Book Review: Dirty River

DirtyRiver

Dirty River, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, 237 pages, Arsenal Pulp Press, arsenalpulp.com, $18.95

This book begins as a runaway story: originally from Connecticut, the author boards a Canada-bound Greyhound bus in New York. When she arrives, she encounters the radical, shifting throes of Toronto in the 90s, complete with punks, activists, queers, warehouses, aging shops, foodbanks, and lentils. She finds champion communities of  queer women of colour, other mixed-race and South Asian people, people with disabilities and abuse survivors. And I don’t think it’s too cheesy to say that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha also comes to find herself, and her voice.

The chapters of this memoir walk around to different sites of the author’s life — childhood trauma, activism, living in poverty, finding her people and her chosen family, and surviving extended abusive relationships. It’s not always chronological, but the book barrels along at such an incredible pace that the story builds and expands before your eyes (I read it in one sitting). Piepzna-Samarasinha writes eloquently, and extremely romantically, packing whole histories into a sentence.

For readers like myself, backwardly nostalgic for an activist past we never experienced, but hopeful to channel that energy into organizing today, the descriptions are like candy: “New York activist culture 1996 was five to ten meetings a week, coffee and a pack of Camels and you don’t need any sleep, what’s wrong with you”” and later that chapter,  “Me and Alexio had hooked up in one of the cabins at the anarchist conference, after the soysage and the women’s circle and the demos of how to un-arrest people.”

This same wistful but energized tone also spills into the darker stories at play here, including surviving abuse, incest, and deep poverty. Occasionally I wondered whether suffering was being overly glamourized, but by the book’s end I came to see that cinematic storytelling as itself a way to safely manage and claim pain and hardship.

I do wonder about the way the book was written — like many memoirs, different chapters seem to have been written in different times and places, and have been stitched together here. The result is the occasional repetition of a saying or anecdote from earlier in the book, and a mild sense of disjointedness.

But overall, Dirty River is absolutely wonderful. A true Toronto story, it is full up with intersectional excellence, difficult terrain, and non-stop action. (Jonathan Valelly)

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