In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sorayya Khan's novel City of Spies is a complex, fascinating, and rewarding story of Pakistan in the late 1970s.
Claire Messud wrote of the book:
"Through the eyes of a young girl, City of Spies brings to vivid life a crucial episode in the history of the United States and Pakistan, at the moment of the Iran hostage crisis. The tensions and confusions of that time are intensely relevant today. Sorayya Khan’s rich and compelling novel is a gem."
I began writing City of Spies as soon as I began to write, more than twenty years ago. So much music has accompanied my process, most of it a wordless way to access the space I needed to write.
Although I'd heard Hariprasad Chaurasia, my real introduction to the master Indian flute player was a live concert at Syracuse University where people in the audience wept at his sound. His flute is the master of longing, but it also contains infinite possibilities. Hearing him live made me need his music and for many years, I listened to Raag Abhogi on his album Hariprasad Chaurasia and His Divine Flute early on Sunday mornings when my children were still asleep and I began to write.
Noor Jehan, a great Pakistani singer, once said that a voice like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's comes around once every hundred years. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the master of Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. I listened to his Shahen-Shah album, especially Shamus-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja (which translates into something like O the bright sun, O the moon in darkness), on auto repeat for long stretches while I wrote. His voice is transportative and trance-like, and I loved being in its grip.
I fell for Mozart's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G Major, K453, with Rudolf Serkin on piano, when I heard it for the first time on a car radio, before I knew it was Mozart—whom I have a soft spot for (and not because we share the same birthday). The second movement is my favorite, especially when the piano enters, as if to command the orchestra and listener alike. The moment is like the arrival of a muse, if there is such a thing.
Touch me in the Morning, sung by Diana Ross, is referenced in City of Spies. In the late 1970s, when the novel is set, the song plays on the cassette that Lizzy and Aliya are listening to on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, as they drive to the US Embassy. It is one tune on a taped American radio show that Lizzy's NY friend sent her. I see now that song was a hit in 1973, but American music often reached even the American community in Pakistan late and, therefore, in my mind it remains a late 1970s hit, apropos my novel.
I don't remember how we came across Jerry Gonzalez's album Los Piratas del Flamenco, but I love it for how it moves at the edges of musical genres and makes something distinct from the journey. It reminds me of writing—standing in one place while imagining another—and helped me focus. And, oh, that trumpet!
Alcione's song Esperar is, undoubtedly, the sound of having finished writing City of Spies. My husband taught in Brazil one summer while I worked on revisions, and on his return he brought home hundreds of Brazilian albums. But I don't remember hearing this tune until the day I finished my manuscript and went for a walk with a Brazilian playlist in my ears; each time I hear Esperar (Portuguese for wait), I remember that wondrous feeling.
Sorayya Khan and City of Spies links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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