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September 6, 2018

Lydia Kiesling's Playlist for Her Novel "The Golden State"

The Golden State

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

Lydia Kiesling's novel The Golden State is one of the year's strongest debuts, a profound examination of motherhood and love.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Kiesling's intimate, culturally perceptive debut portrays a frazzled mother and a fractious America, both verging on meltdown . . . Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations. But perhaps best of all is her thought-provoking portrait of a pioneer community in decline as anger and obsession fray bonds between neighbors, family, and fellow citizens."

In her own words, here is Lydia Kiesling's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Golden State:

My first novel, The Golden State, is about an American woman named Daphne who is working at a university and parenting a 16-month-old alone in the Bay Area while her Turkish husband, Engin, is in Turkey dealing with a protracted green card problem—a casualty of weaponized bureaucracy. Feeling at sea in her own life, Daphne takes her toddler Honey and her inherited Buick LeSabre and flees for her ancestral mobile home in the high desert country of northeastern California, where Oregon and Nevada and California meet. There, she mothers Honey with varying degrees of competence, conducts anguished Skype sessions with Engin, and visits old haunts. She meets neighbors who want to secede from California, and links up with an elderly woman named Alice who is on a long road trip of her own. Among other things, the book is concerned with documenting the feelings—often sad ones—conjured up by beloved places and people. Here are some of the sounds that inform those feelings.

1. Gitme Sana Muhtacım, Zeki Müren
I started learning Turkish in Turkey in 2005 with the help of a book I bought in the airport, my very gracious coworkers and friends, and various love interests (there is a semi-lewd Turkish expression about this). But one of the best things that ever happened to my Turkish was Professor Helga Anetshofer at the University of Chicago, where I did a master’s degree five years later. One of her teaching methods included having us translate Turkish songs, movies, and television interviews. We spent a few days on Zeki Müren, a much-beloved queer Turkish pop icon. She loved this song, which we had to transcribe and translate, and I love it too. It’s very sentimental, which you can tell from the music whether you understand the words or not—the title is “Don’t go—I need you.”

2. Home on the Range, Sons of the Pioneers
My grandmother’s stepfather was a rodeo rider and stuntman who was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, and I’ve always had a soft spot for cowboy songs. The only words I knew of this song were the chorus, which I used to sing to my older daughter when she was trying to sleep. But listening to the full song, it takes on an element of shame and horror: “The Red man was pressed/ From this part of the west/ 'Tis unlikely he'll ever return/ To the banks of Red River/ Where seldom if ever/ Their flickering campfires burn.” My book takes place in a thinly fictionalized town in the part of California where the so-called Modoc Wars took place, during which many Native people were murdered or forcibly removed from their land. Now that I know all the words, it joins the universe of artifacts I can’t see or hear the same way. My book’s narrator, Daphne, undergoes a series of similar readjustments.

3. Penceresi Yola Karşı, folk song
The Fatih Akın movie Head-On (Duvara Karşı/Geigen die Wand) came out around the time I first moved to Turkey, and it’s one of my absolute favorites, although it’s very bleak. It’s in Turkish and German and has a killer soundtrack across languages and genres. This folk song, “Her window faces the road,” appears as an interlude in the movie (here) and I loved both the sound of it and the visual aspect (and then the words, once I understood them). At the time I also was obsessed with Akın’s movie “Crossing the Bridge,” about the Istanbul music scene, in which a Canadian artist named Brenna MacCrimmon sings this song, and talks about it in excellent Turkish. I watched her as I was just starting to learn Turkish and thought, “I want to speak Turkish like that.”

4. İkili Delilik, Sezen Aksu (remix)
Daphne would definitely have heard this dance remix of a song called “Double Madness” by the megastar Sezen Aksu as she was running around Taksim in the hedonistic mid-aughts when she first met Engin (he would not have been into this song, but she would).

