I feel pretty lucky to be regularly sent books to review. Free! Books! It’s like a dream come true. Often I haven’t heard of the book or author and I am glad to be made aware of a new writer or project. The fun thing about the ones I have never heard about is that I don’t have any expectations before reading them. So when a book really blows me away, it comes as a total surprise. Letters Lived: Radical Reflections, Revolutionary Paths, edited by Sheila Sampath (Toronto-based designer/educator/activist of Shameless Magazine fame), is one of those books. It’s a relatively short collection, with quite a punch. Simply put, it gathers a diverse group of activists who write letters to their teen selves, chronicling their journeys, giving (or not) advice, and cheering themselves on. It’s just delightful to read.
For a collection that isn’t explicitly trans and/or queer, Letters Lived is full of LBTQness: trans women, lesbians, queer women, and genderqueer people. It’s also refreshingly filled with a majority of writers of colour (including legendary Sto: Loh author Lee Maracle, whose novel Ravensong I reviewed here), which is unfortunately something lacking in a lot of queer anthologies. Overall, even though some of these letters deal with tough stuff, it’s a really uplifting collection. It will probably make you want to write a letter to your teenage self (do it!). There’s a beautiful sense of the positive that perspective gives, but also a lot of respect for youth and the stuff that can happen along the journey.
Let’s have a look at some of these letters, shall we? Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (whose book of poetry Love Cake I reviewed here), tells herself on a journey to find queer mentors of colour: “You discovered that we all want people who show us the way, all want people who look like who we want and dream and need to become.” She signs off the letter with this evocative pledge: “This movement is a promise, a promise I kept to you.”
Coco Guzman (aka Coco Riot), is a trilingual (English, Spanish, and French) genderqueer Montreal artist I had never heard of before! I definitely need to get my hands on their comics and zines. Their talents are not only visual, but also linguistic, as evidenced in this letter. Coco tells their teenage self that bravery is “silent courage [that] lives in the nights and is only seen by stars.” That’s a little piece of poetry right there! They also say, “Where you are hungry for my freedom, I am hungry for your passion.” You always want what you can’t have—be grateful for what you do.
Cristy C. Road and Juliet Jacques, Cuban-American and British respectively, also have some sage things to say. Cristy: “I’m not going to tell you what to do because I’m not that kind of future.” Juliet: “Right now you’re consoling yourself with your latent queerness by saying to yourself ‘At least I don’t have to get married and I can’t join the army.’ Well, guess where the people with whom you identify spend much of their campaigning energy?”
Rae Spoon is another Canadian contributor, and has some funny and serious stuff to say. A good chunk of the essay deals with Rae confronting their own racism; it’s great to see queers investigating their sites of privilege. Rae’s retrospective piece of wisdom for their teenage self in terms of gender is that “Eventually you will regard gender as a huge social joke and wholeheartedly retire from bothering with it.” They also have this practical career advice: “Despite what adults tell you, skipping class to practice guitar is actually a really good life plan.” Also, save your eighties nerdy fashion: “Eventually the glasses and the clothes you are wearing may come into style.” Ha ha.
Victoria B. Robinson, a Black German activist, poet, author, academic, empowerment and creativity coach, and curator, has some musings on love that particularly resonated with me. The first is: “Everyone is crazy. You just have to find people whose craziness is compatible with yours.” The second: “Speaking of love: it does not make everything better. It makes it easier to bring your wounds to the surface so that you can take care of them.” Thanks, Victoria. I will keep these things in mind.
Lee Maracle’s letter is one of the last in the collection, and was the hardest hitting for me. In it, she discusses her teenage suicide attempt, trying to move from “knowing what is wrong to knowing how to change it,” and ongoing colonial racism, especially in the form of murder of Indigenous women. She ends, however, with this beautiful image of hope: “Commit to living here on earth for the long haul. It gets better.”
I can’t really think of anything better to end this review with than that. So there it is.