Letter to a Stranger Reaction: Those Who Haunt Us Never Truly Leave


Letter to a Stranger Reaction: Those Who Haunt Us Never Truly Leave

Coming October 5, 2021 from Algonquin Books; 336 pages

About the Anthology Editor: “COLLEEN KINDER is an essayist and editor, loosely based in too many places. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, A Public Space, The Atlantic.com, National Geographic Traveler, Salon.com, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, Ms. Magazine, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review Of Books, The New York Times and forthcoming in AFAR.

In 2013, Colleen co-founded Off Assignment, a nonprofit reading series and magazine devoted to the personal narratives that lurk behind every news story (backstory here). In 2016, the OA reading series grew into a weekly online column called “Letter to a Stranger,” hailed by The New York Times as “haunting, and absorbing.” In the summer of 2017, OA released a debut print volume.” (Bio taken from author’s website)

Find Colleen Kinder on the following platforms:

“We spend our lives turning them into beloveds and ghosts: the ones we need, the ones we ache for, the ones we lose, the ones we brush up against and never really know, who stay with us anyway.”

Self-proclaimed friend of the editor and stranger-letter-writer herself, Leslie Jamison writes a moving forward that touches perfectly on the sheer breadth of interactions and emotions covered within this collection of sixty-five pieces all from different writers spread throughout the world. I think that number is worth emphasizing because within this anthology, there are seven unique categories each letter is sorted into, all of which strike a very specific emotional cord that followed me through empty days of mood reading to entire weekends consumed by reading as fast as I can.

I have chosen to review one or two letters under each category, hopefully allowing you to have a glimpse at my own intrigue for the book’s conception, as well as an accurate review of its content. Some of these essays immediately enthralled me from the index, while others sat with me quietly but longingly in the fashion of their own stranger interactions. 

“I felt the things we had said float between us like the heat, things too honest for people we loved.” 

“To the Father Paused Under the Tree” by Anjali Sachdeva was the first letter I gravitated towards because it is one of the only pieces located in Arizona. Listed simply as Grand Canyon, the letter details the treacherous yet overpopulated Bright Angel Trail, where both met under a small shaded tree on the hiking path. It is categorized under the first section titled Symmetry, possibly marked by the cyclic nature of their wearied conversation reflected in the fulfilled but unanswered status of her own parenthood. This letter, like many of the others I discovered while continuing to read, is as brief and emotionally impactful as the initial stranger interactions. Sachdeva’s fleeting yet memorable connection with a man as they discuss the realities of having children, the man’s two daughters and wife lagging behind on the difficult trail, shows the beauty in a simple conversation with someone who does not know the intricacies of your life. 

“To the girl on the Berlin U-bahn who looked like me: I hope these things because I want to believe I am not alone.”

Writer Annie Schweikert, whose essay “To the Face In the Subway Glass” finishes out the Symmetry section. It conveys the deep tiredness that comes with traveling in a place that almost (but not quite) feels like your home, or should but doesn’t fit yet. Her stranger interaction, however, is in passing with another woman who looked so similar to her, she was essentially a reflection. The two do not actually speak, but Schweikert’s letter conveys the dissonance that comes with seeing your mirror image walking away from you, and realizing that for a brief moment you wish to be them if simply not to be you. 

“I never discovered whether your gentleness that afternoon was truly kindness for a bedraggled stranger, or whether you were the predator two decades have taught me you might have been.”

This letter was one of the few writings to both list the stranger by their full name and to incorporate the location as another letter recipient or an additionally harsh second party. Lauren Groff, in her titled piece “To the Man I Believe Was Good,” fully captures the indignation of hindsight while reflecting on youthful naivete and seeing a reality of exploitation. The generalization of Palermo, Italy as having a darker side, somewhere she will never claim and likely never return, is recognized within the letter as possibly being completely false and the product of an uninformed young traveler, akin to the rash assumptions made of all strangers. This letter is in the exact middle of the Mystery section, which seems appropriate as Groff left me wanting more of her own backstory. But more importantly, she communicated within her letter that deep need for answers after an impactful stranger interaction, and the continuous understanding that resolution will never be given.

“You were an aberrant to my neat conclusion that language and sex were the only obstacles to friendship on board.”

When I first saw that the third section was tagged as Chemistry, I assumed that the encounters would be passionate in nature. Additionally, when I read the title of Ying Rienhardt’s letter “To the Man Who Spoke With His Hands,” I entered the piece expecting a nameless, sensual recounting. I was instead pleasantly surprised to learn of the broken-language connection between two people stuck on a shipping freight together, with two decades of time spanning their different lives. Rienhardt’s reflection is written ten years after, and she contextualizes that her stranger interaction would have been less lasting if she had spoken in his native Italian because it was in the parsing of random hand gestures, after months at sea living and working together, that allowed their conversation to so naturally flow.

“Behind all the fear I felt for my life and my child, this: an orange. Passed from woman to woman.”

Sarah Menkedick’s short letter within the Gratitude section shows a brief moment between two women passing each other in the mountains surrounding Oaxaca, Mexico, who had absolutely no language in common, instead connected through an orange. “To the Lady Who Spared Me An Orange” again highlights a growing theme within the anthology that spoken words are often limiting, and it is through the simple but profound gestures that develop as a result of striving for the connection that talking can’t provide. Menkedick’s traveling with her young infant is mirrored by the elderly woman selling her fruit, both carrying the weight of their own worlds with them constantly and still being able to find genuine human connection somewhere within the brevity of the world.

“And you laughed, truly, from your belly, so that I was finally sure I was with a friend.”

This letter is longer in format because it shows the audience piece by piece how Jamil Jan Kochai had to attempt to communicate with a local Logari woman he met. “To the Logari Who Asked About the Sun,” under the Remorse section, shows the way that different heritages can affect someone’s relationship to their home country and by extension, other minority groups within it. There is a beautifully clear picture of the political tensions present in Afghanistan at the time, where even a surname could sentence a person to death. Interestingly, the two refugees’ connection point is their knowledge of American cities because of family members who had moved there in years past. Kochai very neatly guides his reader through the language differences within this stranger interaction, like he had reopened the uninformed past for everyone to experience the conversation-in-parts as he once did.

“He took you at my word.”

Despite the shorter two-page length of Carlynn Houghton’s letter, she perfectly encapsulated the trauma that comes with planning a future around a person you never actually met. There is a deep sense of loss present throughout, along with the confused inability to reconcile that a future life could end in a random gas station bathroom off of US Route 17 in upstate New York. “To the Protagonist of a Too-Short Story” translates an almost-mother’s grief as seamlessly as many other letters because above all there will always be the disruptive presence of a life never lived. 

Within the seven categories, I found that almost every author, in their own unique way, touched on the most fundamental ways in which humans form connections—sometimes without speech, commonalities, or the privilege of time to communicate. In the seven letters reviewed for this blog, I chose moments that related to some part of my own soul, reminding me of my own past stranger interactions or my similar, desperate want for the anonymity that travel brings. There are so many more genuine, enjoyable human moments in this letter collection that exemplify the exciting and lasting way that anyone has the potential to haunt you. 

(Pine Reads Review would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for sending us an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes are taken from an advanced copy and may be subject to change up final publication.)

PRR Writer and Editor, Kayla Chandler