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September 19, 2019

Lisa Lenzo's Playlist for Her Short Story Collection "Unblinking"


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.

Lisa Lenzo's fiction collection Unblinking paints a diverse and poignant portrait through its stories.

Fiction Writers Review wrote of the book:

"Reading—and rereading—Lisa Lenzo’s work, I realized what I’m sensing disappearing from the American literary landscape. I rarely these days find solid short stories, rendered in the American realist tradition, that take on smallness of life, the moments we barely perceive and yet we know have meaning. It’s rarer I feel to see a work that returns, gently, to people who have not truly grown and evolved but still provide them the grace of nuance while acknowledging their flaws. I hope that I’m wrong and that Unblinking isn’t a eulogy for a fading literary mode but the harbinger of a return."

In her own words, here is Lisa Lenzo's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Unblinking:

The sounds I mainly listen to as I write on my porch are birdsong (live, not recorded), traffic (in the distance), the wind through the leaves of my black walnut trees, and my neighbors’ large and largely annoying array of lawn and yard machines. But when I’m in my car, I often play Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, a 3-CD set compiled by Chuck D of Public Enemy. These songs inspire and encourage much of my fiction, including the stories in my collection Unblinking, which focus on my home city, Detroit.

For instance, in “Black is Black,” sung by the Jungle Brothers, the lyrics attempt to combat the negative feelings of people like my character Jay, a light-skinned teenager who wishes he were darker: “My light complexion has no meaning/ If you think so you're still dreaming . . . Black is black, not blue or purple/ Being black is like a circle. . . I try, try to tell my people/ We all are one, created equal . . . Black is black, is black, is black/ Black is black, is black, is black.” In addition to Jay’s struggle with his racial identity, my story speaks to our country’s all-encompassing white domination, and its title, “In the White Man’s House,” echoes these lyrics from “Black is Black”: “All I am is one black man/ In a mighty big white hand.”

In another of my stories, former best friends return to their hometown of Highland Park, a struggling city inside of Detroit that has continued to deteriorate to the point that many of its houses are gone, the public library has closed, a number of street lights have been permanently removed, and the shutting off of water for the remaining residents has prompted the United Nations to protest as if this abused and neglected little city were a third world country. Regarding this plight, Marvin Gaye’s despairing voice and the title of one of his signature songs says it all: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Want to Holler).”

One of my flash fictions is written in the form of a rant from God, who prefers to be referenced with a small g, has a soft spot for children, and likes to come down to earth to play basketball on urban streets. I like to imagine that this god would be as delighted as I was, sitting on my hotel bed one sunny afternoon in New Orleans, upon hearing the crash of cymbals and bleating of trumpets, and, like me, that this god would fly down to the street and follow that marching band composed of about a hundred African-American children blowing their horns and banging their drums through the streets of the French Quarter as they played “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

My story “Spin” takes place in and outside of Cliff Bell’s, a jazz club in downtown Detroit, on an evening when a white couple from a small town clash with a black homeless man who offers to park their car. A happier meeting of cultures also happens on that night: James Carter, a dark-skinned Detroiter and world-renowned jazz saxophonist, is playing with The Hot Club of Detroit, a quintet whose members are various shades of white and who except for their saxman don’t play what seem like the hottest of instruments: two acoustic guitars, an upright bass, and a button accordion. They end their first set with a surprising rendition of “Summertime,” which because of the acoustic guitars and the accordion, sounds like an odd yet pleasing cross between the western folk strains of “Home on the Range” and the original blues aria.

The song I’ll choose for “Lorelei,” a story about one of my former passengers from when I used to drive a bus, is “I Still Miss Someone,” sung by Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne on A Tribute to Johnny Cash, a CD that was a favorite of mine and some of my rural passengers. The woman I based my character Lorelei on was a blue-eyed woman from Arkansas who struggled with poverty, old age, illness, and her own racism. Initially annoyed by her, I ended up growing fond of her, and I still miss her. As Rosanne Cash sings, “Oh, no, I never got over those blue eyes . . . And I still miss someone.”

In another of my stories, a blues harmonica player who became a paraplegic when he fell from a tree creates his own song, which he plays and describes at the story’s end: “It’s the tune of my fall, but of more of it than I could take in while it was happening: besides the trees and the whirling, the utter sweetness of falling, of floating, almost still, it takes in the sky at my feet, and the gravity of the earth pulling me down, and the people watching me, with fear and with love.” This song is “a fast, wild little tune with a slow feeling buried inside all the motion.” It’s necessarily an instrumental because even a decade after his plunge the disabled bluesman still doesn’t have words to describe the fall’s terrible beauty.

This collection’s longest story, “Marching,” tells of the last days of a character based on my father, who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. In this story the Old Man, which is what my sibs and I often called him, is telling two of his children details of the Selma march that he hasn’t shared with them before now. He recounts that he didn’t march up at the front with Dr. King and the other “notables,” but that he did walk beside Peter Seeger for a while. “You did?” his daughter asks. “Did he sing?”

“Yes,” the Old Man answers. “And we sang with him.”

One of the songs they sang was “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. The version I’d like to hear was not recorded, but I heard a part of it, fifty years later, sung in my father’s by then soft, hoarse, tuneless voice. It was a verse he made up himself, and that Pete Seeger picked up and sang along with the other marchers: “We shall all have jobs/ We shall all have jobs/ We shall all have jobs, someday/ Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe . . ..”

I like to imagine this verse and others sung by those marchers. Back then, my dad sang in a clear and beautiful baritone. I can still hear it in my head, along with Pete Seeger’s iconic split-tenor, and the voices of the people they walked with, and the drumming of their marching feet; and I can also hear percussion coming from the sky above, from the spinning blades of the helicopters that flew overhead--“oh, constantly,” my father said. The copters were sent by President Johnson to protect the marchers, two of whom were murdered in the weeks before the first attempt to march to Selma, a march that was halted by police who charged the crowd wielding tear gas, whips, and clubs, sending fifty people to hospitals on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” The march my dad joined two weeks later started with three hundred people who walked and sang for five days, sleeping in tents at night. When they reached their destination—alive, unmolested, and 25,000 strong—speeches rang out like music and more songs were sung.

I’ll return to Let Freedom Sing for the title story of my collection, in which an elderly white couple strolling at night in downtown Detroit cross paths with four black male teenagers with whom they end up sharing a tentative moment of communion. A phrase from “None of Us are Free (If One of Us is Chained),” sung by Solomon Burke and The Blind Boys of Alabama, speaks to this story, as well as to the spirit of my collection as a whole: “We’ve got to join together in spirit, heart, and mind/ So that every soul who’s suffering will know they’re not alone.”

Lisa Lenzo and Unblinking links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Fiction Writers Review review
Michigan Public Radio review review

The Rumpus interview with the author
WMUK interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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