Author Playlists

Tamara Faith Berger’s playlist for her novel “Yara”

“I don’t often listen to music while I write but music informs all the characters and floods through the feeling and mind of the book.”

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.

Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Yara is a bold and unforgettable coming-of-age story.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“This provocative coming-of-age story from Berger raises questions about sexuality, power, and the intersection of the personal and the political”

In her own words, here is Tamara Faith Berger’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel Yara:

Yara spans four countries: Brazil, Israel, Canada, and the US. I don’t often listen to music while I write but music informs all the characters and floods through the feeling and mind of the book.

Return Again Shlomo Carlebach (1989)

Yara’s grandmother in the novel introduces her to the folksy music of Shlomo Carlebach, the ‘holy hippy,’ an Israeli rabbi who crossed over to sixties America to spread Jewish cool. Carlebach’s reputation was tainted after his death by followers who accused him of sexual impropriety.  His song Return Again transforms a straight-up Return-to-Zion injunction into something hypnotic, tingly, and God-free. Carlebach sings only a few lines, a kind of somatic command to keep returning to yourself, to a place in your body where you are born and reborn again. The song gives goosebumps. Yet, considering Carlebach’s stained reputation, I think the song also contains a secret message: glean the imperfections of those who give goosebumps.   

Am Yisrael Chai Shlomo Carlebach (1967)

Reading women’s’ stories of Carlebach’s wrongdoing seems to expose his simultaneous utopianism and chauvinism. Feels like Israel. In my novel, Yara leaves Brazil and goes on Birthright, the trip for Jewish youth meant to instill an allegiance to and love of Israel. The phrase Am Yisrael Chai Israel shall live, the people of Israel shall live — is a refrain by a few characters in the book. In this version of Am Yisrael Chai by Carlebach, who plays amongst his brothers with guitars, I realize that I often write against both the brotherhood and the utopia implicit in Judaism. I like to get to the women, to the body, to corruption. To what is, not what will be.

Hava Nagila Dalida (1959)

Hava Nagila is pure frenzy in most musical interpretations accompanying the horah, a whole room of people dancing linked up and spinning in circles. Yara dances the horah with her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends in Sao Paulo as she grows up, and she also dances in Tzfat on Birthright in a little temple on a hill. I find this strange, sexy-French version by Dalida, an Egyptian-Italian singer, very evocative. Even though Dalida had lived through a lot of suffering at the time she sang this song, the root of Hava Nagila comes through. Let us be happy. Multiply happiness.

Gimme More Britney Spears (2007)

Yara takes place in 2006 when she leaves Brazil to go forth into the world. In my mind, the mid-2000s swirled around Britney Spears — Gimme More being her pinnacle. In this song, Britney’s beg and sizzle barely covers an ever-present existential hole. She spins around the stripper pole (a kind of solipsistic Hava Nagila), parading and forgetting her body at the same time.

Milkshake Kelis (2003)

Milkshake is an anthem of pure provocation that I’ve always linked with sex education which I also link with sex work. You want me to teach you these techniques that freak the boys? Kelis sings. I can teach you, but I have to charge. Milkshake is catchy female power in its creamiest form. It’s meant to spill and spread.

I’m a Slave 4 U Britney Spears (2001) and Sexy Back Justin Timberlake (2006)

The relationship between Britney and Justin seems like it was all about the torturous end. I think the core of the story in Yara is a flip-flopping figuring-out how to break up. How do I untie these knots of love? It takes both people in a relationship a different amount of time to break up. I feel like the 2002 break-up of Britney and Justin is encoded in I’m a Slave 4 U and Sexy Back. Britney was pre-emptive while Justin took a few years to process. How do you leave your lover, how do you make them jealous, how do you show them what they’re missing, how do you win them back? Yara and her girlfriend are not on the same timeline of breakup but they still mirror and echo each other. It’s a dissonant dialogue.

Carcara Maria Bethania (1965)

I’m fascinated by the life of the Brazilian psychoanalyst and radical Yara Yavelberg, who left her bourgeois existence for the revolutionary Carlos Lamarca and was murdered in 1971 while fighting Brazil’s military dictatorship. It’s the seed of my novel and it brought me to this performance by Maria Bethania from 1965. Carcara is a bird of prey, and while I find the translation of the lyrics confusing, as they are all about killing and eating, I read that the song is a parable about people’s resistance during difficult conditions. This raw recording of Bethania’s performance feels as though it encapsulates the real Yara.

Nana Vasconcelos, Africadeus (1973)

Yara’s girlfriend practices Umbanda, which involves listening to the ancestors, being guided by, and communing with them. The music of Umbanda is often drumming by atabaque in a trance-inducing style. This album and track, Africadeus, by Nana Vasconcelos seems to encompass spiritual practices and the burgeoning of electronic music, a direction Yara’s girlfriend wants to go in. When I listen to this album, I think: I wish I could write like Vasconcelos plays.

Zog Nit Keynmol by Cartouche

I was studying Yiddish while writing Yara and music was a big part of it. I listened to Zog Nit Keynmol a lot over the last two years. It was written by poet Hersh Glick in 1943 before he was murdered by the Nazis and it is the enduring song of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Glick’s poetic interpretation of a pre-war Russian resistance song (by Dimitri Pokrass) is sung on every Holocaust Remembrance Day. I love this bold Yiddish-French cover by Cartouche from 2009 because of its ongoing power.  A song written with blood and not with lead. An earworm. A reinterpretation. It’s meant to be destiny. Ways that, at times, I hope to exist as a writer.

As it happens, I also love the Paul Robeson cover of Zog Nit Keynmol. And this communal version led by Annie Lederhender from 1959, welcoming the visionary poet Avrom Sutzkever to Montreal.

Last note: Yara’s lack of understanding of the spiritual concept of honoring one’s ancestors (until she finds a sense of her own self) is understood, I think, by Theodore Bikel’s version of Zog Nit Keynmol which was performed at a festival of Jewish culture in Warsaw in 2013.

also at Largehearted Boy:

Tamara Faith Berger’s playlist for her novel Maidenhead

Tamara Faith Berger’s playlist for her novel A Woman Alone At Night

For book & music links, themed playlists, a wrap-up of Largehearted Boy feature posts, and more, check out Largehearted Boy’s weekly newsletter.

Tamara Faith Berger writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. She is the author of Lie With Me (2001), The Way of the Whore (2004), (republished together by Coach House Books as Little Cat in 2013), Maidenhead (2012), Kuntalini (2016), Queen Solomon (2018) and Yara (2023). She lives and works in Toronto.

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