In a season when many pandemic-weary humans are daring to travel again, or at least dreaming of long-delayed adventures, a new book of essays reminds us of the wondrous ways serendipity can strike when we leave familiar surroundings behind.
“Letter to a Stranger” features stories from 65 accomplished – and well-traveled – writers, each reflecting on a passing encounter that left a lasting impression.
The essays, rarely more than a few pages long, are short but powerful, transporting the reader to destinations near and far, from the Obyggdasetur Islands in Iceland to an abandoned hostel in the Peruvian Andes to a research station in Antarctica. Writing in the second person, the essayists recall connections they made while backpacking through Asia, working on cruise ships, riding in a Paris taxi or traveling in ancestral homelands.
Among the contributors are Pico Iyer, Maggie Shipstead and Michelle Tea, all of whom will join the Los Angeles Times Book Club on May 26, along with the book’s editor, Colleen Kinder, and Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds.
Kinder said the manuscript was completed in the fall of 2020 but already feels like something of a time capsule. “The book certainly reminds me of moving through the world in a more vulnerable and open state,” she says in an interview. “So many of these essays conjure up a pre-COVID era, when we didn’t even realize how free we were.”
The origin of “Letter to a Stranger” can be traced to 2013, when Iyer, the prolific travel author, delivered a guest lecture at Kinder’s Yale Summer Session writing class in the south of France. Instead of the expected discussion of an essay Kinder had been assigned to her students, Iyer went off topic to describe a magnetic stranger he had met decades earlier while on assignment in Iceland, “a woman with piercing blue eyes with whom he wandered the streets for hours , swapping thoughts and life histories, ”as Kinder writes in the introduction. It was the story behind the story – and one he had never written.
Kinder was intrigued and began asking other writer friends whether they had ever come home from a reporting trip with unpublished stories that were better than the ones that had been assigned. “The answer was not just ‘yes’; it was ‘always,’ ”Kinder writes. Thus was born Off Assignment, an online magazine that featured “Letter to a Stranger” as its flagship feature.
“I wasn’t looking to start a magazine. I was teaching and writing myself – I had plenty on my plate, ”Kinder said from Edmonton, Alberta, one of several cities where she currently spends part of the year. She also divides her time between Buffalo, NY, and Luxor, Egypt. Kinder moved forward with support from other writers, co-founder Vince Errico, and donors such as Michael Segal, son of the late Los Angeles fashion icon Fred Segal.
“What’s driven me in this project has been collaboration with people whose work I admire, whose stories I love to read,” Kinder says. “It turns out I’m a much more collaborative creature than I thought in my early writing career.”
The book collects the best of Off Assignment along with more than 30 new essays from a diverse collection of fiction and nonfiction writers including Elizabeth Kolbert, Pam Houston, Peter Orner, Leslie Jamison, Ted Conover, Vanessa Hua, Lauren Groff, Monet Patrice Thomas and Jacquelyn Mitchard. There are moving tales of awakening, regret, mystery and gratitude, often revealing far more about the writer than about any stranger. The audiobook version includes six narrators to achieve multiple voices.
Iyer, the author of 15 books including “The Open Road” and “The Art of Stillness,” recalls a story from his early days as a world traveler, when he accepted a ride from a bicycle trishaw driver in Mandalay, Myanmar. From that unlikely beginning sprang an unusual friendship and a correspondence that has lasted for decades. Iyer splits his time between Japan and Santa Barbara.
Shipstead, the Los Angeles author of “Great Circle,” describes a trip to a “hippie magnet” town near Chiang Mai, Thailand, when she fell deep into the throes of a romantic crisis with her boyfriend. She recalls a woman she met only briefly who taught her a needed lesson on perspective when a flash flood washed away much of the village.
Tea, an LA writer and author of “Against Memoir,” conjures up a much-younger woman she met in a tattoo parlor in Dallas, Texas, a remembrance that leads to a meditation on tattoos, coolness and freedom.
“I think what surprised and humbled me editing the collection was just what a wide range of foreign dynamics people chose to explore,” Kinder said. She expected writers to explore “the sense of aperture that you feel with strangers – the fact that oftentimes it’s easier to be honest with somebody you’re never going to see again than it is a recurring figure in your life.”
Only a few writers actually address that “strangers on a train” theme directly, while many defined the word “stranger” more loosely. For Indigenous writer Amber Meadow Adams, the stranger was her own grandmother, a woman who was educated in a bleak Canadian boarding school for Indigenous children, known as the Mush Hole, but who never shared her own story.
In some cases, the stranger is less benign. In an essay by Gregory Pardlo, addressed “To the Drunk Mr. Flunchy ”(a made-up name), an angry, threatening, unpredictable man weaving his way through a train station in France has the effect of tightening the bonds among the author, his girlfriend and his future mother-in-law.
“We spend so much of our lives in the company of people whose names we’ll never know, people we’ll never meet again,” writes Jamison, a novelist and essayist, in a foreword to the book. “How rarely we honor them. How rarely we admit to ourselves the strange, unannounced ways they can lodge inside of us. ”
Kinder, an essayist and traveler who has spent extended periods in Cuba, Iceland, France and Egypt, mourns the loss of serendipity experienced when people move through the world with an openness to what a stranger might offer. She notes with some optimism that people are traveling more as the restrictions that have defined the past two years loosen up.
As someone defined by her own travel experiences, starting with a college year of studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, she expresses the hope that young people will continue to travel while still in their formative years. “I’ve just seen the ways that young people’s minds can be opened so radically by that experience of leaving home having to figure out – Where in the world am I? – and to have to learn the rules from scratch. I really hope that doesn’t go by the wayside. ”
Martin Wolk is a Seattle-area journalist who has been a correspondent for Reuters and MSNBC.com.
Book Club: If You Go
What: Pico Iyer, Maggie Shipstead, Michelle Tea and Colleen Kinder join the LA Times Book Club to discuss “Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us” with travel writer Christopher Reynolds.
When: 6 pm PT May 26.
Where: Free virtual event will livestream on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Get tickets and signed books on Eventbrite.
Book club newsletter: Join our community book club: latimes.com/bookclub