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October 24, 2019

Mimi Lok's Playlist for Her Story Collection "Last of Her Name"

Last of Her Name

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.

Mimi Lok's collection Last of Her Name features empathetically drawn characters whose lonely lives haunt the reader long after the book is closed.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Lok has written the kind of understated book you catch yourself thinking about weeks after you finish it. Absorbing and deeply human, these characters — who either live in China or are of the Chinese diaspora — feel more like people you might’ve known than like fictitious renderings of Lok’s imagination. A pleasure to read and mull over for days."

In her own words, here is Mimi Lok's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Last of Her Name:

The stories in Last of Her Name center on the intimate, interconnected lives of diasporic women and the histories they’re born into, and span a wide range of time periods and locales, including '80s UK suburbia, WWII Hong Kong and urban California. Running throughout all of the stories in the collection are themes of love, loss, yearning, and endurance--as I was putting together this playlist, I included tracks that connect to those themes as well as songs that are direct or indirect callouts. Some tracks speak to certain moods or moments in a story. I also thought about the songs that certain characters would listen to even if they’re not directly mentioned--when I’m trying to see a character more clearly, thinking about what music they love, hate, or merely tolerate is a useful exercise. Here’s a little about the stories to contextualize the notes on individual tracks.

In the title story, "Last of Her Name," a Chinese girl in 1980’s England dreams of living heroically like the martial artist protagonists of her favorite TV show while, in a series of flashbacks, we see her mother struggling to survive in Hong Kong under the threat of Japanese assault during World War II. In "The Wrong Dave," a soon-to-be-married architect in London strikes up a heartfelt email correspondence with a young woman in Hong Kong. He met her several years ago at a wedding, and when he gets an email from her out of the blue, seeming to pick up a conversation in the middle, he doesn't tell her he thinks she's sent her email to the wrong person named Dave. As he prepares for his wedding to his fiancée Mayling, he finds himself increasingly obsessed with their covert correspondence. In "Bad Influence," we meet Mayling years earlier as a young woman in California, who cannot fathom her estranged, globe-trotting brother Nelson’s joyful rootlessness. In the novella “The Woman in the Closet,” an elderly homeless woman in Hong Kong moves into the closet of a busy, lonely young man and secretly insinuates herself into his life. “Wedding Night” centers on a fragile, unconventional romance between a “bad girl” from the city and a young man from a rural village that is threatened by societal mores.

Meng Zhong Ren/Dreams Faye Wong (“The Wrong Dave”)

A rather brazen Cantonese cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries, in that it’s a note-for-note imitation of the original, but I love how it distinguishes itself through its vocals and lyrics. Faye Wong’s voice is quivering and pleading, full of an almost exasperated yearning, while Dolores O’Riordan’s blissed out voice swoons and soars. The Cantonese title is “person in my dreams,” and while the original sounds hopeful and joyous, this version conveys the push-pull nature of desire, seemingly spurred either by a passionate, fleeting encounter or by a part-time lover with commitment issues. There’s a current of resistance throughout instead of the “I can’t believe this is really happening” surrender of the original. A shaky translation of some of the lyrics, next to those from the original:

Person in dreams
how (I) wish (you) to be real
In my heart I'm disinhibited

Why suddenly invade me
Come into my extremely bored dream nest
Sparking a wave of shaken feelings

Oh, my life
Is changing every day
In every possible way

I know I've felt like this before
But now I'm feeling it even more
Because it came from you

This song is from the Chungking Express soundtrack, the 1994 Hong Kong cult indie film by Wong Kar Wai comprising three contained but related stories that has an Altman-y shaggy dog vibe. Faye Wong plays a food truck vendor in the last (and best) story. Her character is a twisted take on the manic pixie dream girl trope--she’s adorable and whimsical, and remains so even as her crush on one of her regular customers, a heartbroken cop played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, takes a turn for the stalkery. This is a film that Yi, the female protagonist in “The Wrong Dave”, would have seen multiple times—as a camera operator, as much for the cinematography as for the acting or the story. Dave wouldn’t have seen it; he’s a bit too mainstream. But he would have identified with Faye Wong’s character in how she develops sudden, unhealthily intense feelings for someone she barely knows.

Prisencolinensinaninciusol, Adriano Celentano (“Bad Influence”)

This is a magnificently absurd and ebullient 70s Italian rap song that’s not really in Italian. This song is a perfect encapsulation of Nelson Chan in “Bad Influence”--at least his sister Mayling would think so. It sounds like one man dancing along to his own beat, in his own language, accompanied by a full marching band that only exists inside his head.

何日再相見, 張德蘭 /“When We Will See Each Other Again?” Teresa Cheung Tak-Lan (“Last of Her Name”)

This is the opening theme song to the classic 1983 TV adaptation of Return of the Condor Heroes, which Karen in “Last of Her Name” is obsessed with, and in which she seeks further solace in the aftermath of an assault. RoCH is the second in a trilogy of martial arts novels by the author Jin Yong, also known as Louis Cha. There have been over a dozen adaptations of the book since its release. I watched this TV show as a kid, and before I even knew what the show was about I was immediately drawn in by the song’s hints of romance and action. Also the opening credits provided such an enticing glimpse of the array of compelling, eccentric characters. This woman sleeps on a suspended rope! This eagle knows kung fu! I loved those fight scenes, choreographed like dance sequences--the wire work, the flowing robes, the special effects that now seem incredibly primitive and cheesy (e.g. lasers coming out of eyes) but which were so wonderfully exciting for a kid.

