She calls her work 'Africanfuturism,' as opposed to the more common 'Afro-futurism.' The difference, she says, is her books — sometimes with aliens, sometimes with witches, often set in a recognizable, future Africa, with African lineages — are not cultural hybrids but rooted in the history and traditions of the continent, without a desire to look toward Western culture (or even pop culture). If that makes her work sound a touch polemical, understand: Her writing voice is accessible, and as harrowing and bracing as her stories often are — 'Who Fears Death' is set in a violent, future Sudan, about a child born from rape with supernatural abilities — the pace is borderline breezy.
Once, through a long, careful conversation at a loud, drunken party, a friend who was writing about his experiences as a soldier in Iraq and I discovered that we both used playlists of the most ridiculously bright, happy pop music we could find played loudly over and over in order to be able to do the work of transferring the frozen nausea of PTSD moments into words.
My debut novel Please Read This Leaflet Carefully tracks time backwards through about twenty years of its main character Laura’s life. A former figure skater, she leaves Norway for the US. During the course of the novel, she undergoes major surgery and lives through years of pain and chronic illness.
Each chapter in Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is named for a song. I listened to a different playlist for each part as I worked on it. The playlist for some of the most painful material was full of cheerful pop music. This playlist contains the highlights of all those playlists. I would press play as I sat down to write, to get into the right state. I also used the music to pull myself safely out of the darkest material. After an hour and a half had passed, the songs would lighten so I could withdraw a little. Some days I would play the most intense songs, at the beginning of the playlist, again and again to get deeper and deeper and to keep, keep, keep writing.
The best songs are transmissions directly from the private, secret space inside another human being, an occurrence you can’t explain or put into words. But when you come across them, you know that some truth, some experience has been shared. If it arrives in a version you can dance to, dressed up in pink eyeshadow and bleached hair, all the better.
Even though the novel is fiction, and I’ve let my main character Laura off lightly compared to me and given her a sort of happy ending, writing this novel meant remaining in trauma spaces for hours, even weeks at a time. Writing it was liberating, and painful. Editing it was a fucking nightmare. Wondering whether I would ever sell a book with a non-traditional structure about a woman with invisible illnesses and chronic pain was the worst part.
In short, the work of this novel required that I rally all the forces of good. In order to survive the past few years of my life and also write this book, I had to stay away from all other things that were too sad and painful, and had to line up and strengthen all my routines and support systems.
It is no accident that most people who have the experiences similar to my main character never write about it. The fact that there are any books at all is amazing. If you layer pain, exhaustion, treatments, and physical discomfort with angry strangers on Twitter, with condescending reviews, with the endless (payless) work of writing and publishing a book, it’s amazing that anyone with less than perfect health does it at all. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses often have to spend their energy on fighting governmental institutions for their income and healthcare, dealing with insurance companies, paperwork, and the emotional labor of managing other people’s reactions to their vulnerability.
These songs helped me find something beautiful in being a vulnerable human being.
Throughout the whole playlist, there is a feeling of being about to roll out over a cliff that still reflects how I feel about life. Something about it all clearly being way too much, ridiculous in fact. We are in so much danger it’s clearly not going to ever be alright. So what are we going to do? Put on some makeup and eccentric outfits and show up to be present with each other and dance while we can. Do our best to reclaim some glamour from a situation with no control, which is basically all of life. Your makeup and your memories are the only things coming with you into the MRI machine.
But, the book sold and will be out in three countries this month, so.
Morrissey, Now My Heart Is Full
The title of Part 1. I adore Morrissey. The first line is
“There's gonna be some trouble
A whole house will need re-building
And everyone I love in the house
Will recline on an analyst’s couch quite soon”
Another line that I absolutely love: “Tell all of my friends, I don’t have too many, just some raincoated lovers’ puny brothers.”
“Rush to danger, wind up nowhere.”
This song represents a sort of resolution, since part 1 is also the ending of the book.
This is the song I imagine Laura dancing to on the ice in part one. The beautiful melody, Hana’s well-schooled voice (that only barely lands on the “s”-sound) is extremely pleasing to me. It is also a song about reclaiming yourself, which is one of the biggest themes of my novel.
