Falling Back in Love with Being Human

by Kama La Mackerel

Falling Back In Love With Being Human (Penguin Random House Canada) reads at once as prayer, as poetry, as a magic spell, as a call for love, and as an invitation.



It is early August in Toronto and I am lucky enough to be at the launch of Kai Cheng Thom’s latest book, Falling Back In Love With Being Human: Letters to Lost Souls. In a room she carefully decorated with tea lights, rose petals, and translucent draping, Thom strives for the atmosphere to feel ethereal. Wrapped in an off-white dress with a white flower in her hair, she performs her love letters like a priestess singing to a flock. The room is packed, with people spilling out the side-doors. Witnessing her talk about her journey back to love feels like a divine communion.


Falling Back In Love With Being Human reads at once as prayer, as poetry, as a magic spell, as a call for love, and as an invitation to reflect on what it means to harm, to forgive, and to love, both oneself and others. Written as a series of love letters addressed to monsters, to trans kin, to trans exclusionary radical feminists, to JK Rowling, to Thom’s own past and future selves, Falling Back In Love With Being Human is a continuation of the themes explored in her prior collection of essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Note From the End of the World (2019). What Thom offers with this new book however, is a deepening of these previous meditations with the love-letter format acting as an embodiment of her revolutionary politics. These letters act both as a poetic body and a body politic. “To the trans exclusionary radical feminists,” Kai Cheng Thom writes, “i am willing to put my fear aside in the name of a better future for girls like you and girls like me, are you, are you? … hand on my heart, sister, this i swear: despite all that has happened, i believe we can be sisters still.”


The letters that compose the book can be read as prose poems, each with remarkable oral qualities. The writing itself is expansive, stretching across time: from “the ancient one” to the “revolutionary trans femme of color living in the distant future,” creating its own cosmology with “an army of fierce femme ghosts,” “the goddess of whores and all her children,” “the denizens of Love.” And yet, each and every letter alludes to contemporary social and political contexts and ethically troubling situations such as suicide, care work, punishment, sex work, and more. Throughout the writing, the body is made manifest as the canvas upon which we experience and understand ourselves, the world, each other, and our own spirits. 



Kai Cheng Thom dedicates her book Falling Back in Love With Being Human, “For all the monsters who are still waiting to be loved.” (Photo: Samuel Engelking)



“A body is skin wrapped around stories, is tissue filled with veins that the truth runs through, is a box of bones with a voice inside,” writes Thom. Punctuating the letters are a series of reflective and ritual prompts that invite the reader to engage with the content of the book on their own terms: “Write a prayer of hope on a piece of paper and leave it somewhere for someone else to find” or “Collect a bag of stones. Give each stone the name of something you’ve been holding on to that you’d like to let go of. Take the stones to a river or ocean and drop them in.” 


When I meet Thom a few days after the launch of her book, I ask her about the multiplicities present in the form of Falling Back in Love With Being Human—it being an assemblage of the epistolary, the poetic, the oral while also acting as a self-help workbook with prompts. She responds by laughing, “This is partly my problem: I can never resist a hybrid form!” She says she always knew, from the moment she started writing the first few letters, that she would punctuate them with a series of prompts. 


“It is also about embodiment,” she adds, “about inviting the reader into an experience of the book. If a reader decides to engage with the prompts, they will have an experience of the book which would be so much more about them, the reader, than it would be about me, the writer. And I love that.” For Thom, it was important to create a structure and a container in which the reader could find their own growth. She adds that in many ways, “all books invite us to grow, but here, the structure and ritual invitation in which to notice your own growth and to record it and to harvest it as a product of your own creation is what was invested in the idea and purpose of these poems in the first place.” Indeed, as I worked my way through each of the prompts in this book—my ritual was to work on one a day—I found myself going back to the poems over and over again, weaving an introspective web between my subjectivity, my body, and these poetic offerings. As a result, Falling Back in Love with Being Human has never stopped breathing in my body.


I then ask Thom about the book’s dedication: “For all the monsters who are still waiting to be loved.” The figure of the monster is one that Thom has been thinking through for a very long time. In 2014, she co-founded The Monster Academy, a youth mental health skills initiative in Montreal. She further explored monstrosity in her debut novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (2016).  “Why is the monster so important to you, and how has your relationship to the monster evolved through your practice, your career, and your own personal journey?” I ask her.



 We are terrified of our own monstrosity. It’s not nice to be the harbinger of the end of the world, actually.



“It is no secret that trans people and perhaps trans women in particular, are regarded as monsters,” she responds. In her thematic explorations of the monster, Thom follows in the footsteps of many others, such as Sandy Stone, who is considered the founder of the academic discipline of transgender studies, and Susan Stryker, a leading scholar of transgender history. “There is a recurring kind of exploration of the monster in diasporic and racialized literatures in North America as well, although in gentler terms through mythological creatures. I guess I am as susceptible to the trend as anyone else,” she says before bursting into laughter.


