In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Hasanthika Sirisena’s essay collection Dark Tourist offers acute observations on a variety of topics.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“Sirisena explores how stories can become a ‘talisman against the overwhelming darkness of another’s pain’ in her emotionally charged nonfiction debut … [Her] searching spirit leaves readers with plenty to dig into.”
Music is so important to me that the last essay in my collection Dark Tourist actually addresses the ways that music triggers a neurological response. What I don’t relate in the essay itself is the musical mystery that led to its inception. The first time I heard Opus 32 from Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, I started to cry. I was a teenager and I was enjoying the performance by a student orchestra so I was surprised at my reaction. Add to that this fact: Opus 32 is titled “Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity” and the music is upbeat and, well, jolly. Yet about a third of the way through, there’s a short section where the score slips from frolic into a moment that feels lofty, almost elegiac. This was where I started to weep for no reason that was apparent to me at the time.
This happened almost every time I listened to Opus 32. Eventually, I set out to discover why. What I came to learn is that this musical interlude actually became the hymn, also by Holst, “I Vow to thee, My Country.” After World War II this hymn became a sort of de facto national British anthem, one that marked the immense loss inflicted on Great Britain during both World Wars. In the early Seventies when my family lived in England, the hymn would still have been commonly played at sporting events and public celebrations along with the actual national anthem “God Save the Queen.” The performance commemorates a solemn moment, a public reckoning with tragedy.
Music is also a ‘glue’ in my life. I’m a double immigrant. My family immigrated when I was very young from Sri Lanka to England. And then when I was five, from England to America. Music, like food, has provided a grounding, connecting me to cultures and to moments of change and transition in my life.
My immigration from England to America at the age of six marked a deep rupture. While I have no conscious, accessible memory of hearing the hymn, I wonder if I have a vestigial, suppressed memory of its importance. And, since my family didn’t return often to England after we left, that performance of The Planets marked the first time I’d heard that hymn since we’d left England ten years before. Of course, I have no proof of this embedded musical memory. It’s all entirely conjecture. But I’m going to run with it because I believe in the way that music forms our psyches in ways we don’t comprehend, becomes a part of who we are.
So, I offer this playlist, with love and a deep awe for what music can do for us.
1) Mama Told Me (Not to Come), Three Dog Night
I’d originally intended to write a novel based on my parents’ experience in the American South in the late Seventies. I often played this song as I was writing as a humorous reminder of a truth of my parents’ experience. They were simultaneously grateful for the chance to build a life in America and appalled by the racism and the social inequality they encountered. I even featured a scene in which that song is played at a party of expats as a sort of joke.
I never finished the novel and turned much of the research for it into the first two essays in my collection. The essay “Broken Arrow” specifically details my father’s choice to immigrate and some of the regrets.
The song itself is humorous, a send up, and it’s clear the singer is bemused but ultimately enjoying himself and I hope that’s a truth for my parents as well.
2) Rhinestone Cowboy, Glen Campbell
My mother loved Glen Campbell and we’d often listen to her favorite cassette, Campbell’s greatest hits. I didn’t like country music as a child and I often complained to my mother that we had to listen. I do have a memory of sitting in the car and realizing that unlike most country music I listened to I understood this song. I even enjoyed singing along, in my head of course. I too would one day be “where the lights are shining on me.”
I started listening to Glen Campbell again in my twenties when classic country became fashionable. In fact, I listened to many of the artists that my parents loved—Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Marty Robinson—when I’m writing. I love “Wichita Lineman.” I’m listing “Rhinestone Cowboy” here because it’s one of those songs you revisit as an adult and understand layers that you couldn’t perceive when young. It’s a surprising wistful song—about having to hustle for success and about the distance between a true self and persona—but I also still experience that initial childhood glee, the initiation of comprehension, when one finally understands the lyrics to a country song.
3) Your Best American Girl, Mitski
I’ve been listening to Mitski since her first album in 2014. I identify with her biography as well as her thoughtful take on what it means to be a woman. But “Best American Girl” really speaks to me because of a single line: Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I finally do”
My essay “Lady” relates how I came to terms with the way my mother embodied traditions and a culture that felt so different form the American culture I wanted to emulate. She embodied for me an old world, one that felt distant and foreign. The essay serves then as a reckoning with the ways that she formed me and an homage to her. Yes, I not only approve of how my mother raised me. I am deeply grateful to her.
4) Manike Mage Hithe, Yohani
Manike Mage Hithe came out in 2020 and was a major hit in Sri Lanka during the first wave of the pandemic. It’s both an homage to a long tradition of pastoral love songs and a well-crafted pop song. The song made the singer Yohani an instant star across Asia and Europe.
In the essay “Pretty Girl Murdered” I write about beauty standards in Sri Lanka and how these standards were developed and used to support nationalism. The singer, Yohani, is beautiful but she also modernizes those standards and repurposes them through her singing. The song is too recent to really have influenced my essay collection, but it’s a wonderful, and accessible, introduction to the Sri Lankan music I listened to as a child.
