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October 11, 2016

Book Notes - Randa Jarrar "Him, Me, Muhammad Ali"

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali

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.

The stories in Randa Jarrar's debut collection Him, Me, Muhammad Ali are inventive, lyrical, and marvelously diverse.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A subtle interrogation of class spanning multiple generations and an exploration of desire enlivened by a dash of magical realism."

In her own words, here is Randa Jarrar's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Him, Me, Muhammad Ali:

Habibi Beddo el-Amar (My Lover Wants the Moon), by Fairuz

My collection opens with a story about a woman who, as a child, staged a one-woman waiting game on the rooftop of her building, hoping to catch the moon. The idea for this story is from a Fairuz folk song called Habibi Beddo el-Amar (My Lover Wants the Moon). I came to Fairuz, the Lebanese diva whose songs range from nationalist to whimsical to hymnal to sexy, later than most Arabs; my household was firmly an Egyptian and Classical music household. My mother was trained as a concert pianist. My sister is now an incredible composer. My son is a talented guitarist and bass player. Music has always felt important, sacred. This particular folk song's narrative—a woman wants to catch the moon for her lover, and is afraid that her neighbor will catch it first and steal him from her—is feisty, femme, dreamy, folksy, and daring, all at once, and I stole the shit out of it.

Welcome to Kinshasa, Oechestre G O Malebo

The title story for the collection was inspired by film, music, and writing on the 1974 Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. In particular I was fascinated by the masculinity, not just of the fight, but of the milieu surrounding the fight. Male journalists swarmed, many of them white. But footage and photos from this time period covers the Zaire 74, a music festival attended by thousands of people, featured a dream lineup (Celia Cruz, James Brown, the Fania All-Stars, Bill Withers, and so many others performed). I imagined what it would have been like to hang out in the heady, bizarre, and transforming setting of the 6 weeks before the fight. The Congo—then Zaire—was under Dictator Mobuto's almost decade-long reign. Two characters came out of all this imagining: An Egyptian Australian woman journalist, and a Black American male journalist. I'd read that the music fest and the fight were meant to strengthen bonds between diasporic African peoples. In my short story, these two characters fuck. The story follows the newly orphaned daughter they had.

Colossus, by The Wailing Walls

In my 20s I lived in different areas in and around Austin, TX. When I was in San Marcos, I met and fell in with a group of people who frequented a bar and music venue called the Triple Crown. There, I started hanging out with a band called The Fluffers' Union. They later changed their names to The Wailing Walls, but they will always be Fluffers' Union to me. My friend Bryan Crowell was the band's frontman, and performed the songs he wrote on a portable piano he had built, with a cigarette in his mouth, its ash a grey, long column. His work inspired me. This song still gives me goosebumps.

6 Foot 7 Foot, by Lil Wayne

Lil Wayne, though deeply flawed in many ways, is one of the greatest poets of our time; we say this and people disbelieve us because they haven't listened to his work. This song is my charge-up anthem; when I didn't want to revise anymore, or figure out story placement, or do anything, really, I blasted this and admired his brain, "so sharp [he] fucked around and cut [his] head off." (Thankfully, allegorically.)

Somos Sur by Ana Tijoux and Shadia Mansour

Several of the short stories in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali are about Palestine, or Palestinian-ness, resistance, self-expression, exile, loss. This song by Chilean artist Ana Tijoux is an intersectional anthem, calling for the freedom of all indigenous lands from police and military control. Palestinian MC Shadia Mansour guests to spits rhymes on these same themes here, the song's central image being the resistance of the Global South. When Palestinians write—rhymes, speeches, short story collections—we rise up against the false, dehumanizing, and violent narrative the world has told about us.

Down By the Water, by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey is a fucking deity. This song, with its lost lovers and queer scorned women and stand-in daughters, is a perfect short story that warms my fat, sometimes-misandrist heart.

