A Story of Letters, Friendship, and Community
My first pen pal was my kindergarten teacher, Ms. C, but I don’t remember how our correspondence began. Perhaps Ms. C had a reason to send a note to my home. This was long before the invention of email, in a time when a handwritten note at the bottom of a report card would often be the extent of parent-teacher communication.
Ms. C’s letters always arrived on pale, pink stationery. She wrote in cursive. I find it incredible that five or six-year-old me would have been able to read cursive. Days spent tracing the alphabet—trying to make the curves smoother, the lines straighter—did not prepare kindergartners for deciphering cursive. Perhaps our correspondence began when I was a little older.
I cannot recall the specifics, but I do remember that I wrote replies to Ms. C and was always thrilled to see a new pale, pink envelope arrive.
* * * * *
I have been writing letters ever since, and sometimes receive them in return. I have boxes of letters from high school, college, my years in Japan, D.C., and now the letters that are once again arriving here in my Louisiana hometown. Even now, I prefer to sit down with pen and paper instead of in front of a screen. I am more likely to receive a reply to an electronic missive, but writing a letter by hand has always felt more personal and intimate, as if the lines and loops of ink are a direct link to the ebb and flow of my mind and emotions.
Unsurprisingly, I love reading any available correspondence and exploring these snapshots of someone else’s life. Treasure troves of letters exist everywhere. They have been collected in books and published online. They patiently repose in libraries and archives. Visit any antique shop, and there’s bound to be a box of vintage postcards with fading messages. They are sometimes also found among the artifacts of those gone from our lives, lovingly saved or buried beneath other forgotten memories.
* * * * *
I discovered Letters of Note some years ago, a blog where Shaun Usher curates and shares letters, postcards, faxes, telegrams, and all forms of correspondence. Each missive is posted with an introduction, placing it within history and context.
It was here that I discovered gems such as the reply by Jourdon Anderson, a freed slave, to his former master’s entreaty for his return to the master’s home in Tennessee; Helen Keller’s letter to the New York Symphony, conveying her joy and gratitude for the radio broadcast of their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; and the exchange between Barack Obama and Sophia Bailey-Klugh, who thanked the president for supporting same-sex marriage and sought his advice on being teased for having two fathers.
Imagine my delight to discover an event that was partly inspired by Letters of Note, a live dramatic reading of letters called Letters Live. Conceived by the publishing house Canongate, the very first performance took place in December 2013. Letters Live have since been held numerous times, mainly at venues throughout the U.K., but it has also been held in Los Angeles and in the “Jungle” refugee camp outside of Calais.
In March of 2016, I made my first trip to the U.K., and my journey included stops in London, Bath, and Edinburgh. Serendipitously, a run of Letters Live was happening during my stay in London. I bought a ticket and took myself out for an evening at the Freemasons’ Hall.
The cast for each performance of Letters Live varies, even within a single run, and is never announced in advance. It’s a smart move—I imagine it provides flexibility, but the mystery also adds to the thrill of anticipation. The evening of my attendance brought Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey, Caitlin Moran, Oscar Isaacs, and many others to the stage. Some of the names I recognized; most I did not. All the same, it was a magical night, watching them give voice to hopes and fears, joy and anguish, the mundane and profound—a vast spectrum of human spirit and experience.
Some of these letters had been published by the writer or recipient during their lifetimes, and some were obviously intended for an audience of one, private conversations between two people. All of them were a window into unique personal histories, which at times echoed the truth in our own trajectories—a reminder that humanity makes certain experiences universal.
I sat in the midst of strangers and spoke to no one, but I did not feel alone. We were our own little community for a few brief hours, brought together by our love of letters, stories, and performance. And by sustaining the demand for these performances, we were supporting the efforts of Letters Live to give back to the community, which they do by promoting literacy and working with charities and organizations such as Help Refugees, the Reading Agency, First Story, the Ministry of Stories, and 826LA.
