Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.
This is an invitation to join me in writing 100 love letters to this world. An invitation to spend 100 intentional moments loving this world, and documenting this love. Finding 100 things to love in this world, or loving one thing in this world 100 times. Being present in this world, and seeing its complexities, holding space for what is terrible and for what is beautiful.
This world, which I propose we love with intention and with tangible actions, is full of grief and suffering and injustice, and many of us are resisting, responding. That core of recognizing and responding to injustice is central to this project.
Why speak of thriving and love when there are so many massive, urgent problems that need to be confronted? To write about the potential or trust and care, at this time in history, could seem like grasping optimistically at straws as the world burns. But durable bonds and new complicities are not a reprieve or an escape; they are the very means of undoing Empire.
Nick Montgomery and carla bergman, Joyful Militancy
Loving this world in a time of compounding crisis and active, necessary response can be challenging and it can feel counter-intuitive. But as I move through this difficult time in my own life, and as I witness community members similarly moving through fear, and grief, and anger, and despair… I find love and connection more and more critical.
Community care, connection, and the ability to recognize and express love; these are not just a reprieve or an escape, as Montgomery and bergman point out. They are the means by which we can respond to injustice.
And so, 100 love letters to this world.
To this world. And to those of us who are in this world, fighting for this world, fighting for each other within this world.
To all survivors today: your time is precious, your energy is precious, you are precious. Your love is precious, your relationships are precious. And I don’t mean precious like cute. I mean precious like invaluable like massive like power like transcendent.
The goal of this project is not to stifle resistance or to turn our focus away from injustice. But rather to find a way to be in relationship with this world – this world that we have, the physical world, the social world, the emotional world that we find ourselves in right now, unique to each of us – that allows for love and struggle. I am not looking for a quick fix or a cure for the problems that we are facing; the idea of a “cure” for trauma is fundamentally ableist, and I reject it.
The idea that survivorhood is a thing to “fix” or “cure,” to get over, and that the cure is not only possible and easy but the only desirable option, is as common as breath. It’s a concept that has deep roots in ableist ideas that when there’s something wrong, there’s either cured or broken and nothing in between, and certainly nothing valuable in inhabiting a bodymind that’s disabled in any way.”
Leah Lakshmi Piepza-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice
We are facing climate crisis, and seeing the effects more and more clearly. Time is short. We are at, and passed, many critical tipping points.
We are also facing an emboldened and increasingly powerful right wing, fueled by capitalism, climate denial, white supremacy, and cis hetero patriarchy.
Within my own heart, and within my communities, there is despair, hopelessness, existential dread. How do we move forward? How do we continue breathing, living, loving, in this context? How do we stay connected when we are in such pain, and when we are anticipating so much more pain?
It is easier to scroll the newsfeed endlessly, to think about collapsing insect populations and melting glaciers and rolled back rights and ongoing colonial violence, to think about these things rather than engaging with them. To grieve in an abstract and disconnected way. It is harder, and I am less likely, to go outside, to attend a rally, to have coffee with a friend, to breathe the air that I still can breathe, to see the moon in the sky, to feel the ground under my feet, to hear water moving through rivers and streams and in raindrops.
Moving from the abstract to the material is difficult, because it means facing what is at stake. Feeling my own body on the line with this world.
Underpinning so much of the despair is the sense of impending and worsening scarcity. Many of us have been so deeply steeped in capitalism and capitalism’s story about humans as inherently greedy, as hoarders and accumulators, that it is hard for some of us, for me, to think about scarcity without wanting to retreat. To turn inward, to accept the neoliberal premise of individualization, to become ever more an island.
Disconnection is a coping strategy. There is value in disconnection, in avoidance, in the inward turn. There are times when it is just what we need in order to continue on. But for myself, and for some of my community members, there is a way in which disconnection has stopped being supportive of my life and has become too heavy. I want to change it.
When I notice how much easier it is to access feelings and stories that close off acts of living and resistance, that’s when I know I need to interrupt the disconnection and find a way back. That’s where I’m at now. And that’s why this project exists.
Whatever comes next will be hard, and it will leave most of us hurting. We can learn from disability justice work, from racial justice work, from queer and trans justice work, from all the community workers who have come before us into apocalyptic trauma and have found a way to stay connected. We can take their wisdom and ask: How will we love this world? How will we love ourselves in this world? How will we love each other in this world?
Those are the questions I hope to ask with this project. And I hope that by bringing our love to this world, we can start co-creating possible futures together, or even just co-creating the possibility of imagining a possible future.