Wailin’ Jennys, You Are Here
The title of Part 2:
Laura has left her life, her love, and her family behind. She feels some release too in being ripped from her old life.
“Every darkened hallway, Every fallen dream,
Every battle lost and Every shadow in between
Will bring you to your knees and Closer to the reason
And there's no making cases, For getting out or trading places
And there's no turning back, No you are here.”
I love the dangerous energy of this song, by young Norwegian artist, Farao. The video and song explore bodies, which runs as a through line in my novel.
“When our bodies melt
And they will collide
Every time I say that I believe you
I believe you”
Birdy, Young Blood
This song gives me a feeling of something new, starting.
“The bittersweet between my teeth
Trying to find the in-betweens”
Title of Part 3: I love the video for this song, which places Grimes, an extremely slim and delicate-looking girl with pink hair, in a hyper macho setting of a football game and motocross, of men flinging themselves around and bumping into her. Grimes has said this song is about surviving sexual assault. Although the novel does not deal with sexual assault, this song has a very familiar feeling of trauma and loneliness.
“And now another clue, I would ask
If you could help me out
It's hard to understand
Cause when you're really by yourself
It's hard to find someone to hold your hand
And now it's gonna be, tough on me
But I will wait forever
I need someone now to look into my eyes and tell me
Girl you know you gotta watch your health.”
Florence + the Machine, Never Let Me Go
Title of Part 4: The music video shows Florence dressed in black, on a skating rink in her socked feet, playing around with a boy before being reclaimed by something gross, huge, dirty, corporeal, symbolized by dirty foam and water. It blew my mind when I discovered it after listening to this song every day for ages writing about skating.
The release in giving up feels like such a relief in this song, while the title is still “Never let me go”:
“I’m not giving up, I’m just giving in.”
Regina Spektor, One More Time With Feeling
Title of Part 5: In 2009 I saw Regina Spektor live in Oslo and she sang this song. At the time it was just what I needed, a strengthening tonic. This is why we fight. The songs from this album are so sad they are almost unbearable to listen to for me now. She channels a kind of pure emotion, with her beautiful short story-like lyrics.
“Hold on, one more time with feeling, try it again, Breathing’s just a rhythm. Say it your mind until you know that the words are right: This is why we fight.”
Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck, Sliding Down
A moment to breathe.
Le Tigre, Keep On Livin'
Title of Part 6:
This song is about PTSD for me. “What if you remember more today?”
It is also about reclaiming pleasure from life. But it is also very valuable to remember that that means acknowledging the difficulty, too.
“Take back your own tonight
You'll find more than you see
It's time now now get ready
So you can taste that sweet sweet cake and
Feel the warm water in a lake (y'know)
What about that nice cool breeze and
Hear the buzzing of the bumble bees just
Live beyond those neighborhood lives and
Go past that yard outside and
Push thru their greatest fears and
Live past your memories tears cuz
You don't need to scratch inside no just please
Hold onto your pride and
So don't let them bring you down and
Don't let them fuck you around cuz
Those are your arms that is your heart and
No no they can't tear you apart
They can't take it away now
This is your time this is your life and
This is your time this is your life and
You gotta keep on(keep on livin!)”
The queer feminist in me is thinking of it for use in a disability setting. Intersectional possibilities for allyship and liberation are important to me.
Peaches, I U She
An earlier version of the chapter now called “Keep on Living” was named “I U She.” Instead, I have Laura listen to Peaches as she bikes through the city. At the time when this song came out it felt pretty revolutionary to have a pop song with this chorus:
“I don’t have to make the choice, I like girls and I like boys.”
Title of Part 7: The first line of the song is “I’m going backwards through time at the speed of light.”
