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June 17, 2022

Alex Poppe's Playlist for Her Novella "Duende"

Duende by Alex Poppe

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Alex Poppe's Duende is a mesmerizing and surprising coming-of-age story with flamenco at its heart.

Rachel Swearingen wrote of the book:

"Duende is no ordinary coming-of-age tale, although the longing that pulses at its center is as timeless as the Flamenco music that weaves through the book. Alex Poppe performs a narrative dance with these pages, weaving together Sevilla, Spain and Detroit, Michigan. Her rhythmic sentences and sensory details will leave you hungering for streetside cafes, Flamenco halls, and carnivals. Poppe is a rare storyteller, gifted with both precision and heart."

In her own words, here is Alex Poppe's Book Notes music playlist for her novella Duende:

For a coming-of-age novella crafted to flamenco dance, you might expect flamenco palos to pepper my playlist. However, listening to a flamenco dancer instead of watching the intricacies of his or her movements sells the artform short. Instead, I’ve crafted my playlist from songs evoking mood or character.


1. Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony, “Nothing Else Matters”

Beyond flamenco stages, orange trees weep on Mudéjar palaces, perfuming Seville’s air with fresh citrus. The lone, plucked, electric guitar chords opening Metallica and the San
Francisco Symphony’s “Nothing Else Matters” evoke Seville’s majesty. The symphony orchestra joins the electric guitar, building to crescendo; this is dawn breaking over the city’s church steeples, setting little copper fires in the windows of the ancient buildings lining the cobblestone streets.

2. Ani DiFranco, “Overlap”

The main character, Lava, has been shunted off to Seville to live with her mother’s cousin, Lola, the collateral damage of family upheaval. She meets a cad-in-the-making bartender named Daniel, to whom she loses her virginity. This is not love; rather, their interlude is the betterment of a hookup, in which Lava engages, eyes wide open. The frankness, agency, and appetite of Ani Di Franco’s “Overlap” embodies that attitude while maintaining a shy seductiveness. The petal-soft guitar notes of Ani’s acoustic guitar remind me of the flamenco guitar music cursiving through Seville’s parks and plazas, wending its way throughout the city.

Las Sevillanas

3. Iggy Pop, “The Passenger”

Astrid, the ringleader of the ex-pat students gives Lava access to an exclusive, high school clique when they become friends and partners-in-crime. Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” has a springy beat reminiscent of adolescent girls’ machinations. The lyrics, “I am the passenger, I stay under glass,” are Lava as she deciphers her new twin worlds of elite high school drama, and through Lola, flamenco.

4. Adele, “Someone Like You”

Astrid and Lava wander Seville’s weekly flea market, a detritus of pre-internet life while Adele’s “Someone Like You” plays in the background. During “Someone Like You,” Astrid and Lava improvise a sevillanas dance. I listened to “Someone Like You” repeatedly, matching dance movements to song measures, intertwining elements of the sevillanas and the forward story.

The long piano introduction at the beginning of “Someone Like You” sounds like longing, which ribbons through the novella. Lava’s longing for family connection, a place to belong, to become. Because I write beat by beat, story and character reveal themselves to me as I go. The lyrics “I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited,” sparked the beat where Lava and Astrid leave the flea market to spy on Daniel.


5. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”

Cody, the PTSD-suffering, Iraqi-war vet who boards with Lava and Lola, would be played by Adam Driver in my fantasy casting of the novella. Cody is broken. His fragile beauty is personified in Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah.” The opening chords sound meditative, contemplative, slowly gaining in strength, the essence of repair.

Cody is also in love with Lola, who momentarily reciprocates to body-batter loneliness while her husband, Jesse, serves his prison term. The lyrics, “Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. She tied you to her kitchen chair. She broke your throne and she cut your hair. And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.” capture Cody’s tortured heart when Jesse returns.


6. Hole, “Violet”

The prose poem halfway through the novella is Lava’s exorcism of betrayal through dance. Dancing in a rehearsal room allows her to reflect, process, and release the toxicity from all that has come before. Hole’s “Violet” has that same raw, roiling, ramping energy powering Lava’s movement. “You should learn how to say no. Go on. Take everything. Take everything. I want you to.” conjures turbulent self-recrimination and teen angst. Lava dances until she is cleansed, her body acid-raining on the rehearsal room floor.


7. PJ Harvey, “A Place Called Home”

If Lava could give a truth serum to Lila right before she asked one question, that question would be, “Who are you?” Lila keeps herself from Lava while Lava is desperate for Lila’s love. PJ Harvey’s “A Place Called Home” captures Lava’s unrequited longing to be part of Lila’s tribe.

8. Lady Gaga’s performance of 4 Non-Blondes’ “What’s Up”

Lady Gaga’s dark rendition of 4 Non-Blondes’ “What’s Up” has the vociferous pathos of what Lava feels when Lila gives her the envelope with a passport and a one-way ticket to Seville. A cocktail of confusion, disbelief, betrayal, fear, and abandonment surges through Lava. “Tryin’ to get up that great big hill of hope. For a destination.”


9. PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”

Lola stops existing in an idealized form as Lava realizes with both pride and sadness how alike they are. PJ Harvey’s “Down by the Water” elicits an ambivalent mother-daughter dynamic fueled by competition, jealousy, and abandonment without self-delusion. Lola and Lava are PJ Harvey’s “Little fish, big fish swimming in the water.” Lola’s choice to center flamenco in her life is her unapologetic commitment to living authentically.


10. Nouvelle Vague, “In a Manner of Speaking"

Estrella, an older flamenco singer who would have been played by the late Olympia Dukakis, pushes Lava to puzzle through the labyrinth of her family lore even though Estrella has the answers. Nouvelle Vague’s “In a Manner of Speaking” is Lava’s exasperation at not getting straight answers, of never really knowing: “Oh, give me the words. Give me the words. That tell me nothing. Oh, give me the words. Give me the words. That tell me everything.”

The song works on a secondary level: the final clue to who is disappearing girls in Seville is revealed in this chapter, but not every reader will catch it. I crafted this ambiguity deliberately as a comment on how society gives up on its disappeared girls and women, leaving predators to re-offend.

11. Janis Joplin’s performance of “Summertime” (written by George Gershwin)

The long instrumental introduction of Janis Joplin’s “Summertime” makes my heart feel as though it were running through a field. There’s a dissonance in the instrumentals, which echoes the chaos Lava has survived. Then, the dissonance quiets to something akin to hope: “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing. Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky.”

Alex Poppe is also the author of Jinwar and Other Stories (March 2022), Moxie, a novel (2019), and Girl World, Stories (2017), which was named a 35 over 35 Debut Book Award winner, First Horizon Award finalist, Montaigne Medal finalist, shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Awards Grand Prize and received an Honorable Mention in General Fiction. In 2021, she was an artist-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, where she began writing a memoir about her time working in Iraq. Poppe served as an academic writing lecturer at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, and as a teacher trainer for Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education. She now lives in Chicago and is a staff writer for the Preemptive Love Coalition, a non-governmental organization devoted to stopping the spread of violence.

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