April 6, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
As stunning and elegant as its cover, Deanna Fei's debut novel A Thread of Sky follows three generations of Chinese-American women on a two-week trip to China as they search for cultural identity.
Fei's portrait of the family, both as women and Chinese-Americans, is powerful and important, and wonderfully written by one of the most promising voices in contemporary American fiction.
Alexander Chee wrote of the book:
"This had me at the first page. Fei's debut novel is both intensely enjoyable and, I think, important-this novel charts the cost of that famous Asian silence between generations, as a family takes in the price of it across several generations. But it is also an intimate portrait of that famous 'new China,' as much of a surprise to Chinese-Americans as it is to the rest of us. Truly a book for our times."
The songs I've selected here, one for each character, were so close to me during the writing of A Thread of Sky that listening to them again while I wrote this piece was a bit unsettling. Over the five years that I worked on the novel, on sporadic days when my characters became reticent or their voices got muffled or I simply couldn't shed my identity for theirs, I listened to these songs on repeat. Sometimes I never wanted to hear them again. I find it impossible, now, to say whether I like these songs, nearly as impossible as it is to say whether I like my characters. They are each equally me, and equally individuals outside of me. They are family.
Writing, to me, is something like Method acting. The trials that your characters face are those that you must endure, and what transpires in a few pages might take weeks or months from your life. It's only fair: if you want your readers to feel anything, you have to feel it many times over. A few months into the research and writing of A Thread of Sky, I moved to China because that's where my characters were going. I stayed there for three years, touring each city on their itinerary, viewing the sights through their eyes. Sitting at my desk day after day, even after I moved back to New York, I was, by turns, recently widowed, suddenly betrayed, turning eighty, struggling with bulimia, reliving a long-ago war, facing an unwanted pregnancy, hiking the Great Wall, having sex for the first time, and pursuing an old and doomed flame.
I think that's why writers tend to be recluses. It's not that we're misanthropes. We like to chat over coffee, go for happy hour, host dinner parties as much as anyone. It's just that we're already surrounded by people: our characters. Most days, we're living their lives—multiple lives, complicated lives, lives that (we hope) are more interesting than our own. Rarely do they leave us completely alone, and when they do, we're desperate to call them back—with enforced isolation, with avowals not to leave our desks, and sometimes with music.
Irene: "恰似你的温柔" – Tsai Chin
In A Thread of Sky, Irene plans a tour of mainland China's must-sees, reuniting three generations of women—her three daughters, her sister, and her mother—in an attempt to heal her fractured family. Halfway through the tour, just as she has begun to wonder if this return to her ancestral home will yield anything but disillusionment, Irene strolls the legendary romantic setting of Hangzhou's West Lake after a rainstorm and finally finds herself transported—enfolded in the shimmering scenery, filled "with a slow heavy pleasure that was, at bottom, indistinguishable from an ache." She is longing for her husband, who was killed a year ago in a car crash—though hers is no ordinary grief. When he died, he was leaving her after thirty years of marriage.
Tsai Chin is a Taiwanese singer who was hugely popular in the 70s and 80s; today, when she performs on the mainland and for a certain generation of Chinese Americans, audiences are often moved to tears as they sway and sing along. Her music is sometimes called "Mando-pop," but her voice is startlingly pure, and this song is a folk classic. Against a minimalist string arrangement, the lyrics are both wistful and unsparing in a way that's difficult to translate. (The title, "Just Like Your Tenderness," falls particularly flat in English.) Here is an approximation, provided by my mother: "So let it all ebb away, far away/ It wasn't easy/ But we did not cry/ Let it come softly/ Let it go gently/ Now, year after year/ I can't stop missing/ Missing you, missing days gone by."
Nora: "Cheers Darlin'" – Damien Rice
Nora is Irene's eldest daughter, a successful Wall Street trader who has long prided herself on being strong, invulnerable, in charge—even in the wake of her father's death. When the family embarks on their tour, she has just been laid low with a broken heart.