The video for the single “Indestructible” from the 2010 album Body Talk by Robyn is rather explicit video features a girl having sex with different people, interspersed with shots of Robyn herself, an androgynous, pale and serious figure, lying on a white bed wrapped in layers of clear plastic tubing that liquid of different colors flows through. The red liquid lends the tubing a particularly medical look, like blood, an IV-drip, or dialysis. The theme of vulnerability in love is clear in the lyrics and towards the end the tubing appears in the sex scenes as well. The shots change to Robyn in a standing position, which makes the tubing look increasingly like an armor, or corset, maybe a superhero suit. Vulnerability appears to turn to strength as the song lyrics turn from vulnerability to determination and willingness to try.
“And I never was smart with love/I let the bad ones in and the good ones go but/I'm gonna love you like I've never been hurt before/I'm gonna love you like I'm indestructible."
I love how this video pulls something dangerous and medical/disabled into a mainstream world of catchy music, dancing, sex, and beauty.
Wilson Phillips, Hold On
An earlier version had a scene of Laura and her older sister dancing to this song in 1995. You can read it on karenhavelin.com and dottirpress.com.
Belle and Sebastian, We Rule the School
Title of Part 8, in which we meet Laura as a 14-year-old figure skater in Norway, and she experiences feelings of bodily control and pleasure on the ice.
“Do something pretty while you can
Don't be afraid
Skating a pirouette on ice is cool.”
Rihanna, Calvin Harris, We Found Love
This is one of those bright, energetic songs that reminded me desperately of all the fun and delicious and young things.
Robyn, In my Eyes
Basically this song expresses what I’m hoping the book will tell someone:
“Hey little star, don't be afraid
We all fall apart and make mistakes
Don't you know when nothing ever seem to make sense
You put your dancing shoes on and do it again
You know I believe it if you say you can
We never get what we deserve
So when you feel like it's all pretend
Then you look into my eyes
Just say one true thing like you mean it
And baby, just look into my eyes
And though I bet you think it's better on the inside, there with them
We're better off outside looking back in
I know you think you're lost but you think again
When you look into my eyes”
Mountain Man, Animal Tracks, Sewee Sewee
At times, working on this book felt so tender, so exposed I could not stand to do it in silence, yet only the lightest touch of music. That’s where Mountain Man comes in, to bring us safely home, out of this playlist.
“We'll follow animal tracks
to a tree in the woods
and a hole in the leaves we'll see
the bright baby eyes of a chickadee.”
Kristin George Bagdanov explores both physicality and climate change in her innovative poetry collection Fossils in the Making.
The Georgia Review wrote of the book:
"At their most successful, George Bagdanov’s poems offer an engaging approach to the environment and the body. Her wordplay frequently feels fresh and inventive, and her repurposing of language and form allow the collection to resist easy answers to the questions posed by climate change."
My poetry is grounded in music. I do not consider sense to be more important than sound in any hierarchy of “meaning” and often trust what I call the “sonic logic” of a line or phrase more than its semantic logic. For this playlist, rather than choosing songs that influenced or inspired individual poems, I collaborated with musicians Trevor Welch and Levi Bagdanov to do the reverse: to find songs that were conjured or evoked by the music in the poems themselves. What follows, then, is a type of sonic accompaniment for Fossils in the Making that echoes, recalls, and responds to different aspects of the collection.
1.“Canticles of the Sky: I. Sky with Four Suns,” John Luther Adams (composer)
This instrumental piece is geological in scope and apocalyptic in feeling (the four suns in the sky a sign that something quite unnatural has occurred). It evokes a feeling of deep time and deeper space. My collection opens with a proem (prologue poem) called “Lines Written After Crisis” in a form I call a disarticulated sonnet. Each line is its own poem. But the lines also hang together, like four suns in the sky, offering different paths for interpretation, accumulating until the poem reaches a breaking point wherein “mourning would make a method // to take / from every / form.” It is apocalyptic in so far as “apocalypse” is both that which destroys and that which reveals.
2. “Say Valley Maker,” Smog
This song probes the relationship between self and environment, repeatedly asking to be buried in wood, stone, fire, and water. Fossils speaks to the fact that we humans, creatures, plants, plastics are in the process of decomposition, of leaving a record of ourselves and our relations. Making is also about poiesis—the poem that wants to leave a record of its own making rather than simply appearing as made. Images of burial abound in poems like “sediment / sentient,” which considers what we’ve buried deep within our psychological and material ground. Bill Callahan’s desire to be buried within and by these natural elements, to be consumed by them, reverses the usual process of the human consuming those resources or using them to consume others.
