To: Islan Nettles
Fashion Intern, Harlem, New York City
An Open Letter
Re: Our lives, intertwined
“The dead leave us starving with mouths full of love.” – Anne Michaels, “Memoriam”
Did you ever hear the story of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who folded 1,000 paper cranes? Sadako was two years old when American atom bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The radiation from the bombs fell like a shadow over Sadako’s destiny, poisoning her body, and at the age of ten, she was diagnosed with leukemia with less than a year to live. In the hospital, she began to fold paper cranes, in accordance with the Japanese legend that whoever folds 1,000 will be granted a wish by the gods. Sadako hoped to wish for life. But as her disease progressed, and it became clear that no number of paper cranes could alter her destiny, Sadako changed her wish. According to the story, she wrote a haiku on her last crane before she died:
“I shall write peace upon your wings, and you shall fly around the world so that children no longer have to die this way.”
On November 20, two days after the publication of this letter, it will be the Transgender Day of Remembrance once more. Every year, the list of our lost and murdered grows longer. This year, Islan, your name will be on it. And I will struggle, as I always do, to make sense of my connection with you, with the dead – whose shadows fall indelibly over my own destiny whether I like it or not.
It is a strange and selfish project to write letters to the departed. Every story we tell about the dead becomes, in the end, a story about the living. It is so easy, Islan, so tempting, to co-opt the story of your death to tell the story of my life – to hold you up as a symbol, a martyr, a political project in the name of liberation of all trans women of colour: Look at this beautiful, brown, murdered girl, I want to say, to shout, to scream. Look at her, beaten to death by a man on a Harlem street in the middle of the night for no other reason than she was a different kind of woman than the kind he wanted to rape. Look at me. This could happen to me. Save my life from Islan’s death.
Every story we tell of our dead is also a story of those of us who still live: a cautionary tale, a political fable, a remembrance of what happened, and what is still happening.
But I am starting to believe that kind of remembrance is an injustice all its own. You are not a symbol, a sign, or a sacrifice through which I, or anyone, can attain political currency. You weren’t someone that I knew in life; I cannot claim a false intimacy with you or the dreams that flew out of this shattered world when you were killed. This is the truth as I know it: you were 21 years old when you were murdered last summer. You were beautiful. You wanted to be a fashion designer. I would never have known about you had your death not made the news. And yet now, somehow, your shadow walks alongside mine.
I see you in the moonlight when I am walking home alone. When men stare and catcall and follow me on the street, demanding to know if I am a man or a woman. Your shadow walks alongside mine, and Gwen Araujo’s, and Lawrence King’s, and Marsha P. Johnson’s, and countless unnamed persons’ whose deaths will never make the headlines; I am followed in every step by a line of trans* people, many of colour, who died and never knew me. We never knew each other, Islan, but in the moonlight, we are kindred. Your name is written on my bones. I cannot forget. I am never alone.
Islan, I am starting to think that transgender people are a community connected by a web made of ghosts. Every story we tell of our dead is also a story of those of us who still live: a cautionary tale, a political fable, a remembrance of what happened, and what is still happening. Trans* youth are seven times more susceptible to suicide than the average youth; trans* people are disproportionately represented in homelessness, forced sex work, sexual assault and murder. It feels, sometimes, like there is nothing we can do to change our destinies – nothing except remember, and pray.
Islan, there comes a time, I think, when all of our stories, the details of our individual lives, must enter the line of ghosts. They must be folded into the greater narrative that is the struggle for freedom. Trans* people, people of colour, any of us marginalized in every way – we have two kinds of hope: the fire we use to fight the battles that we live, and the flames we pass on when we pass away. Your shadow dances beside mine, and someday mine will dance behind someone who lives while I am gone. And this is why I am writing you a letter for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, Islan, strange and selfish though it is – because, whether we like it or not, our stories will reach and touch people in ways we’ll never know. For the rest of my life, I will write letters to the departed, sending them out like cranes into this shattered world.
And maybe someday, children like us will never have to live or die this way.
Forever loving, remembering you,
From Gaysia With Love is an epistolary exploration of intersectionality by Kai Cheng Thom. They can be reached at email@example.com.