* * * * *
That summer, after my sojourn to the U.K., I sat in the near darkness as I watched my niece and nephew lighting fireworks in the driveway. Dad (ông ngoại to the kids) was bustling around collecting debris, and mom (bàbà) would periodically disappear into the house to escape the heat. It was Independence Day.
My niece was ten, my nephew six. They have been spending every summer with us since they were six and two. We jokingly refer to their weeks here as Camp Grandparents or Camp Louisiana. It is a gift, to be able to witness and participate in their childhood, their joy and curiosity, and how they live fully, in the way that children do.
The next morning, I woke up to the news that Alton Sterling had been shot and killed by two police officers. Here, in our community. The 24-hour news cycle began as grief, uncertainty, and tensions spread across the city.
I thought of my niece and nephew, and their brown skin. I thought of their Black father. I thought of my sister and brother-in-law debating who should drive on their date night, because the probability of her getting pulled over is lower than his.
I asked my parents not to watch the news when the kids were around. I didn’t know if my sister and brother-in-law had ever talked to the kids about violence against Black lives or the precariousness of having dark skin, but I wasn’t ready to have that conversation with them.
The very next day Philando Castile was killed. I did my best to carry on as usual in front of the kids. I hugged them more often and held them more tightly.
I checked Twitter as often as I could. News broke faster on Twitter. I read reports that were piecing together the events of the past few days and the details that were emerging. I followed the protests that were happening in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, and other cities, and the violence that erupted in the following days, both by and against police officers.
It was during this period that I saw the call put forth by Christina Xu on Twitter. Compelled to action in the face of these tragedies, Xu and a few others had collaboratively written a letter addressing the anti-Blackness in the Asian American community. The letter opens with “Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother: We need to talk. You may not have grown up around people who are Black, but I have. Black people are a fundamental part of my life: they are my friends, my classmates and teammates, my roommates, my family. Today, I’m scared for them.”
Xu was asking the community for help translating this letter into the native languages of our families, so that we could explain the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the language that our immigrant parents and relatives understand best.
I immediately navigated to the Google doc for the Vietnamese translation. I was not alone. I saw blinking cursors in different colors, scattered across the text, as four or five people worked simultaneously to translate the letter into Vietnamese. I watched as someone typed a few words, paused, deleted, and inserted an alternative. Silent tears slid down my cheeks.
I was incredibly moved to see that so many people cared and wanted to make a difference. And I was awed that modern technology enabled us to come together to create something powerful and meaningful, no matter where we were geographically. A community formed organically, as the project grew: the writers and translators, those of us who shared the letters with our families and friends, and those who transformed the letters into audio and video recordings.
There are now over twenty translations of the letter. Other communities rallied behind the effort. In addition to Vietnamese, Japanese, Hmong, Bengali, Bahasa, and other Asian languages, there are also versions in Russian, Spanish, French, German, Arabic, and Brazilian Portuguese.
This crowdsourced project became known as Letters for Black Lives.
* * * * *
That same summer, I found myself in conversation with three of my coworkers. Ned Denby, Amanda Goncu, Lynnette Lee, and I worked at a public library, and we were brainstorming how we could utilize library resources to support community building and to create space for critical conversations.
I suggested doing our own versions of Letters Live and the Human Library. Both of these events center individual stories, and we could utilize these platforms to bring the voices on the margins to the center and to highlight and celebrate the diversity of perspectives and experiences within our community.
We organized Dear Friend first, in October 2016, and would eventually hold two Human Library events in the spring of 2017. Dear Friend was our iteration of Letters Live. We decided to focus on letters by Americans, and the research began. We poured through books in the library’s collection, searched digital archives, and looked for letters published online.
We read the letters and debated which would be a good fit for the program. We wanted to be as diverse and inclusive as possible, and our final selection totaled thirty-three letters. The oldest letters, from the 19th century, touched upon slavery and the forced removal of Native nations from their ancestral lands, and the newest letters were contemporary and addressed recent events. The letters represented the LGBTQ, Black, Asian, Native, Latinx, and disabled communities. There were letters championing the plight of refugees, both the Jewish refugees of WWII and the Syrian refugees of today, and letters addressing women’s rights.