3. “I Novel,” Radwimps
If you’re listening to this soundtrack while reading the book, this track should take you by surprise. This collection is really interested in moments of contradiction, of places where logic fails, voice falters, lines break. So what better representation of that jarring moment than the smooth vocals and synthesized beats of J-pop? This song wants to lull you into the world you want to exist rather than make you face the one that does. This plastic, saturated fantasy edges us away from facing the contradictions of capitalism and grappling with its relationship to ecological crisis. However, the reprieve of this song also signifies how hard it is to sustain a state of emergency, of heightened awareness, and asks us to consider how we release and relax without ignoring reality altogether.
4. “Nereidas” - Acerina Y Su Danzonera
This bold and brassy instrumental piece makes you want to get up and dance and extends the fantasy world created by the Radwimps song. This song represents the “good life,” which in this era of the Anthropocene is a carbon-heavy existence. Is it possible to live well without the exploitation and death of others? The poem “sacrifice / circumference” doesn’t think so, as it states: “proof that violence is / rational that I keep living / because someone else does not.”
5. “Lives,” Modest Mouse
This song reveals the crisis of living any life at all. A song marked by existential crisis—of being afraid of one’s own life—resonates with the section “Wagers” in the middle of the book, which tries to navigate a world in which every choice, every action has repercussions that extend beyond one’s intentions. This song is filled with disjunction and contradiction, as it begins by building slowly in the depth of despair and then suddenly lifts into brightness with a key and tempo change, reframing its own pessimistic perspective in order to try to find a way of making a life in spite of sorrow and uncertainty. While the song does not resolve this fear of being alone, the fear of being in relation with others, it does find a way to hold this fear and love next to one another, which is what Fossils in the Making is trying to do.
6. “Mythological Beauty,” Big Thief
Alongside this fear of being in relation with others is a fear of production and reproduction. This song contemplates a difficult relationship with a mother, of relating to someone who seems both strange and essential to one’s identity. This theme of mothering (of matter and mater) emerges in different forms throughout the collection, often as a source of anxiety regarding production and consumption. “Proof of Hunger,” for example, feels guilty for the unborn, whose future we have already consumed: “a child (there is always a child) / born tomorrow judges me for my lack / of discretion, brings legal action against my hunger.” Motherhood is figured as a process of being consumed and consuming others, as when in “Proof of Parasite” the image of a caterpillar being consumed from the inside-out by wasp larvae measures “the distance between membrane & mother” while in “Wagers” the self fears being “crowded out by smaller bodies cell glucose antibody babybody,” reframing what it means to make and remake life.
7. “The Stars vs. Creatures,” Colleen
I love how this song begins with a conversation between the stars and creatures about who will “have the last word.” This “last word” can be interpreted as the one that survives extinction—the last in the world. The final poem in my collection, “Echo / o” is a self-erasure, an echo chamber that extracts sound and sense from what’s preceded it. The poem can be read as both a long goodbye and the awakening to a new beginning. The final lines cascade down the page: “hello? / lo / o,” thereby ending with the traditional sign of lyric invocation—the turn to address an absent other—as if to say “O, you.” This final utterance, the lonely o, can also be read as the last fragment of the last word—the sound and shape the mouth makes one realizes that having the last word also means being that last one.
Noisey shared a guide to getting into the music of the National.
The Guardian shared Arundhati Roy's Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.
....the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.
Paste recommended the best music documentaries on Netflix.
All of the songs on my playlist are variously embedded in my poetry collection, Monsters I Have Been (Alice James books). Since the “frankenpo” (Frankenstein poem) method I used to create many of the poems involves chopping up and piecing together bits of source materials, you will mostly find only fragments of these songs in the book.
Caetano Veloso, “Cucurrucucú Paloma”
This song might be best known to some from Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable Con Ella (2002). But my introduction to it was in the opening scenes of Wong Kar-Wai’s turbulent romance film Happy Together (1997). Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s characters attempt to visit the Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina. Wong's film was one of the first I ever saw featuring a gay Asian couple, although their relationship was terrible.
