Every once in a while I receive a piece of mail from a reader that is a story in itself, written with such clarity of prose and insight, that it warrants a wider readership.
This young reader from the other side of the world, as you can see, is going to be an author in her own right. In fact, I hope she ends up in charge of her country one day. Her letter taught me so much I thought I already knew about class, culture and belonging. I share it with you, respecting her request that she remain anonymous:
I’m 18 years old, and I just finished reading the advanced reader’s copy of your novel Lucy and Linh, the American publication of Laurinda.
I wanted to send you a message hoping to tell you that I don’t think I’ve resonated or identified with a character more than Linh for a very, very long time – while I’m white, I’ve been brought up living below the poverty line, while simultaneously living in a town known for its wealth upper/upper middle class families. In other words, I lived in literally the only ghetto in town, surrounded by a bunch of giant sparkling houses on the beach. I live in a lower middle class neighborhood now, but spent around 10 years in poverty with my dad.
I gravitated towards Lucy and Linh because, in a little less than two weeks, I’ll be going off to a good University with about $16,800 a year of scholarship money earned through, almost eerily similar to Linh, a standardized test grade with a perfect writing score (and some financial aid).
Never have I read something that accurately portrayed and translated my feelings into words growing up this way. Never have I ever read a story about a character living in poverty that wasn’t used as a poster child for the needy, or a sob story to make kids feel bad and humanize the poor people in their schools and towns. When I was Linh’s age, I remember writing countless poems and stories and songs about how much I hated living where I did, struggling like I did, and the anger I felt receiving pity from my rich friends whenever they came over to the grungy trailer my dad and I lived in; the one that had stray cats living under it and bugs in the walls and dips in the floors and ceilings – meanwhile their houses had three stories, pools, flat screen tvs, wood floors, and parents that threw money away like it was nothing.
I’ve never read a story with a character that accurately expressed my same shame and jealousy, but also more importantly my same sense of pride in myself; my love for my dad and my neighborhood friends, and my knowledge that I was a strong person – not “oh, look at how strong you are to manage to do so much even though you live here” kind of “strong” – but that I knew I had depth, character, and worth.
That I felt like I was a gem, even if on the outside it seemed like I was a stain when I was surrounded by everyone at my school; or as I watched the towering houses and perfect lawns pass by before my bus dropped me off at the entrance to my neighborhood, right next to the stinking drainage ditch. I came to realize that I was envious of what they had, but far from envious of who they were.
I just wanted to thank you for writing and that I hope your books find themselves in the hands of many over here in America next month when Lucy and Linh is published. I’m going to be majoring in International Studies as well in college, so I hope I can learn about people from all over the globe without being intrusive to their personal lives or culture. The last thing I want to be like is Mrs. Leslie and her friends, who display the type of racism I’ve noticed that isn’t seen as racism by most white people – the over glorification of only bits and pieces of other cultures (and, unintentionally but all the same, dehumanizing people by acting as if everything they do is exotic, cool, or trendy, something I feel in the past I have been guilty of myself and makes me cringe to think about, but I know is important behavior to face, correct, and never revert back to).
It also saddens me to say my father and other family members act like those white people who are so paranoid and afraid of losing what little they have in poverty, that they take their aggression out on those of color to feel as if they’re not at the bottom of the chain.
It’s a behavior that’s been gnawing at my insides as here in America Trump is glorified by playing at those dark feelings in people’s hearts. I despise it and I think about it constantly, to the point that I’ve cried in frustration that people can’t even look past the smoke and mirrors to see that they’re fighting the wrong people for crumbs, when the real culprits are at the top with enough to stuff themselves and their grandchildren for the rest of their lives.
I don’t want to be like either of those kinds of people – be it the angry ones or those that are too invasive. I want to be change.
I want to learn and understand the world past the shallow surface level, expanding and reaching out and making connections with people and loving with all of my heart. I truly love people, and love genuinely giving love, even in its smallest forms – not giving to boost my self-image or to give myself a pat on the back, but for the mutual feeling that’s almost impossible to describe when shared with someone.
I just really, really loved your book is what I’m trying to express I guess. I hope that I haven’t wasted your time or made you uncomfortable, but it feels as if I read it at the perfect time in my life.
I feel as if I can go to my school, in my fancy dorm suite, in my fancy classes, with my fancy roommates, and not lose myself or what I care about – to not forget who I am and where I come from. That was my biggest fear, but I think that I don’t have to worry about it anymore."