Fuck “The Triumph of the Human Spirit”: On Writing Dirty River, Queer Disabled Femme of Color Memoir and The Joys Of Saying Fuck You to Traditional Abuse Survivor Narratives
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
In October, the memoir, Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, that I started working on in 2004, hit the shelves of bookstores and e-shopping carts everywhere. It’s been ten fucking years of sweating over this book, in the one feminist writing residency I got, the 10′ x 10′ shack I rented in the back of my mostly-QTPOC South Berkeley collective house and on Megabusses and my phone.
Telling the story of this book coming out is impossible to do without also talking about the politics of publishing survivor narratives and of publishing as a queer woman of color, period. Because there aren’t a lot of survivor memoirs, and there aren’t a lot of survivor memoirs by queer women and gender nonconforming people of color, and there aren’t a lot of survivor memoirs that are by queer people of color who are krips.1
But there are a lot of ideas of what a survivor narrative is. (At least in my head, which, arguably, is stuck in stuff I took in from watching Oprah and Young and the Restless with my mom in the 90s). You know—something terrible and murky happens in a bedroom, there’s a lot of DARKNESS (which is a hella racialized idea of what’s bad), and then the sun comes out, you speak to a nice therapist in a pastel office for six sessions, and then you’re fixed, marry your husband, or get a girlfriend, have a kid, and it’s all pastel soft lighting face out forever.
You either do that, or you’re fucked, you abuse your kids, and you die a horrible death. Those are the two options in the back of folks’ heads. Most folks want to go for the Triumph of the Human Spirit one, if you get to pick. But there are a million survivor stories. As many survivor stories as there are survivors.
When I was coming up, as a person, as a writer, reading abuse survivor narratives was one of the things that saved my life-no lie. I am beyond grateful for the writers in the 80s and 90s who broke the world open writing our stories about the violence we endured. We were able to do this work because of the existence of grassroots queer and feminist literary and political movements that made queer, feminist and/or people of color zines, presses, bookstores, and reading series. From the zines like Body Memories and Fantastic Fanzine, that I mailed two well-wrapped dollar bills and some soaked stamps to get a copy of, to the first time I heard Sapphire perform her poem “Micky Mouse was a Scorpio” live in 1994 when I was 19, from second wave queer white feminist incest survivor books like Louise Wisechild’s The Obsidian Mirror and Elly Danica’s Don’t: A Woman’s Word to the copy of Bastard Out of Carolina I shoplifted from the Framingham, MA, Borders, and the poems by Chrystos I read standing up in the bookstore, I would be nowhere without this cultural movement—wildly not remembered or included in literary cannons—of survivors speaking about and being the experts on our own experiences. We changed the fucking world though writing about how very common sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse and partner abuse are, and through writing our lived experiences as real and authoritative, in all the weird, perfect, dissociated glory.
But. A lot of those books and zines were written twenty years ago. And a lot of the survivor narratives then and since are by white cis women. Queer or punk or working class white cis women, but white cis women nonetheless. And that begs the question: what is a survivor narrative by queer women and gender variant people of color?
When June Jordan wrote about her father’s physical abuse in her memoir, Soldier, do we think of it as a “survivor narrative”? When Luna Merbruja published her memoir, Trauma Queen, a trauma narrative by a young transgender woman of color, does it get to be part of how survivorhood is written? Racist tropes of white “innocent victims” and Black and Brown frenzied sexualities compete so that we as people of color cannot be seen as real survivors. Those are pure white cis women off somewhere, and we don’t want to show our families and communities for the violence broken Black and Brown things the white world thinks they are. For so many QTPOC, surviving violence is just life. We survive so many forms of violence and are resilient and not. We make it and we don’t and we make it sideways. Shit is complicated and shit is weirder than we thought.
So that’s what I wanted to do with Dirty River. I wanted to write a complex disabled queer femme of color survivor memoir. One where my abuse and incest story is inseparable from my father’s story and mine of moving far away from Sri Lanka though exile and colonization and homophobia. From my mother’s story of being a survivor, a crazy genius, a working class white woman, a polio survivor who never once called herself disabled. I wanted to write a transformative justice story of a violent family whose parents are also survivors, who also taught me things I needed to know to survive. Where the therapist and the cops don’t really figure in the story of healing, homemade Diwalis made with other queer Black and Brown folks, the queer South Asian club night, and being a slutty brown girl on Greyhound with two backpacks and a hoodie sure do.
In the afterword to Lidia Yuknovitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, an interviewer mentions that Yuknovitch never once shows a graphic scene of her father molested her. And she doesn’t. When her future husband asks her, what kind of abuse did your father do? she says, “Sexual.” You see her father’s violence in the atmosphere in the house, in the afterparty of the damage as she figures her way back to herself through fucking, parenting, kink, queerness, drug use, writing, and loss. You see the violence in the tension in the house as her father refuses to let her go to one of the colleges she’s gotten scholarships to, in the moment where she grabs a big black suitcase out of the garage, and he almost fistfights her for it, when she utters the phrase, “It was a suitcase big enough to hold the rage of a girl.” But you don’t see a clinical depiction of the times he molested her.
