October 11, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jasmine Sawers' debut collection The Anchored World is filled with short stories as fantastical as they are transportive.
Rebecca Makkai wrote of the book:
"In this slender book you'll find stories small as pills--and in each pill a stimulant, a hallucinogen, a vitamin. Jasmine Sawers is a practitioner of fine narrative pharmacology."
At first I resisted putting together a playlist for my book. After all, I’m one of those people who needs silence to write. That’s the soundtrack to my creativity: nothing. John Cage, 4’33”. When writers talk about what music they write to or in which coffee shop, I’m always at a loss as to how anyone can get anything onto the page when other words and voices and worlds are crowding in for attention. A playlist for my book seemed preposterous, mutually exclusive, like a tutu for a moose.
Nonetheless, three songs occurred to me immediately. And then other ones crept in alongside them. The truth is, great music has always inspired me, just like great writing, great sculpture, great film. Art begets art.
I read somewhere once that music is the most immediate artform. That music alone can elicit a deep and truthful emotional reaction the moment it opens. I have often wished I could be a musician myself. I wonder if writing flash is my way of reaching for some of that immediacy.
So of course my book has a soundtrack. I just had to listen for it.
Each song on this mixtape has the quality of a dream—hazy and unreal even as the beat and melody draw you strong and steady through to an ecstatic ending. I can only hope that’s what reading The Anchored World is like.
1. The Cure – Plainsong
“Sometimes you make me feel like I’m living at the edge of the world. ‘It’s just the way I smile,’ you said.”
Is it cliché to use the opening song from one of the greatest albums of all time as the opening song for my book soundtrack? It’s just that it accomplishes something I don’t get from other songs: the sensation of being outside, caught by a gentle breeze, and then plunged into another world where nothing is quite real anymore but your feelings. The whole of your being enveloped in such sound, such loneliness.
2. Freelance Whales – Generator ^ First Floor
“…in our native language we are chanting ancient songs and when we quiet down the house chants on without us.”
This one reminds me of “All Your Fragile History.” I love how this song blooms into a joyous polyphony that takes up so much space in the ear and the mind. I also really connect to the idea of the body as the site of a haunting, a house with its own history to be invoked, and that in that echo is not only discord but beauty.
3. The Echo Friendly – Same Mistakes
“I never did grow up, feels like I never will, my friends are all adults, I'm still a teenage girl, I haven't changed a bit, I'm still not over it. I make the same mistakes.”
This song feels like a personal indictment—accusing me of feeling the way I always feel, which is stunted at seventeen, while allowing me the space to wallow in the dreamstate of clichéd millennial arrested development. I feel it most acutely when I’m among my friends who are “real adults” with “real jobs” and “clean houses” and then I never feel more my actual age than when I’m among the young people I teach. It’s the same when I tell people much of my work focuses on fairy tales—the spark of interest when they heard I was a writer is snuffed out as they assume that I don’t do serious work, or that I write for children, as if that is itself not serious, and important, and paramount. Fairy tales are so deceptive—they are often brutal, bloodthirsty, and yet they are understood to be “for children,” whom we assume will not only enjoy the stories but understand and integrate their lessons. And they do! Because they’re smart, and they’re listening, and their feelings are deep, and someday they might become adults who realize the stories contained far more than the books they were in could hold.
4. Little Quirks with Winterbourne – Crimson & Clover
“I wanna do everything. What a beautiful feeling.”
It seems fitting to include covers on this soundtrack. A great cover does what a great fairy tale retelling must: it allows the artist to sing their love of a well-trod tale in their unique voice, to slip into the cracks of it and let it blossom into something new around them.
I love the many voices that come together in this rendition of Crimson & Clover. I love how they take this classic riff—this song and Sweet Jane started as the same entity and then parted ways when Tommy and Lou couldn’t agree—and make it feel modern. I love how queer it’s become, not only here but forty years ago when Joan Jett first made it her own, in all the covers sung by women over the years, and even in its original form, where for many years I mistook Tommy James’s voice for that of a woman declaring love at first sight for another woman. There are so many ways of looking at a story, of hearing a song.
5. Light Asylum – Shallow Tears
“Will you meet me by the river’s edge?”
This song reminds me that there is comfort in the dark. There can be tenderness at our lowest moments if we can risk the vulnerability of exposing our bellies. At the heart of this constructed electronic darkwave sound is a deep humanity. I suppose that’s the appeal of the speculative for me: that even when we enter fantastical worlds, what we’re looking for is a connection, a human story, the sense that we are not alone.
6. Wye Oak – Holy Holy
“There is no other story.”
