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February 14, 2017

Book Notes - Shanthi Sekaran "Lucky Boy"

Lucky Boy

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.

Shanthi Sekaran's novel Lucky Boy is both engrossing and timely.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"With wit, empathy and a page-turning plot, the novel stirs ethical questions in the reader that the author rightly refuses to answer. Shanthi Sekaran has written a tender, artful story of the bravery of loving in the face of certain grief."

In her own words, here is Shanthi Sekaran's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Lucky Boy:

Music helps me understand what I'm feeling and seeing. It deepens my connection to the places I go. Sometimes, it allows me to shape my surroundings into what I want them to be. When I walk through San Francisco's financial district, for instance, I put my headphones in and listen to Rufus Wainwright sing "Hallelujah" and the people around me turn from techies and traders and vagrants into a species of urban angel, each a bearer of love and sorrow and memory. I've been thinking of Lucky Boy's soundtrack for years now. I started designing it long before I finished the book. So I thought I had it all figured out. But putting this list together for Largehearted Boy, I started to understand even more about the novel I'd written. I started to see emotional layers I hadn't named before. There's a lot of melancholy in this soundtrack, a lot of longing and some regret. There's also joy and ferocity and the rhythm of trains.

"Bright Whites" by Kishi Bashi

In the first chapter of Lucky Boy, Kavya and Rishi Reddy find themselves at their friend Preeti's wedding. "Bright Whites" opens with a chorus in Japanese, which might seem incongruous with an Indian wedding, but we're in California, where cultures and languages couple and uncouple without a second thought. Since I don't know Japanese, what I hear in these opening bars are a joyous bird call. I see the opening chorus playing over an ultra-bright suburban expanse of lawn, the faces and bodies of wedding guests blurred in the sunlight, sun spots staining the camera lens. I see a heavy gold choker over an elegant neck, a head thrown back with laughter, a glass of champagne held aloft. Translated into English (on Reddit), these opening lines say "It's after all/ it's useless after all/ I can't stop, I can't stop although it's useless after all/ I can't bear, I can't bear/ I can't bear although it's useless after all." The verses then move into English, braiding melancholy with melodic joy. When I was deciding on a title for my novel, I very nearly used a phrase from this song. Lucky Boy was almost called You and Me at the Edge of the World.

"Mundian To Bach Ke" by Panjabi MC

I've chosen this for a post-ceremony scene at Preeti and Vikram's wedding, because this song plays at every. single. Indian. wedding. During the wedding reception, Kavya sits apart from the dancing, feeling like an outsider among people she's known all her life. She can hear and feel the dance floor, but she can't bring herself to join it. The lyrics themselves I find a little problematic; the song's title translates to "Beware of the Boys" and its first lines warn:

Keep your face down and hide it with a scarf
Don't just give your love to anyone, beware of the boys
You've only just grown up, beware of the boys.

But like I said: every Indian wedding. Ever.

"Boom Skit" by M.I.A.

This song starts off with a soft, rhythmic intro, the "Jum jum jum" borrowed from popular Hindi music. I hear these opening bars and see Kavya cycling up a Berkeley hill, the percussive push of her feet on pedals, the steady thrust of her calves. The vocals kick off with a virtual reply to "Mundian To Bach Ke". Then they move on to address a wider audience, specifically those who'd prefer that M.I.A. "keep her face down":

Brown gal, brown gal, turn your shit down

You know America don't wanna hear your sound

Boom boom jungle music, go back to India

With your crazy shit, you're bumming up the area

Immigrants often find themselves apologizing for their noise, for their difference, for the space they occupy. M.I.A. is not one to apologize. Neither is Kavya. She is not one to turn her shit down.

"Diablo Rojo" by Rodrigo y Gabriela

This song starts out with a breathless thrum—not from drums, but from the guitarists' hands. Rodrigo and Gabriela do all their own percussion by slapping the wood of their guitars. It's fascinating to watch. The song's percussion dominates its melody. Its percussion is its pulse, and the melody that rises above it is a sort of story. I hear this song and I see La Bestia, the largest and most dangerous freight train in Mexico, snaking up the countryside. "Diablo Rojo" finds Soli and Checo and their gang on top of La Bestia, moving up through the Mexican countryside, the wind incessant, the tracks grinding beneath them. I hear this song and I feel what Soli felt: "the demonic rumble of the train below, the rush of the valley speeding northward." But I also feel the song's joy, its sense of freedom. Soli was in terrible danger on this journey, but she was also on an adventure.