Because there’s the other thing I know about survivor narratives—the question of “prove it.” Survivors are always and forever asked to show a videotape depicting the most overt, gruesome moments of abuse. Or else it’s not real. It’s a way the prison industrial complex invades our waves of thinking about abuse, survivorhood and what counts as “real.” You had something bad happen? Are you sure? Is it really bad? Show us. What’s your evidence? How can we trust you, you Black or Brown queer or trans sick body’? People insist on knowing “what happened” and to them, “what happened” is the most graphic moment of violence possible.
But survivorhood is not just what would be in the police file. Far from it. It is all our stories of every moment we survive. It is all the weirdness and wonder. All the homemade ways we make it. All the ways we are, as Alisa Bierra says, “telling a story that is still being written.”
There are as many survivor stories as there are survivors of abuse and violence. And because of the publishing industry being what it is, I worry. I have been up all night worrying about what I left out. I have been up several nights, worried that people will lift this book up as the one queer of color survivor narrative that exists, that everyone should measure themselves by. But it’s not. It’s one white-mama, brown, light-skinned, assigned female at birth, femme, chronically ill, working class-mixed class girl now 40’s story. And it’s not about me. I want there to be a million of our books in print, getting to talk to each other.
It’s impossible for me to talk about writing Dirty River without talking about the politics of the publishing industry for queer people of color writers, in terms of the death of many print institutions and in terms of the intersectional racist weirdness of the publishing industrial complex. And it’s also important for me to talk about my practical, Taurus, how-I-did-it writing process, because there are not enough stories out there by writers of color who do not have trust funds or husbands or full time jobs saying how we did it.
Working on Dirty River over the years has meant watching press after press that were mainstays of queer, feminist and independent publishing, like South End, Alyson Books, Firebrand, Press Gang, and Seal Press, go bust. When I graduated from my MFA program at Mills College in 2009, I took two jobs—working as the events coordinator at Modern Times Books, an independent, radical bookstore in the heart of the Mission District, and teaching at UC Berkeley’s June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program. One paid twelve bucks an hour, one paid a little more. This was on top of my solo performance work and my work co-running Mangos With Chili with Cherry Galette, my work with disability justice performance incubator Sins Invalid and my work teaching med students the pelvic exam, the labor of managing my chronic illness and survival. (And you know I got sick and tired as hell because all of this was way too much hustle—I look back and really wonder why I didn’t die.) In my time working at Modern Times, I observed as press after press whose books we sold and booked for events die. The list of places I could query got tighter.
Oh yeah, about grad school—I barely survived undergrad the first time, but part of the reason I went to grad school was because a few of my writer friends were getting agents and Deals in the mid-2000s. I thought, I’ll go to grad school, do well, make friends and maybe one of my teachers will hook me up with her agent, and maybe I’ll get a fucking book deal. This is a big part of How It Is Done—one of the many reasons folks do an MFA. I also knew I would never finish a book of prose if I was still working four jobs, co-running the radical Asian/Pacific Islander arts and history program, gigging, freelancing, and working at the eviction prevention hotline. I thought grad school would buy me some time, and I’d just be working two jobs.
I went to grad school. I did okay, even though there was a lot of bullshit and a lot of white women with bleached oak hair, and though I had a hard time pretending I was obedient to authority and kept taking time off to go on tour with the QTPOC performance organization I co-founded. I survived grad school by telling myself that it was something I was doing in my spare time, that working in Oakland’s QTPOC arts and performance communities was my real job. I survived because I did learn some stuff from the women of color I studied with, and from fighting to get to learn and teach at Poetry for the People, and because the whole thing made me step up my game even though a lot of it was bullshit. I made friends with some of the women of color teachers who were there. One of them did hook me up with her agent. An agent who also represented Michael Ondaatje and a lot of other big list writers of color. And then the economy tanked in 2008 and the big 5 media corporations who owned all the major presses weren’t taking on much, let alone weirdo alternative queer punk POC memoirs that didn’t have a simple happy ending. I didn’t get a 100K book deal, or that agent, or a mainstream press.
I graduated. With Cherry Galette, I kept co-running Mangos With Chili. I kept performing and throwing events. I got gigs to perform at Oberlin and Wesleyan and Humboldt State. I kept teaching the pelvic exam. I had cheap rent and got sick and wrote my ass off and our house got broken into a bunch of times and my computer got stolen. I had lovers and heartbreak and friends and heartbreak. I kept working on DR whenever I had time. I got rejected from fancy residencies, and I said fuck it one year and went to Fancyland, the queer rural land project my friends’ friend had started, and wrote my ass off for two weeks without internet or cell service. Being chronically ill is not the greatest but you know what? If I was able bodied and I could hold down a 9-5, I probably wouldn’t have finished this book that I finished in between part time gigs, and working from bed when sick.