Even though we were part of a community institution, we didn’t personally have many connections to other local organizations. We reached out to those we knew and sent cold emails to others. We hoped people would respond to our call for presenters.
A number of people from the local theater community responded to the call: independent actors and a professor from the LSU School of Theatre who wanted to participate with a few of her MFA students. The two Youth Poet Laureates from Forward Arts joined our cast, and we recruited colleagues and friends to round out the crew.
The audience was small that day, but that did not deter the presenters. They brought the audience to laughter, and to tears. During the reading of the letter from Sezín Koehler to the Stanford survivor, I stood in the back of the room, watching every single person raise their hand to wipe their eyes. That is a scene I will never forget; it was a collective moment of empathy for a person whom we knew only by her words. I was witnessing the power of words and how language can be a tool that unites us, as much as it can be used to divide us.
I was grateful for the presenters who volunteered their time and for those who came to bear witness with us.
* * * * *
A few days before that very first Dear Friend, I wrote a letter to Naomi Shihab Nye. I had taken my car in to be serviced, and I brought stationery with me just for that purpose, taking advantage of a distraction-free waiting room to collect and share my thoughts.
I met Naomi in 2010, when she was the poet-in-residence at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and I was attending a workshop there. Naomi has produced over thirty books, both as author and editor, and has been invited to locales across the globe as an educator. We’ve maintained a sporadic correspondence over the years, sometimes by email, but mostly by post. It always makes me smile to see her handwriting grace the exterior of an envelope.
Naomi’s letter to any would-be terrorists, which she wrote in the week following the September 11 attacks, was part of the Dear Friend program, and I wrote to tell her about the event: why we decided to hold it, who was involved, and what we hoped to accomplish. Two weeks after the event, I received a reply. Ever gracious, Naomi wrote that if we were to ever hold the event again that we had her permission to edit her letter. Of the thirty-three letters, hers was one of the longest.
* * * * *
I thought about Dear Friend often in the following months, especially after the presidential election of that year. It felt like the country was battling for its soul, and many of those letters represented individuals and communities who were in the direct line of fire. More than ever, it felt important to continue lifting up these voices and sharing their stories.
I first met Mina Estrada three days after the election, at a meeting held by the Arts Council. Mina was introducing the concept for a new festival, and I asked a lot of questions, many of which had no clear answer. Instead of being put off by my questions, Mina became my friend that day.
I met another kindred spirit a few months later, on the last day of March, when Shannon Walsh and I sat down to chat over chips, salsa, and wine at the reception preceding PechaKucha, at which we were both presenting. Both Shannon and Mina would become collaborators on the second iteration of Dear Friend. Ned, from the original team, would round out our quartet.
The possibility of a new Dear Friend was sown during that first conversation with Shannon. The spirit of Dear Friend echoed that of the Ghostlight Project, a nationwide movement by the theater community. Shannon, a founding member of the Baton Rouge Theatre Coalition, and others from the local theater community coordinated Baton Rouge’s participation in the Ghostlight Project, which launched on the eve before the 2017 presidential inauguration. Shannon and I were enthusiastic about collaborating in the future and committed to meeting again soon.
However, that possibility didn’t bloom until a dinner with Mina in early May. I was telling her about Dear Friend, how I wished more people had been able to experience it, and about possibly holding it again. Mina embraced the idea, and she suggested having it at the Arts Council. I now had a collaborator and a venue.
I emailed Shannon afterwards, and in late May we met for the first time since PechaKucha. I invited her to work on Dear Friend with Mina and me, and I will always remember her reply: “I don’t have the time, but I will make time for this.”
I think this sentiment could have applied to all four of us. Dear Friend was very much a passion project. We wanted to create a space where local creatives could come together and contribute to community building, and we hoped that these letters would help fuel the conversations that are crucial to our growth as a community.
This sense of purpose fueled the months of work ahead.