Your love letters can be as elaborate or as simple as you’d like. A single word or a ten-page billet-doux. A photograph, a drawing, a poem, a deep inhale. A conversation with a friend about what there is to love in this world, a moment in the mirror, a short story, a long story, a postcard. Love letters can take so many forms, and all of them are welcome.
All that is required is that you do this intentionally, that you find some way to connect with love for this world.
And your love, just like your love letters, can take many forms. Love can coexist with despair. Love can fuel anger. Love and grief know each other well. This project is not a demand for “positivity.” It is, instead, an invitation to connection.
This project will run from the New Moon on June 3 2019, to the Full Moon on September 14 2019.
Following the project, I will be collecting the love letters into a zine.
You can participate on social media by tagging your posts #100loveletters. If you’d like to receive my love letters in your email, you can sign up for the 100 Love Letters to This World email list. I’ll be sending out my own love letters throughout the project, and also sending out any letters that you submit to be included. You can submit those letters by emailing them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image description: The cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The cover is green, showing part of a face and a torso in an emerald green dress.
One of the benefits of supporting my Patreon is that you get access to first-look posts, like the first draft of this review, which was available to patrons last week.
And sometimes you get access to posts that never make it to the blog! April was such a busy month, and patrons got to read the first draft reviews of the books I read that month.
Will I ever write up full reviews of the books I read in April?
Who knows! If you’re desperate to know what I thought about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton, A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert, and why I stopped reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, you’ll have to head over to the Patreon! (The three books I finished were all excellent and important, so I’m sure I will write up the full reviews eventually, but I’m not sure when.)
I started The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo at the end of April because I completely gave up on finding an epistolary novel that I could actually finish, and I just wanted to read something queer and feminist and fun. I’ve been making good progress on the Read Harder 2019 challenge, and at the end of April I had finished 9 of the 24 categories. So I figured I could take a break and read something outside of the challenge.
I’ve been in quite a serious Sad Mood since I got back from Australia, and I needed something fun. This review from Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian is what convinced me to give this book a try.
Evelyn is ambitious, hard-working, confident, and cut-throat. She describes herself in this way: “I’m cynical and I’m bossy and most people would consider me vaguely immoral.” She’s also explicitly, wonderfully BISEXUAL. I knew the book had queer content going in, but I had no idea that it tackled bisexual identity so specifically. There’s a specific scene early on in the interview process where Evelyn coolly asserts that she’s bisexual, and not gay as Monique has just assumed. Evelyn makes it clear she loved her husband and then a woman, so “don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.” It was such a perfect slap in the face of monosexism. GO EVELYN. This section, as well as more than one other part in the novel, brought me to tears.
Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian
It turns out that this book is an epistolary novel, since nearly every other chapter is either an excerpt from the book-within-a-book, or a series of newspaper articles, or a letter.
So I bailed right into exactly the right book. Delightful!
And this book truly was delightful.
The writing is witty and sharp, the characters are nuanced and well-rounded, and there are some really well-crafted moments of emotional intensity.
I’ll start with what I’m less enthused about… I read this immediately after finishing A Girl Like Her, a book about an autistic Black woman, written by an autistic Black woman, and reading half of The Color Purple, also by a Black woman, also very clearly about race by someone with insider knowledge. The fact that Taylor Jenkins Reid does not have this insider knowledge, and includes two protagonists of colour (Monique Grant is biracial, and Evelyn Hugo is Cuban, though entirely and intentionally white-passing), lent a certain lack of depth and nuance to the discussions of race. It wasn’t that the representation was terrible or stereotypical, but coming immediately after being immersed in writing about race, by Black authors, I noticed it.
For example, we learn that Ruth, the protagonist of Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her, is Black organically, later in the book, through physical descriptions that refuse to exoticize or dramatize the fact that she’s Black. It was revealed in the same casual way that many descriptions of white characters are done; skin tone is not the most interesting or relevant part of the character’s experience of themselves. And Hibbert managed this without downplaying Ruth’s experience of racism in the majority-white town.
In contrast, Monique’s skin tone and biracial identity are introduced in the very first paragraph. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but the contrast really struck me. When I read that description, I had to pause the audiobook and look up the author, because it came across as someone wanting to draw attention to the capital-D Diversity of their writing.
After that initial impression, I wanted to get a better understanding of what I was about to read. I tracked down some interviews with Taylor Jenkins Reid that specifically addressed her choice to write queer characters and characters of colour when she is white and straight, she acknowledged how problematic this is, and talked about the thought that she put into it. I also appreciate that she’s said she won’t be writing another book like this, and will instead focus on amplifying marginalized writers.
