Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a difficult book for me to review, for a few reasons. For one, it’s written by and written about intersecting communities that I’m not and will (likely) never be a part of: anarchist/punk groups, queer and trans people of colour (South Asian in particular), immigrants, disabled folks, and people living in poverty. This is an immensely raw, vulnerable book where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is laying bare so many things about her life and struggles, in the most bad-ass way that makes it seem like vulnerability is the most radical, heroic thing. Not having endured many of the things that she has, though, makes it hard for me to feel like I’m even qualified to say anything about this book. (By the way, I decided to write about it only because I want to spread the word).
Another reason this is a hard review to write is that this was one of those books that I was expecting to love more than I actually did. (I hate when that happens!). It was on my “especially-excited-about” shelf on Goodreads for a while before I bought it at Little Sister’s LGBTQ bookstore in Vancouver a few weeks ago and I was super pumped to read it after I brought it home. A lot of why I was so excited was that I loved Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s last poetry collection, Bodymap, which I reviewed here. Bodymap is full of these gorgeous poems, full of beautifully put hard truths and comforting words about finding your people. I loved Bodymap and so was expecting to immediately love Dirty River too. When that didn’t happen, I was just … kind of bummed.
So here’s what Dirty River is about: it’s an account of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s early post-college years, those years of self-discovery, figuring out what your future is going to look like, and confronting your past. For Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, those years were also simply a time of trying to survive. Here you will find the rough, unfiltered details of living in poverty, being an immigrant, and living with a disability. She also writes at length about the challenges of being mixed-race and finding her cultural identity after not having much of it passed on to her, which I imagine would be so affirming and amazing to read about if you were mixed-race. I learned a lot in those sections.
This book is also a testament to 90s era queer punks of colour activism in Toronto, where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha runs away to. In that way, the memoir is a super fascinating window into a particular time and place that in many ways no longer exists. It’s about her struggling to fit in and connect with people in these radical communities, but remaining, as the blurb says, “haunted by the reasons she left home in the first place.”
This is not an easy book to read, and should come with multiple content/trigger warnings: intimate partner abuse, racism, incest. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha refuses easy answers and abuse narratives where people “get normal.” She writes in the preface that this memoir is “not an incest horror story book, and it’s not palatable either. In the end, I don’t get normal. I get something else.” She also writes that while her journey is heroic, it’s not heart-warming. This is definitely true, although I would say that it is, despite everything, hopeful. In second last chapter, she writes:
I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes I stop and close my eyes and send all these pictures of my life back to the kid I was, who is still back there, trying to survive. Prayer is activism.
I tell her: this is waiting, waiting. It doesn’t get better (but it did), it just changes. I pray it to her, promise her, say ‘Stay alive. This is what’s waiting for you. You will make it come to be.’
I’ve thought a lot about what didn’t really do it for me in this book, and I think ultimately it’s this memoir just suffers from the unevenness of the quality of writing. This is a book that has been a long time in the making, and, like artists of all different sorts, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s artistry has grown and expanded. For me, the writing in the early parts of the memoir just wasn’t the beautiful, mind-blowing style that I’m used to seeing from her. If there had been a narrative to latch onto, this might have carried me over to later sections, but Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha uses the style of short snippets of life and non-chronological telling (reminiscent of Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful memoir Chronology of Water which Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha acknowledges as an inspiration). Ordinarily, I can be really into that kind of thing—and Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha does this very well in the last quarter of the book especially—but because the writing wasn’t grabbing me in the first part, and there wasn’t a narrative to latch onto, the first sections of the memoir lagged for me. They didn’t lure me in with either beautiful writing or narrative and I had to push myself to keep reading, which I’m glad I did, the amazing second half being what it is.
Here’s a glimpse of what I loved in later parts of Dirty River; this is about being a femme and walking around New York in the early 90s not knowing anyone:
The air, the streets, the people touched me all over. I kept my eyes on some of them, flirted, looked away. I couldn’t find anyone to touch me, but in the meantime the air did, the world did. … Every cell of my body. Naked and tough, something new and beautiful, adorned. Learning these streets and how to walk down them. Learning how to find red silk in a bargain bin, to tighten straps to walk. To meet eyes. To swish my ass, to insist on the pleasure of thighs brushing together, glaring I will fucking kill you if you look at me.
More about being a femme:
For years I thought, a femme bottom—what is more common, what is more despised? Than a girl with her legs open. Wanting something. Just wanting.
I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. The whole world told me it was true. The whole world told me there was nothing more common and stupid than someone feminine of centre with their legs open, wanting something more than a kick or a curse.
But what if there is nothing more precious than a femme with their legs open?
If our opening is a prayer it is for a world where opening without rape is possible
wade in the water
choose. every second. I choose to stay here. I learn to stay here.
I choose to open
every single second led to this.
I guess in the end what I really want to say about Dirty River is: while this wasn’t a 10 out of 10, life-altering book for me, I can really see that for folks who’ve gone through some of the same struggles, this memoir could be exactly that. If you think that might be the case for you, you should run, not walk, to get a copy of this book in your hands.