“I still don’t see why you don’t go back to the States. Everyone wants to go there, and you can.”
I often joke that Toronto is the only major city on earth that’s hated from without and within — derided by the rest of Canada as the pompous “centre of the universe” while pitied by its own citizens for lacking the style and infrastructure of New York, London or Berlin — but in poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s bold and nourishing new memoir Dirty River, Toronto was a great help to her in her journey (both literal and spiritual) from abuse and oppression.
“This is where I dream for hours,” she writes of her little house near Dupont and Dufferin. “This is my first home. The first place I can shut the door and when I do, everything exhales. I tried to find this place for years in New York. Even before Sex and the City ultra-gentrification, I could never afford anything.”
Not that Toronto helps much, of course. Anyone (everyone?) who’s ever been poor in this city will cringe in recognition at her chapter “The Winter You Are So Broke” (“The wait for the Dufferin bus home at three am just about killed me”) but Piepzna-Samarasinha’s tales include odes to Ossington Street grocery shops, to Queen West and Kensington Market, to the way “Toronto has so many ways of being brown and being South Asian . . . Brown that feels miles closer to my kind of brown than New York brown,” and to the ’90s queer venues like Funkasia at the Red Spot and the Desh Pardesh festival.
“The Red Spot was the only club that played our music, and we had to get along, or at least pretend to . . . Here were all kinds of desis who hated each other, maybe had invaded each other’s countries, hacked off each other’s heads back home, and whose families had lost everything when they moved to freezing immigrant apartments in St James Town or King Street. But here, we were all shivering through immigration, doing cab driver and dishwasher jobs and going to George Brown college, and we sort of, kind of, got along . . . And somewhere in that sweaty brown hot box of brown gay, I found myself.”
“I love ’90s Toronto forever!” Piepzna-Samarasinha now declares, “But I see spaces of QTPOC fierce beauty in T-dot now that are in some ways better: spaces like Unit 2, Black Lives Matter Toronto, Blockorama, Making a Space for Our Stories and Ill Na Na’s Right to Dance collectives, Trans Women’s Picnic, STRUT, No More Silence, Migrant Sex Workers Project, Performance.Disability.Art’s jams, Unapologetic Burlesque. Also, spaces around kitchen tables, sick and disabled Skype hangs and living rooms and online spaces are crafted by and for QTPOC in their 20s and 30s and older that I see as being just as radical and beautiful, with the addition of a lot more consciousness (hard fought for) about ableism, anti-Black racism and transmisogyny.”
In the past few months, Piepzna-Samarasinha divided her time between Toronto and Brooklyn, where her partner lives. “I love NYC . . . for a few days at a time. There’s some amazing stuff and people and life there, specifically Black and Brown life, but the food deserts, wealth/poverty divide and incredible lack of disabilty access is really really hard. Toronto versus everybody forever. This city can be hard and expensive and bullshit, but it also has heart, secret green alleyways, history, people who stick around,” she says. “The struggle for cheap rent is real and it feels like the push is everywhere for business interests to gobble up cities. But we have to remember that freaks made use of cities in the ’90s because stuff was cheap here, and we can do our work in places where stuff is cheap now. We have to keep evolving.”
“Cheap rent is a key thing that allows oppressed, disabled writers time to write,” Piepzna-Samarasinha says. Having written the final stretch of her memoir in “a queer majority of color collective house in South Berkeley where we had a hot tub, fig trees and $175 rent. I was broke, but I could afford to buy time to write because my rent was low.” It was a relatively comfortable end to a writing process that had taken a decade, far longer than her acclaimed poetry collections like Love Cake and Bodymaps. “That’s political,” she says, “There’s a reason why so many oppressed people write poetry — you can write poetry on the bus, on line at the food stamps office. I write poetry on my phone, in the memo function in public transit or speaking into the voice recorder walking down the street. Lucille Clifton said that her poems were all four stanzas or less because she had eight kids and that’s how long a poem she could memorize in her head while she was giving them baths.”
“It was easier to fit the poetry in between starting Asian Arts Freedom School with Gein Wong, booking Mangos with Chili shows, being sick, grad school, working a million nonprofit and other hustles and helping friends in crisis. I got a lot of the writing of Dirty River done in chunks when I somehow stole time away — at VONA, the writers of colour workshop, or when I went to Fancyland, a queer land retreat in Northern California that has self directed artist residencies. But it was real queer disabled femme of colour styles — I had to go places where there was no phone and internet, no urgent crisis management and snacks to buy for the queer APIA writing workshop, to get it done.”
Finding that time is the work of every writer but Piepzna-Samarasinha’s bigger struggles in writing her memoir were emotional. “I had to figure out how to write the story I needed to write,” she says, “and that meant figuring out how to write about some of the most traumatic things I’d ever had to survive, when I was no longer in survival mode and could actually feel them. When I started writing Dirty River, I had just read Michelle Tea’s book Valencia, which I really appreciated for the voice and how she captured what it felt like to be in a certain white queerpunk subculture, and I was like, I’m going to write a brown girl’s version of that! But as I got into it, I was like, oh yeah, my shit is me writing about internalized racism in my family, about my mom’s abuse, about running away from the US as a brown girl, about documenting QTPOC history, about being in a transformative QTPOC survivor relationship with the person sponsoring my immigration who turned abusive. There were so many chunks of time where I would want to write about stuff and I would just freeze. Nowhere in grad school MFA programs does anyone teach you about how to write decolonial trauma stories as a queer person of colour. I had to figure that out from POC mentors and community, through building writing altars and doing somatic work.”
