It didn’t take me long to realize traveling as a Pakistani woman is very different than travelling as Jack Kerouac.Literature Music
Corona is a poetic, autobiographical on-the-road adventure comedy novel told by me, Razia Mirza, a Pakistani woman from Corona, Queens. When I was ex-communicated from my Muslim community, I hit the road thinking I could live like the Beats. It didn’t take me long to realize traveling as a Pakistani woman is very different than travelling as Jack Kerouac.
Corona is filled with music: the Tom Waits songs I tortured my sister and her friends with on a road trip to Washington, D.C., the Panjabi MC songs playing at Basement Bhangra when I fell for a Bengali mathematician after a party, or the hits from the 80s when I was just a kid on the streets in Corona.1
"Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" by Paul Simon — Paul Simon sings about Corona! This fact endlessly confused me growing up. I mean, why would Paul Simon be singing about Corona? The only white men I saw there were policemen or firemen and I didn’t think Paul Simon had ever been one of those.
But then I was over at a friend’s house in Salem, Massachusetts and she had the Simon and Garfunkel box set and there were all these pictures of Paul and Art young, real young. The kind of pictures where you are like, there is no way that old person could ever have been that young. And there they were standing in front of one of those tan brick homes that are all over Corona.
I had a Julio, too. We didn’t hang out down by the schoolyard like Paul Simon must have with his Julio. We didn’t hang out anywhere at all. But I loved him the way you only could when you’re a child. Some say that kind of love isn’t real, but if you watch Bollywood movies like I do, you know kiddie love is the only pure love around.
Pioneer Spirit Salem, Massachusetts August 19952 "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" by Bob Dylan — My first summer away from Queens, I worked in Salem, a city so famous for burning women its whole economy is based on it.
I got a job at a recreated seventeenth-century village called "Pioneer Spirit." It was like a rundown Plimoth Plantation, the bastard child where all the druggies and misfits went, the ones who couldn’t be trusted to stay in character in Plimoth, the ones who would pull out a gravity bong in the middle of a tour.
As far as I know, gravity bongs did not exist in Puritan times. In Corona, you only hear about one day at Pioneer Spirit, but so much happened. There was the time Ron (our boss) wanted to do a revolutionary war re-enactment, but it rained all day and no one came so it just turned into a muddy, drunken orgy between the British and Puritans. Somehow all the "historically accurate" goats escaped from their pens and me and Walter had to chase them in the rain. I imagined this song playing in my head when we were chasing the goats.
Crabs San Francisco, California February 1995 "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding — I was a real mess at this point in my life. I’d just been disowned by my family and was living in a single-room occupancy in the Tenderloin with a terrible boyfriend (the reason I had gotten disowned in the first place). When I could get away from him, I would just sit on the dock and watch the tide roll away. For those of you who have ever run away from home to see the Pacific, who were so drawn to it that it killed you, who were willing to risk everything to see it, you will know how true this song is.
"Clay Pigeons" by Blaze Foley — I finally did run away from that boyfriend. I hopped on a Greyhound bus back to New York City. Then began a period of my life where I was spent crisscrossing the country nonstop on the bus. I’ve always tried to capture the feeling in words of what those years were like, but once I heard “Clay Pigeons,” the feeling was lifted. Blaze Foley already wrote the perfect Greyhound song. I heard he died soon after he did this recording and I’m eternally grateful to my friend and band mate for life Mr. Gibbs for sharing this song.
Skin Corona, Queens August 1983 "Faith" by George Michael — So when I was a kid, my friends and I found these porn magazines in an abandoned garage. We were really religious, so we decided to burn the magazines in a garbage can in a back alley. We almost burned my friend’s little brother in the process. If those magazines corrupted my visual innocence, it was probably George Michael that that blew up my aural innocence. What better song to transition from being religious to American pop music than "Faith" by a closeted gay man?
Grass Pulled Up Roadside, Florida August 1997 "Beginning to See the Light” by the Velvet Underground" — There is so much I could say about this song, but I’ll simply say listening to the Velvet Underground rearranged the internal landscape of my mind. RIP Lou Reed.