This is the song that’s most directly present in The Anchored World: I’ve named a story after it. At first glance, the two Holy Holys seem to have nothing to do with each other but the fact that I listened and so I created. For no good reason at all, it gave me the sensation of rooting in the dirt, burrowing into the earth, so when I wrote that story, of a natural world that had reclaimed itself in the wake of disaster, of a no-longer human race that melded with that world in order to survive, it was this album, this song, that guided me. So when our protagonist thinks back on the life they once had, a life with CDs and cigarettes and social awkwardness, holy holy is what echoes.
7. Mitski – Your Best American Girl
“I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.”
There is such despair and longing here, explicitly racialized: that someone of Asian descent will never be good enough for the white crush. Might be worthy of sex, but never a public claim. Will never be welcomed into the embrace of his family. And beyond the question of White Man as Ultimate Love Object is the question of acceptance into a society that is hostile to your kind, even if that hostility is covert or unconscious. The violence, the self-destruction of assimilation. Does every Asian kid, every mixed kid, every person of color growing up alone in a sea of white faces feel this in our desperate teenage years? This feeling undergirds so much of what I write; it is the invisible foundation upon which everything else rests.
8. Neko Case - I’m an Animal
“My courage is roaring like the sound of the sun.”
A song made to be turned up to full volume so you can scream your way through the refrain and never drown out Neko Case’s voice: I’m an animal. You’re an animal too. What if the animal transformations we see so often in stories are less about the baser parts of oneself being a curse but more about reminding us how close we are to the animal inside, how far we’ve strayed from our true natures? What if there were no shame in being who and what we really are, but triumph?
9. Sinéad O’Connor – Jackie
“I've been dead for twenty years, I've been washing the sand with my ghostly tears, searching the shores for my Jackie”
How could I resist the origin story of a banshee? She haunts the coast waiting for her husband, lost at sea long ago—under O’Connor’s ministrations, what could be a tragic tale of loss over more than a century is instead urgent and rageful. On her tongue, love is synonymous with fury. No one, no one sings like Sinéad O’Connor.
I can only hope to achieve such pitch-perfect juxtaposition in my own work.
10. The Chameleons – Swamp Thing
“Primal scream at the TV screen, close your eyes”
The dreamy unreality of the music here is at such odds with the excoriation of the pace and pressure of modern life found in the lyrics. It’s so beguiling, an invitation to sink into the tenderness of the natural world our species was born to rather than the smoggy, spirit-shredding one we find ourselves in now. With the echo of a Wordsworth poem in post-punk synthpop form and a powerful, lurking bassline paired with a hopeful chorus, the Chameleons have created something that leaves you thinking when you just want to bask. A craft masterclass, really.
11. Hand Habits & Angel Olsen – Walls
“Half of me is ocean, half of me is sky”
Some songs, some stories, are excavations of the self. This extra-queer rendition of Tom Petty’s song became the anthem to my coming out as nonbinary, first to myself and those I am closest to, and then to the world at large. The Anchored World is, in many ways, a map of my own evolution as a writer who stopped trying to write only for a white audience, and stopped trying so hard—stopped destroying myself—to be cis.
“Some things are over, some things go on. Part of me you carry, part of me is gone.”
12. The Magnetic Fields – The Book of Love
“The book of love is long and boring and written very long ago. It's full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes and things we're all too young to know.”
“I love it when you read to me. And you, you can read me anything.”
What makes this song so moving to me is the contrast between the mythic and the personal. Here, love is both a steadfast, unknowable force and the carefully tended foundation of this quiet romance. The former is interesting, the stuff of legends, the kind of thing you want to write stories about, but the latter is the beat of your beloved’s heart. The smell of their neck. A midnight snack egg done just the way they like it. I am ever reaching for this delicate combination in my work.
13. Martha Wainwright – Tower of Song
“I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song”
Tower of Song has always spoken to me of the joy and the price of living an artist’s life. Of being an artist before all other things, and not even getting a choice in the matter. Of letting art subsume you. When Leonard Cohen sings this song, he seems darkly amused, but Martha Wainwright? Martha Wainwright sounds as though her heart is being torn out of her. What has she sacrificed to the altar of her music? I think, all the time, on the things I have foregone because I can stop writing no more than I can stop eating or sleeping.
I saw Leonard Cohen on his last tour—up and down on his knees on stage at more than eighty years old, supplicating the Fates and the forces of love—and when I got home, though it was late, three pieces of flash burst out of me as if all they’d needed was his permission to exist. One of those pieces became “Gretel, After”—the story that closes out The Anchored World.
Jasmine Sawers is a Kundiman fellow and Indiana University MFA alum whose work has appeared in such journals as Foglifter, AAWW's The Margins, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. Their fiction has won the Ploughshares Emerging Writer's Contest and the NANO Prize, and has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. Sawers is proud to serve as an associate fiction editor for Fairy Tale Review. Originally from Buffalo, Sawers now teaches creative writing and pets dogs outside of St. Louis.