'Letters Lived' captures the personal and political of an activist's journey

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Do you ever wish you could write your teenaged self a letter about what you wished you had known back then?

Letters Lived: Radical reflections, revolutionary paths edited by Sheila Sampath takes this question and poses it to a diverse group of international and cross-generational social justice activists and asks them to answer. The result is a series of candid and powerful letters that discuss the personal and political and the journey in between.

In this excerpt, editor Sheila Sampath discusses her inspiration for this collection spurred on by the question "What do you do?" and Rae Spoon, a Montréal-based transgender musician and author, offers their teenage self a few helpful tips.

Introduction: Sheila Sampath

"What do you do?"

I get asked this question a lot, and I often change my answer depending on who I’m talking to. Most of the time, I say that I’m a designer. Occasionally, I say I’m an editor, writer or a teacher. Once in a while, if I’m trying to impress someone particularly cool, I’ll say (also coolly), "Oh, I play in a band." I almost always add that I’m an activist. 

I’ve started thinking recently about what it means to identify as an activist. It’s almost as though activist is a certification you get when you’ve put in x hours of anti-oppression trainings or eaten x amounts of hummus at community meetings. I’m growing uncomfortable with this way of framing the community-based work that many of us activists do.

A lot of these feelings first surfaced when I became witness to a series of unfortunate questions (and their counterparts, the unfortunate answers). Most of us who do any kind of political work have been on the receiving end of an unfortunate question and many of us have asked them, too. I am no exception to this. The unfortunate question is generally related to political understanding, usually well-meaning, most often from a place of privilege and always, always poorly timed, poorly directed or poorly-worded. It’s the white person who asks you how the racism you face daily is different than that time he wasn’t allowed to successfully bargain at the Indian bazaar. It’s the settler on stolen land who asks, "What’s the point in talking about the past?" It’s the guy who wonders why we still need feminism when it seems like women can do anything he can. It’s...unfortunate. 

The unfortunate answer is equally hurtful. It’s generally coming from a place of anger and a need for self-care, usually mixed in with exasperation and pain and is always, always a way of shutting down a conversation. It’s, "What’s wrong with you?" or, "How could you not know that…" Sometimes, it’s just silence. It’s the end. 

I understand where the unfortunate answer comes from. I’ve given it, too. Many of us do political work all the time. And it is exhausting. And when we’re trying to chip away at gender-based violence or the prison industrial complex or collaborating to work towards reproductive justice and body sovereignty, the last thing we want to do is be asked why any of it matters or answer a question that doesn’t challenge us or meet us where we’re at.

In the process, though, we can forget to meet people where they’re at. And that unfortunate question, as unfortunate as it is, can be the first step in something really wonderful. It could mean a new friendship or alliance, or capacity- and movement-building for our already over-worked communities. It could be the start of an activist trajectory in another person. 

That’s kind of the thing about activism, it isn’t really a state or identity as much as it is a trajectory or path. And we all start somewhere and end up somewhere else and move at different paces. And what makes it exciting is that we never know everything; we’re always going to ask and be asked some form of unfortunate question, and it’s from those that we continue to grow and challenge ourselves and the world around us. 

And that’s where this book came from; from wanting to understand where people I admire and respect came from, how they came to shape the world around them and became the inspiring revolutionaries I know today. I wanted to understand how they frame their activist processes in the context of their own lives, with the intent of adding a layer of honesty and self-reflection to work that demands the same. 

I thank them for sharing these stories, and I thank you for reading.

Letter Live: Rae Spoon

Dear Rae,

I want you to know that I don’t feel like I can approach writing to you with any sort of authority just because I am 16 years older than you. I don’t believe that people of any particular age know more than those of another one. I can’t remember some things you know, and there are things that I know that wouldn’t apply to where you’re at right now. I do have a few things to say to you, though. You can take what you want from it if any of it feels right. Maybe if you have anything to say to me you can stir my memories towards it.

First, some fun stuff: you will always like Hole and Nirvana, so keep on rocking. Someday you will rock out on a starburst Stratocaster in a purple flannel shirt in Seattle, and a few years later you will briefly meet Kurt Cobain’s best friend after his band practices in your friend’s basement. These bands started out as community garage rock bands, and encountering things associated with them is not as far reaching as it feels in your parents’ basement in Calgary. Keep playing guitar. Meet a lot of people. Travel.

Being a nerd is something that will pay off for you in the end. Not being invited to high school parties until your late teens and not being included in the popular crowd will offer you a reprieve from the inevitable amount of further trauma that you might have incurred. Be proud of who you are. Eventually, the glasses and clothes you are wearing may come into style. If you learn to like yourself, other people will follow suit. Confidence is more important than normality.