For Thom, “the monster is a creature of many meanings. The monster is usually the embodiment of some kind of thing that is mixed with another thing. The half-human, half-horse, the part-human, part-wolf. Frankenstein’s monster is an assemblage of many human bodies.” Given that trans people are often the members of society on whom monstrosity is projected—because the trans body is perceived literally as the living flesh that integrates more than one type of creature, i.e. “man” and “woman”—Thom wanted to explore what it means to embody people’s experience of revulsion. “The monster is unlovable because it doesn’t fit into any particular category, including the category of ethics or morality that we ascribe to goodness. And of course, when it comes to goodness, we have a particular body and mind that we ascribe to it: cisgender, heterosexual, white, blonde, blue-eyed, young, etc. And the trans person completely defies that.”


And yet, each and every single one of us holds contradictions within ourselves. And each and every one of us holds monstrosity within ourselves. Falling Back in Love With Being Human makes a case for the coexistence of multiple truths. The opening letter, addressed to the reader, asks, “Have you ever wondered how human beings can be so contradictory—so cruel and depraved, yet so capable of kindness all at once?” These letters seek to lovingly make space for all forms of conflicts and tensions—both internal and external. 



Written as a series of love letters, Thom’s new book also acts as a self-help workbook with prompts for readers to engage with. (Photo: Samuel Engelking)



Thom further explains that “the monster is also a harbinger of change. A monster is a message that things cannot stay the same and that things will move … I mean, all of that is as great and amazing as aesthetic, but in real life, it is very hard to embody. We are terrified of our own monstrosity. It’s not nice to be the harbinger of the end of the world, actually. We don’t enjoy that. It’s not fun. But it has great power to it.” Thom believes every person actually carries monstrosity inside themselves; every person is an assemblage of that which they believe is good and that which they believe is evil. “We all have to come to terms with that. I think trans people are just a little bit more upfront about it.”


Tangential to monstrosity, I was curious to ask Thom about the exploration of sex work in this collection. Even though sex work is not the main focus of the book, it is very much a major thread that runs through this collection of letters. The letter “to the ones who didn’t cry,” a reflection on the Atlanta shootings of March 2021, when a gunman entered three massage parlours and killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, is particularly poignant. “Tell me about the pain of a body that knows its life means nothing,” writes Thom, who is both an Asian woman and a former sex worker. When I ask Thom about this undercurrent in her writing, she first laughs saying, “I am amazed and delighted that such a mainstream and major press as Penguin Random House would be open to publishing a book with sex work so deeply embedded in its core.” 


Thom explains that sex work is the one industry where all trade professions are allowed to place their self-hatred, even though we are all selling our bodies to capitalism, in many cases in intimate and horrifying ways. The complexity here lies in the fact that sex workers can claim their own price, unlike the rest of us whose wages are regulated by a capitalist system. “Sex workers have come to stand in simultaneously—like the monster—for both extreme oppression of the body and extreme liberation of the body at the same time,” Thom says. “And it’s that fascinating duality of things that makes people so obsessed with sex workers, in both good and bad ways.”



“Imagine a world in which all sex workers are considered sacred and holy, deserving workers’ rights, health benefits, and compensation of their choosing.”



Thom goes on to speak about the darker parts of human nature, the parts that are repressed because they are understood as being undesirable. For Thom, “sex work is the place that holds a massive part of the collective shadow, the shadow of the collective consciousness. This is the place where we put things that are not acceptable to talk about in public, such as sexuality, for sure, but also other realities about monogamy and marriage and capitalism that have no other place to go.” Thom explains that sex work in itself does not invite violence but rather, it is the isolation of human bodies and beings within the work that does so. As a point of reference, Thom alludes to both Marina Abramović’s 1974 performance, Rhythm 0 and Yoko Ono’s 1964 performance, Cut Piece as notable works that brought out the shadow of violence in instances where bodies were made to be solitary.


Sex workers are intimately familiar with this shadow. “The thing about sex work is that it shouldn’t have to be in the shadow,” says Thom. “In fact, sexuality deserves to live in the light. And if we were able to more beautifully and more meaningfully integrate those things, the shadow and the light, sexuality and society, we’d have a much healthier situation for everyone.” The prompt that follows the letter “to the ones who didn’t cry” asks us to “imagine a world in which all sex workers are considered sacred and holy, deserving workers’ rights, health benefits, and compensation of their choosing. Draw or paint a picture of your vision. This might be a scene or person, or more abstract: a reflection of a feeling or energy.”


Falling Back in Love With Being Human is an embodiment of revolutionary love. Written with generosity, these prose poems along with their accompanying prompts provide a roadmap, as Thom puts it, for all of us to find “where in the body does courage call home?” If these letters are prayers, they beacon that in our darkest moments, we take the leap of faith towards the light and remember that “[we] are worthy of love and capable of loving. [we] are capable of loving and worthy of love.”





Kama La Mackerel is a Mauritian-Canadian multilingual writer, visual artist, performer, educator, and literary translator who believes in love, justice, and self and collective empowerment. They are the author of the award-winning poetry collection ZOM-FAM (Metonymy Press, 2020). Follow them at @kamalamackerel