personal memoir: PLAY IT BY EAR: AN AMERICAN ANTHEM (excerpts)
COMPLETED PROJECT, IN SEARCH OF PUBLICATION: Manuscript complete, after over 10 years and probably seven full rewrites. I am currently making some additional cuts for narrative pacing, and am seeking an agent. Among the chapters excerpted here, some tell stories related to various songs posted under my music projects.
The child of financially successful but damaged (and damaging) parents, I tried to heal childhood wounds, forge a stable identity, and become a happier, kinder mother than my own--all through music. PLAY IT BY EAR: An American Anthem, is the story my alternately joyous and painful quest, sometimes successful, sometimes laden with emotional traps. The book's voice is of a mature woman listening back on several decades years of her life to hear its themes & variations, the underlying rhythms that have driven her.
PLAY IT BY EAR is also a timely story about race and citizenship. Born here in 1965—same year that the USA stopped deliberately blocking non-white immigrants—I was the arts-obsessed daughter of Indian doctors. Unhappily married, steeped in their own bad families-of-origin, my mother and father were often verbally abusive and emotionally irresponsible. My mother grew up penniless, my father grew up rich, but from both I got the poisonous message that a child’s only real worth is measured in dollars earned and class status attained.
Fired up on radio hits, rock anthems, and Broadway showstoppers, I wanted no part of this perverse value system. I was an American girl: brash, loud, opinionated. I’d become a singer, actor, writer, star. Auteur, even. My relatives belittled me because I didn’t conform to Indian good-girlhood or the extended family’s fundamentalist Christianity. I also refused to go to medical school. Why be rich-and-miserable like Mom and Dad? But friends, teachers, other Americans understood. It was my citizen’s birthright to do what I loved (and eventually some money would follow….right?)
I lived this credo in my head but didn’t get very far in the world. I was hampered by pain, rage, and the paradoxical help/hindrance of upper-middle-class privilege. Successful as a journalist, I tried writing novels but hit emotional and technical roadblocks. During a terrible infertility struggle, I went into near-suicidal crisis, almost upending my marriage and abandoning the entire idea of motherhood (something I'd been ambivalent about anyway). I desperately feared getting lost in the same household misery I'd known in my youth.
What saved me was a late-blooming, serious return to music. In my mid-30s, with a certain amount of chutzpah, I willed myself to become a professional pianist and singer. My depression abated; I regained youthful confidence, found marital balance, and became a much better mother than my own. My newfound obsession with improvisational jazz—where listening and empathy are foundational skills—plus the instant bond with my adopted infant son, together unearthed a capacity for unconditional love (as well as a surprising new knack for writing original songs).
There were ironies, though. Yearning for the spotlight, was I just reinforcing my parents’ self-absorption and neediness? Turning my passion into a career, had I merely found another way to equate personal value with dollars earned (CDs sold, gigs booked, MySpace fans added…)?
As it turned out, this reduction of self-worth to net worth was no mere immigrant mindset but a deeply, darkly American one: an ascendant force that had perverted our sense of commonwealth, damaged our self-image as a nation of immigrants, and landed us a financial con artist as president. It was the culture in which I too--despite my surface rebellion--had been helplessly steeped since girlhood.
PLAY IT BY EAR is thus both a deeply personal story and one that's been shaped by the same large cultural, economic, and historical forces that have left so many Americans bewildered and destabilized. I think many readers--artists or not--will relate to its ups and downs.