Dirty River Is a Memoir of Diaspora, Social Justice, and Queer Identity

Dirty River cover

Arsenal Pulp Press

I thought I had read every queer-girl coming-out story ever written, and then I dug into Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s deeply personal memoir, Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home. There’s a lot going on with Leah, who flees an upbringing in Massachusetts for Canada to escape her family: a mostly absent, angry, Sri Lankan father and a mother who emotionally abused and molested her daughter throughout her childhood. Once in Canada, Leah planned to marry her boyfriend, Rafael, for immigration purposes so she can stay in Toronto and away from her family. At the time, Toronto was home to the largest number of displaced Sri Lankans outside of Sri Lanka itself, and the city also boasted a thriving, multiracial social-justice community. Along her journey, the author grapples with her race and sexuality, and comes to terms with the fact that she has chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome (CF/IDS).

Part of the uniqueness of Leah’s voice lies in her ability to speak to the converging threads of being seen and acknowledged for her multiple identities. Perhaps she articulates this best when talking about her mother: “She raised me to believe that middle-class was both stupid and the beloved ground she hoped I’d land on someday, where I’d always have health insurance, no one would be hit, and people would talk about books and feelings.” She writes with an eye towards submersion over chronology. “Chapters” of the book include a “Healing Justice Mix Tape”; “Hard Times Survival Dinner No. 1, Toronto 1998”; and “Learning to be Brown, Parts 1–3.”

As a white queer person, I found myself immersed in a world that I did not fully understand. As I read, I’d find myself furiously Googling terms like desi, Tamil, Burgher, and Ceylonese. I learned about Sri Lanka, a country I hadn’t thought much about, and how it was colonized by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and then the British. It’s easy to see how readers might be frustrated by the lack of explanation, and put off by being thrown headlong into seemingly unfamiliar waters. I was happy to be submerged, though. Of course, the “complexity” has largely to do with my ignorance.

Another unique aspect of Dirty River is Leah’s disclosure and discussion of CF/IDS. Invisible disabilities seem to be underrepresented in our collective consciousness, and her candor on the subject of hers goes a long way to educate and spark empathy. She spends several paragraphs trying to describe chronic fatigue:
“It’s hard to describe the gray gray purply gray of chronic fatigue to anyone who hasn’t been there. Just imagine: the oxygen you breathe every day? Imagine that all of a sudden it’s filled with carbon dioxide instead. Or maybe that it’s just sixty percent of the oxygen content you’re used to breathing. Maybe forty percent. Like you’re on a leaky spaceship. Like you’re in the Himalayas and you still have so far to climb.”

Rather than being off-putting, Leah’s writing invites her readers into her experience. I, for one, want to steal her recipes and download every song on her healing-justice mix tape. Dirty River offers a unique perspective that every queer person should embrace, especially if you think you’ve read it all.

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