October 21, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Vanessa Blakeslee's Juventud is an excellent debut novel, one that deftly examines themes of identity and culture.
Xu Xi wrote of the book:
"Vanessa Blakeslee's remarkable debut novel takes us inside Colombia through the eyes of Mercedes, a privileged half-Colombian girl who leaves the safety of Papi's hacienda to embark on a life touched by disappointment and splendid achievement. Her story echoes the conflicts of our twenty-first century's transnational, uneasy global culture."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I can't imagine the novel-writing process without music—the isolation required is analogous to self-imposed solitary confinement with the exception of a few crucial pleasures, namely meals and music. A literary novel, furthermore, depends upon rhythm, repetition with variation akin to riffs in jazz, and, hopefully, if the novelist has done her job, the achievement of a certain resonance that is commensurate with scale. No coincidence that E.K. Brown's hard-to-find volume of craft essays is entitled Rhythm in the Novel (a gem of a text which I consulted at the onset of drafting Juventud, and intermittently throughout). Draft after draft, year upon year, certain songs left their imprint. Some I encountered in my research and realized my characters very well might have listened to during the key timeframe of the narrative: 1999, Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Others found their way to me during the later stages of revision, edits, and even proofs. Whether or not their impact earned them a nod in the text, the following songs capture the essence of Juventud.
Pepe Romero, "Asturias" ("Leyenda")
First published in 1892 and written by Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz, "Leyenda" is pure Andalusian flamenco and legendary guitarist Romero's classical solo is guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. When I stumbled across this song I knew I wanted to use it for the book trailer's soundtrack, for several reasons. Diego Martinez, father of the protagonist, Mercedes, is a classical guitar aficionado, as is Manuel, her first love; both men hold Romero in high esteem. Gracia, a close friend of Mercedes, is an accomplished flamenco dancer, so although the novel takes place in Colombia, not Spain, "Leyenda," as the song is commonly referred to, embodies the romantic mystique and tension of Juventud.
Grupo Niche, "Cali Pachanguero"
One of the most beloved salsa anthems, "Cali Pachanguero" is a tribute to Grupo Niche's home base since the early 1980s. While this release off their 1984 album "No Hay Quinto Malo" might better evoke Diego's generation and musical taste, Grupo Niche has continued to write songs paying homage to Santiago de Cali, the salsa capital of the world. "Cali Aji" and "Del Puenta Pa'Alla" are further tributes to the city and its famous nightclub district, Juanchito—where Mercedes, Manuel, and their friends end up that fateful night.
Shakira, "Suerte" (English version, "Whenever, Wherever")
The hit single from her album Laundry Service, "Suerte" means "Luck" in Spanish and refers to the Colombian singer's luck in finding her romantic partner. I obsessively listened to "Suerte" and watched the music video while immersed in Part One of Juventud, knowing that Shakira had been a rising pop star in her native country before breaking through to international acclaim, and that teenaged Mercedes and her friends would likely be fans of her music. As a result, Shakira appears on the page several times. Her poster is one of the first things Mercedes notices when she visits the brothers' apartment; "Suerte" is playing when Mercedes and Manuel exit Uncle Charlie's party on the hacienda thrown for the jefes and prostitutes. A prime case of the fiction writer taking artistic license, I'll admit, because the song technically wasn't released until 2001. But since "Suerte" is probably Shakira's most signature hit recognizable to English-speaking audiences and the track's charango and panpipes capture an Andean feel, I decided to include it.
Aterciopelados, "Cancion Protesta"
This acclaimed Colombian rock band has been making music since 1992, its members having long spoken out against political injustice. I discovered Aterciopelados in the later stages of revision and right away saw them as models for Manuel—with his dream to become a rock star and passion for peace, he would have aspired to one day lead such a group, and the socially-conscious songs he's writing in 1999 are along the lines of "Cancion Protesta." Their international hit (literally, the "Protest Song") is off the band's 2006 album Oye, its focus taking guns off the streets in Colombia. They later adapted the song for Amnesty International's commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; rewritten in English, the lyrics address more global human rights' issues, the alternate version entitled, "The Price of Silence." Recent albums evoke concerns about the environment and clean water rights; listening to their music, I can easily conjure up Manuel's brilliant, alternate future as a composer and activist.
The Gipsy Kings, "Medley"
Of all the musicians listed here, the Gipsy Kings remained my go-to album throughout Juventud—not only for their rousing renditions but because my knowledge of Spanish is limited enough that a few lyrics jumped out, but for the most part, remained foreign enough not to distract me while I wrote in English. Difficult, if not impossible, to narrow down which tracks posed the greatest influence upon the book, and frankly I'm shocked that my old 1990s CD, Best of the Gipsy Kings, still plays without a glitch.
The entire album In Our Bedroom After the War inspired me, despite its distinctly Anglophone roots and nods to World War II. The recurring themes of the young persevering through war, of protest and love, overwhelmingly spoke to the mood I sought to capture in Juventud. I chose "Barricade" here over the radio hits "The Night Starts Here" and "Take Me to the Riot"—but all of these posed their influence in equal measure. In "Barricade," I can't help but think of Manuel beckoning for Mercedes to join him, marching the Cali streets.
Mark Piszczek, "Dangerous Times"
September 11th inspired jazz composer and Florida native Piszczek to compose "Dangerous Times." As the novel shifts in Part Two to Florida and Mercedes embarks to Israel during the surge of violence in the Middle East, this song beautifully encapsulates the uneasiness marking the turn of the Millennium.
Lana del Ray, "Florida Kilos"
I often listened to Ultraviolence while shaping the end of the novel, and felt its tone and themes matched where adult Mercedes finds herself on the cusp of her return home. Undoubtedly, "Florida Kilos" would strike a particularly disturbing chord with her.
Chris Cortez, "Ask Me No Questions"
An edgy, more contemporary guitar solo, "Ask Me No Questions" encapsulates Mercedes' return to Colombia and her confrontations with the men of her past. I was introduced to this song in the final stages of the editorial process and loved it—the title alone couldn't be more fitting. This song came in a close second for the book trailer soundtrack.
Bomba Estereo, "Caminito"
When Mercedes returns to Colombia in 2014, after fifteen years away, I knew that she'd be hyperaware as she encountered, through sights and sounds, how her homeland has changed. What music might she hear in restaurants and taxicabs that depicts the new Colombia—a world, as an American, she no longer knows? "Caminito" by Latin alternative band Bomba Estereo perfectly fits the bill.
Vanessa Blakeslee and Juventud links:
The Drunken Odyssey interview with the author
Lit Pub interview
Necessary Fiction essay by the author
Read Her Like an Open Book essay by the author
Saw Palm interview with the author
Tin House interview with the author
The Writer's Block Blog interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)