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August 8, 2017

Book Notes - Jennifer Tseng "The Passion of Woo & Isolde"

The Passion of Woo & Isolde

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.

Jennifer Tseng's The Passion of Woo & Isolde, winner of Rose Metal Press's Short Short Chapbook Contest, is a testament to the power that flash fiction can possess.

Amelia Gray wrote of the book:

"Often, flash fiction collections come to us like a box of light bulbs, meant to be sifted through and shuffled about, fit into various sockets. But The Passion of Woo & Isolde comes to us as a sparkling set, doing the rare business of working singularly and within each of the three parts and in the triptych as a whole. Together, they light the room.

The collection, therefore, does unique work that might seem natural to Jennifer Tseng but feels stunning to the rest of us; it presents a series of moments that aspire to illuminate life itself."

In her own words, here is Jennifer Tseng's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Passion of Woo & Isolde:

More than once, I've been asked to write or talk about the experience of using autobiographical material to make The Passion of Woo & Isolde and each time I swiftly declined, explaining that the collection has little basis in reality, that it is, in fact, my least autobiographical book. And yet when I sat down to create a playlist for it, I found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole made of songs from my childhood, many of them favorites of my parents who were the original, albeit distant, inspirations for Woo and Isolde. My father in particular was a lover of music, often whistling or humming as he moved through the house. With the exception of the classical station, we were forbidden to listen to the radio and although we had a record player, it was missing its speakers so in order to hear the music we had to put our ears close to the record as it turned. As a result, the two primary sources of music in our house were the television (which we were allowed to watch in the presence of our parents) and the music we made ourselves — singing, playing piano, clarinet, flute, violin, harmonica, rubber band harps we made using the backs of chairs, cardboard oat cylinders we beat with chopsticks.

My father had a reputation for being cutthroat and pragmatic, practical to the point of being brutal. When I sat down to listen to his few favorite songs, I was struck by how very romantic they all are. Many are about star-crossed lovers or distance, many feature the sea, waiting for a loved one to return, many reference more than one language or culture. I was reminded of how, just after he died, I learned that he had gone to great lengths and spared no expense to ensure that he would be buried next to his wife, in a grave overlooking the sea. For a man who spent his life pinching pennies and dismissing nostalgia, it seemed to me a touching extravagance.

The handful of records in our house were our mother's. Due to the missing speakers she never listened to them, unless, while my sister and I were at school and our father was at work, she played the records by herself. In our absence, she may have placed her ears close to the records as they turned. The two album covers I remember most clearly are My Fair Lady and The Flying Nun. I never heard her sing around the house, though she sometimes hummed quietly while she ate. It pains me to think the only music she ever heard was that which her husband and children subjected her to and the hymns sung at Sunday Mass (though I suppose she could have turned on the radio if she dared).

Most of the songs I've included here correspond to section II of my book. The section sits at the book's heart and is devoted to Woo and Isolde who, as I've mentioned, bear some resemblance to my Chinese immigrant father and my German American mother. The songs meander back and forth between the four of them. Woo. Isolde. My father. My mother. Two exceptions are "I Remember You" and "Oh L'Amour" both of which resonate throughout the book but perhaps resonate more with pieces in sections I and III whose stories are less conventional and more fable like, sometimes surreal, often philosophical.

1. "Who Needs Wings to Fly?" (The Flying Nun theme song) - Dominic Frontiere (composer)

If Isolde had been a maker of film & television she might have made the sitcom The Flying Nun. Had she been more outgoing and theatrical, she would have been the perfect woman to star in it. Even to someone who grew up with The Flying Nun as one of few records in the house, its premise is astonishing. The 86-episode series follows the adventures of a community of nuns, one of whom, Elsie Ethrington arrives from San Juan after being arrested in a protest. Inspired by her aunt's missionary work, Elsie abandons the family tradition of going to medical school, breaks up with her toy salesman boyfriend in order to become a nun, and renames herself Sister Bertrille. White American Sally Fields played Sister Bertrille, starring opposite Argentinian actor Alejandro Rey. Like my mother, Sister Bertrille was a Chicago native and had a passion for social justice. One of the many things that sets her apart from the other nuns is her ability to solve any problem using her power to fly. Like my mother, Sister Bertrille was a featherweight; she could always catch a breeze when necessary. According to Wikipedia, "her flying caused as many problems as it solved."

2. "Hallelujah" - Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Isolde would have zealously approved of Sheku Kanneh-Mason's rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Performed by a BAME cellist alongside a multiracial ensemble, the piece's political and spiritual message is clear yet subtle, without words.

3. "Shall We Dance?" - Taeko Ohnuki

Once upon a time, our father was a ballroom dance teacher. Our parents met at a dance where he was on duty to help people with their steps. He was fond of bragging about his dancing ability. One of the great disappointments of their marriage was that he never took our mother dancing — she loved to dance — not even once. After he died, his second wife said he was a terrible dancer. I don't know who to believe.