This is the last year you will have to live with your father. You are still striking out at a man who every day has tried to destroy every part of you. He sleeps in the same house and he runs your life. Even though it’s the hardest thing to do, you need to wait this out. In December 1996 you will move to your grandma’s house and make the turning point from accumulating abuse to learning how to survive in its wake. When he’s gone you will continue to fight him, only he will be in your dreams and fears far more often than he turns up at your shows. You can use your anger to survive until you find other ways to deal with it. All I can say about this is that you are bigger than him. You will outlive the abuse. You will adapt to use the hard things as your strengths. I wish I could show up and take you away from there, but your sister needs you and so do your brothers. The things you are going through now will shape the rest of your life, but after many years of struggling you do eventually learn how to trust people and have a home.

The first time you drink, everything will go quiet in your head. You will use drinking as an escape for the next six years. You find your way into and out of addiction young. I am not saying any of this to shame you or scare you. You are drinking to survive and who knows if you would have without it. I guess I’m not saying you should stop, because going through a bout of alcoholism will make you develop a later sensitivity for the methods people use to deal with childhood abuse. Maybe the only thing I want to say about it is to pay attention to what happens right before you feel the need to get loaded. What are the things you can’t handle and how can you find new ways to face them?

Your sister seemed very different from you earlier in your childhood. Now she seems much better at being assigned female, at least from your perspective. This does not make her weaker or less able than you. The same is true for all more feminine people. Her inability to climb trees and unwillingness to play road hockey is no indication of her capabilities. She will grow up to be one of the strongest people that you know, and the thing that you are the most scared of telling her now will become an alliance when she comes out to you as queer in less than two years. The gap between you is a lot smaller than it appears, so maybe you could try harder now to bridge it.

Sexism is something that will affect you at an early age but that you won’t completely verbalize until your mid-20s. You will feel pressures, both subtle and obvious, at every point in your childhood to act more "like a girl." You find this pressure stupid a lot of the time, but you recoil from the word feminism as you are taught to. You don’t have to wear it on a t-shirt quite yet, but know it is the name for the thing that pushes you to question why you are not supposed to play hockey or solo on the guitar. It pushes you to do a lot of things and eventually makes you do things you might not otherwise have done.

On the subject of being very boyish: you are starting to buy your first pairs of men’s underwear and you will soon give up on hiding them from your mother. She will pull them out of the washing machine, give you a prolonged, confused look and then never mention them again. Your hair is shoulder-length but will soon be shaved to the scalp. After you tell her it cools you down in the summer, your mother will line you up with your brothers in the back yard of the duplex and shave all of your heads at the same time. You should feel proud of your ability to move outside of the gender role you were assigned. It doesn’t feel like a choice. You never were very good at being feminine, and this discomfort will make a lot more sense later on. 

When you’re 19 you will meet the first person who you know to be transgender and who identifies as male. The option of being a boy suddenly seems to be the obvious one, now that there is a choice to be made. Try not to run so far to that side before really thinking about it. Sexism will also affect you there, when you turn out to be a very small, not so "manly," male-identified person. Eventually you will regard gender as a huge social joke and wholeheartedly retire from bothering with it. I don’t want to make you feel like you need to speed towards this. The process and the years involved are integral to the changes that will happen, and there is no way around it. You are just going to have to live through it.

You are still a Christian. I know you recently took your bible to school, not only to keep in your locker, but also to read as your book for free-reading time in English. You just finished taking a Mandarin course because you think you might like to be a missionary in China. There are many reasons why this is extremely misguided and is not going to happen. This will later on be a large source of embarrassment for you and a good example of the colonial racism that pervaded your upbringing. It’s funny how you think you can save people when you’re the one who needs saving. One last bout of religious fervor is your final attempt at externalizing your problems using Jesus. I would encourage you to look closer at the ideas that the church has planted in you, because they are the real problems you will have deal with. By this point you know that you like girls and you’ve noticed that you are not attracted to boys in the same way. The shame you feel is what you really need to worry about.

Part of being white in Calgary is the fact that you never have to fully realize your privilege. You don’t have to think about your whiteness, whilst the people of colour around you are made to think about their race constantly. Racism is a word you know but haven’t really thought enough about to find the ways you enact it.

Your childhood was full of racial slurs and confusing messages, like when your grandmother tells you that she doesn’t believe that people of different races should marry because it "confuses their children." At the same time, her favourite brother-in-law is Asian, and she is very close with that sister and her arguably far more functional family. Your uncles always go out of their way to make racist jokes at family holidays whether or not people of colour are present in the room. You know better than to do this by the time you are a teenager but will still tell Catholic and Sikh peers alike that they are going to hell for not being "born again" or for believing in more than one god. Don’t forget these moments. Face the racist things you have said. You were oppressed on some levels, but on others you were and are an oppressor. Most of all, dealing with your own racism is not about your own guilt or taking up more space; it’s about engaging with how oppression works.