The Summer of Young Uncles Corona, Queens August 1982 "Qurbani" (from the movie Qurbani) by Feroz Khan — You have no idea how many times the aunties and uncles (and by extension, all of us children) watched Qurbani, a movie filled with spiritual ideals of friendship, Kung Fu-inspired fight scenes, and highly erotic dance sequences.
In the scene for this song, the two anti-heroes are on the run from the police. (The police were always bad in these movies.) A Muslim religious leader hides them out. The anti-heroes dress up like Pathans and of course end up performing a song during the ceremony about friendship and sacrifice. My earliest ideas of the purity of friendship were cemented by watching these scenes play out again and again.
Old Italian Corona, Queens August 1982 "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club — Were all the queer pop stars giving us secret signs and posts all along the way in the grey silence of the 1980s? Their hit songs even penetrated the ghetto where there was no such thing as being gay. What does Boy George have to do with this sad story about four girls and a kitten? Not much. Except that a year later, we would be singing this song.
G-TV New Rochelle, NY 2000-2001 "P.I.M.P" by 50 Cent — I know this song is totally messed up, but I remember one time driving around with my friend Tony. I had just confessed that I didn’t know who 50 Cent was. I had even called him 50 cents . Then a song came on and Tony said, “Who do you think this is? Listen to the words."
I heard: "I don’t know what you heard about me, but a —— can’t get a dollar out of me." And I thought, can’t make a dollar… can’t make a dollar. "50 cent!" I felt like I had solved some kind of hip hop math riddle. Yes, it was a long way from AP Calculus. I like the radio version with most of the words bleeped out. It’s like an erasure poem.
Bhangra Blow Up New York City October 2004-August 2005 "Dhol Jageero Da" by Panjabi MC — When Qasim’s brother announced he was competing in Bhangra Blowout Up at Johns Hopkins, the four of us (Safia, Qasim, Ravi, and me) decided to take a road trip to Washington, D.C.
Bhangra Blowout Up was a dance competition featuring takes on Punjabi dance style. Think Circus of the Stars, except bhangra. It was my job to make the road trip CDs. I must have been going through a Tom Waits phase because every song ended up being Tom Waits! The rest of the crew was NOT happy about this. After I had tortured all of them for hours with Tom Waits, I pulled Panjabi MC’s "Dhol Jageero Da" out of nowhere and they were like, "What? You had this the whole time?"
"Hold On" by Tom Waits — But back to Tom Waits. I love the way this story is a song and this song is a story. "She went and took that California trip…"
"I Hope That I don’t Fall in Love with You" by Tom Waits — Yes, this playlist is turning into the dreaded Tom Waits CD. What can I say? I had a mad crush on Ravi and he didn’t know. I added this song quite meaningfully to the Tom Waits road trip CD. Sad, sad, so sad.
"Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi" Ghazal by Mirza Ghalib, sung by Jagjit Singh — One of the things that got me with Ravi was how he loved and understood Urdu poetry. I know, gag reflex! But for someone like me, who felt the lack of Urdu poetry like a missing limb, it meant the world. I don’t have to translate for you to know this song is about all the unfulfilled desires of our lives.
"Pari Ho Asmani" from the movie, Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai — There was one night when Ravi and I were still friends. Me, Safia, Qasim and him were hanging out. This song, "Pari Ho Asmani" from my favorite Bollywood movie of all time Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai came on and we sang it with all our hearts: "She said, ‘No, this can never be’ / He said, ‘It’s better, fine with me.'"
"Rain Dance" by Valerie June — Valerie June is someone I discovered after my travels, a fellow wandering heart. I see her the way whaling ships saw each other back in the day, passing letters to each other, letters that had been waiting to be read for months, sometimes years. Sometimes these letters never reached their destination.
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- 1. A version of this post first appeared on The Poet’s Playlist.
- 2. Chapter titles are indicated by italics.