It’s a pretty sad misconception that nobody sends letters any more. I get them every day: from Stephen Elliott, writer and editor of The Rumpus, who sends personal scribblings to 1,000-plus subscribers, and from Justin Wolfe, who mails demotic, beautiful “drafts” of writings via letter.ly for an Amazon payment of $2.22 a month. I get them from my friend Lauren Bride in Toronto, who should be a poet, and from my mom, who signs everything with “love,” even text messages. It’s just that I find these letters by opening Gmail, not a lock-and-key box in the lobby. Being 26, I never got much paper mail, so I don’t miss it much either; these missives I love like ink.
Late Tuesday night, under a huge moon, I got a letter from Frank Ocean. Maybe you got it too. The New Orleans singer-poet, 24, was beginning to promote his fall album, Channel Orange, amid rumours of his homoness. To clarify, he published his liner notes to Tumblr.
“Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence …until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless.”
Of course this letter doesn’t clarify much at all, not the way Anderson Cooper’s letter did, when he wrote to Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast – intending to go public – to confirm that he’s as gay as hearsay had it. Cooper’s post was blithe, correct, clear, in places beautiful, but on the whole uninteresting. Ocean’s letter of unrequited love, tragedy and hope didn’t cite definitions, and shouldn’t incite debate. It doesn’t say “I’m gay.” He might not be; does it matter? It doesn’t say, with false poptimism, “It gets better.” No, because no matter how straight or queer or unclear we are, we know it doesn’t always get better. We know it often gets better after it gets worse, and sometimes not at all. Cooper’s shared happiness is good for him; he needs nothing from us, and really, gives nothing. In Ocean’s told suffering – the most alone, most human, most relatable state – we gain truth, or better, empathy. We read him and say “I know.”
And still his letter doesn’t clarify. By not doing so, it shines a light.
So often we – I – rely on polemic to produce the change we seek. Think of that spectacularly Internet-enabled form, the “open letter,” which is often read by everyone except to whom it’s addressed. I doubt Roxane Gay’s excellent “Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much They Would Let Him Beat Them,” posted après-Grammys, was read by many of the ladies in question. In 2010, I wrote an angry, high-volume and very open letter to a girl wearing a “No Means Yes” T-shirt at a Die Antwoord concert; nearly a year later she found out about it. These screeds aren’t lessened in power if they don’t reach the ostensible target, but they aren’t letters, either. Great public letters feel unique to each person who reads them. Ocean’s is a great letter. Targetless, affectless, and true without aim, it seemed not only to reach everyone I know, but also to reach inside and twist viscera like tissue.
And so, made public, the personal felt deeper than the polemical. It will be political, too; we try so hard to make the political personal, forgetting that the personal comes first. I think of the Christians I grew up with and the conservatives I’ve known – not that all homophobes are Christians or conservatives, god no – who “just have a gut feeling” that men loving men is wrong. Lately I’ve doubted myself, doubted that high, wide, theoretical discourse can change narrowly heart-led minds, keeping in my own mind, as I read Ocean’s letter on my phone, that I was on the road out of deep Tennessee, land of terrifyingly dogmatic bumper stickers and superlovely people. Ocean’s letter might be the change; it is a change. This letter addresses the gut, pressing bruises held bone-tight by anyone, everyone, who falls too hard. It telegraphs that suffering is legit and it is beautiful and it does not get better, but maybe other things do. It says that if love is lost, it can be found again wherever you want to look. It says, like a song of his does, that marriage isn’t between a man and a woman, “but between love and love,” and maybe the polarized wars over marriage and rights are also between love and love, and if so, how can we not agree?
Beside letters by Rimbaud, by Roland Barthes, between Nin and Miller, next to letters from my lover and my mom, Frank Ocean’s liner note is the best letter I’ve read. It could have been an “open letter,” a rant or a screed or a political statement, and powerful as such (I never think we’re postsexuality or past the need for queer politics, for rage). Instead it was a letter closed and sent and unaddressed and then, when opened, the most open thing of all: radical in its openness, and thus, radical in its hope.
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