Dirty River begins with a declaration; one that proclaims surviving abuse is a “choose-your-own-adventure story”. The memoir is, according to Piepzna-Samarasinha, “heroic, not heartwarming”. It strives not to tell a survival story where the end is becoming normal, but instead offers a riveting detail of how running away from abuse & from America towards a queer brown love revolution in Toronto reveals how a disabled queer woman of color navigates the past, disrupts normative representations of trauma, and ultimately dreams her way home.
Piepzna-Samarasinha begins her chapter “Learning to Be Brown, Parts 1-3” with the following anecdote:
“I don’t know how to write about becoming brown, but I know I have to.
Learning how to be brown is a process some of us go through. Most of us don’t talk about it. We shut the fuck up, study up, and pass into brownness as fast as we can. We don’t want to admit our dorky inauthentic, mixed-race roots. We are fragile. We are making up for lost time. People already laugh at us mixed-race kids because we look weird; they’re going to laugh harder if we admit what we don’t know, what we were never taught by parents who were trying to survive by assimilating into whiteness, or at least not being noticed, as fast as possible. We have to get it back, get it all back.”
Growing up with a white mother who encouraged her to pass and a Sri Lankan father who shielded her from Sri Lankan culture and language, Piepzna-Samarasinha was an awkward mixed kid who never learned what it meant to be brown.
“She’s not white, she’s mixed. Biracial. I know she looks white, but she’s mixed. I have to ask you a question … are you mixed? I knew it? I couldn’t tell what you were. Mixed people are so beautiful! Oh. You’re the best of both worlds, huh. Oh. You must be confused.”
She began to study what brownness was. At 22, she put away feelings of inauthenticity rooted in her light-skin and lack of cultural competency and faked it until she made it. She read South Asian & feminist of color anthologies, got down at queer South Asian dance parties, and began to cultivate a queer South Asian community. Throughout the chapter, Piepzna-Samarasinha shares her efforts learning how to be a brown queer woman and many of these efforts revolve around food . As she made her way through Sri Lankan cook books, restaurants, and grocery stores, Piepzna-Samarasinha began to cook her way to becoming Sri Lankan. She mastered the spices and perfected dishes, all while ballin' on a budget.
Piepzna-Samarasinha's “Learning to be Brown” is an intentional and moving process that prioritizes survival and self-creation in addition to receptivity and affinity. At once a mental awareness and a physical navigation of cultural space, learning to be brown as a representation of mixedness uncovers how non-binary experiences cultivate an embodied consciousness rooted in ambiguity. In this "choose-your-own-adventure-story", Piepzna-Samarasinha's Dirty River alludes to the ways in which queer mixed-race folks imagine and create themselves after familial and state violence and trauma. Rather than reach towards normality, Piepzna-Samarasinha struggles, keeps on, and struggles some more. Her story is her gift to us. She leaves us with a challenge:
"You ran away to find freedom, and you found it. You made it. Now you gotta tell it. You gotta figure out how to tell the story."
 future post in the works about my take on this. Hint: #decolonizingdumplings