Barbara Lewis, “Hello Stranger”
The film Moonlight (2016) gave this song a whole new tender meaning for me. The third portion of the film, when Black and Kevin meet again at the diner as adults, is interwoven with unanswered questions and erotic tension, which I try to explore in my poem of the same title.
Bon Odori Uta (traditional song)
Obon, the Japanese festival of the dead, is for me a magical way to mark late summer. Bon Odori Uta simply means Obon festival dancing song. After hearing it at the Gardena Obon, it took some digging to find, because it’s not actually from Japan. It was written by a Japanese American priest in California's Central Valley. My favorite part of the dance is when we swim forward with palms together.
Shigeru Umebayashi, ”Yumeji’s Theme”
Fans of Wong Kar-Wai will recognize this nostalgic waltz from his masterpiece, In the Mood For Love (2000). It was actually first used in an earlier Japanese film, but Wong gave it new life. It will always bring to mind the tightly contained camera shots of the interiors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai navigated, with their noodles and repressed erotic feelings.
New Order, “Blue Monday”
How does it feel / to treat me like you do
When you’ve laid your hands upon me / and told me who you are
To me, this song is such a generational marker, the shared musical imagination of a certain period. It instantly inserts me in the moody lineage that Joy Division created for all of us long-hair-over-the-eye kids. And yet I don’t think I really considered the lyrics until years later—it’s a song about abuse.
Nazia Hassan, “Aap Jaisa Koi Meri Zindagi” (Qurbani soundtrack)
The writer Neela Banerjee invited me to write a poem in response to the Bollywood film Qurbani for her husband's birthday. Who am I to refuse such a glamorous commission? The scene featuring this song is a huge 70s-sideburns-wink-open-shirt innuendo, as is the rest of the film.
Prince, “Purple Rain”
Although I grew up in the '80s and '90s, I was a latecomer to Prince’s music because I didn’t pay much attention to Top 40 pop and rock. Shockingly I didn’t even see Purple Rain until a few years ago. After Prince’s death, I became fascinated with the song “Purple Rain,” because as a musician, I recognized the brilliance of what Prince did with a basic blues chord progression. The relevance of this song to my book, however, is the hot, gender-queer figure of The Kid. Prince created a realm of possibility where it was ok for men to not fit conventional gender standards.
Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Live at Woodstock, 1969)
Hendrix's version was basically a critique of US imperialism and militarism in Southeast Asia. With a single electric guitar, he turned the national anthem into an aural representation of war, a perfect reflection of the US' violent trajectory from Plymouth to Manifest Destiny and beyond.
These songs are not in the collection, but they definitely influenced it.
“Asadoya Yunta” (traditional Okinawan song)
Akira Ifukube, “The Godzilla Theme” (Godzilla soundtrack)
Nicholas Britell, “Little’s Theme” (Moonlight soundtrack)
On queer love, bffs, and toxic relationships set against the backdrop of high school discovery. For readers of Tillie Walden’s wise deep-feeling-good-looking comics, this story brings us into the world of young desire, and learning how to tell what is not good for you.
From the new Strange Light imprint, highlighting experimental literature, comes this polyvocal story of lives lived in fear. Written in poetry and prose, set in the ambiguous town called “Town,” Peters creates an atmosphere of strangeness amidst recognition.
Also from the Strange Light imprint, Max Porter’s Lanny is a once-upon-a-time story where a young boy goes missing. The novel speaks through different modes of storytelling - myth, fairy tale, parable - as if under an incantatory spell in the middle of the forest.
A radical collection of essays from critic, organizer, and curator Amy Fung who has worked in the arts across Canada for the past decade. She looks critically at Canada’s art world in her debut book and how it continually implicates itself in the systems of oppression it seeks to critique.
Described as “Art School Confidential for the Tumblr generation,” this comic is about being young, rebellious, and ambitious. It is also about desire, with the central figure Caroline crushing hard on a wrestler names Cannonball, lost in a fantasy world of love and heroism.