The rejections piled up. My rejections ranged from a condescending print letter from an intern saying, “Next time you submit, you should spellcheck” (those weren’t spelling errors, that was unconventional POC english) to my friends’ small press loving it and then realizing they didn’t have enough capacity to publish it well. To the academic feminist press inviting me to their fancy office for a meeting, the chief editor who looked like Eileen Myles if she had a husband and a triple non fat macchiato from Starbucks, asking me if I wanted housewives in Peoria to read my book, asking me to explain what transformative justice was, cutting me off, and informing me that the experimental novel Muriel Rukeyser had written about the Spanish Civil War that had a grad student had found in her files was going to be a bigger hit and sell better than my book, because mine “read more like a performance piece.” (“It’s luminous” they said about the Muriel Rukeyser.) To the small, nice indie APIA press saying it wasn’t experimental enough.
The kind of imposter syndrome you can get sitting there thinking, I am fucking almost 40 years old. My shit is taught in a lot of women’s and ethnic studies classrooms. I’ve co-founded a ton of organizations, performed to sold out houses all over the country from Harvard to dyke bars. Things I publish get thousands of hits. There is a huge, vibrant queer feminist of color literary, political and cultural community that I am a part of, that keeps asking when the book is going to come out, that these fools know nothing about. And they still won’t offer me a lousy book deal. Is huge. As Sarah Haji said, “God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
By the time I ripped open the email on my phone in December 2014 and saw that Arsenal Pulp Press—a big Canadian indie press focused on queer and post/ anti colonial literature, with a queer Asian editor–weren’t just willing, they were excited to publish Dirty River, I had resigned myself. They were it—the only press left. If they didn’t say yes, I was going to go on IndieGogo and raise money to self publish. Nia King did that with Queer and Trans Artists of Color: The Stories of Some of Our Lives, and her book is a QTPOC best seller. Because there wasn’t going to be another option. But part of me still really wanted a press. Because it’s harder to get your self published work into libraries and on reading lists and to be submitted to awards. And I have always wanted my books to be work that it’s possible for libraries to order, so broke folks can read it for free.
And look—I don’t have certain privileges, but I am well aware that there are many I have on my side: I am a US citizen with an MFA and light skin privilege, whose disability still allows me to take much abled transit and use much abled bathrooms. There are a fuck ton of writers without those privileges, who are facing different and harder struggles than I am.
I don’t want to end on a sad note. And I don’t have to. Because queer Black and Brown writers, from June Jordan to Ryka Aoki de la Cruz to Meliza Bañales to Qwo Li Driskill to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, stay figuring out how to get our shit out there in the world. From the trans women of color lead Biyuti Press to Meliza’s new novel, Life is Wonderful, People are Terrific, we keep defying all odds, as our people always have. Those feminist and queer and POC small presses of the 70s and 80s were created in basements. Kitchen Table Press was created literally at a kitchen table. We always create the technology, from lipstick to Tumblr, we need to survive. And that includes publishing our writing, on our own terms, for the people want and need to read them. I want to continue to be the part of the movement work making that happen.
(1) Krips/crips is a term some sick and disabled folks use to describe ourselves. Like queer, this is insider language, used by the folks it refers to. For an example of this useage, check out Krip-Hop, the disabled hiphop movement founded by Black disability justice organizer, poet and emcee, Leroy Moore.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled femme writer, performance artist and educator of Burgher/Tamil Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma ascent. The author of the Lambda Award-winning Love Cake, Dirty River, Bodymap and Consensual Genocide and co-editor with Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani of The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, her writings on femme of color and Sri Lankan identities, survivorhood, and healing, disability and transformative justice have appeared in the anthologies Octavia’s Brood, Dear Sister, Letters Lived, Undoing Border Imperialism, Stay Solid, Persistence: Still Butch and Femme, Yes Means Yes, Visible: A Femmethology, Homelands, Colonize This, We Don’t Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, Brazen Femme, Femme and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World.
She is the co-founder of Mangos With Chili, North America’s touring queer and trans people of color cabaret, a lead artist with the disability justice incubator Sins Invalid and co-founder of Toronto’s Asian Arts Freedom School. In 2010 she was named one of the Feminist Press’ 40 Feminists Under 40 Shaping the Future and she is a 2013 Autostraddle Hot 105 member. She lives between Toronto, unceded Three Fires Confederacy Territories and Seattle, unceded Duwamish territories, with the love of her life, a wolfdog, and her friend family.
All rights reserved. Readers and users may download and share content from this site provided that they credit Third Woman Pulse and authors. Readers and users may not change, alter, or modify any content from this site in re-use or use content from this site for any commercial purposes without expressed written permission from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Third Woman Press.