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June 19, 2012

Book Notes - G. Willow Wilson "Alif the Unseen"

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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

I have the utmost respect for G. Willow Wilson's writing. Her memoir The Butterfly Mosque was one of my favorite nonfiction books of 2010, and her comic AIR was one of the few that brought me to the comic book store on release days. Her debut novel, Alif the Unseen, proves her to be adept at fiction as well.

Alif the Unseen is set in the Arab Spring, and offers a refreshingly modern view on the Arab world. With nods to The Thousand and One Nights, Wilson has created a modern classic that dares explore themes of technology, spirituality, and religion.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Wilson skillfully weaves a story linking modern-day technologies and computer languages to the folklore and religion of the Middle East. For readers ready for adventure and looking for original storytelling, this excellent novel supersedes genres as easily as its characters jump from one reality to another."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is G. Willow Wilson's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Alif the Unseen:

Genies, hackers, revolutions: this is the kind of book I've wanted to write since I was old enough to want to write books. This is also the only book I've ever written in which the inspiration for one of the major characters came directly from a song. So making a soundtrack seems particularly appropriate for Alif the Unseen. Alif is close to my heart: it represents the moment at which I said "screw it" and did away with the artificial boundaries between the things I love and love to talk about--pop culture, religion, digital politics--and wrote from my guts.

"Ghazal," Niyaz

I'm a longtime fan of Niyaz's unique blend of traditional Persian music with gothy, pop-y beats, and this song seems particularly appropriate for a story about a Middle Eastern hacktivist with a penchant for wearing black.

"Supermassive Black Hole," Muse

Dark, frenetic and yet retaining a sense of humor, this is a song I can see my geek antihero having (downloaded illegally) on his (pirated) iPod. Yes, it loses automatic style points for its inclusion in the first Twilight movie, but--forgive it for its sins, because it's a great song.

"Vikram the Vampire," Talvin Singh

For electronica purists, this is a "track," not a song--nevertheless, the three or four lines of snarky dialogue it contains (in two different languages) provided the inspiration for the sardonic, predatory genie that a lot of advance readers have named as their favorite character in Alif the Unseen. I assume Singh is referencing "Vikram and the Vampire," the famous story from the Baitul Pachisi, but I like his version better. So, in this track, as in my novel, Vikram is the vampire.

"Lonely Soul," UNKLE

God knows you're lonely souls. Words to live by, especially if you're a somewhat antisocial computer geek who spends a great deal of time in his room--and then has to go on the run from his arch-nemesis. For me, writing this book drove home the isolation of dissent; the constant awareness and suspicion under which activists who live in security states must operate. The beauty part is when dissent reaches a critical mass, and all the people who thought they were alone realize they were alone together. That's when revolutions happen.

"Bad Girls," MIA

The video for this song, a tribute to drifting and street racing in the Persian Gulf, is a tongue-in-cheek neo-orientalist urban fantasy that is well worth three minutes of your time on YouTube. At one point in Alif the Unseen, there's a car chase through the open desert, and in the movie version playing in my head, this is the soundtrack.

"The Game Has Changed," Daft Punk

Techno is now retro, and thus, somehow, Daft Punk has become cool again, probably because they never took themselves all that seriously to begin with. This gloomy-but-urgent track is wordless, yet the title and the cinematic "something bad is about to happen, we've got to run" strings capture the action of the first part of Alif the Unseen.

"Cantara," Dead Can Dance

So I was a huge goth in high school. Now that my 30th birthday is, like, tomorrow, I can't help but wonder whether the influence of Arab and Persian classical music on the folkier goth bands of the 80s and 90s (goths cling to the 80s like Salafis cling to the 7th century) in turn influenced the way I thought about the Middle East, and, in some small fashion, prompted me to spend a large chunk of my twenties there. Dead Can Dance is a prime example, and this song (qantara in Arabic means "little bridge," though God knows if this was the intended meaning of the title) fits right in with the surreal, semi-threatening, enchanted world of the Empty Quarter.

"Last One Alive," VAST

For whatever reason, I listened to this song a lot while I was living in Egypt. I can see Alif taking it as a sort of personal anthem while watching his friends picked off one by one by the Hand, the shadowy digital apparatus of state security. Though apocalyptic-sounding, this song is primarily about defiance--the last one alive is the one to overthrow the oppressor. A message to take to heart if you are one of the Middle Eastern autocrats now in jail, in exile or dead after the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

G. Willow Wilson and Alif the Unseen links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Austin Chronicle review
BookPage review
Caffeinated Muslim review
io9 review
Keep Calm and Read a Book review
Library Journal review
Muslimah Media Watch review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
The Readventurer review
Shelf Awareness review
Velveteen Rabbi review

Largehearted Boy essay by the author for AIR: Volume 2
Largehearted Boy essay by the author for The Butterfiy Mosque
Shelf Awareness interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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