Who Put This Song On?: Morgan Parker on her new young adult novel
NYU MFA alum Morgan Parker’s new young adult novel, Who Put This Song On?, came out last week from Delacorte Press. Parker’s previous collections are Magical Negro (Tin House 2019), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House 2017), and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015). Her debut book of nonfiction will be released in 2020 by One World. Parker received her bachelor's degree in anthropology and creative writing from Columbia University and her master's in poetry from NYU. Her poetry and essays have been published and anthologized in numerous publications, including the Paris Review; The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop; Best American Poetry 2016; the New York Times; and the Nation. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow.
An interview with Parker, conducted by Washington Square Review's Interviews Assistant Editor Charis Caputo appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the magazine; to celebrate Parker's new novel, we've excerpted a preview of their conversation.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What motivated you to write a young adult novel?
MORGAN PARKER: Well, I had written a little bit about my experiences as a teenager, different scenes from my life. And I guess I just wanted to put it in the world for that person, that version of me. It sounds a little bit out there, but, as I started it, there was something compelling me to finish it, almost to make peace with that version of myself. It was the book that I would have wanted then, so I imagined it filling a space. If I wanted it, then someone else must be out there who wants a book like that. There’s not a Black Bell Jar. So, depression . . . there’s not really a book like that, not just for Black girls, but for, like, emo black girls in the suburbs. So it’s very specific, and I just wanted to make that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I listened to your interview with Rachel Zucker, on the Commonplace podcast, and you talked a little bit about how, at that point in time, you were struggling with how to write a narrative about depression. It feels like depression is often about the absence of narrative.
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, it totally is. It took me a while to build a narrative structure, because I also really think in these vignettes, and a novel has to have this larger arc, which I’m comfortable with, in theory, but it’s really hard to build a story and build every character and all their desires and where they’ve come from and where I want them to go. It’s just a lot to consider. And, on top of that, it’s about suburban malaise. There are no monsters, there are no vampires, or anything like that, so what is the drama of this world where the whole complaint of the narrator is: Nothing ever happens, and no one is interesting? How do you build, not suspense, but a compelling story about a not-compelling place and time?
I put an author’s note at the end, written by me at thirty, so it becomes this kind of life-long arc, with a big gap in-between, a narrative about both the character and what it feels like to be that person, to carry that person into the world and continue. It felt important to me to explain that, if you’re in that space, there is something after, and it’s okay to carry your depression, and feelings like that, and they’re not going to go away, but you can live with them. I didn’t want anyone to go away from it being like: What happens, is she all cured at the end? That’s just not the case. I was so unprepared for the life of my depression, and I wanted to just hold the hand of a younger version of myself and just say, “It’s gonna be fine. It’s not gonna be perfect, but it’s not gonna be all bad.” If there was someone reading, I didn’t want them to go away from it without encouragement.
I’ve read a lot of young adult novels that told these stories, and I found that so many of them had some kind of victory at the end, and mine just kind of ends. The victory is that this person keeps living. And I just wanted to highlight that. There’s always a love story, or the person gets into college or something. And none of that happens in my book. I didn’t get the guy, there was no guy, I really thought I’d be a different person by this point in my life, but the point is, I’m still here, and it’s all fine. That’s my way of telling a story: It is fiction, but it isn’t. And, for these kids, it isn’t fiction either. So I don’t want them to be gassed up, like, oh I’m going to find my great love, and I’m going to feel good all the time. It just isn’t real.