I first heard "Cheers Darlin'" as the accompaniment to a modern dance performance in Shanghai. On a bare, red-lit stage, a nearly nude couple somersaulted over each other so slowly that I could see the ripple and strain of each muscle. While the two bodies incessantly met and left each other, back and forth across the stage, the song looped over and over until I could hardly stand to hear it again. The spectacle was brutal and intensely romantic. In the song, Damien Rice's anguished crooning is accompanied by sarcastic snarls and a world-weary lilt. The lyrics are repetitive and allusive, veering between adoration and revulsion, confession and retraction: "Cheers darlin'/ Here's to you and your lover boy/ Cheers darlin'/ I got years to wait around for you/ Cheers darlin'/ I've got your wedding bells in my ear/ Cheers darlin'/ You gave me three cigarettes to smoke my tears away/ And I die when you mention his name…/ What am I darlin'?/ A whisper in your ear?/ A piece of your cake?/ What am I?"
Kay: "Gravity" – Vienna Teng
Kay is Irene's middle daughter, a headstrong activist living in Beijing when her mother conceives of the tour. She has been struggling all year "to trace her heritage in a place where history was being razed, paved over, replaced with steel, glass, and neon," and now she learns, for the first time, that her own grandmother was a revolutionary and leader of the Chinese feminist movement until the civil war turned their family to exiles.
Listening to "Gravity," Kay would hear something of an Asian American identity in Vienna Teng's unadorned voice, her subtle and layered piano playing, and particularly in her lyrics: "So don't turn away now/ I am turning in revolution/ These are the scars that silence carved on me…/ This is the same place/ No, not the same place/ This is the same place, love/ No, not the same place we've been before."
Sophie: "Electric Relaxation" – A Tribe Called Quest
Sophie, the youngest daughter, is trapped at home until college, striving to be named valedictorian, and hiding a burgeoning eating disorder. When she learns about the tour, she cuts class with her African American boyfriend, an aspiring rapper who represents to her a new world of dramatic adversity and raw sexuality, a world completely apart from that of her family and their ancestral ties to China.
This song is as witty and ambitious as any of A Tribe Called Quest's tracks, and it is one of their sexiest. "Honey check it out, you got me mesmerized/ With your black hair and your fat-ass thighs…" These lines give Sophie a thrill, even as she can't help feeling that it's a thrill for which the rest of the women in her family seem to have no use, even as she wonders if she herself has a right to it.
Susan: "2046 Main Theme" – Shigeru Umebayashi
Susan, Irene's sister, is a poet who married in her late forties and has since led a comfortable existence in Hong Kong—though she hasn't written a new poem in years. When Irene invites her on the tour, she complies, then falls into labyrinthine memories of a tumultuous childhood in Taiwan and China, the explosive and unexplained strife between her parents, her old life of drifting from one college town in America to the next, and a cataclysmic love affair a decade ago, during which "her poems flourished, cool and spare, with sudden, luminous blooms."
This piece is the theme music to the film 2046 by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Like the film, it is disjointed and hypnotic. Opulent violins are interspersed with the sound of rushing trains, ominous percussions, and scraps of urgent Cantonese and officious English. All this speaks to the state into which Susan slips further and further as the tour takes her southward: haunted, reckless, and ready to upend her life, even as she appears to be, to her nieces, only their middle-aged aunt.
Lin Yulan: (Silence)
I tried intermittently to find a song for Lin Yulan, Irene's formidable 80-year-old mother, but she defied accompaniment. Though her voice was the one I feared I might never capture, it often came through the loudest. She is an uncompromising woman, one who devoted her early life to the causes of Chinese feminism and nationalism, who left her husband in Taiwan twenty years ago and never spoke to him again, who has no patience for nostalgia or tradition. Though her revolutionary days are long over, she lives in a place beyond music, beyond joy or diversion, and it is only during this tour with her daughters and granddaughters that she begins to sense what she might have missed.
Deanna Fei and A Thread of Sky links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists