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September 6, 2022

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri's Playlist for Her Story Collection "What We Fed to the Manticore"

What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri

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.

In a year already notable for outstanding short fiction collections, Talia Lakshmi Kolluri's What We Fed to the Manticore might be the strongest. These stories narrated by animals immerse you in their world, and in all of our world's struggles.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Exquisite. . . . exceptional. . . . This remarkable collection leaves an indelible mark."

In her own words, here is Talia Lakshmi Kolluri's Book Notes music playlist for her story collection What We Fed to the Manticore:

What We Fed to the Manticore, my debut collection, is composed of stories that I wrote over the course of a decade. They are all narrated from animal perspectives and their settings are scattered across the globe. I tend to pick one or two songs to listen to repeatedly while I write an individual story. While the whole collection is centered around a cohesive theme, the songs I listened to while I was writing them are very far ranging. They don’t necessarily relate to each other in an obvious way except that all of them made me feel very moved and allowed me to write from a space where I could imagine myself to be the animal I was writing about.

“Dirty Paws” Of Monsters and Men

I love folk music and acoustic guitar and this song sounds influenced by this tradition while still feeling completely new. I listened to this song while writing my title story, "What We Fed to the Manticore". The guitar has a wandering feeling to it and when I listened to it, I could picture the movement of animals through a mangrove forest. It also helped evoke the feeling of greenness permeating that particular environment. I love the story told by the lyrics which I imagine as an idyllic wild life that becomes disrupted by a terrifying outsider. I imagined my tigers to feel that their lives were upended in the same way.

“Le Chateau Maguique” Guilhem Desq

I had never heard of this artist until my sister’s kids showed me an amazing YouTube video that played this along with a film of paper cutouts showing scenes in silhouette. It’s played on a hurdy gurdy which is an instrument that was also unfamiliar to me at the time. The way the bass thumps underneath a haunting minor key melody like a heartbeat was just so incredible. When I listened to it while writing "Someone Must Watch Over the Dead", my mind flooded with images of dark winged vultures flying a very great distance over changing landscapes. I have always wanted to know what it feels like to be a winged animal and this song helped me feel like I was inside my vulture’s mind both while flying and on the ground.

“Birds” Imagine Dragons

I love Imagine Dragons’ music so much. I listened to this song a lot when I was writing "Let Your Body Meet the Ground" and was trying to articulate how a bird feels about flying. In the beginning of the story, my pigeon is pulled out of the sky against her will, and the loss haunts her. She hungers so much to fly again. To me this song sounds like longing and loss, but it also has a beautiful rising and running chorus that sound like triumphant flight. Every time I listen to this song and the chorus comes on, it makes me feel like I am about to take flight and start soaring.

“Red Sun” and “Beloved” Anoushka Shankar

Both of these songs are from the album Rise which I’ve been listening to for years. I love it because Shankar blends traditional raga-based music with a number of global sounds. I listened to Red Sun when I was writing the poaching scene in "May God Forever Bless the Rhino Keepers." The vocalizations are the spoken companion to what is played on a tabla and the pace of this particular series helped me feel the energy of both pursuit and flight for the hound. I’m not an expert on tabla by any means but it sounds to me like the spoken tabla and played tabla don’t exactly match in this piece, and this makes the spoken portion feel like the voice is its own instrument. To me that sounded like the interaction between the poacher and the hound. One is the tabla, and one is the voice.

I listened to "Beloved" when I was writing the hound’s recovery and reconciliation scenes. I like to listen to classical music from around the world, including classical Indian music, but I actually have no idea what any of the words mean. I found the singer's voice to be very soothing, and this song let me imagine the hound coming to terms with what he had experienced and what it meant to him.

“Intro” Alt-J (from This Is All Yours)

This song is so dreamlike! It opens with a nearly a cappella humming chorus that made me feel cold and alone in a light filled space but also submerged underwater. And then something that sounds like a synthesizer flits above the vocals in a series of high singing notes. It’s a mostly wordless song that sounds like what I imagine a permanent twilight would sound like if it were set to a score. When lyrics finally appear in the song, they sound muffled as though they are being sung under the sea. This song was so helpful to me when I wanted to imagine being in an Arctic landscape while I wrote "The Dog Star is the Brightest Star in the Sky." I wanted to feel that I was as lonely as this bear. I wanted to feel hopeful and defeated and overwhelmed by beauty, and this song made those feelings real for me.

