April 22, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Amanda Dennis's novel Her Here is a captivating debut, as inventive as it is mesmerizing.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"Spellbinding. . . . Wholly engrossing. . . . This hypnotic and deeply cerebral exploration is a seductive escape. Through Ella and Elena’s efforts to reconstruct a sense of self―outside family, beyond academia and expectation―through language, Dennis confronts the various ways we try to understand ourselves and others."
“Aurelia or Her Here” Playlist for Her Here
Her Here is about two women, Elena and Ella, one in search of the other. It’s also about travel as adventure and escape, about fleeing the self and being faced with it. Many of the songs below capture the vivid joy and sadness of being always on the move, of wanting to disappear, to escape exposure. Some call up the terror of going too far, of losing track of home.
Music also put me in better touch with a character, Aurelia. She is a doppelganger for Ella, one of my protagonists, who puts Ella in touch with her own vulnerability. Aurelia was hard for me to know at first, since she was always trying to dissolve in strong sunlight, starving herself, terrified of being seen. I named a playlist after her that I’d listen to on the “commute” to my writing café (with unbeatable ginger scones) one summer in San Francisco, snaking my way south of Mission under jacaranda trees. This list includes a few of those “character study” songs for Aurelia in addition to music that fed the book as a whole.
1. Sunrise – Norah Jones
A lot of the novel is set in Chiang Rai, Thailand. When I lived there in the early 2000s, Norah Jones was everywhere. There was a coffee shop where I used to grade papers when I craved tourist food, and the Thai-British couple who ran it would play “Feels Like Home” on repeat, because the album had just come out and was great. In the novel, a Thai jazz vocalist at a riverside restaurant in Chiang Mai sings covers of Norah Jones as Ella and Seb verbally prod each other.
2. อะไรก็ยอม – Loso
In the early 2000s in Chiang Rai, everyone around me, of any nationality, life stage, or class seemed to be listening to Loso—and wondering whether the band would get back together (they broke up in 2002). I remember debating the lyrics with my students. And they were playing in all the restaurants, over loudspeakers at festivals, in cars, on the radio. In the novel, Ella and Seb turn up the volume when Loso plays on their road trips. In a draft, Ella and Seb muse at the ease with which these songs dive into love and longing. This song, for example, อะไรก็ยอม (Arai Gor Yaum), translated (shakily) as “I Give in Everything,” is about lost love.
3. Dress Up in You – Belle & Sebastian
Another band that, like Loso, started in the mid-1990s—in Glasgow—is Belle & Sebastian. I was captivated by the lyric, “if I could have a second skin/I’d probably dress up in you,” and the general creepiness of this song about a complicatedly intense female friendship. Her Here is about doubles, misrecognition, and personas bleeding into each other, and this song gives a nod to these themes.
4. Unraveling – Deb Talan
Aurelia is on the right side of ok, but barely. She’s losing control, ashamed, doesn’t want anyone too close. There’s a line in this song I find haunting: “You never get your old skin back/Once you’ve loved like that.” It speaks to the fear of going too far, and of her need to be in control. There’s a futility to a lot of Aurelia’s gestures in the novel—but they’re fuelled by an obsession that feels human. This song conjures all that for me: the futility, the difficulty, the beauty of certain forms of obsession.
5. Abeáv baró te kerás – Norig
The first stirrings of this novel came around the time that I was getting to know Paris, and my early days in the city are unaccountably linked to discovering Jazz Manouche and Norig’s vocals, usually live at a place like the Satellite Café (now closed). I remember savoring her soulful songs—she has a voice—and the heart-thumping rhythm of the Django-inspired guitar. She released the album, Gadji (Voyage en Tziganie), in 2018, and this song is the first I recognized from those early days—summer nights and smoky cafés wrapped up in the rhythms of the guitar and her powerful voice. I can imagine Elena’s evenings full of music like this—perhaps with the epinine barista, Jérémie (a minor character), playing violin with an amateur group.
6. Quattro (World Drifts In) – Calexico
Here’s another song with great lyrics. There may be a geopolitical meaning I never tapped into, but certain lines reminded me of Ella, always on the run, in the way that you can impute meaning to poems: “World drifts in and the world’s a stranger/In a light, eclipsed and alienated.” It touches on that interest in otherness, encounters, confusion, and also the horror and shame of exposure, which animates the hot season section of the novel, with its play of mirrors and doubles and light. What better band to evoke the atmosphere of this dry, volatile heat than one described as “desert noir”?
7. Life for Rent – Dido
Again, there’s that tension, the difficulty of staying and the sense—Ella’s sense (and mine at a certain stage)—that adventure and the wildness of always being on the move, foreign, is the only way to be truly alive. This song was always a reminder—at a certain period—of the pleasures of commitment, of really going for it, and the melancholy of being adrift.
8. It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken – Tragically Hip
A song for Seb, the character who is always trying to keep his lusts, his desire in check. This is how he keeps himself in line, his anthem.
9. Railroad Wings – Patty Griffin
A song about an escape from self, one of the rare fits, sensibility-wise, for both Ella and Elena, my protagonists. A traveling song they both might sing along to.
10. Living Room – Paris Combo
The first apartment I rented in Paris became the model for the one Siobhán lends to Elena in the novel. The apartment was a renovated chambre de bonne with commanding views over the city. In the CD player of the apartment, I discovered a Paris Combo CD, which I played over and over—so much so that this song feels part of the ambience of one of the novel’s key spaces.
Born in Philadelphia, Amanda Dennis studied modern languages at Princeton and Cambridge Universities before earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Whited Fellowship in creative writing. An avid traveler, she has lived in six countries, including Thailand, where she spent a year as a Princeton in Asia fellow. She has written about literature for the Los Angeles Review of Books and Guernica, and she is assistant professor of comparative literature and creative writing at the American University of Paris, where she is researching the influence of 20th-century French philosophy on the work of Samuel Beckett. Her Here is her first novel.