* * * * *
We decided to produce Dear Friend independently of any organization. That meant no funding, but it gave us creative freedom and flexibility. Throughout the summer, the four of us met regularly. We started with six letters from the original Dear Friend and chose additional letters to create a program of fifteen.
We felt that it was important to include letters that address the social and political climate of recent months (i.e. post-election). During this time, I was reading Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. It’s a collection edited by Carolina De Robertis, who had put out a call to writers after the election and asked them to reflect on and respond to this moment in history. Two of these letters were added to our program: a letter from Celeste Ng to her six-year-old son and a letter from Kate Schatz addressing fellow white people.
We also wanted to include local voices that reflect our own community here in Baton Rouge. Shannon mentioned a letter that her nine-year-old daughter had written to her “shero” Hillary Clinton the day after the election. It became a part of the program.
We also recruited the Forward Arts All Stars team. Mina hosts the Arts Council Radio Show and had recently interviewed the All Stars, who had come home as first place champs from the 2017 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. She reached out to their coach Desireé Dallagiacomo and asked if the All Stars would be interested in presenting a “Dear Baton Rouge” piece at Dear Friend. Three members of the All Stars team began crafting a poem in epistolary form.
The Forward Arts All Stars’ contribution was the only letter that was created specifically for Dear Friend. For the rest of the letters, we did our best to invite collaborators who identified with the communities and experiences reflected in the letters. It wasn’t always possible, but we knew all of our presenters would honor the voices of these letters and the individuals who wrote them.
* * * * *
Early in this process, I wrote another letter to Naomi, with a proposal: if we could somehow secure funding to invite her to Baton Rouge, would she be interested in presenting her own letter at this new iteration of Dear Friend? I still have her reply pinned to the board above my desk, which she sent from a Zen mountain center in California where she spent part of the summer.
It was one of those beautiful moments in which I felt that the universe had been listening. I read her letter twice. Naomi had been invited to Baton Rouge by Episcopal School and was scheduled to be here in September. We had originally aimed for a late August date but shifted the event to coincide with Naomi’s trip.
Shannon, who is also an assistant professor at the LSU School of Theatre and Women’s and Gender Studies program, approached these two departments about possible sponsorship. Thanks to their generosity, we were able to extend Naomi’s stay in Baton Rouge so that she could participate in Dear Friend.
* * * * *
Doors were scheduled to open at 6:30. We delayed it by a few minutes so that presenters who had not been able to come to rehearsal the evening before or that afternoon could do a run through and mic check. And then it was time.
Dear Friend was held in the Fire Museum on the first floor of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. It was open to the public, with a mini feast and open bar provided by the Baton Rouge Theatre Coalition. Admission was free to make the event accessible to everyone, and a bowl and pitcher (the empty vessels we had on hand) were placed on the tables for donations, with the hope that the generosity of those in attendance would cover the remaining expenses and perhaps enable us to offer the presenters a stipend.
Presenters sat in reserved seats in the first two rows. Eventually, the remaining seats filled up, and people began lining the back and finding spots on the floor. Mina welcomed the audience before sitting down to manage the audio and visual aspects, and Shannon, our emcee for the evening, stepped in to introduce the event and the first letter.
The program opened with Celeste Ng’s letter. It was a letter of hope, in the face of uncertain times, and we wanted this to be the foundation for the Dear Friend experience. Many of the letters in the program addressed very serious topics, heavy and liable to crack open hearts, but the point was to not shy away from difficult subjects. These were stories worth sharing and conversations that need to be had, and Celeste Ng’s words to her young son were perfect for setting the tone: “Be kind, be curious, be helpful: what that really means is, stay open.”
Jeanette Plourde and Terreze Williams created a performance centering Ng’s letter, incorporating music, videos, and props.
The next two letters were presented by fourth grader Josephine Walsh and fifth grader Donovan Thomas. Being able to include young presenters was very special. In a way, it made the program more complete. It may be a cliché, but as it is often said: the young are our future, and the next generation will inherit the task of making our world a better place.
