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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Brandon W. Jones’ novel All Woman and Springtime is a bold and graphic debut about two orphans who escape the totalitarian regime of North Korea only to be plunged into the sex trade of South Korea and the United States.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
“Impossible to put down, this work is important reading for anyone who cares about the power of literature to engage the world and speak its often frightening truths.”
It turns out that coming up with a playlist to represent my novel was not as straightforward as I had initially thought it would be. Right away I came up against challenges with how to approach the task: Should I try to match the mood of the novel, or the cultural specificity of the work? Should I take a serious approach, or allow myself to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek? Should I stick with pop-culture standards, or include songs from my obscure musical predilections? As I combed through my CD collection looking for inspiration, I thumbed over such titles as 17th Century French Harpsichord Music, Renaissance en Provence, Lamenti Barocchi (Baroque Lamentations), El Duende Flamenco, Infernal Violins, Guitar Music of the Americas, Music of the Crusades, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (commonly known as the Bulgarian Women’s Choir), and let’s not forget the perennial favorite, Zither Magic by Wilfried Scharf. All wonderful music, to be sure, but not very relevant to my book.
My novel follows two orphan girls as they are whisked out of their lives in North Korea and into the sex trade, first in South Korea and then in the United States. It is a deeply emotional tale that is both dramatic and epic in nature. If I imagine All Woman and Springtime as a film, then I imagine the soundtrack to be an original score of mostly solo cello, or cello and flute duets, repeatedly returning to a simple, haunting theme. This imaginary score would be reminiscent of Korean folk melodies, probably relying heavily on pentatonic structure. But this is perhaps a bit too heady for the assignment at hand. Below is my attempt at devising a playlist that is both entertaining and revealing of the book.
As everything in North Korea must begin with a patriotic song or preamble, it seemed appropriate to begin my playlist with one as well. To understand North Korea, one must first understand the extensive propaganda structure that serves as the fabric of agreed-upon reality in that country. To survive in North Korea, one must readily agree to forgo critical thinking wherever it conflicts with the official state-vetted story. Being unconvincing in one’s display of belief, sometimes in the absurd, is enough to land a person, and three generations of their family, in a forced labor camp. Propaganda songs like this one are constantly piped into factories and homes on State provided radios, which can be turned down but never turned off––they lack the switch with which to do so!
This amazing and tightly choreographed display by a child prodigy in North Korea has deep undertones of North Korean Communist idealism. Her playing is nearly flawless, her technique is perfect, her phrasing of the music is just as it should be, and specifically devoid of indulgent personal interpretation and self-aggrandizing flourish. Childhood innocence is a beloved theme of the North Koreans, and Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are often depicted among children. My main characters are still essentially children at the beginning of the novel, which is, in its way, a coming of age story. This song represents this time of innocence and idealism.
3. “Glory Box” – Portishead
A central character in the first part of my book is a woman who sees herself “…on the cusp of middle age,” who is disillusioned by her inability to reconcile the truth she witnesses every day with the propaganda fed to her by the State. The fuel of her character is a deep longing to be seen for who she is, and to make human connection with a “kindred outlaw.” She finds herself fantasizing about a young man; and as the song says so achingly, she “…just want[s] to be a woman…”
3. “The Nearness of You” – Norah Jones
All Woman and Springtime is, in part, about the friendship of Gi and Il-sun, who have spent their formative years growing up together in an orphanage. In a naïve way, Gi craves more from their friendship, though she does not have a definition of what she wants that “more” to be. All she knows is that she comes alive in the presence of Il-sun, which is a feeling captured by this song.
4. “Bad to the Bone” – George Thorogood
Another important character in the first part of my book is a young man who deals in illicit goods. He has created himself as a caricature “bad boy,” complete with tough posturing and wearing his clothes “…in careful disarray…” This song captures the legend-in-his-own-mind quality of the character.
As with all State approved media, “Flower Girl” is about revolutionary struggle and communist ideals. The flower selling girl is a symbol of filial piety and revolutionary spirit, but is also a euphemism for a prostitute. The most important secondary character of my novel, Cho, is a “flower selling girl” who, ironically, became so out of filial piety in effort to feed her family. Her struggle is to reclaim her lost innocence.
6. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” – written by George and Ira Gershwin, as performed by Finley Quaye
Though this song is about not taking the stories from the Bible as literal truth, it seems an appropriate song to represent the process my characters go through in learning that the worldview they have been fed by the State is based on lies. I simply love the Finley Quaye version of the song.
7. “The Man Who Sold the World” – written by David Bowie, as performed by Nirvana
In my novel I explore, to some degree, the psychology of the people who perpetrate the abuses my main characters endure. One such character is Mr. Choy, who has built an empire of prostitution and pornography. In the book, we see how he has justified to himself what he does. His life is run by greed and profit, and “The Man Who Sold the World” is a fitting title for him. I specify the Nirvana version of the song because Mr. Choy has ties to Seattle, and Kurt Cobain’s voice gives the song a wonderfully gritty quality that suits the character.
8. “La Vie en Rose” – Edith Piaf
Another perpetrator in my book is Mrs. Cha, who runs a brothel for an organized crime ring in Seattle. She feels stuck in her life, and finds herself wistfully pining for an imaginary alternate path her life could have taken: She had been promised a trip to Paris so long ago… The music of Edith Piaf is celebratory of the cabaret; and seeing her life through rose colored glasses, Mrs. Cha can pretend that her life is a cabaret.
9. “Losing My Ground” – Fergie
This is a song about losing one’s grip on life: “Who am I now? Where does it end? How did it all begin?” There is a point at which my characters are stuck in what seems to be an endless cycle and feel powerless to escape the situation they are in. The endlessness of it threatens to drive them to madness.
10. “King of Sorrow” – Sade
Not to divulge too much, at the emotional climax of the story my main character, Gi, feels like she is “…crying everyone’s tears.”
11. “Ophelia” – Natalie Merchant
One (incomplete) way to describe my novel would be: One woman’s extraordinary journey to empowerment. The Wikipedia article on Merchant’s “Ophelia” has this to say about the song:
“Merchant’s Ophelia describes a series of women throughout time—women who dared question the patriarchal status quo and who were often castigated for doing so—and is a cry for women’s rights and for more understanding of female archetypes beyond the scope of the “mother” and the “whore”, both of which severely limit women and attempt to turn them into little more than chattel.”
12. “Life is Sweet” – Natalie Merchant
I don’t want to say too much about the ending of my novel, but I feel that this song has a similar kind of uplifting quality and hope in the face of life’s suffering.
Brandon W. Jones and All Woman and Springtime links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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