BWS 04.05.2016: Melanie Mah

Melanie Mah headshot

Melanie Mah, originally from the foothills of Alberta, now calls Toronto home. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is the author of The Sweetest One, a novel forthcoming from Cormorant Books in June.

In her guest post below, Melanie tells us about the music in the background in both her novel and her life. Enjoy!

The Sweetest One takes as its centre a passionate teenage girl named Chrysler Wong for whom music is vital. From scenes involving concerts and song lyrics to the role music plays in Chrysler’s life and the attention I gave to how words and sentences sound, this book owes a debt to music. The songs below reflect major motifs and themes in the book and my writing life so far, and are also just songs I really like. Here goes.

Sonic Youth – Teenage Riot

I’ve loved this song for years and years. To me, it really encapsulates an excitement about life seemingly had by most in their teen years and by a few lucky ones throughout their lives. There can be a wonder in life, a sense of possibilities – who will be the love of your life? How will they complete you? What kind of amazing things will you experience in the future? Who will you meet? How will your life change? – and yearning, too, which I think is especially strong when you grow up in a town that’s too small for you. These are things I can’t help but think about when I listen to this song, which is weird because I’m in my thirties and really happy with my life, and they’re things I try to capture in my book, in addition to feelings like joy and fury I find so apparent in this song.

This book is a kind of study of potential approaches to impending death. It’s about a family with five kids where the first three kids die at age eighteen outside their small hometown and the last two decide that there is a family curse, and that if they leave town at age eighteen, they may die, too. The elder of those, Trina, leaves anyway because she wants a full life. She’s the risk-taker of the two, and she’s cool, magnetic and fun. The younger is our protagonist, Chrysler. Chrysler has responded to tragedy and the inherent difficulties of her life by making strict rules for herself – chief among them: “Do not leave town” – and by becoming someone who’s cripplingly anxious of many things. But the flipside to this is that she’s so full of wonder. She looks at a pretty and enormous sky and feels a chinook and still thinks, “Holy fucking shit,” even though she’s already experienced those things many times. Her almost-magic power is that she doesn’t take anything for granted. She thinks life is amazing, even though it’s really hard, too. The problem is, she’s curious and cosmopolitan, and she knows her life would be way better in key ways if she left town to travel or live in a city and go to university. These are some of the things she wants most in the world. But she can’t leave because she’s afraid of change and afraid of dying and leaving her parents alone. And what if Trina comes home and, finding Chrysler gone, leaves again? It’s that classic “Person comes to town” storyline flipped on its head. More like, “Person can’t leave town.”

Chinese opera sung by my parents in a car on road trips to Edmonton when I was young. (No YouTube clip available! Too bad for you.)

I used to hate Chinese opera. I still kind of do. There’s something almost…ghoulish and otherworldly about it. I don’t know anything about the history of it, but I do know Chinese people, especially ones with village connections like Chrysler’s dad, have a very close relationship with death. Plus, it’s dramatic, and a story about a girl who thinks she’s going to die soon is as dramatic as they come.

My inclusion of Chinese opera here underlines the importance of Chrysler’s relationships with her parents. Much of the present-tense story is Chrysler at home or in the family business (a clothing store). Chrysler’s not a favourite of either parent, she’s what’s left, and traces of the dead or missing siblings hang like ghosts in her life and in the book; still, she’s close to them.

Dream a Little Dream of Me – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

This song is about having a person in your life who’s very important. It’s about how much better life is when you’re with that person. (And it’s about romantic love, too, but that isn’t so important here.) To Chrysler, that person is Trina.

This is one of the first songs referenced in the book. It’s a perfect sad, yearning song for a sad, yearning part of the book. It appears on a mix tape Chrysler’s sister Trina is playing in her car while the two have a rare hangout on the night she disappears without a trace. It’s a kind of send off. When Trina leaves, all Chrysler seems to have are dreams and memories, and her outlook on life. Because meaning in Chrysler’s life comes primarily from her family. She hasn’t learned to live with herself in the centre of the frame yet.

The appearance of this song in the book also reflects the cultural omnivorousness of many teenagers. I remember making tapes that were like, a jazz song, then a rock song, then a rap song, then a bluegrass song – all in a row.

Beat Happening – Tiger Trap

One thing that Chrysler wants most and is also most of afraid of in the world is romantic love. When I was in my late teens and had never been in a relationship before, I would listen to bands like Beat Happening, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo, bands I loved that sometimes had a real romantic sound and think, “Love will feel like how this sounds.” It’s a weird emotional synaesthesia, maybe it sounds cheesy.

Chrysler thinks love will change her irrevocably. She also thinks she’ll never, ever find it, which could be true because she often picks the wrong guy and doesn’t have the social smarts to know how to woo him. Also, she’s a misfit at school. Small town teenage misfits often grow up and move to cities where they find love and happiness. Lucky them. Chrysler has it tougher.

Sometimes people want romantic love because of some big thing that is or was missing in their lives – either that or some big, traumatic problem. Those people are like buckets with holes in them and they’re trying to patch it up with chewing gum or duct tape or any other way they can. It’s sad because the buckets should have been made whole in the first place.

JS Bach (performed by Pablo Casals) – Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: I. Prelude

Usually, I write in a library. Sometimes the library gets loud, and I have to put on music to drown everybody out. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I write, so usually, I put on some kind of classical music. I like Tchaikovsky and Chopin, but I really fucking love Bach. And I love the cello. One day, during a particularly noisy spell at the library, I played this song on repeat, like fifteen times. The song is only 2.5 minutes long! That day, I joked that I wished Bach or someone or some computer that can write music like Bach had done an hour-long version of this song. I guess this song is part of a bigger song with some repeated themes, but for some reason, I like this part of it the best. (And yeah, this song is everywhere – on TV and in movies and probably also in some toilet paper commercial or something, but there’s a reason: it’s the real deal.)

Casals made a recording of the Bach Cello Suites in the 1920s and 1930s that absolutely blew my mind. It’s mastery coming forth through a lo-fi recording technique that makes it sound even better. I want to be as good at writing as Bach was at writing music, as Pablo Casals was at playing cello. It might never happen, but one can dream.

Melanie Mah visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Pushpa Raj Acharya, Larissa Lai, Shari Kasman and a special guest talk, “Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”, by Dundurn Press acquisitions editor Shannon Whibbs.

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