Josephine read her letter to Hillary Clinton, offering words of encouragement in the wake of disappointment. That was complemented by Donovan’s reading of a letter by thirteen-year-old Anton conveying the hope and inspiration he felt after Barack Obama’s historic presidential win in 2008.
The next letter was written by Daisy Westbrook, a high school music and art teacher, to Louise Madella. Presented by Maja Dupas, the letter detailed the destruction Westbrook and her family witnessed during the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis and how they lost a life that had been carefully built. Afterwards, a friend remarked to me that, despite spending part of her childhood in St. Louis, this part of history was never taught or discussed—she had learned more about the East St. Louis race riots from listening to this single letter.
Cheylon Woods presented the next letter, an open letter from Martie Simmons, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, to the educators of her children. Written during the Thanksgiving holiday season, Simmons’ letter was a plea for educators to accurately teach the colonial history of America, to not perpetuate false stereotypes of Native peoples and customs, and to not use her Native child as a “token” in the classroom.
What many in the audience may not have known is that Chey is a member of the Atakapa Ishak and Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians nations. Chey’s husband and parents had accompanied her to Dear Friend, and more than once, Chey and her mother told me that Simmons’ letter and her experience was also their experience. I could see how meaningful this was to them, to be able to share this perspective with the community.
The next letter was also from Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. Jenny Ballard read an edited version (due to its length) of the letter by Kate Schatz to white people.
The final letter before intermission was an encore: Sezín Koehler’s letter to the Stanford rape survivor. Mercedes Wilson was the only presenter who participated in both iterations of Dear Friend, and once again, she read an edited version of the letter by Koehler. As she read, images of tweets bearing the hashtag #whywomendontreport, all from the past year, scrolled through on the wall behind her.
During intermission, a slide of the 2012 open letter from John Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics athlete and global messenger, to Ann Coulter remained up.
The second half of the program commenced with Naomi Shihab Nye taking the stage to read an edited version of her letter to any would-be terrorists, originally penned a week after the September 11 attacks. Listening to the letter in Naomi’s own voice was deeply meaningful, and I’m grateful she was able to join our community for this experience. Her presence and warmth touched many that evening, as evident by the number of people who gushed over their interactions with her in the following days.
The subsequent three letters also addressed the impacts of war and violence, but in very different ways. The first of these was an epistolary poem, written by Ahmed Badr from the perspective of the bomb that landed in his home in Baghdad. It was a dud, and the family was uninjured. The Badr family left Iraq for Syria and eventually came to the United States as refugees. The poem is titled “A Thank You Letter from the Bomb that Visited My Home 11 Years Ago” and was read by Scott Walsh.
On Christmas day of 2014, Ashley DeLeon wrote a letter to Barack Obama after struggling with her father over the shotgun he was firing in their home. DeLeon’s father was a veteran Marine who had been deployed six times and was diagnosed with PTSD. Ned, whose father was also a veteran, presented this letter.
Next on the program was an open letter by Alejandro Francisco, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse massacre that occurred in Orlando, to the shooter Omar Mateen. Presented by Eric Mayer-García and Solimar Otero, the letter was both a tribute to the victims and a proclamation of love and resilience.
The next letter delivered much needed laughter and respite to the program, but it too resonated with strength and love. Written by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez to her boyfriend Brad, and read by Andréa Morales, the letter addressed the complex nuances of being in an interracial and intercultural relationship.
Mina and I performed a duet of sorts, layering the English and Japanese texts from the Letters for Black Lives project like a musical composition, with a video of the ASL translation playing in the background.
Jourdon Anderson’s letter to his former master was brought to life on the stage by Donney Rose, and the finale of Dear Friend was a spoken word performance by Chazzi Hayes, Kalvin Morris, and Jaxmyn Smith of the Forward Arts All Stars team. It was a message from the youth of Baton Rouge to their city and community and a performance that propelled the audience from their seats for the only standing ovation of the night.
* * * * *
After the program ended and the lights came on, the room bustled like a beehive, the buzz of conversation filling the air. I started walking around the room, thanking the presenters I could spot, a little surprised to find myself on the receiving end of equally effusive thanks.
