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November 18, 2010

Book Notes - Xu Xi ("Habit of a Foreign Sky")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Shortlisted for the initial Man Asian Literary Prize while still a manuscript, Xu Xi's novel Habit of a Foreign Sky is a fascinating glimpse of modern global business life and its impact on personal lives.

The book's protagonist, a Chinese-American business woman, finds herself caught not only between continents, but also cultures when her mother dies in China in this engaging novel.

In her own words, here is Xu Xi's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky:

Strange how potent cheap music is. That's by Noel Coward, from his play Private Lives, and the line encapsulates for me the potency of music for my novel. It was "cheap music" I kept hearing, which isn't necessarily a derogatory description, because life is cheap, as we in Asia are often reminded, grimly, frighteningly, fatally. Music, cheap or otherwise, alleviates that pain.

Let's start with this:

I was cycling in Red Wing, Minnesota, where the Anderson Center was housing me for a month one summer. The novel was in its early stages then and I was thinking about Gail (my protagonist) and her mother Fa Loong, who had been a dance hall girl in Hong Kong of the 1950's & 60's. This Connie Francis rendition of Moulin Rouge (also known as "Where Is Your Heart?" music by Georges Autric, English lyrics by William Engvick, 1952) kept cycling through my head. I've heard tell that serious cyclists who train come up with great playlists. Though I am at best an occasional cyclist, the open air, the quiet of Red Wing as well as my desire to evade the mosquitoes kept me on the move. And then there was this song, from my girlhood, from this album that was my parents' "cheap music" library. But there was limited internet access at the Anderson Center, and YouTube wasn't quite such a phenomena yet, so I couldn't simply call it up to hear it. I told one of my fellow writers at the residency, the poet Joyce Sutphen, about this experience and she said to me "sing it." I did and the song unlocked the experience I needed for the novel for Gail. Thank god, I always say, for the poets among us.

What is that potency?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; 

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd, 
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone . . .

At Maryknoll Convent, my girls school of 1960's Hong Kong, my favorite English teacher Mrs. Liao made us memorize Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." When I think about the long process of writing this novel, and its relationship to music, I realize those unheard melodies are what I am trying to recreate in language.

Here's another one:

"Autumn in New York," no, not the hyped up, sentimentalized Richard Gere version but the original song and lyrics by Vernon Duke (1934), a fabulous composer, sung by real deal jazz singers like Billie Holiday. But the version that wouldn't leave me alone was Arthur Prysock's baritone. Okay, he was more pop than jazz (some might disagree but this is one writer's opinion), and there's a reason monikers such as "The Velvet Frog" were coined by hecklers for an earlier generation of crooners, circa Prysock's time (you can go google that now, these are the moments I love being 50+, a.k.a. old enough to know weirdly different stuff). But my protagonist is a woman who is only finding out that she's missed the boat on how to feel life, never mind love and romance. She hasn't for a long time listened to music, read books, danced, "indulged," which is how she would think about anything that isn't a responsibility or work. Yet the memory of pleasure, bittersweet though it may be, is embedded somewhere in her psyche from a childhood around her mother's dance hall friends, women of the night and the demi monde, whose only "job" is to create the illusion of love, romance, indulgence of the senses. So there she is, with the half brother Gordie she's kept at arm's length, finally giving into (perhaps) allowing a relationship with this man who's tried to reach out to her for years. Gordie lives for music – jazzhead, American songbook aficionado, if it's music it's life for him – and while he's napping she listens to his CD of Prysock's rendition of "Autumn in New York" and wonders: Surely she had listened to music once, read something other than economic theory or business case studies? Where she arrives at, as she listens to the song, is that this man she's rejected for so long is, in the end Her brother, for better or worse, and the song closes with the line It's good to live it again.

And what about dance & music? Gail used to dance with her ex-husband, Dr. Jason Chak, but the sting of his betrayal (he left her for a younger woman, less educated, less intelligent, more subservient to him) has eliminated dancing completely from her life. As a child, she danced with her mother; in college after she meets Jason, they are the great dancing couple among their foreign student crowd in Boston.

So dance:

There's a reason we all can "hear" dance music, even if it's not our era, even if we can't stand that particular form of music. It's the rhythm. Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" is like that. I don't jitterbug, I don't like pop big band particularly, anymore than I like disco, but I did dance, still occasionally will dance, because dance is a form of life, reminding me that for better or worse, I am still a "Material Girl." Just as "Grease" still cycles through my head, so does Miller, and that song did for my book, because it's the music of Gail's and more importantly, Gordie's era, and they both know how to dance it. Something about bringing characters and their respective worlds to life happens with music; the imagination is opened up through the emotional muscle of music. I know that. And the more I try to render "unheard melodies," the more sure of that I am.

And finally there was Jack Kerouac and his beat sensibility, invoking beatitudes and yes, the poetry of jazz. I spent almost three months at the Kerouac House in Orlando one winter as I tried to write this novel. What? You mean there's winter in Florida? True to form, I managed to arrive on the coldest day in ages in that city and the unheated house (this was quickly rectified) almost drove me to despair. Jack lived in that suburban house with his mother in the perennial bathrobe and the terror of that relationship spooked me just a little. But I discovered Orlando's 24 hour jazz station, and in this house with no television, no desk (also eventually rectified), barely a mattress (I was only the second writer in residence and the foundation was still getting its act together), I slept with the music on through many, many, many nights. It brought warmth, comfort, a security blanket to ward off the terror of writing this novel.

You'd think out of all that I'd be waxing nostalgic about some great jazz piece that inspired me. But no. This jazzhead defaults to what her characters are about, and Gail, my dear, difficult protagonist, brought me "Fly Me To The Moon" (music & lyrics by Bart Howard, 1954, my birth year incidentally so maybe there's more to this than I know). She, of course, wouldn't know the version I adore, the one by Tony Bennett – he is my first TV memory (back in the 60's when America was something I knew only from TV) of an American singer who "popped," who wasn't like the rest of the schmaltz and in that one memory I have of him on, I believe it was, The Andy Williams Show, I knew I never needed to listen to Williams or even Sinatra again if there was someone like Bennett to listen to instead. Bennett was my first vocal introduction to the infinite possibilities of jazz when I was maybe nine or so.

But back to the book and where Gail took me to was this:

Yes, Tom Jones who was all the rage once and why not? He made a lot of women swoon (okay, tastes change but boy bands? Hello, no). I swallowed hard but gave in to Gail because to write fiction, any fiction that feels right to me, you give in to the people of the world you're trying to create and you, the writer, subsume that ego, become, if you are so fortunate, just another "bride of quietness."

Xu Xi and Habit of a Foreign Sky links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at The Asia Society)
excerpt from the book (at The International Literary Quarterly)
audio excerpt from the novel (at the publisher)

Asia Society review
The Asian Review of Books review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Book Review review
Think review

Asia Society profile of the author
China Daily profile of the author
Pif Magazine interview with the author
Radio 3 interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists