The art of letter-writing, it often seems, died with the advent of email. So much disconnects that time of pen caressing paper, communications artfully scripted in ink, and this time of social media, of photo captions on Instagram and caterwauling tweets. But with a wider demographic of people writing to each other more frequently online – and a whole public invited to read what might once have been private conversation – maybe the art of letter-writing is more alive than ever. Class elitisms reveal themselves in the dismissal of social media correspondence, as does unsettling nostalgia for a time when fewer people controlled modes of communication. And, despite the predictions, letter-writing continues, shaping correspondence across spaces real and virtual, ink and pixels.
Correspondence retains politics: in petitions, exchanges, documents; in historical material and speculative fictions. In correspondence, there are histories of resistance, of dialogue and of collectivity. In our call out we noted how the word correspondence itself changes surprisingly little as it travels across languages. If correspondence is a gift passed from one human to another, what happens when barriers are repeatedly put between us, by the politics of prejudice? What connections remain possible?
We spoke also of the politics of difference, and of the political difference that might be created by paying attention to detail. Simultaneously with editing this chapter, Something Other have been looking back at EDGE 88, a festival of site-specific performance and installation work curated by Performance Magazine (one of our many forerunners). Three decades separate EDGE 88 from our own time, but we entered the archive searching for lines of connection, not least what we could learn from that era of trenchant Conservatism and survival amid the aftershocks of economic recession. We found as much false correspondence as dispiriting similarity.
In our other work, as the Department of Feminist Conversations, we regularly write letters to the future (distributed via TinyLetter), never attributing the text to an individual writer. So it was a particular delight to receive a submission to this chapter from two collaborators employing such a tactic from a shared desire: they too are “disrupting the notion of the solitary writer/artist” by merging their voices, while managing to maintain their idiosyncratic identities. Rachel Epp Buller and Derek Owens’ extended text is a cornucopia of found quotation, private reminiscence, academic reflection, advice passed between artists and writers, confessions, invitations, and more. Illustrated with handmade collages, and postcards gleaned from flea markets, it has the feel of a carefully tended antique shop: it’s possible to dip in and out, but the longer you stay, the more dear delights might emerge.
Buller and Owens note an irony in correspondence: the letter “simultaneously underscores the distance between the two in dialogue, while diminishing that gap through written contact”. The same emotional pull animates the two letters shared by Diana Damian Martin and Anette T. Pettersen, gleaned from a much longer correspondence, but really gleaned from the whole of life, performing the tensions of slowing time in dialogue. Other submissions might be written by only one person, but their recipient is no less present through being addressed. Caridad Svich evokes the Greek classical dramatists in her letter to a friend and colleague, and in doing so illuminates the common humanity and emotion binding people together across centuries. By writing so gently to her absent friend Sonia, Sabrina Fuller closes the gap between the living and the dead.
Alexandra Baybutt experiences a kind of double death when the letters written by her grandparents during their courtship are destroyed. In her text, correspondence is both a means to discover identity and also create it – and re-create it – as time slowly unfolds. Helen Savage looks back in time to the letter-writing of Latinx feminist Gloria E. Anzaldúa, particularly in the book she co-edited, This Bridge Called My Back, finding in it inspiration to reflect on connection and its absence between women and men. Maddy Costa turns her gaze further back, to the loving letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, echoing their exchanges to write into past and future at once.
Jemima Yong’s text finds temporary correspondence between strangers as they encounter the absurd and blank-faced bureaucracy that separates them from family and friends – her own friends appearing in a gallery of images photographed at a time when the only possible contact between them was via Skype. Mary Paterson traces the faultline between word and meaning, while Diana Damian Martin returns to her school days in Romania to expose the tenuous connections between narrative and politics embroidered by calligraphy. With Brexit looming, Lisa Alexander and Mary Paterson remember a correspondence that called out across Europe, at two very different moments in its recent history.
The Seventh Chapter differed from its predecessors in that it didn’t have a corresponding live event. Technical changes at the Peckham Pelican in south-east London, where Something Other Live had previously been held, made it increasingly difficult for submissions to the chapters to be presented there. We are still in search of a new venue, so any suggestions of a space in which it’s possible to host free or extremely cheap events that are also open to passing traffic would be gratefully received: please email us at info[at]somethingother[dot]io. Rather than charge a ticket price, Something Other Live invited audiences to donate to a charity relevant to the chapter’s theme. If you’ve enjoyed reading this chapter, we invite you to consider donating to Bent Bars Project, a charity that aims to build solidarity with and support for LGBT+ prisoners through letter-writing.