LETTER FROM THE EDITORS
MAY 12, 2016
Three years ago, two roommates set out on a long evening walk. It was spring, and New Haven. Both were commuting from Brooklyn to teach at Yale that semester. Both were travelers, recently out of love, thinking much and often of hauntings: of strangers we carry long after we've split from the subway, of lovers we hold in memory after they've fled our beds.
One roommate was soon to publish an essay collection in which she frames empathy as a form of travel. “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—" she writes. "It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs...” Her name was Leslie Jamison; her book: The Empathy Exams.
The other roommate was just beginning to imagine up a new online travel magazine: a space for the raw, personal stories she’d never found in mainstream publications—tales that honor the digressions inherent in any and every journey. Her name was Colleen Kinder, and that magazine was this magazine: Off Assignment.
They walked so Colleen could turn over an idea, stirred up by a talk that the travel writer Pico Iyer had just given to her class. Colleen had expected her guest of honor to analyze the essay she’d assigned her students to read: a classic portrait of Reykjavik that Pico had authored two decades earlier. But instead, he digressed into a tale he had never put to the page: the story of an Icelandic woman with whom he’d wandered Reyjkavik’s unfading summer streets. This stranger dominated Pico’s memories of his reporting trips, he explained. Still.
Pico's story had left Colleen with a question. So she and Leslie walked with it; they carried it up a hill and out of daylight, until the city and campus spread out glowing behind them. "Doesn't everyone," Colleen theorized to Leslie, "have a haunting stranger in his or her history?" In the classroom, both roommates had seen how a simple writing prompt can catalyze creativity. And so Colleen coined a prompt of her own—not for her students, but for fellow journalists.
Write a letter to a stranger, it went, that passerby who haunts you still.
The rest, as they say, is history. Leslie had long been haunted by a traveling magician she met years ago in Nicaragua; in the days that followed, she churned out her missive with an immediacy that surprised even Colleen. There was a letter in Off Assignment’s inbox within the week. Journalist Ted Conover said an immediate yes when Colleen asked him to author a letter—he already had one, actually: a missive written upon return from a New Yorker assignment in Rwanda in 1993. Travel writer Lavinia Spalding wrote next, harkening back to a Dutchman she met in Thailand. Then came a letter from a playwright; a student; a novelist; a poet. A letter to a lost child, a bodyguard, a woman on a subway, a man named Sick. They piled up. It was as if these early contributors had not just written letters but exhumed them; dug them out of some dusty room of memory.
What we, the OA editors, did over the next two years was gather witnesses to Colleen's theory, and recruit a team. It wasn't until December 2015 that our first full-time editor, Katy Osborn, came on board—and even then, the publication was still only a sapling that had grown out of the original idea: a non-profit reading series still fumbling towards fruition. But Katy inherited from her predecessor, Sophie Haigney, this cache of letters—a series that had come to be called “Letter to a Stranger.” And in every conversation we had about what Off Assignment could be, it stood out as something altogether richer, more clearly defined. "Letter to a Stranger" was a virtual folio of hellos and helps and I held yous; a stack of ghost stories so thick with personal meaning that one could imagine them having had actual weight within their authors. By extension, we found ourselves heavy with the strangers of strangers—and the very idea of strangeness itself.
What is a stranger? Why are we warned, from a young age, not to speak to them? What are we to make of those who wander into our path—without name or context—without any promise of reappearing, ever? And what about those who, once we've painted them with meaning, suddenly walk out? To no one are these questions more pertinent, more central, than the traveler: by definition, someone who seeks out strangeness; someone who lives to dance across its borders.
The word "stranger" comes from the Old French—estrange, meaning foreign or alien—and the Old French comes from the Latin—extraneus, a cousin of the English “extraneous,” as in: irrelevant, unrelated, separate. As in: I do not need that thing or I cannot carry it. And so one could argue that the category of strangeness arose as a necessary adaptation to life among multitudes of people. According to a social scientist by the name of Robin Dunbar, the average human neocortex can process a social network of just 150 stable connections. To live a life that is urban or itinerant (or both), we erect borders. Strangeness becomes a thing upon which we insist—a marker that directs us not just how to ration our empathy, but how to deploy our memory. Strangers become extras, interchangeable, background blur. While in transit, we so rarely let them in.
But what about strangers who break in, who somehow get in, without our permission? Who cartwheel into view, wrest us out of reverie, and firebrand their faces in the deepest recesses of our consciousness? Every writer who took up our challenge to write a letter seized on this very question: Why can’t I shake you?
There is something implicitly dangerous in what we have done with “Letter to a Stranger”: asking writers to indulge the traveler’s gaze. We’re told from a young age that it’s rude to stare at strangers, because privacy is sacred, because eyes on bodies are never just eyes on bodies; because bodies carry legacies, and so does the strangeness between them. And yet, these letters do something quite different from the colonialist, male-dominated stomping that has packed this genre of writing since its genesis. If strangeness is the story of human borders, then what these letters do is see through the fences. Our contributors tunneled back into memory; they emerged in Oaxaca and Istanbul and Chiang Mai. They wrote to catharsis—until they, and by extension we, understood. Why can't I shake you? Because I saw you. I felt you. We were there.
In assembling "Letter to a Stranger," we've learned that there’s a great kingdom of narrative at the terminus of a simple question: Who haunts you? And we’ve learned that this is the question to ask anyone who moves porously through the world—dilated to its mysteries, courting its alienness. That is to say: If you want to know what the great wide world taught a writer—how it schooled and humbled them, shook up the pieces that felt so fixed and orderly inside them—ask them to pick a ghost, and pick up their pen. The stories that won't quit us play midwife to our truths.
Reader: This collection is our ghost. We’ve sat on these letters for long enough, and hereby let them go. It's your turn to travel them. It's your turn to be haunted by the strangers of strangers.
To the writers: Thank you for your ghosts. To the ghosts: Thank you for your stories. And to you, dear stranger: Thank you for granting these letters a home.
Read them, shout them, send us yours.
Image by Colleen Kinder