“CPR/Claws Pt. 2” Typhoon (from Hunger and Thirst)

This is a seven-minute song and while I love the whole thing, when I was working my way through drafts and revisions of "A Level of Tolerance," I would listen to the first three minutes and thirty seconds and then return to the beginning and start it over. The lyrics and the haunting melody and instrumentation felt to me like they perfectly evoked what it would feel like to be a wolf searching for and failing to find a beloved brother. Typhoon tends toward using lots of instruments and very complex arrangements and yet this song flows so smoothly. I also felt that the lyrics grappled with big questions and these two things together felt like the perfect combination of beauty and anguish. The wolf in this story spends her days running through a beautiful landscape but they are infused with sadness and she can’t seem to find her way out of it. This song aches in the same way my wolf narrator does.

“Andare” Ludovico Einaudi

It is very difficult to write from the perspective of a whale because they are not visually oriented in the way that humans are, and their landscapes are often rendered in sound. While I was writing "The Open Ocean is an Endless Desert," I spent a lot of time listening to the underwater audio from YouTube videos of container ships so I could get a sense of what a whale might hear when they travel through major shipping channels. But I also wanted to know what it might feel like to be wrapped in song as my primary mode of communication. I’ve listened to whale songs before and while they are beautiful, I don’t really know what they mean. Andare felt like the perfect replacement. I love solo pieces for the piano and this one is an endlessly looping variation on a few themes that builds into beautiful layers until it feels as though you are surrounded by every note woven together, just like a net of song.

“Lights” Ellie Goulding

I love how this song opens with the subtle but regular thump of bass running underneath a dancing melody. Goulding’s voice sounds ethereal enough to feel as though she is singing from beyond another world. When I hear this song, I immediately feel as though I am a dog running across snow, without knowing or caring where I am going. I revised "The Hunted the Haunted the Hungry the Tame" significantly after it was first published and during both the original writing and my revision, I needed to feel overtaken by the desire to run somehow. This song generates that feeling in me every time I listen to it.

Sing Me Home album by YoYo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

I wrote "The Good Donkey" mostly in silence, which is unusual for me, but when I did listen to music I tended toward classical options. One album that I chose while revising was Sing Me Home, and I would listen to this entire album on vinyl and when it finished, I would immediately start the whole thing over again. I think every song gave me some emotional texture for this story, but one in particular stood out as helpful while writing. One of those songs was "Cabaliño" which opens with a solo cello, transitions into a solo singer, then to a violin, and closes with the ensemble playing together which to me felt very similar to how Hafiz and his donkey related throughout the story in that they were sometimes absorbed by their individual pain, and yet also intertwined with each other.

“Hasta La Raiz” Natalia Lafourcade

I didn’t actually listen to this song while I was writing, but I want to include it because my cat, Lulu, really loved it. I don’t know how many other people think about how animals feel about human music that they hear, but I think about it a lot. Birds can use song as a way of communicating and connecting with each other, and it can also act as a warning signal. So perhaps a song is more than just a thing of beauty. Also, animals have a significantly different, and in the case of cats, expanded hearing range when compared to humans. And so, I expect both the purpose and perception of music for an animal is very different than it is for me. But this is a beautiful song. It uses a huapango rhythm which lends itself to dancing, and this particular song is very gentle and soothing in the way it implements this rhythm. The underpinning is acoustic guitar and Lafourcade’s voice drifts through the melody in a way that feels like a breeze. I have no idea how many other sounds were perceived by my cat when she heard this song, but I know if it played while she was on someone’s lap, she would reach her head forward and close her eyes as though she was in a state of bliss, and I like to believe that she loved this song too.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri's short fiction has appeared in The Minnesota Review, Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, The Common, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Northern California and currently lives in California's beautiful Central Valley with her husband and cat.

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