Your first relationship will begin six months from now. You will meet a beautiful South Asian girl in Career and Life Management class and will try not to fall in love with her like you almost did with your last "best friend." Eventually dating, you are both aware of racial differences, but you will make many mistakes. The overarching external homophobia you face will get the most attention. The relationship is a great success in pushing you both forward to deal with homophobia and sexuality. However, trying to strike out at one type of oppression doesn’t negate the presence of another. Some of your most painful and deepest regrets will be your ignorance of racism and how it affects the person who is your first true love in life. You not only struggle at being an ally when your family says unforgivably racist things, but you say racist things to her yourself. Please don’t gloss over these moments in your memory or avoid them for the sake of comfort. See racism within yourself, listen when you are told you are oppressing people and try to change it. You will never stop being the oppressor in this context, but this is the path towards being an ally and trying to make more space for people of colour.

Your whole family has always voted for the Conservative Party. You will end up feeling rather than thinking your way out of this learned loyalty, the first moment of this process being when your future girlfriend has to explain to you why it would be problematic for you to be queer and continue supporting it. Listen to her! She’s had experiences you have never had.

Anyway, make sure you vote in every possible election. You will falter at the beginning of being eligible and then face absurd choices like voting left in Alberta (arguably an existential exercise) and later on voting for the less xenophobic sovereigntist party in Québec provincial elections when you don’t speak more than ten words of French. Regardless, the Conservatives and all of their children are voting. So, you must try to match them and encourage other people to vote as well. Democracy is still about choosing a group of elites to rule the country, but you can at least try to have a say in which group of elites it’s going to be. Ongoing colonialism is still the driving force behind Canadian politics, but there’s a huge difference in how political parties attend to anti-oppression issues. No party is perfect, but allowing the Conservatives to be elected by not voting means that Canada moves towards the atmosphere in Alberta that you want to run from right now.

About your music: you are right to spend all of your time on it. Despite what adults tell you, skipping class to practice guitar is actually a really good life plan. By forgoing university you will manage to launch a slow-burning, but overall fulfilling, music career. It’s important to form your own definition of success. Being a transgender artist means that there are barriers between you and traditional success. You will eventually come to think this impediment is a good thing, that it frees you from commercial pressure and allows you to experiment without the limitation of trying to sell yourself to the mainstream music industry. Try to not be bitter about any limitations you have. The music industry is like a lottery very few people get tickets to. Make friends with the other people who didn’t get tickets either. When you see something that bothers you, try to improve it. Build community, support other musicians and artists. The action of trying will relieve any sense of unfairness that you have.

Believe it or not, you will eventually become a writer, too (like you need two careers that your working-class family doesn’t consider "work"). After ten years in the music business, you will start writing short stories again. You used to love writing as a child, but eventually trauma took over and you were too dissociative to express yourself in strings of words longer than a couple of verses and a chorus. After five years of therapy, you will be gripped by an urge to write about the past. In this way, I think that I have managed to give you a voice that you don’t have in this moment. So, don’t worry about being unable to do certain things right now. You will eventually have your say about the situation you are in.

Fifteen year old Rae, you are trapped in your home, church and school, but let your mind wander to the places you read about in books and get lost in the melodies of songs until it’s over. Never forget that it’s unjust for people of any gender to be prohibited from doing things they want to do. Use your anger to survive abuse and addiction. Find a good therapist as soon as you can. Continue to rail against sexism (whether you name it right away or not), and encourage others to do the same. Stand up for people. Play guitar solos. Learn computer programs. Assume you can become competent at things. Once you learn how to do any of these things, teach others how to do them. When you finally find someone who loves you and wants to make a home with you, be patient with yourself. Someday you will be sitting in the café you worked at when you were 18, writing a long letter to your teen self, and you’ll be texting your word-count updates to your long-term partner and he will text you back, cheering you on. 

Most of all, you have all of the right ideas in your current rebellion. The shadows of everything you lived through still cast themselves over you sometimes, but less often. Being queer will always be hard, but you will receive a lot more outside encouragement very soon. You will live to try to encourage other people to make it to a healthy place as well.

Signed,

Rae in their 30s

Montréal

Rae Spoon is a Montréal-based transgender musician and author. They have toured and performed internationally over the past twelve years. Their book, First Spring Grass Fire, is a collection of short stories heavily inspired by coming of age queer in Alberta. Their personal essay, Femme Cowboy, can be found in the 2012 Lambda Literary Award–nominated anthology Persistence. Rae was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize in 2008 (superioryouareinferior) and nominated for two CBC Radio 3 Bucky Awards in 2010. They won the CBC Galaxie Rising Stars award in 2004. 

Sheila Sampath is a Toronto-based designer and educator who has spent the last decade crafting creative for social good. She is the Principal and Creative Director at The Public, Editorial and Art Director of Shameless Magazine and teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Sheila is a member of the British Council’s TN2020 network, a fellow of the Royal Society of Artists and has facilitated workshops and given lectures in strategic design, radical art and independent media internationally. She practices activism in all that she does and feels lucky to do it. 

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