My grandfather told me that love burns brighter than any star. – Sungju Lee
Before reading Sungju Lee’s Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, I didn’t know much about North Korea, much less what it is like to grow up in a country that Lee describes as “a true-to-life dystopian nation.” Lee’s story begins with his father teaching him war tactics at age six, lessons that will later save his life as he and his friends run from the police.
As a child young Sungju dreams of becoming an army general. His life in the capital city, Pyongyang, is one of relative luxury, with a nice apartment, a good education, and after-school tae kwon do lessons. He is taught to idolize his country’s leader, Kim Il-sung, and to fear South Korea and the United States.
Ivan Coyote is the kind of storyteller who finds their way into the heart of anyone who takes the time to listen. In fact, one of the stories in Tomboy Survival Guide is kind of about just that! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you don’t know who Coyote is, I implore you to look into their work – they are a Canadian writer and storyteller who grew up in the Yukon. Their stories reflect their endless fascination with and love for people of all kinds, and they have a remarkable ability to pull beautiful things out of tragedy and pain. All of their story collections thrum with humanity (to the point where they even bring out the reluctant poet in me, apparently!)
Their most recent collection, Tomboy Survival Guide, is particularly dear to my heart, though. I originally discovered Coyote when they were touring with Rae Spoon, one of my favourite Canadian musical artists. The two artists collaborated on on the multimedia show Gender Failure, exploring their experiences growing up and failing to fit into the gender binary. I saw this show three times while it was touring, and I cried at each performance; it was that good. (The stories and lyrics from this show were also published as a book by the same title, so go ahead and check it out* for yourself!)
Tomboy Survival Guide also follows up on a collaborative performance project of the same title, that Coyote developed with an all-tomboy musical ensemble, and it explores many of the same themes as Gender Failure. Here Coyote digs back into their own life, growing up from their tomboy roots into a young butch adult, and finally embracing the uncategorizable nature of their gendered experience. Funny, vulnerable, and sometimes sad, this is ultimately a heart-warming collection of memories that, like all of Coyote’s writing, inspires me to be a stronger and more compassionate person.
Maybe it will do the same for you.
*pun very much intended
Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar collects together some of the best columns Strayed produced while writing the “Dear Sugar” column at the Rumpus. If you don’t know who Strayed is, she’s the woman behind the memoir Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail; Reese Witherspoon played her in the multiply-Oscar nominated movie adaptation Wild.
Dear Sugar tackles much more sensitive and emotionally complex territory than traditional advice columns, and the questions in this collection range from people asking for help figuring how to decide whether they will have children, and how to move forward after infidelity, to one particularly memorable letter from a troubled reader simply wanting to know “WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day” (Excerpt from her answer: “Ask better questions, sweet pea. The f*** is your life. Answer it.”)
Strayed’s strength is in the way that responds to her readers’ vulnerability with radical vulnerability of her own, sharing her own darkest moments and greatest failures, gently providing perspective, and often getting to the unstated heart of readers’ questions. Regardless of whether any of the readers’ situations resonate with you, Strayed’s stunningly wise and radically empathetic approach to life, communicated through truly beautiful writing, almost can’t help but change the way you see the world.