From an interview at Bi.org:
Do you think it’s your place to to tell the story of how these marginalized groups feel when you’re white and straight?
Yes, and no. Most importantly, no. We have a problem, in publishing and entertainment, of not centering minority voices. The solution to that problem is to bolster and support minority writers. There is no replacement or substitution for the incredibly important and, quite frankly, exciting work of reading, celebrating, and promoting minority writers. I naturally read stories of people different than myself but I’ve made a concerted effort to spend the small power behind my name blurbing minority voices and I will continue to spend whatever platform I have to champion the work of minority voices. This is what the majority should be doing and it is, first and foremost, where our energy needs to be spent.
Work written by people who have lived the story is always going to have a beauty and honesty that cannot be matched by someone writing outside of their own life.
The reason why I wrote this book despite not being queer or biracial is because, due to my work writing about straight white women, I have an audience. I continue to be handed a microphone. I have a book deal. And my feeling was that I could use that book deal, that immense privilege, to continue to write about people like myself or I could use it to write about people that often get pushed to the sidelines.
I chose to center my story on women who are underrepresented. I’m able to do that and still be considered mainstream because of my previous work. Which means I’m able to put a queer story in the mainstream and put it in front of people who might not otherwise read one. I am in a unique position to be able to do that and so I chose to do it.
But then I come back to my original point. It’s very hard to parse out, even for me, the line where good intentions can turn into misrepresentation or to a loss of opportunities for people to tell their own stories. I’m very proud of this book but the rest of my energy, for the time being, will be spent in trying to lift up other people to tell their stories themselves.
There was a lot of racial diversity in the book, and I did appreciate the fact that the cast was more reflective of reality than a lot of books manage. These characters included both of the protagonists, as mentioned, but also many of the secondary characters, including two of Evelyn’s long-term personal assistants, and one of the major love interests in the novel. It is absolutely notable that two women of colour (one Latinx and one Asian American) are hired domestic labour, but I also noticed that the first person introduced as domestic labour is a white woman (which serves the purpose of destabilizing the idea that women of colour who cannot pass as white are relegated to the role of housekeeper, and allows the deep relationships that Evelyn has with the women later in the book to unfold in less problematic ways).
So, having noted that, on to what I loved!
I loved so much about this book.
I loved that Evelyn is such a complex character, who does horrible things in order to survive, and does other horrible things in order to succeed, and she looks at her own life with clear but compassionate eyes. Early in the book, when Evelyn has told Monique that she will tell her her life story, Monique says, “so you’ll confess your sins to me?” Evelyn is quick and firm in her correction. She says, “I didn’t say anything about sins. I’ll tell you the whole truth of my life, but I am not ashamed.” (Paraphrased because I listened to the excellent audiobook.)
Evelyn is bisexual.
The love of her life is a woman.
Her best friend, and the father of her child, is a gay man.
The lengths they go to in order to hide their orientations are sometimes extreme, and Jenkins Reid situates these choices in a historical context that includes threats to career and safety (a context that we often believe has changed, but for too many people, has not changed enough).
The core group (Evelyn and Harry married, Celia and John married; Evelyn and Celia lovers, Harry and John lovers) are together in New York during the Stonewall riots, and there are some wrenching conversations (and disagreements between them) as to how best to support their community of fellow queer folks without jeopardizing Evelyn and Harry’s guardianship of their child.
I read this book through the lens of my own anti-capitalist politics, and through that lens, I find the choice to contribute primarily through philanthropic donations that still leave each of them extremely wealthy… frustrating. I recognize that it fits with Evelyn’s character, and I recognize that it fits with what most people do, but it’s not enough. It’s just not enough. Especially now, as we try to figure out how to respond to massive and systemic injustice, I want to see representations of responding to injustice in ways that don’t so neatly align with capitalism and the charity model.
Still though. Overall… I really loved this book.
I loved the moment when Monique calls Evelyn a gay woman and Evelyn corrects her and confidently claims the label of bisexual.
I loved the moment when Monique assumes that the problems between Celia and Evelyn were because of Evelyn’s bisexuality, and Evelyn again corrects her and tells her that the problem was never that Evelyn was bisexual. It’s such a rare thing to see bisexuality represented in ways that are both complex and positive.
And I also loved the message of unapologetic success, even though it grated against my anti-capitalism. I loved how Evelyn demanded success for herself, and pushed Monique to demand it for herself, too.
I really recommend this book, and I’m glad that I gave myself permission to read a non-challenge book (and in the process, completed a category I had been struggling with!)
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!