Just Press Play

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting millions of people’s lives in unprecedented ways, PEN America’s World Voices Festival launches a new playlist series with songs selected by some of our favorite authors from around the world.

Every week, Just Press Play brings the soundtracks of poets and novelists’ writing lives into homes and offices everywhere. From the balconies of Milan to the speakers of our smartphones, these playlists remind us all that music, like books, can connect humanity from a distance.

This week James Hannaham, winner of the PEN/Faulkner and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards for his novel, Delicious Foods, delivers a true “pandemic playlist” that interprets our present through music: 

“Most of these songs are about some combination of solitude, fear, political ineptitude, and disease, so it’s really a fun one! But I tried to put it in a sort of chronology, like a jukebox musical about the coronavirus. Many songs about COVID-19 have appeared, but at the start, I came across a couple of hits from the Ebola crisis that were. . . um, catchy. ‘Phenom’ I included partially because the video is great; the performers appear in a Zoom meeting. A couple of the artists on the playlist passed away due to the coronavirus, unfortunately: Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, and Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango (RIP). I included the song ‘Witch’ by Belly because I’ve been hiding out in Rhode Island, where they are from, and it’s a spooky song about being cooped up and feeling unsafe. I have had ‘FDT’ by YG and Nipsey Hussel on heavy rotation since 2016. The Talking Heads’ song ‘(Nothing But) Flowers,’ which I chose as the ‘top track’ in the playlist, came up in my shuffled songs the other day, and I had a hard time keeping back tears. It’s about an unspecified tragedy that has destroyed U.S. car and mall culture, and probably killed a lot of people, but that has also fomented a rebirth of nature. The whole situation is still very uncomfortable for the singer, but somehow the rebirth is the part he can’t handle. Hit me right in the feelings. The one thing that COVID-19 couldn’t cancel was the spring.”

Check out his playlist on Spotify and YouTube today, and grab his award-winning novel, Delicious Foods, on Bookshop or Amazon.

James’ Favorite: “(Nothing But) Flowers – 2005 Remaster” from Talking Heads


James Hannaham’s most recent novel, Delicious Foods, won the PEN/Faulkner and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, and was a New York Times Notable Book. He teaches in the Department of Writing at the Pratt Institute.

Join us next week for a playlist from Jennifer Finney Boylan, the prolific writer of She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders, the first bestselling work by a transgender American, and whose new memoir, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, is out now.