Letter to a Stranger: The Essays That Still Haunt Me


Coming March 22, 2022 from Algonquin Books; 336 pages

About the Editor: “Colleen Kinder is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, National Geographic Traveler, Virginia Quarterly Review, AFAR, Salon.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, A Public Space, and The Best American Travel Writing. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, 2022), and the co-founder of the nonprofit magazine Off Assignment. A former Fulbright scholar and MacDowell fellow, Kinder has taught writing at Yale University, the Chautauqua Institution, and Semester at Sea.” (Bio provided by Editor)

Find Colleen Kinder on the following platforms:

“In every reflection—in windows, in mirrors—you measure yourself against portrayals of beauty, and find yourself lacking.”

When revisiting this anthology, I wanted to highlight additional voices from the ones I initially reviewed back in October of 2021. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with the anthology editor Colleen Kinder, coming out on March 11. For my second visit to this collection, I want to begin by reviewing “To the Woman Who Wanted to Go Shoe Shopping” by Vanessa Hua. Initially, Colleen found that she couldn’t classify it under one of the determined seven sections (Symmetry, Mystery, Chemistry, Gratitude, Wonder, Remorse, and Farewell). This particular letter was eventually placed mid-way within the Mystery section, which seems fitting in retrospect because of the wide difference in understanding between Vanessa and her bus stranger.

The story details the author and her husband’s time spent in China gathering historical information for a novel when they encountered another young woman riding the bus with a friend and her young son. This woman and her company were just as amazed as everyone else had been on their trip that Vanessa Hua was an American foreigner just like her tall, sandy-haired husband. “To the Woman Who Wanted to Go Shoe Shopping” is a piece that lingers as the audience feels Vanessa’s desire to connect with the remembered personality of a stranger on a bus, but in the present as an American mother and writer there is a disagreement with the stranger’s harsh parenting and idealizing of the West. I found myself deeply enthralled by Vanessa Hua’s identity disconnect, and the way she explores the enduring impression a person can have on your life despite the fleeting nature of a stranger encounter. 

“We weren’t lovers and we won’t be friends, and now you’ve made it so we can’t even be strangers.”

The two sections that seemed to stay with me the longest were the Remorse and Farewell essays. Halfway through the concluding Farewell section is an incredible letter, “To the One Who Was Supposed to Get Away” by Lavinia Spalding. She details the jarring and almost ruinous aftermath of seeing a stranger you’ve interacted with go on living a life separate from the liminal space you first met. She met a man on a party island in Thailand and spent seven hours sitting with him on a single spot of beach discussing everything from politics to religion to drug use— and the nicely hazy quality of a half-forgotten travel story falls apart when he sends her a friend request on Facebook fifteen years later. This letter has stuck with me because the author so eloquently captures the way technology has made it impossible to uphold the fantasy of a singular night spent with a perfectly forgettable person.

“I lean back, get comfortable. I let my body rest, just the way you taught me.”

To conclude my time spent with the Letter to a Stranger I want to feature the final letter in the entire 65-piece collection— “To a Girl I Didn’t Love on the Last Bus Home” by Jeremy B. Jones out of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Detailed in his letter is the encased quality of daydreaming about a simpler future with a stranger while traveling. It is one of the longer essays from the anthology, in which Jones reminisces about a short bus ride he spent speaking broken English with a woman aspiring to be a teacher from a small town in Costa Rica, where he was visiting and studying. This is the concluding piece of the collection and of the Farewell section, and there is a thankful quality to Jones’ writing that wraps up the book so well. His descriptions of the predetermined family life waiting for him in the Carolina mountains is a beautiful exploration of both responsibility and nature, and he captures the escapism that feels necessary in your twenties with such clarity that it made me ready to travel again as soon as possible.

This collection, and the interview I was able to conduct with Colleen Kinder, have been a fantastic examination of the complex and long-lasting impacts that a single stranger interaction can have on someone’s life. The essays within Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us are all unique remembrances of moments in passing with strangers that hold fast in the minds of the talented writers despite the short time spent together. 

(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