Radical Reading: Dirty River
Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.
One of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.
Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home.
As a white person, I read this narrative thinking about all the varied kinds of violence we do to people of color, from denying and obscuring a child’s heritage to policing borders to perpetuating a racist state where interpersonal abuse is allowed to flourish. Micro-aggressions around public space and surveillance come to painfully vivid life in this account, which includes the best line I’ve read on the topic, a description of the relief Piepzna-Samarasinha felt in a Toronto neighborhood where many of those on the street were South Asians with mental health issues: “[t]he exhale that I, too, could be brown and nuts on the street, and no one would stare at me that hard.” Throughout the book, she recounts moments of hyperawareness around her appearance when surveillance was heightened, starting with her experience playing a clueless student tourist while crossing the border into Canada.
It’s also impossible to separate this narrative from queerness, and specifically brown crip queerness. “I was happiest when I didn’t have a body,” Piepzna-Samarasinha writes. ”I had been all body, all gender for a while. I needed some time off from having a body in order to figure out what kind of relationship I would have with this one when I got back to it.” Her experience of disability is woven with experiences of abuse, but it’s a nuanced take that realistically takes the reader through memory gaps and disassociation. She tells a story of healing when you don’t know all the details of the hurt, about survivorship alongside the unreliability of memory and the shifting nature of identity. “But wasn’t it just a made up disease? Made up just like an abuse memory.”
Race is intimately linked with these recollections of family and grappling with memory. Piepzna-Samarasinha describes how she didn’t know that her own hair was curly until she was eleven or twelve, how her white mother got angry when she asked questions about her race and she had to do her own digging to uncover her ancestry (a theme of exploration that runs throughout her work). She writes of going into a Sri Lankan restaurant for the first time at twenty-two, “It’s still a shock when I see the words ‘Sri Lankan’ written in public. Sri Lanka feels like a secret, folded up tight, light-brown and dusty, a crackled piece of old paper shoved away in an attic box.”
These tales are full to the brim with grieving and celebration. Some queer brown readers will likely identify with stories of learning to be both brown and queer as a process, or those of the threads of queerness that connected the author with her father. I imagine many will find a point of connection to the way Piepzna-Samarasinha talks about being different things in different places and with different people—not just a queer experience, but one that resonates for marginalized people across the spectrum.
Posted on August 9, 2016, in books, queer, race, reviews and tagged Arsenal Pulp Press, book reviews, Dirty River, femmes of color, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, QPOC, radical reading, women of color. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.