5. Bigmouth Strikes Again, The Smiths
While Daphne favors sentimental Turkish songs, Engin is a Smiths fan.

6. That Old Rugged Cross, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash version
A friend of my grandparents played this song on the guitar and sang at my beloved grandfather’s funeral at the Elk’s Lodge, which is a memory I poached for Daphne in the book.

7. Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere (Turkish folk song)
(Pop version by Candan Erçetin:
This folk song is traditionally sung at a henna night before a wedding in Turkey. The tenor is sad because in its original context, the bride is preparing to leave her family for a new household, including in-laws. In the book, Daphne’s sister-in-law throws her a semi-ironic henna night (they aren’t actually getting married in Turkey, for immigration reasons) and this song is sung. The words are poignant:

“Don’t let them build houses in the high, high hills
Don’t let them marry off brides to distant lands
Don’t let them scorn a mother’s one-and-only

Let the flying birds know
I miss my mother – my mother and my father
I miss my village...”

8. Uzun İnce Bir Yoldayım, Aşık Veysel
This is another classic—“I’m on a long, narrow road”—by a poet and singer who was born in 1894 in the Ottoman Empire. It’s sort of a quintessential wanderer song, with lines like “I don’t even know what state I’m in—day and night I’m going…I’ve been walking since the minute I was born.” Daphne is on an extended road trip she doesn’t exactly understand the meaning of; she just needed to get up and go. This is a bit like a cowboy song, I think. (I first heard it on this wonderful video cover by an advocacy group called “Play for Nature” featuring musicians from all over Turkey.)

9. Elimde Fotoğrafın, Bergen
Bergen (Belgin Sarılmişer) was a singer in the Arabesk genre. This song is ridiculously sad—sung to a lover as a photograph in the singer’s hand. This is one of many very sentimental songs I periodically listen to on YouTube when I’m feeling morose. The song is even more tragic when you consider Bergen’s life: she was blinded in one eye by an acid attack from her husband (her signature look on album covers featured bangs over one eye). When he got out of jail he shot and killed her. She was 31.

10. Eşarbını Yan Bağlama, İbrahim Tatlıses version
I know this as a song by the mega-star also known as “İbo,” but I think it is actually a folk song. One of my Turkish conversation buddies in a language program I did in Izmir played this song for me and now I also love it. The title is literally “Burn her scarf, bağlama” [a musical instrument]. It’s the only somewhat upbeat song on this list. And since my previous exposure to Tatlıses was through another Turkish friend who found him corny, he’s also emblematic for me of the elements in any country that are completely invisible to foreigners like me—musical tastes and leisure activities and style of dress that can map to class and age and family and region and all kinds of other things that you can spend years trying to learn and never quite get. When you listen to music from another cultural tradition, you bring your own weird and exotifying gaze to it, but you have no idea how it is perceived in its own context or if it is “cool.” (And cool, in any context, is obviously its own subjective and constantly shifting target.)

11. Dağlar Dağlar, Barış Manço
One of my favorite songs. It means “Mountains, Mountains,” and Daphne sings it to herself as she drives herself, her toddler Honey, and their new friend Alice over the border into Oregon on a mission of nostalgia. In the book, Daphne recalls this song and reflects on the way that songs are difficult for language learners, because they do things with language that are different than speech. You can’t use facial or situational cues to figure out context and meaning the same way. This is, like most songs I seem to like, a melancholy love song.

12. You Are My Sunshine, Gene Autry version
It’s hard for me to listen to this song without bawling. My grandmother, whose ghost animates the book, sang this to her kids, and my mom sang it to me, and I sing it to my kids if I can keep it together (it’s so weird, incidentally, that this is treated as a lullaby when the words are really kind of threatening and grim). Sometimes I think I wrote a whole book just to try and set down the atmosphere that this song sets down in under three minutes.

Lydia Kiesling and The Golden State links:

the author's website

Bookforum review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Slate review

Literary Hub profile of the author
Slate interview with the author
ZYZZYVA interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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