Podcast Preview: Ben Arthur’s SongWriter Season 6 Kicks Off with Susan Orlean and Diana Gameros

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Podcast Preview: Ben Arthur’s SongWriter Season 6 Kicks Off with Susan Orlean and Diana Gameros

Season six of SongWriter – the podcast that turns stories into songs – launches with the return of an old friend: bestselling author and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean. Six years ago the very first episode of SongWriter featured a perfect jewel of a story from Susan about the surprising and near-mystical way she met her now-husband. That story (and arguably Susan herself), is deeply encoded in the DNA of SongWriter.

Last month at a live performance at KQED in San Francisco, Susan recounted a story from her recent collection, On Animals, about homing pigeons, and their uncanny brilliance and heartbreaking limitations. Susan told the audience that scientists still don’t understand how these animals perform their breathtaking feats of geolocation.

“What is it that allows pigeons to be released literally hundreds of miles away and find their way back to a specific place?” Susan asks. “Not the same city, not the same block, but to one specific place, their coop.”

During the live performance, Dr. Laura Simone Lewis, who studies primates and humans, helped explore the topics of animal intelligence, especially around ideas of home. Dr. Lewis described how different species of primates seem to think of home in markedly different ways. Chimpanzees are fiercely territorial, and will usually attack, and often kill, chimps who enter their home turf. Bonobos, on the other hand, rarely resort to violence when they encounter outside groups of bonobos – in fact, an in-species killing has never been witnessed by scientists. Most of the time when two groups of bonobos meet, their response is to have what Dr. Lewis colloquially calls a “block party.”

“They’ll play together, groom together, share food, sleep and nap together, have sex with each other,” Dr. Lewis says, “And these intergroup interactions can last for days or even weeks.”

The artist tasked with writing a new song in response to Susan’s story for this episode is Mexican American activist and songwriter, Diana Gameros. A formerly undocumented immigrant, Diana was fascinated to read about a homing pigeon named Soleil who never returns home. Though scientists theorize that when homing pigeons don’t return home they may have been blown off course by high winds, Diana wondered if there was another explanation for Soleil’s behavior.

“Being the artist, revoltosa that I am, I could not stop relating to that bird who decided not to come home,” Diana says. “What if he decided for himself not to go back? He wanted to explore other worlds.”

After the show Susan told me that she thinks Diana’s song is “unbelievably beautiful,” and that it reminded her of the many times her work has been adapted by other artists.

“There’s a special pleasure that I’ve been lucky enough to have had a number of times, and that is to see your work reinterpreted by other artists,” Susan says. “What could be a bigger compliment than if someone really gifted, like Diana, could find inspiration in something I’ve done?”

Diana’s song is called “Soleil (Little Wing),” and you can hear it exclusively in this week’s episode of SongWriter. 

Season six of SongWriter is made possible by a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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