Amanda and Lynnette, from the original Dear Friend team, had come for the event, and that also made the evening feel more complete. They weren’t a part of this production, but they helped lay the foundation upon which it had been built. Coworkers, friends, acquaintances, and people I didn’t know approached me with hugs and their own words of gratitude. I received variations of “we needed this,” “Baton Rouge needed this,” and thank you, thank you, thank you.
These felt very different from the polite and perfunctory thanks that often accompany the end of an event. A friend of a friend, whom I knew of but had not actually met until that night, came up to me and and said this was the first time in two years that she had not spent the night at home with her two children. She had left the kids at home with her husband in order to come, and she was glad she did. That touched me deeply.
I knew that the experience would be meaningful—for Mina, Shannon, Ned, and me, as organizers, for the presenters, and for the audience—but I had not expected this depth of resonance. We knew there was a need for this kind of space, but I hadn’t realized just how deep that need was.
We’re living through challenging times, and the cracks in our society are deep and wide. There are no easy or simple ways to transform our community, or any community. Dear Friend was never meant to be a solution. It was an opportunity to “break the silence,” as one presenter put it, and amplify the conversations that have only existed as whispers. It was also a balm to soothe our weary hearts and fortify us for the long and difficult journey to true healing as a community.
Being heard and having our experiences and truths acknowledged—that in itself is a form of justice. Each letter was an acknowledgement and also an invitation: to truly listen and validate the experiences and perspectives that differ from our own. Having these kinds of conversations will help us make decisions rooted in empathy and together create a better future.
At the end of the night, I found myself thinking: this is what real community is—when we are all grateful for each other’s presence and the experiences we can create together.
From the very beginning, we, the organizers, decided that Dear Friend would be free and open to the public. We started with a vision and no funding. We are grateful for the volunteer presenters who carved time from their busy lives to prepare and participate. We are also grateful for the sponsorship of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, the Baton Rouge Theatre Coalition, and the LSU School of Theatre and Women’s and Gender Studies program, which helped cover most of the expenses for producing Dear Friend. The generous donations of the audience that evening enabled us to pay the remaining expenses, and by consensus of the organizers and presenters, the rest of the funds was donated to Forward Arts to continue their excellent work with the youth in our community in Baton Rouge.
Celeste Ng to Her Son
c. late 2016 – early 2017
Source: Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times
Presented by Jeanette Plourde & Terreze Williams
Josephine Walsh to Hillary Clinton
November 9, 2016
Written and presented by Josephine Walsh
Anton to Barack Obama
Source: Kids’ Letters to President Obama
Presented by Donovan Thomas
Daisy Westbrook to Louise Madella*
Source: Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present
Presented by Maja Dupas
Martie Simmons to Her Children’s Educators
November 25, 2015
Source: Indian Country Today
Presented by Cheylon Woods
Kate Schatz to White People
c. late 2016 – early 2017
Source: Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times
Presented by Jenny Ballard
Sezín Koehler to the Stanford Survivor*
June 21, 2016
Source: Wear Your Voice
Presented by Mercedes Wilson
Naomi Shihab Nye to Any Would-be Terrorists*
Written and presented by Naomi Shihab Nye
The Bomb to Ahmed Badr
May 25, 2017
Presented by Scott Walsh
Alejandro Francisco to Omar Mateen*
June 13, 2016
Presented by Eric Mayer-García & Solimar Otero
Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodrigues to Her Gringo Novio*
April 13, 2016
Presented by Andréa Morales
Letters for Black Lives
Source: Letters for Black Lives
Presented by Mina Estrada & Thien-Kieu Lam
Jourdon Anderson to Colonel P.H. Anderson*
August 7, 1865
Source: Letters of Note
Presented by Donney Rose
Dear Baton Rouge
Written and presented by Chazzi Hayes, Kalvin Morris & Jaxmyn Smith
*This letter was included in both the 2016 and 2017 editions of Dear Friend.