4. "Love Theme - Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - Denny Zeitlin (composer)

Our mother says that the day she married our father, he turned into someone else. She often used the phrase "invasion of the body snatchers" to describe the phenomenon. As it turns out, she's not the only American white woman to use this phrase to describe her experience of marrying an Asian immigrant male. While it was rare in the 1960s (and in some places illegal), for a white American woman to marry an Asian man, among those who did so then and those who did so in later years, this was a fairly common experience, common enough for there to be support groups devoted to helping such women "recover." Sociologists theorize that each party is following their own cultural instructions. His: 1. Woo the woman you intend to marry. 2. Once married, dispense with courtship and focus on being a good provider. Hers: 1. Fall in love. 2. Live happily ever after. The women are disappointed (if not devastated) by the sudden disappearance of romance and the man is surprised by (or oblivious to) her disappointment. The woman feels betrayed and the man feels his hard work has been unappreciated. This is one of the tragedies of Woo and Isolde.

5. "My Funny Valentine" - Chet Baker

Part of what I can't help but love about Woo and Isolde is that either of them could easily be the funny valentine, depending on who's looking. Through Woo's eyes, Isolde is "funny" because she's Caucasian, among other things. She can't speak Chinese, she can't cook Chinese food, and her hair is the color of persimmons — a comical, fruity color for hair if ever he saw one. Through Isolde's eyes, Woo's "funny" because he's Chinese, among other things. His English is deeply flawed, heavily accented. He's shorter than most Caucasian men and old enough to be her father though he dyes his hair black to conceal this which is also funny to her, lady like even.

6. "The Odd Couple" - Neal Hefti (composer)

When I was a child, one of the TV shows I would watch un-ironically with my parents was The Odd Couple, a show about an ill-fitting pair of roommates, one tidy, one a complete slob. Our father always rooted for the neat freak Felix, something I did secretly, either because I was inclined to or because I wanted, even in secret, to please him. I honestly don't know which it was. My sister had a soft spot for the messy one, Oscar, and our mother never revealed her allegiance to one or the other, if in fact she felt such a thing.

7. "Madame Butterfly" - Maria Callas

The song our father hummed most often was Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Though to say he hummed it is not entirely accurate. Imagine someone singing full blast but without using words. We laughed at him mercilessly behind his back for using something like "yah" for every syllable. We had no idea what song he was performing (for lack of a better word) with such frequency and gusto. We had no idea it was an opera about a Japanese woman jilted by a Caucasian American man who marries her out of convenience, a woman whose devotion and honor puts her American husband to shame. In the end, he realizes his mistake but it's too late. The Japanese wife martyrs herself by cutting her own throat with a knife. Of course, my father knew the story but with whom he identified and whether or not there was a connection between his life with our mother and his incessant wordless singing, I'll never know.

8. "Oh L'Amour" - Erasure

I would have liked to have seen David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly with my father. When I came out to him as bisexual, he said breezily, "Oh, that's normal. Everyone has a homosexual phase." I laughed at this. To me, it meant not only that he'd had an analogous experience but that he'd comfortably assumed that if he had, so did everyone else. While he offered hints here and there, he never told me the full story. Years before, in high school, before my friend Syma dropped me off, we would sit in the car listening to Erasure, deferring the moment I went into the house. It was Syma that told me the singer of one of our favorite songs "Oh L'Amour" was gay, that the "boy in love" was singing to another boy! She had suspected as much poring over the lyrics to "Hideaway" and then had seen it with her own eyes at a concert. I was thrilled by this information. We had, in our 1980s way, always assumed he was singing to a woman. It intrigued me that the singer could be himself while pretending, that language had helped him express who he was while at the same time protecting him. As a writer, I play with gender and language, in search of similar surprises.

9. "I Remember You" - Björk

Memory is one of the recurring themes in The Passion of Woo & Isolde. Problems with forgetting (as in "Past Lives"), questions about what to remember and what to forget (as in "Two Suitcases"), the impossibility of forgetting one's country of origin (as in "Country House") or a shameful memory (as in "The Passion of Isolde"). The story "The Locksmith" is the one piece in the collection that's really a micro essay, not a short short or prose poem. It's a portrait of someone my friendship with whom is inextricable from books — books she told me about, books she recommended, books we studied in class, books we read together silently or aloud. It's impossible for me to separate my love for her from my love of her books. In part because of this, I've come to believe that the relationships I remember best, the ones that are unforgettable to me are those that exist in connection with beloved books. Now that I've compiled this playlist, I tend to think those that exist in connection to beloved songs are equally unforgettable.

10. "Adios, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen" - Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers

One of the few programs we were allowed to watch was The Lawrence Welk Show. A cabaret of sorts, it was more like a weekly concert than a "show" in the traditional sense. There was an orchestra. There were solos. A group of sisters sang in harmony. Nipsey Russell tap danced. Even in its heyday, its primary audience was senior citizens. My sister and I jumped at the chance to watch it. It was television! And, being musicians ourselves, we were easily excited by its performative elements. The show, like all the shows we watched, was our father's selection. I, for one, dreamed of one day appearing on it to impress him. It was the closing song — which they sang every week and which we four sang together — that I can't forget. We sang it countless times, in many languages, with our parents, just before bed. The sound of their voices singing adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, was a strangely fitting lullaby; unforgettable.

Jennifer Tseng and The Passion of Woo & Isolde links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book
excerpt from the book (PDF link)

also at Largehearted Boy:

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