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May 27, 2016

Book Notes - Hirsh Sawhney "South Haven"

South Haven

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Hirsh Sawhney's novel South Haven is an unforgettable and unnerving tale of grief and migration.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"[T]his luminous debut...captures precisely the heartache of growing up."

In his own words, here is Hirsh Sawhney's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel South Haven:

When I was writing my debut novel, South Haven, I was seeing and acquiring lots of music that was connected to the blues. This music helped me understand the pain and suffering of the characters in my book, which is about a boy named Siddharth who lives in a Connecticut suburb. Siddharth loses his mother in a car accident, and he and his father obviously endure a great deal of pain in the aftermath of this tragedy. The blues taught me how to give voice to their emotional aches and longings. While working on the novel, I also listened to a lot of jazz and psychedelic rock, and these albums reminded me of the need to constantly improvise as an artist—the importance of having plans, and the importance of knowing when to abandon them.

"Midnight in Harlem (Swamp Raga Intro With Little Martha)"
Performed by Tedeschi Trucks Band
Everybody's Talkin'

Before landing up in Connecticut, my protagonist Siddharth's parents migrated from New Delhi to New York, and this is a song about the harshness of migrating to New York City. I first learned about Tedeschi Trucks while commuting over the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey. They were doing an interview on WBGO Newark, one of my favorite radio stations. My wife and I later caught them live at the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when I believed I was on the cusp on finishing the third and final draft of my novel. Little did I know that I had at least three more drafts and several years to go until the book would see the light of day. At the beginning of this track, there is a dreamy interlude called "Swamp Raga," and I love this shout-out to Hindustani classical music.

"Idiot Wind"
Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3

One day, someone was selling about twenty Dylan albums on a stoop in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, and I bought most of them for a buck a piece. This track on the Bootleg Series is so much better than the official version released on Blood on the Tracks. It possesses that blend of fictional storytelling, autobiography, and surrealism that defines much of Dylan's work, and also, as far as I can tell, the act of fiction writing. The images Dylan uses to show anger in this song are so vivid and visceral—"One day you'll be in a ditch/flies buzzing around your eyes/blood on your saddle." These lyrics were constantly repeating in my mind when I was trying to depict my characters' grief and the anger that it engendered.

"Louis Collins"
Performed by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman
Shady Grove

Mississippi John Hurt wrote this catchy, wry track about a death, and I love the way Jerry Garcia and David Grisman perform it here. I'm a huge Dead fan, and the Dead or one of Garcia's side projects was always blaring on my stereo while I was working on my novel. This recording contains a sweet blend of folk, blues, bluegrass, and rock—Jerry Garcia embodied so many wonderful aspects of North American music. The young protagonist of my novel listens to a Dead song for the first time towards the end my novel, and he's surprised by what he hears. The music sounds "kiddish" to him. It has nothing to do with the skulls or motorcycles that were associated with this music in his imagination. I loathe the stigma that the Dead often carry with them. Miles Davis used to open for them. They played with Branford Marsalis, and Jerry Garcia collaborated with Ornette Coleman and Elvis Costello. There is so much to their music besides a cult following, and I think this track might make Garcia's music more accessible to non-fans.

"Lamento Sertanejo"
Gilberto Gil

I deeply admire the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, and I've had the privilege of seeing him perform at various venues in New York City. As my sister says, to watch him play live is to be enveloped in a long and warm hug. This song, however, is about the blues, and, like so much of the music I listen to, it seems to be about alienation and migration. The forlorn narrator of the song says—and my feeble translation from the Portuguese will certainly kill these lyrics—"I don't really speak/I don't really know anything/I'm really no better than stray cattle." These lyrics are so simple, and yet so piercing, and I drew on this type of terse, poignant interiority to help me conjure up the emotional world of my child protagonist.

"Yah Dhuniya Agar Mil bhi Jayee"
Words by Sahir Ludhianvi; Sung by Mohammed Rafi
Pyaasa Soundtrack

This track, sung by the legendary Indian singer Mohammed Rafi, contemplates the worthiness of material success in a world defined by moral corruption, and it comes from the classic Hindi film Pyaasa (1957)—Thirsty—about an earnest poet named Vijay who is totally marginalized and then taken advantage of by the modern literary marketplace. Most writers can relate to Vijay, at least at some point in their career, and I certainly did when sending out my book to agents. The song's lyrics were written by a serious Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, and yet the instrumentation behind the words are more kitsch and European—so this track, like my characters, is a hybrid. The adult characters in my novel—Indian immigrants in the US who are highly Islamophobic—adore the music of singer Mohammed Rafi, even though he is a Muslim. That's the way it always seems to go, and it's a damn shame: People's prejudices often have nothing to do with their lived experience of reality.

"So What"
Miles Davis
The Complete 1962 Concert: My Funny Valentine + Four and More

I can still remember the day I bought Miles Davis' In A Silent Way—on a whim—at the great Cutlers Records in New Haven, which has now been replaced by an Apple store. (What a great metaphor for the state of culture in these United States!) But like so many jazz fans, my first taste of Miles was on Kind of Blue—the "catnip" of jazz albums according to one New York Times critic. One of my characters, a wise and sensitive girl named Sharon, plays a mean version of "So What" in front her entire junior high school, where she doesn't have many friends. The novel doesn't mention the song by title, but this is the track that played in my mind when I wrote this scene, which was partly inspired by James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues."

"Where Did You Sleep Last Night"

Kurt Cobain's suicide haunts my whole novel, and the characters in my book listen to Nirvana. One of them says that all pop music in the 90s was "materialistic and superficial", except for Nirvana. Another character calls Nirvana a bunch of "posers." I don't agree with either of these statements, but I am grateful that Nirvana introduced me to this Lead Belly song when I was just fourteen. (I didn't learn who Lead Belly was for another eight years or so.) Nirvana's Unplugged session blew my mind when I first heard it, and my friends and I managed to make an audio recording of it from a VHS cassette, several months before the official album was actually released.

Hirsh Sawhney and South Haven links:

the author's website

Library Journal review

Bookslut interview with the author
New Haven Register profile of the author
Penmen Review interview with the author
Radio Something interview with the author
Tidings from Hazel Kahan interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

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
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)