Going to grad school in Oakland was a mixed blessing as she continued work on her memoir. “I had a much less bad experience than many people of colour who go to MFA programs, because Mills College, where I went, does have POC who teach and attend,” Piepzna-Samarasinha says, “But it was still filled with truly clueless white people saying the most basic shit ever about how people of colour character’s ‘accents were cute’ or calling POC language ‘dialect’ and, beyond that, just having very standardized, boring ideas about how memoir could look. I appreciated some of the things I learned but a lot of what I was taught was that memoir had to proceed in a really linear way, with a standard plot and characters, not that you could write a biomythography — with dreams, mixtapes, recipes — that moves through time in a way that’s not the Western point A-to-B way. I remember someone in class saying that ‘obviously’ my main character (me) was going to ‘grow out’ of being an activist and an organizer because ‘that’s what everyone did.’ What do you even say? It’s not just totally off base, it’s a waste of time and unhelpful.” Worse, she says, “I got put on probation from my grad assistantship because I am disabled and I was often 10 minutes late to meetings because the access centre wouldn’t give my accommodation, so I had to walk around a mile from where I parked to class, often. All the typical micro-aggresssion clusterfucks that tell disabled queer students of colour that we don’t matter and aren’t wanted in higher education.”
“So I didn’t work on Dirty River for about a year after I graduated, because I needed time to get those voices out of me. I went to a hostel by the ocean for $20 with one of my best friends and memoir partner, Liz Latty, and she gave me The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and I was like, oh yeah, you can be a crazy survivor slut bitch and write your ass off, your survivor story doesn’t have to be simple and neat. That opened the door back up for me.”
The next step was getting her completed memoir published. Piepzna-Samarasinha faced much rejection, even from presses that had previously championed her work. “Presses who had published me in anthologies (pieces of which are still favorites and widely taught in gender studies classes) and had given me awards repeatedly told me that queer people of colour are too small a target market and said no,” she says, but like Vivek Shraya, Amber Dawn, Daniel Allen Cox and other Canadian queer artists, she found a home with acclaimed Vancouver indie publisher Arsenal Pulp Press.
“Arsenal Pulp was both my number one desired press, and my last resort,” she says, “If they didn’t say yes, I had resigned myself to doing an Indiegogo to pay for self publishing because literally every other press I’d approached had either said no or gone out of business . . . I screamed really, really loud when I got the email saying that not only did they want to publish Dirty River, they were excited to and they thought the voice and story were important — things that almost every other place I had submitted to had wanted to sanitize. I have nothing but love to give them. They are one of a kind: a press that publishes queer people of colour, sex worker and femme works, and works really hard to get them reviewed and in bookstores. I mean, I want there to be so much more of them. It’s been kind of amazing. I am used to hustling my book into every bookstore it gets in, so it’s been kind of amazing seeing that it’s being bought in places I didn’t personally call and talk into carrying it. As multiply marginalized, brilliant writers, it is amazing to have a press that actually celebrates us and gets us.”
Finally on bookshop shelves, clad in a vibrant cover from artist Cristy C Road, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book is worth the long fight, giving a fascinating context to her previous poetry, lyrical writing, and a strong voice for queer, brown, femme and/or disabled people and for those who’ve survived abuse. “Sometimes I call Dirty River a transformative justice memoir,” she says, “I wanted to write about the violence in my family in a way that honoured my right as a survivor to tell my story, and also understood my parents as survivors of abuse, migration, racism, classism and ableism and intergenerational trauma, while still holding them accountable for the harm they caused. There are so few abuse survivor narratives, period, and so many of the few we have fall into one of two camps: either the person who abuses is a monster with no other qualities, or they are “forgiven” in a Christian way by their survivor. I wanted to do something else. I respect people for whom their abusers were 100 percent evil, but I know so many people out there, particularly QTPOC, whose abusers were complicated human beings. If abusers were all 100 percent evil, they wouldn’t be people we also love(d). As a transformative justice organizer, I believe that anyone can chose to cause harm and anyone can be harmed — people are not born as abusers — and the challenge and choice is there to take accountable and make reparations when we cause harm. I knew I was taking a huge risk in writing about mother-daughter sexual abuse, white-mama racism and more, and I wanted to do it for other survivors out there with similar stories. I also wanted to write something that felt emotionally true — that my mother loved me and taught me some things that saved my life, and that she also deeply harmed me because she didn’t have the resources to get healing, because of ableism and classism.”
“And yeah,” Piepzna-Samarasinha says, “it was hard as hell to write. Not so much at first — then I just told my story to the paper. But this summer, as I went though final edits, there were weeks where I couldn’t even open the file because it felt like opening a box of flames. It’s intense, the ways we are still silenced from writing our memoirs by the voices of those who hurt us. And it’s also a lot of responsibility to get it right. I was terrified before I released the book into the world that I would be causing harm by telling my story, that I wasn’t fair to me or her, that there were other things I needed to tell. It’s been worth it to hear feedback from other queer people of colour that they are grateful for the book.”
A previous version of this blog post referred to Sex and the City as Sex in the City. It has been fixed.