In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Donald Edem Quist’s essay collection To Those Bounded is a poignant and important depiction of Black life in America.
Tyrese Coleman wrote of the book:
“To Those Bounded has wide-reaching implications. The stories within reflect the burden of stereotypes and caricatures on the Black psyche—a familiar experience to anyone who has felt pressure to perform or behave in a certain way because it is what others have dictated. More importantly, the book speaks to the consequences of not behaving according to those expectations. To Those Bounded is structurally innovative, wide-reaching in its concept and thematic impact, and necessary within the public discourse so we can better understand the precarious and exceptional position Black men maintain in this country. The importance of Quist’s work is immeasurable.”
To Those Bounded is a collection of numbered reflections on the myth of Black male criminality. It is about what it feels like to be made into a problem. To Those Bounded is the conclusion to a literary triptych that includes my two earlier books, Harbors, an essay collection, and For other Ghosts, a group of short stories. It’s been an incredibly personal effort.
Harbors (playlist here) was more intrapersonal, I was grappling with the self. My second book in this triptych, For other Ghosts (playlist here), was a kind of ego death. It was about seeing and reflecting the other.
To Those Bounded, this final panel, returns some of the focus to me. However, it is largely interpersonal, examining my identity in relation to others. While this body of work spans a lot of different styles, forms, genres, and voices, they are all unified by questions of identity, citizenship and belonging.
My books are also linked by my process, which involves putting together playlists I can write to. I don’t have many practices or rituals when it comes to writing, but I typically need music playing to generate a piece.
Here’s what I was listening to while putting together To Those Bounded.
“Devil’s Whisper” by Raury
“…you better (Run!) / Run in some type of direction”
The book opens with a directive: RUN! The deep driving drums of this track resemble the thump of a pounding heart in a body trying to escape. Raury’s rhymes implore the listener to evade a devil that can consume them from the inside, and out.
“DNA” by Kendrick Lamar
“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition, flow inside my DNA / I was born like this, since one like this, immaculate conception / I transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua new weapon”
This song was instrumental in helping me outline and map the themes of the book. It was on-repeat as I worked through drafts. Kendrick helped prompt me to consider how to better reflect the ways art might help us conceive of newer, and more limitless, ways of being.
“Heard ‘Em Say” by Kanye West (feat. Adam Levine)
“Uh, and I heard ’em say…”
The essays and segments in To Those Bounded are punctuated by couplets of reported speech: things that I have heard others say about Black men. These couplets build to a ghazal poem by the end of the book.
“Black Boy Meets World” by Danny Watts
“Black boy, gliding like you hypnotized / Boy, you need some ackrite, cause you ain’t acting right”
Several of the early essays deal with growing up and how I’d often get into trouble. The chorus of Danny Watts’ track echoes a senti¬ment I heard a lot as a kid. It’s always left me wondering, “What about me was so wrong?”
“Bleed American” by Jimmy Eat World
“Salt, sweat, sugar on the asphalt / Our hearts littering the topsoil”
I wrote an essay about the time I learned of a friend’s death while listening to an album by Jimmy Eat World.
“B.O.B.” by Outkast
“Thunder pounds when I stomp the ground (Whoo!) /Like a million elephants or silverback orangutan / You can’t stop the train”
The book features an essay about a time when I served as an Resident Assistant at the small liberal arts college where I got my undergrad. One night a giant brawl broke out, precipitated by the basketball and baseball teams. “B.O.B.” helped me reconnect and then convey the frenetic energy of that experience. Part of the essay also talks about the lyricism of André 3000.
“4:44” by JAY-Z
“My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes”
Portions of the book deal with the ways societal pressure and expectations have complicated my romantic relationships. JAY- Z’s apologetic vulnerability was a big inspiration for me as I worked through a lot of my failed relationships with past partners and how I didn’t give them the love they often deserved.
“Every Nigger is A Star” by Boris Gardiner
The later half of the book features essays that are broader examinations of Blackness in America. In these pieces I try to reflect experiences shared by members of a community of belonging, while also showing the limitless individualism that exists within that group. Infinite, uncountable, we make groups of constellations, none exactly alike, but like stars across the universe we all shine.
“That’s Love” by Oddisee
“You taught me never burn a bridge / If you built it, then you need it / Whether a river or a brook”
If anything, this book is a love letter to all the friends, family, acquaintances and strangers who showed me grace, even at times when I didn’t deserve it. I listened to this song a lot when working on revisions and it would so often help me conjure the memories and voices of those that taught me how to love.
“Walking in the Snow” by Run the Jewels
“Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group […] I promise I’m honest, they coming for you / The day after they comin’ for me […] Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state”
Despite the love that permeates the book, there is a lot of frustration that drives the narratives. In one essay in particular, I invoke this song by RTJ to help discuss how the fight for racial equality can be exhausting and disorienting, like trudging through a white expanse in a blizzard.
“America from West Side Story – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” by Leonard Bernstein and Rita Moreno
“Life can be bright in America…”
I love this song. I also had it on my playlist for my previous nonfiction collection, Harbors. When working on To Those Bounded, this song helped me think through how the United States creates differentiations of citizenship. I spend a lot of time obsessing about the gaps between nationalistic rhetoric and the state-sanctioned actions that prove not everyone within the U.S. borders are entitled to life liberty, and pursuit to happiness.
“God’s Whisper” by Raury
“I won’t live a life / On my knees”
To Those Bounded closes with a conclusion to the book’s opening scene. Once again the reader is given a directive: to stop running and find rest.
Donald Quist is author of two essay collections, HARBORS (AWST Press, 2016), a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist, and TO THOSE BOUNDED (AWST Press, 2021). He has a linked story collection, FOR OTHER GHOSTS (AWST Press, 2018). His writing has appeared in AGNI, North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and was Notable in Best American Essays 2018. He is creator of the online nonfiction series PAST TEN. Donald has received fellowships from Sundress Academy for the Arts, Kimbilio Fiction, and served as a Gus T. Ridgel fellow for the English PhD program at University of Missouri. He is Director of the MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.