very short piece of music, so during performances, it is often played multiple times, varying in each repetition, which echoes to novel’s use of traditional storytelling.
“Crucify,” Tori Amos
Look no further than early-career Tori Amos for a hymn to inner turmoil. Tashi’s character expresses the cost of trying to fit in. After Betty’s difficult birth, Tashi’s mother and aunt help with childcare while Tashi recovers from postpartum depression. Her history of suicide attempts looms, and she feels she has too much to live up to: the first-generation tensions of being a white-collar professional whose education was paid for with the sale of the family’s ancestral properties in Palestine. The family minimizes her mental illness, and she spends most of her life at war with her own self-destructive tendencies, which motherhood threatens to amplify.
“Left and Leaving,” The Weakerthans
Here I’m reaching for music from near (and beyond) the 49th Parallel in honor of Betty’s estranged father, Adam. He’s a transplant to the West Coast and carries a shard of that frigid horizon in the core of his being. It manifests as an intellectual relentlessness, a drive for authority in all things. He finds an unlikely rest in his love for chaotic Tashi—until it falters, and an infidelity breaks them apart during Tashi’s pregnancy. Like the rest of the adult characters in this story, he spends years trying to find his way back to an elusive sense of home.
“Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand,” Primitive Radio Gods
The song’s cryptic lyrics orbit a theme of disconnection in love while its chorus features a gritty sampling from B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get.” Betty’s upbringing across many households underscores the damaged connection between Tashi and Adam as they debate Betty’s future in school and try to present a united front against Nuha’s wilder ideas. What hits me is the sense of disillusionment with a dissolute world, the way we try to piece together bits of nostalgia and memories into an illusion of a coherent self.
“You Make Me Smile,” Blue October
I found my way into Blue October’s music during my twenties when I was falling for all the wrong people, when I first started thinking about love that doesn’t fit in the usual containers. Betty goes through similar trials, narrating this novel after a history of too many stupid heartbreaks. At the same time, she’s hearing the parallels in her Aunt Nuha’s life too. The song is infused with the hard Blue October sound, and for me, it honors the residue of anger that remains long after something falls apart.
“Hello Night,” Zoë Keating
An extraordinary amount of THE SKIN AND ITS GIRL was written with music playing in the background, but it’s hard for me to concentrate when listening to music with lyrics. So, I listened to Zoë Keating’s haunting, short album on repeat endlessly. She is a solo performer who layers her cello’s sounds via computer to build up an atmospheric, spectral orchestra that evokes something of a fable’s otherworldly wisdom. I positioned this selection late in the playlist because, at about this point in the novel, Aunt Nuha returns to Palestine to confront the many layers of her history there.
“Hallelujah,” k.d. lang
Disclosing a favorite cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” courts disagreement, so I’ll hedge and say that I love Jeff Buckley’s just as much as k.d. lang’s. Buckley’s was the first version I heard, and like a lot of people, I imprinted on it. Yet as lang’s version finds its groove after the first few lines, her voice soars across the same registers of tenderness and defiant love with a sincerity that’s just right for the kind of feeling that I’m writing about. Longing, as well as the war between spirit and body, run through THE SKIN AND ITS GIRL, and so does the impulse to channel old forms through many different voices.
“Colors,” Black Pumas
Eric Burton’s voice is magnetic, and while I was finishing the novel in 2019 and 2020, this song evinced a sense of spiritual arrival after a really long journey. I had been working full-time and doing an MFA, which felt like a lot even before the rest of 2020 happened. Still, the song’s simple, unyielding guitar line pulls me along like the double yellow line leads a wet road toward clearer skies, gathering the landscape as it goes. In the novel, Betty is ready for a new perspective, wanting to shake off a struggle and come out renewed—even if it’s temporary, as everything is.