Title: Pen Pal
Author: Francesca Forrest
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Bakka Phoneix in Toronto based on the repeated recommendations of Leah Bobet. The woman’s got good taste, y’all.
Sometimes, a book comes along that satisfies you completely — its characters make your heart happy, its themes make your soul happy, and its prose makes your head happy.
These books are rare. Pen Pal is one of them.
The central conceit is simple: Em is a young girl living in Mermaid’s Hands, a squatter’s community on the Gulf Coast, who sets a message in a bottle adrift hoping to find a pen pal. But Em’s bottle ends up in the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable: Kaya, an imprisoned political activist in Southeast Asia.
Kaya is a member of an oppressed minority on the island of W— off the coast of Indonesia. Worship of one of her community’s central religious figures, the Lady of the Ruby Lake, has been suppressed in an attempt to “modernize the natives” and “bring progress to the region.” When Kaya tries to resurrect a banned celebration on the Lady’s behalf, she gets thrown into prison. What’s more, her prison is built as a mockery of her religious practices: the government forces her to inhabit an ersatz temple built over the Ruby Lake itself, which is really the lava lake of an active volcano.
Em’s sweet, wistful letter brings a spark of hope to Kaya’s life, and the two correspond, with Kaya using her tamed crow Sumi as a link to the outside world. Gradually, it becomes clear that Em’s and Kaya’s situations are similar. Both of them are part of communities who are actively ignored or denigrated by the dominant culture surrounding them. Both of them believe in deities who represent forces of nature; Kaya has the Lady of the Ruby Lake, while Em has the Seafather. Both of them dream of their respective religious figures. And both of them are strong — strong like volcanoes, strong like hurricanes.
Pen Pal is written in a mostly epistolary format, with Kaya and Em writing letters to each other, letters to their respective families, and journals to themselves. There are also messages written by secondary characters to each other providing additional context on various plots and subplots.
One such subplot is that Em’s older brother Jiminy is in jail, and that her family refuses to visit him out of shame. Jiminy’s actions just serve as proof to the outside world that the folks of Mermaid’s Hands aren’t to be trusted, aren’t worth helping. But if Kaya’s in jail for standing up for her beliefs, and Em likes writing to her, does that mean she’s a bad sister if she doesn’t write to Jiminy? If Kaya’s in jail for doing something good, what does that say about her brother, who was just in a bad place at a bad time, and loyal to the wrong people?
Em’s guilt over losing contact with Jiminy spurs her to try and run away to meet him. At one point, Em tries to sneak onto a truck to cross state lines, but she’s discovered by Cody, a fellow resident of Mermaid’s Hands. Here, her keen sense of morals over how she should support her family clashes with society’s perception of who she is and what she’s allowed to do. Cody attempts to defuse this situation by making it look as if it’s really Em’s younger, more socially accepted sister Tammy who wants to run away:
“You making mischief again?” he said, smiling, like the two of them had a secret joke. Tammy looked confused. She never makes mischief. Her lips were trembling: I could tell she was about to say No it wasn’t me, but—Cody’s smile. It was begging a return smile from her.
“I apologize for all this, sir,” said Cody, “but I’m sure my little neighbor here just got some wild idea in her head about exploring, and then the bigger two went along with it. Nobody can say no to that face!”
To Tammy he said, “You planning a stowaway adventure? Think how worried your parents would be! And Mr. Coca-Cola here would’ve had a heart attack next time he opened up the doors of his truck.”
Tammy looked at him in wonder. She’s used to being delicate Tammy, and Tammy-who-needs-to-rest, and remember-to-wait-for-Tammy, and sometimes Tammy-the-mermaid, but Cody was giving her a whole different kind of story. Small Bill’s mouth was quirking upward at the thought of Tammy the mastermind. Even the delivery man was smiling a little.
That Cody’s pretty smart. Once he got Mr. Coca-Cola looking at tiny, cute Tammy, with her good hair and big eyes and freckles, how could the man stay mad? Cody talked to him a few more minutes, asking about where he was from and if he had any kids, and got him telling stories about his four-year-old son, and by the end him and Cody were practically best buddies.
Cody’s name is apropos: he’s a master of code-switching. And here is where perceptive readers will pick up on other scattered clues throughout the novel and realize that Em’s family faces not only class oppression (for having their own off-the-grid, ad-hoc community) but race oppression as well. Unlike Em, Tammy is welcomed by the side of the family that lives normal suburban lives on dry land. Unlike Em, Tammy has “good hair and big eyes and freckles.”
In other words, unlike Em, Tammy can pass.
What makes Pen Pal such a strong and moving experience is Em’s journey — she’s the emotional centre of the novel to me. She’s stronger than she knows, and she’s facing powerful intersecting forces of class and race that she can feel, but can’t articulate. Her voice is sweet and innocent, both knowing and unknowing, without sounding overly twee or cutesy. You really get the sense that this is a real 12-year-old talking. It’s amazing to see Francesca Forrest tread such a fine balance between the innocence of Em’s voice and the brutal social truths that underlie her observations.
Kaya’s situation is a bit more straightforward — it’s hard to find much nuance in a government that would imprison its political dissidents within a volcano. But her correspondence with Em allows her to learn more about Em’s community, and Kaya takes advantage of a key public announcement to show her solidarity with her friend. In doing so, she attracts the attention of an Amnesty-International-like group, and it’s this political contact that allows the plot to reach its fullest resolution as Em and Kaya save each other from the outside forces that seek to silence each of them.
I mentioned at the top of the review that this is a self-published novel, and that I bought it upon the recommendation of Toronto-area author (and personal acquaintance) Leah Bobet. Leah works at Bakka Phoenix, one of the best independent bookstores in the city, and she’s done a lot of work to raise the profile of this book. When I first heard her talk about Pen Pal, she said one of the reasons she liked it so much was that you could read it as a work of fantasy or as a completely non-fantastic piece of literary fiction. Are the Lady of the Ruby Lake and the Seafather figments of the protagonists’ imaginations or are they real figures with their own forms of agency? You could make a compelling argument either way — which is another one of the book’s many strengths.