The Next Chapter

Aparita Bhandari on a memoir that highlights a diverse queer voice

Aparita Bhandari reviews Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's "challenging" memoir, Dirty River.
The Next Chapter columnist Aparita Bhandari (right) discusses Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's memoir, Dirty River. (Twitter)

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a poet, activist and performer who's described herself in her one-woman show as "a queer girl of Sri Lankan descent." She has written a memoir called Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home that recounts her moving to Toronto and separating herself from traumatic events in her past. The Next Chapter columnist Aparita Bhandari joined Shelagh Rogers in the studio to talk about the book.

The difficult story at the heart of book

The circumstances of her coming to Canada are not happy — she's fleeing an abusive home and the general anti-queer establishment in the States at that point in time. And Toronto seems like a safe place. She's coming to her partner at the time. But even just crossing the border is a whole challenge, and once she gets here, living with this partner is a challenge because he doesn't have a stable life. So then she leaves him and tries to survive on the streets of Toronto.

Learning what's behind a strong public persona

I actually met Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha at many events across Toronto back in the late '90s. I had just immigrated to Canada, and I came across her at various spoken-word and community events. I was always kind of struck by her — she just had this sense of confidence, this aura that she carried. She always appeared so assured and so poised, and when I read what was going on in the background — how she was couch-surfing, how she was oftentimes very afraid for her life — I hadn't quite understood what she was grappling with, and where all of the anger that was in her voice was coming from.

The importance of diverse voices in queer culture

I think her memoir is important at this point in time. Certainly there have been queer writers, and queer writers of colour, in Canada for a long time. But these memoirs, these stories that are coming out today, they're all challenging these notions of what at one point was called gay culture and then was the LGBT movement and now we're calling the queer movement. There are different words to describe it, but the fact is that there are all these new voices. There are many voices within queer culture that are saying "this is our story and this is how we're going to tell it."

Aparita Bhandari's comments have been edited and condensed.