5) Trust Nobody, King Princess
Dark Tourist also tackles my coming out in middle age and my reckoning with my queer identity. I have always identified as bisexual but, as the collection details, I’ve only understood my queer existence in the past decade.
I grew up in the age when lesbian singers were rarely open about their sexuality out of fear of what coming out would mean for their careers. Everyone somehow knew, for example, that Melissa Ethridge was singing to another woman and somehow able to erase that fact and act as if the lover was a man. I was delighted then to discover the album Cheap Queen a few years ago and I immediately appreciated that King Princess is clearly singing longingly to another woman.
6) I Want to Be Straight, Ian Dury & the Blockheads
The singer of “I Want to Be Straight” wants to give up the sex and drugs and to “come out of the cold.” Of course, Dury’s sly, occasionally mocking, delivery makes it clear that ‘straight’ is not nearly as fun as one might suppose.
I’m also placing Dury on the list because of the ways that he dealt with disability. Dury contracted polio as a child and was left partially paralyzed. It didn’t apparently stop him though from leading a life of all sorts of excess and becoming a sex symbol of the British Eighties punk scene. In my essay, “Amblyopia: A Medical History” I write about dealing with the physical pain of disability while also trying to come to terms with how disability disfigured me and also freed me from a conventional sense of prettiness.
Dury is also on this list because of another connection: his work promoting polio vaccination in Sri Lanka.
7) Sweet Jane, The Cowboy Junkies
I wrestled with this one because I also love the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground version of the song, but the truth is that I first heard The Cowboy Junkie’s sweet, soulful cover when I was eighteen and it was this version I listened to most in my late teens and early twenties.
I was likely listening to this song when I arrived in Chicago in the early nineties, the setting of my essay “Soft Target.” Like the eponymous Jane, I too was searching for a community of queer folk and artists. Lou Reed’s version is raspy, rough and tumble, fitting for the East Village setting of the song. It’s Margot Trimmin’s soulful, husky delivery, though, that embodies Jane for me and makes the song accessible to me. And of, course, it’s a woman singing to another woman.
8) Drop The Pilot, Joan Armatrading
My essay “The Answer Key” is an homage to queer history and, the five hundred answers, in part tries to acknowledge the work of queer writers, artists, performers and activists. Still, every time I look at the essay, I remember someone I left off….and, yes, I left Joan Armatrading off.
Armatrading was a very successful and well-known jazz singer when she released The Key, the pop album that made her an MTV star in the late Eighties. I remember as a teenager, singing the song in my bedroom with uncomprehending delight. There was even a very straight, romantic video to accompany the video so it was easy to miss the subtext: Armatrading trying to seduce a woman away from her straight boyfriend.
It’s great fun to realize today that Armatrading made a global hit out of a song extolling the beauty of being a lesbian. “Don’t use your army to fight a losing battle.” Indeed.
9) Biko, Peter Gabriel
In my essay “Six Drawing Lessons, “ I write about my love of South Africa and the development of my political consciousness through an exploration of the work of the South African artist William Kentridge. I reference this song part of the way through.
Listening to the song now, I do realize how limited Gabriel’s lyrics are. Bantu Stephen Biko was an important thinker and political force not just in South Africa but for much of the developing world. The song Biko turns him into a brutalized Black body without recognizing the force of the living man.
But Peter Gabriel’s song did bring attention to the protest and the activism of Black South Africans and it memorialized, imperfectly, an important figure in the anti-apartheid movement bringing him to the attention of a world that was largely ignorant of Biko’s work. Much of Dark Tourist deals with trying to position oneself within political and cultural history. Some of the essays tackle nationalism, civil war, and political protest. For me as a teenager, the song “Biko” was one of my first lessons in the power of political and cultural protest.
10) A Day in the Life, the Beatles
In my essay “Punctim, Studium, and The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’” I try to tackle the importance of art in times of great social upheaval and trauma. I’m a Beatles fan, and I’m not sure if I can name one song that is a favorite. I’ve long been drawn to “A Day in the Life” because of the way that it toggles between a distant, almost surreal, rumination on human loss and tragedy and the bouncy, insouciance of a traditional pop song. Tragic events, a famous suicide, a solemn moment memorializing of World War II, run parallel to the need to get ready for the day, to have sex, to live.
There’s also a brilliant video. Musician, artist, model friends of the Beatles walk in and out of the frame—are captured, young, beautiful, vibrant. Watching the video now, saddens me. Most of them have passed away. The punctum moment, of course, is John Lennon, in wire-rimmed glasses, staring down the camera, his expression quizzical. It’s hard to believe, every time I watch that video, that he won’t live forever. This song reminds me that Dark Tourist is, among other things, an attempt to wrestle down time, and a recognition that this is both simultaneously a losing battle and the most important fight we all engage in.
Hasanthika Sirisena (she/they) is a writer and cartoonist and a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the author of the short story collection The Other One.