When Mama Was Moth - Cocteau Twins

I love how dramatic, primal, and witchy this sounds, like an incantation during some secret ritual in a cave filled with candles and skulls. The title and the vibe of this song evokes, for me, that dark, unspoken place that resides in the consciousness of girls, women, mothers...containing beauty, desire, rage, power--all of that good stuff.

Jeux d’eau, M 30, Maurice Ravel (“A Reasonable Person”)

There’s a part in this story where the protagonist both loses her senses and comes to her senses--what I’ll call here her “chandelier moment.” I sometimes think of that moment as a domestic version of a dream ballet, and this would be its crystalline, spilling, feverish soundtrack.

Are You The One I’ve Been Waiting For? - Nick Cave (“Wedding Night)”

“Out of sorrow entire worlds have been built
Out of longing great wonders have been willed”

O we will know... won't we?
The stars will explode in the sky
But they don't... do they?
Stars have their moment and then they die

This could be the soundtrack to any number of the stories in this collection. The futility and falsehood of romance. A voice that contains hope, yearning, sorrow, and exhaustion.

In A Sentimental Mood - World Saxophone Quartet (“Bad Influence;” “I Have Never Put My Hope In Any Other But Thee”)

These two stories are for the most part two-handers, following a pair of characters around a city over the course of several hours. In “Bad Influence”, it’s estranged brother and sister Nelson and Mayling eating and drinking their way around San Diego. In “I Have Never Put My Hope…” it’s teenager Audrey and her ex-opera singer stepmother Vivienne putting off a visit to Audrey’s sick father by going shopping and looking at art. I love this deconstructed, slightly loopy version of “In A Sentimental Mood” which makes me think of the languid caper buddy movie vibe of early Jim Jarmusch movies, with an edge of melancholy.

Phoenix, Martina Topley-Bird

“I will stay for this last transformation
From who we start it soon gets precarious
I will stay for this last transformation
Beauty and tragedy released in the end”

I don’t really know what this song is about, but somehow it speaks to me about diaspora and reinvention and sacrifice. Also I love her voice--she sounds like an 8 year-old vampire who’s lived for 80 years.

但願人長久 (Dàn yuàn rén cháng jiǔ), Teresa Teng

Iconic, generations-spanning Taiwanese singer. I first heard this song as a kid, and because it was in Mandarin I didn’t understand what she was singing, but still her voice and the music stirred up inexplicable feelings of sadness and longing. I later found out that the lyrics were from the poem "Remembering Su Che (his younger brother) on the Mid-Autumn Festival" by Song dynasty poet Su Shi (1037-1101), which is also unbearably sad and beautiful.

I'd like to ride the wind to fly home.
Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions
are much too high and cold for me.
Dancing with my moonlit shadow,
It does not seem like the human world.

The moon rounds the red mansion, stoops to silk-pad doors, shines upon the sleepless,
Bearing no grudge,why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?

Hot Burrito #1, The Flying Burrito Brothers

One of the best songs about heartbreak and jealousy. Beautiful and pathetic. Strongly advise against listening to this after a break up, especially if your ex has since moved on and paired up with someone else.

Wild Horses, The Sundays

I love how even the most romantic and lovely songs by the Sundays have a defiant, scrappy undertone. This is a band who defined themselves as much by their jangly, swoony songs about deep longing and nostalgia, as by the actual deep longing and nostalgia they inflicted on their fans--after making three albums between 1990 and 1997 they up and disappeared. A bit like that old flame who made a quiet exit from your life and whose lasting silence in the intervening years causes occasional sighs of deep melancholy no matter how much you think you’ve moved on.

Spem in Alium, Thomas Tallis (“I Have Never Put My Hope In Any Other But Thee”)

This is the piece of choral music that’s in the sound installation Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff, which Audrey and Vivienne visit, and which inspires different responses in each of them. I first encountered this piece at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2003, and saw it again when it came to San Francisco over a decade later. In both cases, black speakers were arranged in a circle around the room on stands. Each speaker played the recorded voice of one singer (of a group of forty) performing "Spem in Alium," and you could walk around the room experiencing different aspects of the song. The piece is phenomenal--I don’t know if this is purely down to the music itself or from the unsettling intimacy of hearing each individual voice singing (and also clearing their throats or gossiping, which deepens the sense of intimacy). In the UK exhibition, I remember there were very few people in the room, and there being a sort of low-key solemnity and careful attention. In San Francisco, it was so popular that they had to let people inside in timed groups after more than an hour waiting in line outside in the blazing hot sun. Inside, people sat or stood with their eyes closed, looking very peaceful and in some cases a little fragile, as if about to cry. In Audrey’s case, she sees how people around her are moved, and she’s experiencing something quite different. She longs to be where they are, but at the same time she’s sort of rejecting being the same as everyone.

Mimi Lok and Last of Her Name links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
San Francisco Chronicle review

Poets & Writers interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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