Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us
A highly recommended read
I’m here today with a highly recommended read, a work of non-fiction that captured me, heart, mind and soul: Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, compiled and edited by Colleen Kinder.
Through the kaleidoscopic lens of personal and travel essay, well-known writers offer profoundly poignant pieces that explore how even the briefest connections with others can affect us deeply, illuminate aspects of ourselves and expand our understanding of humanity.
My enjoyment started with the table of contents:
(If you didn’t already know this about me, I start a book on the first page. No, no. I really do mean the first page. I read the inside title page, the copyright page, the dedication page, and so on. For both writers and readers, there’s oodles of insight to be gleaned there! But I digress…)
The titles: “To the Man I Believe Was Good,” “To the Stranger in My Family,” “To the Drunk Mr. Flunchy,” “To the Traveler Who Hid Cash in her Underwear”!
The places: ones I have been to (like New York, Oaxaca, Mexico and Florence, Italy) and those I have only dreamed of thus far (Antarctica, Okinawa, Burma).
The authors: Pico Iyer, Lauren Groff, Aviya Kushner, Jamil Jan Kochai.
The themes: Symmetry. Mystery. Wonder. Remorse.
Though the collection could easily be enjoyed like you might hop islands or countries, I chose to follow a linear path, from the first page to the last. Arranging a collection takes art, and I found this one built steadily while still surprising me throughout.
Travel narratives thrill and enliven with their description and sensory details. When combined with the reflection so particular to personal essay, each of these short pieces offered a richly unique view.
I think it was the third section, Mystery, that veered in an unexpected direction. Up until then, the strangers had all been chance encounters with people the writers didn’t know, primarily while travelling. All of a sudden, here were stories of individuals physically close to their day-to-day lives or even genetically related. What distanced them was most often time/generation, addiction or death. Including these “unexpected” strangers added real depth to the collection.
What held the book together and made each so intimate was the personal, reflective component.
Editor Colleen Kinder says (in an interview I’ll link to below), “What’s really different about the Letter to a Stranger stories is that the writers are allowed time to really sit with their experiences… They benefit from the passage of time and the work that hindsight does to distill what really matters to us and what’s important to us.”
You know how brilliant writers get straight to the heart of human behavior and emotion in a way that allows us to see ourselves? Yeah, that. In.Every.Essay.
This collection inspired me to reflect, distill and see my own travel and other interactions with strangers, and even inspired me to write my own letter. Though a pale comparison to what has been published in this book, here’s a bit of mine:
To the young Russian mother at the hotel in Pisco, Peru.
When my boyfriend and I sat down at the bar for a drink, and your big, thick-accented husband joined us, it was clear we’d be there much longer and for many more shots of fiery pisco than I would have liked. When you joined us a while later, relief washed over me: another woman, someone to converse with, maybe practice my dwindling university Russian class vocabulary with, someone who might encourage her husband to stop drinking before oblivion. After all, you two owned the hotel. Surely you’d have to remain alert.
When a half hour later you said you had something to show me and asked me to follow you, I never expected that up three flights of stairs, down a horror-movie-worthy hall and into a sparsely-furnished attic, you’d reveal your infant son, sound asleep on a mattress on the floor.
You left this wee one all on his own? There were no baby monitors in those days, let alone in Peru! Were you drunker than I realized? On drugs? Mentally ill? Your sprinting, run-on sentences and vise grip hold on my wrist, urging me to sit on the mattress, to stay, frightened me.
All I wanted was to flee. And before long I did. On the pretense of getting more pisco, I hurried to my room, locked the door and hoped you wouldn’t use the master key to come in, then tossed and turned until dawn, waiting for my boyfriend to return from the all-night binge with your husband.
I’m sorry your desperate loneliness and isolation inspired the opposite of compassion in me. I’m sorry I abandoned you. I’m sorry I put blinders on to avoid your pain. And my own.
You see, you and I weren’t so different. We were both in unhealthy relationships and too immature to understand this wasn’t the highest expression of love. We were both too newly arrived in Peru to see that, even as foreigners, we could have thrived on our own. I was far too wounded at the time to help myself, let alone you.
If I reimagine that night now, I would have been fully present, remained by your side on that mattress in the attic, listened, heard the plea under your words, stroked your hair and hushed you to sleep, watched over your baby so you could get one full night of sleep, then asked in the morning if you wanted to stay or to go, and held out my hand so we could support one another, whatever the decision.
Honestly, this collection inspired a long list of essays I’d love to write. Whether in my travels or anywhere I’ve happened to call home, I’ve often left things unsaid or later wished I’d done certain things differently. That’s not a regret, just a fact.
Indeed, the power of this book is that it reminded me we rarely see a moment for all that it is, and always benefit from time and distance, reflection and perspective. The stories here taught me that, when that insight comes, it’s not too late to write or speak my heart to someone who was once a stranger.
I can see myself opening this book again and again, at random, to re-read the fabulous journeys, writing and life lessons, to see others’ experiences and gain yet more appreciation for theirs and my own.
For a wonderful taste of this book, the Los Angeles Times recently aired a conversation featuring editor Colleen Kinder, contributing authors Maggie Shipstead, Michelle Tea and Pico Iyer, and travel writer Christopher Reynolds.
As Pico Iyer says in that chat, travel is about learning to open your heart, your eyes and your mind much more than you do at home. This book did that for me, right from my reading spot on the couch. I hope it might do the same for you.
Now, before you go, what strangers on your own travels through life come to mind? Who might you like to write to and what is one thing you’d want to say?
Or hit reply to tell me in confidence. Let’s not remain strangers forever.
Lisa Carter is Founder and Creative Director of Intralingo, helping authors and translators write and readers explore stories. Lisa brings two decades of professional literary experience, including nine books and multiple other pieces published in translation, and nearly as many years of contemplative and compassion practices to her work. Her inclusive, engaged, caring presence inspires people to share their stories, create new ones and feel truly heard.
We often receive free books from publishers, authors and/or translators, and will always identify when that is the case. Recommendations are never paid. They are offered only when we genuinely want to share a book with you.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for the review copy of Letters to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us!