Ya Habibi Ta'ala, by Asmahan

Asmahan was a gorgeous-voiced woman in '30s Egypt; her style, unlike Fairuz's (which came much later) was one of lilting longing and limerance; in this song, the speaker is exhausted from hiding her love, is worn out with lust, and the violins mimic her pleading, tearful begging: "My love, come get me, and look at what's happened to me—all because of your absence." Asmahan died mysteriously in a car crash, and many have hypothesized that she was a spy, or collaborative agent, during the second World War. Which is why I chose to name this story, about a car crash and the many women involved, after her.

Pyramids, by Frank Ocean

This ten-minute song does what Alice Munro's stories (so worshipped by white MFA programs) do. It tells a grand African and African diaspora story in two different narratives, about two sets of intertwined characters, over two collapsed but disparate time periods—ancient Egypt and modern day America. It's a short story and a beautiful and powerful song, technically ambitious and vulnerable and heartbreaking.

Penelope, by Pinback

In my 28th year, after spending my entire 20s in TX, I packed all my worldly belongings into my Corolla and parked it in my friend Bryan's driveway (the lead singer of the Fluffers' Union, see song above). It felt as though I had lit everything on fire. I'd gotten a fellowship to attend the MFA program at Michigan, and needed the money. My son was in NY with his father that Summer, and before we moved to Michigan, I went to Hedgebrook for a writers' residency. I had never been to the Pacific Northwest before, and the smells of the trees, the air, the drizzle, was intoxicating. I would listen to this song, about loss, on repeat in my cabin and write like mad. I wrote two of the stories in the collection that way, in that place, cut off from everything I knew. Later, I wrote a story about a young woman who works for a feminist in Seattle, and almost without my prompting, found the two characters heading to Hedgebrook for the story's resolution. That short period of my life—childless, homeless, eveythingless—was a pure representation of what Kierkegaard once said: that only the ideas of the shipwrecked are real, and that everything else is "rhetoric, posturing, farce." I found out much later that this song is about a goldfish dying in its tank.

Ya Halali Ya Mali, by Mohammed Assaf

This is a traditional, Palestinian wedding anthem sung by the winner of Arab Idol. The video was shot in a Gaza refugee camp. It's a beautifully masculine song—Assaf even throws his voice into baritone when he sings it—and the drumming men in the video show a vibrant strength, solidarity, and joy that Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing cannot extinguish. My collection has three stories told by male characters, and they are all Palestinian. I didn't notice this until I compiled this song list. The first character is a bird, one of many arrested for spying in the Middle East; the second is from the point of view of a Palestinian child whose building was bombed (here I used some of Isaac Babel's images from the Russian pogroms to draw a parallel between victim-oppressor and victim); and the last is a story about a Palestinian man newly exiled for a third time. The main lyrics of this song can be translated as, "My Riches Are Richly Deserved," or, "This Treasure is Rightfully Mine." It's a song about celebrating one's homeland, and its images—horses, lit up letters in the clouds, flags, visitors, a field-blown wind—are, like the collection's three male narrators, all active, romantic, strong, and proud.

Both Sides Now, by Judy Collins

Zelwa is a half-woman, half-ibex. She is the collection's final voice, and this version of "Both Sides Now"- airy, child-like-is the one she listens to in her van. The penultimate short story in the collection ends with a cloud image, and this story includes this cloud-image-heavy song. I was also intrigued by the song's corresponding themes of duality and love; Zelwa is bisexual, biracial, and bi-pedal (which is difficult for her because she is an ibex from the waist down). I found out later that this song is written in F sharp, which is the key that some believe opens one's heart.

F Sharp Singing Bowl Demonstration

During the writing of this collection, I raised my child to adulthood, entered and left a marriage, and came to practice radical self-love. Part of my writing discipline includes meditation and the use of singing bowls, to help adjust imbalances in my chakras—something I would have brutally teased myself about years ago (ironically when I desperately needed balance). F sharp corresponds with the green heart chakra, encouraging acceptance, love, and empathy. That's why we read and write, right? I want the reader to finish my book with a more unguarded view of the world. With a more open heart.

Randa Jarrar and Him, Me, Muhammad Ali links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

The National profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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