"Palmitos Park" by El Guincho

This song is all about fun. I see it playing the first night that Soli spends with Checo. The track was recorded live, and you can hear the audience's whoops and whistles. These make me think of the trackside little town where the group finds itself that first night, with outdoor restaurants where their littlest member, Pepe, begs for leftovers. I see it playing, also, when Soli and Checo steal a jug of wine and run with it back to their encampment. This night was, perhaps, the highlight of Soli's journey north. It was a night that enabled her to finally feel young and free and safe.

"This Will Be Our Year" by The Zombies

This is a song of love, of promise, of a couple who have come a long way to find hope on the horizon. I see this as Rishi and Kavya's song, and as Soli and Ignacio's song. It could play when Ignacio is born, and again when Kavya and Rishi await his arrival, gazing out the kitchen window, wholly unaware of how their lives are about to change.

"Heaven" by Beyonce

When I hear this song, I see an overhead shot of Kavya, Rishi and Ignacio curled up in bed together, and I think of this passage from Lucky Boy:

Sometimes Kavya caught herself watching her husband and her son as if they were a film, a fleeting series of rapidly flipping stills that one day would flip into silence and darkness. She tried to catch these moments before they flipped away. Remember this, she'd tell herself, when she and Rishi and Iggy lay in bed together on a weekday morning, all of them a little too warm, a little too lazy to get up and start their day.

The final refrain, "Heaven couldn't wait for you, so go on, go home", speaks of the idea that love does not equate to ownership, an idea that Rishi and Kavya continually push away. The outro to the song is the "Our Father" prayer recited in Spanish, an echo of the scene when (I won't give away why) Soli whispers the prayer, "La Salve".

"These Hands" by Hhymn

It took me a long time to figure out how Rishi felt about his foster son, Ignacio. When I decided that Rishi would come to love him, I had to figure how that love would grow, what would propel it forward. The great thing about a song is that it can leap over all that writerly agonizing and explain an emotion in the space of three minutes and eighteen seconds. Rishi becomes a father in a very physical way—carrying Ignacio on his shoulders down a Berkeley sidewalk, worrying about the rasp in the boy's chest, fitting him for a gas mask. It's fitting, then, that "These Hands" is about attachment and memory as expressed through the body. It's a song filled with longing. It's also by my friend Simon's band. The last time I saw it played live was in a bar in Nottingham. I've loved this song for years. It moves me to tears sometimes.

"Bird on a Wire" by Leonard Cohen

I see this song playing during Rishi's trip to Mexico. I've specifically chosen the version with Leonard Cohen himself on vocals, and not a cover. In this section of the book, Rishi tries to reconcile desire with morality, ambition with probability. The characters in Lucky Boy are forever wrangling with want—wanting too much or too little, wanting what they can't have. I think specifically of this moment in the song:

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch

He said to me, "you must not ask for so much"

And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door

She cried to me, "hey, why not ask for more?"

This is a song of regret, of love and apology. Cohen's voice is nasal and crackly, and the rendition is painfully slow, the words virtually leaking from his mouth. He sounds like he hasn't slept in a very long time. By the time he gets to Mexico, Rishi feels a lot like Cohen sounds.

"At the Bottom of Everything" by Bright Eyes

In my imagination, this song begins playing over the final few seconds of my movie. I'd skip the spoken intro and start at 1:37 with "1-2-1-2-3-4". The credits roll, and we zoom out from the bustle of Mexico City, panning over mountains, over deserts, and settling on a yellow train, churning up through the countryside. This is the first song I decided would be on my Lucky Boy soundtrack. This was five years ago, before I'd even finished my first draft. I tried to choose the verse from this song that most aptly evokes Lucky Boy's themes, but every verse is the best verse. They all say something to or about my book. I settled on the one below, because it speaks to idealism, to blind love, to plunging into the unknown. But really, just listen to the whole song:

We must hang up in the belfry

Where the bats and moonlight laugh

We must stare into a crystal ball

And only see the past

And into the caverns of tomorrow

With just our flashlights and our love

We must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge

This movie would begin with a train and end with a train. Its middle would be composed of forward motion, plunging and pushing into the unknown and into foolish desire. I can't listen to this song and not see a train, Soli and Checo on top of a train, Rishi charging up a hillside, manic with ambition, or Kavya pushing Iggy on a swing, drunk with hope. Finally, I see myself in a dark movie theater, listening to the final bars of this song and clasping someone's hand. My film ends and the credits roll and I'm left with the comforting dark.

Shanthi Sekaran and Lucky Boy links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

All Things Considered interview wit the author
Berkeleyside profile of the author
Capital Public Radio interview with the author
DIY MFA interview with the author
Expat Parent interview with the author
Get Lit interview with the author
The Grotto interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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