Book review: I Hope we Choose Love

I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom

From Goodreads

What can we hope for at the end of the world? What can we trust in when community has broken our hearts? What would it mean to pursue justice without violence? How can we love in the absence of faith?

In a heartbreaking yet hopeful collection of personal essays and prose poems, blending the confessional, political, and literary, Kai Cheng Thom dives deep into the questions that haunt social movements today. With the author’s characteristic eloquence and honesty, I Hope We Choose Love proposes heartfelt solutions on the topics of violence, complicity, family, vengeance, and forgiveness. Taking its cues from contemporary thought leaders in the transformative justice movement such as adrienne maree brown and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, this provocative book is a call for nuance in a time of political polarization, for healing in a time of justice, and for love in an apocalypse.

★★★★☆

I have a lot of thoughts on this book, so please bear with my while I try to form them into some semblance of a review.

This book had a lot of good and a lot of bad, and that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Thom has a lot of interesting, important things to say, and I very much appreciate her perspective. I just think that some of her messages could have come across stronger had they been framed differently.

Let’s start with the good. There were a lot of really important topics discussed in this book. These two essays were particularly standout to me:

  • There’s one essay where Thom talks about transitioning in a culture that has very strong gender roles and how complicated that can be. It was one of my favourite chapters, and something that is very important to talk about. I loved reading about how Thom manages to fit her culture and her culture’s expectations into her life, and how her family has adapted. It was a really beautiful, heartfelt essay.
  • The essay on suicide and bodily autonomy in the trans community was fantastic and particularly brilliant. I loved how Thom essentially said, “sometimes interfering is good, actually, especially when it prevents yet another person from committing suicide”. It was a really insightful, interesting, well-written essay with a really important message.

Even the essays I didn’t particularly enjoy were still important. My biggest issue with this book was ultimately the framing of some of the messages. Some of the messages got lost in the way Thom would tell a story, or write an essay, or in the anecdotes she used, or some of the wording she chose.

For example, there’s an essay on consent in the LGBTQ+ community, and how the legal conception of consent (free, informed, revokable) is more complicated and messy in LGBTQ+ relationships. This is a very important topic to discuss; however, some of the wording of the essay suggested Thom doesn’t think consent should be free, informed, or revokable. She insinuated that these conceptions are sometimes blurry in queer relationships and are therefore not necessary. The first part of that statement may be true: consent in queer relationships is often confused by the individuals’ past relationships with their sexuality, or their partner’s relative experience/inexperience with queer relationships, or other factors unique to queer experiences. However, consent is still required in these relationships, and that consent must still be free, informed, and revokable. I think Thom was trying to say that these concepts should shift, that there needs to be a different understanding of what “free” or “informed” means in a queer context, which I would agree with. But that never came across in her essay, and in my opinion was lost in the anecdotes she used.

For reasons like that, I worry what this book could do for younger, less-informed queer people, or just young people in general. I get into that a bit more below, where I rant about one essay in particular. Which is frustrating, because some of the other essays were really interesting and important.

In terms of slightly more petty things I disliked about this book: the poetry did nothing for me, I mainly skipped them. There were some places where the humour used didn’t really fit the essay. I talked a bit about this in my review of Untamed, but the poorly-placed humour also took away from the point of the essay for me.

There was also one essay where Thom is essentially venting about performative activism, which yes, go off, call them out. BUT some of her examples made no sense. For example, this section on R. Kelly:

Girl, I wasn’t even born yet. How was I supposed to be calling R. Kelly out? Also, unfortunately, the world was a very different place in the 90s, even if we don’t want to admit it. People who vehemently call out R. Kelly now who didn’t in the 90s were stuck in the same society that allowed that to happen and had a lot of unlearning to do. Don’t base people’s activism today on what they didn’t do years ago, when they were still learning. It’s the same energy as when boomers are like to teenagers “why weren’t you calling out Obama for the same thing eight years ago?” when they raise concerns about Trump. IDK man, I was 15!!!

Anyway, that concludes my formal review/discussion.

To sum up my thoughts: this book is an important perspective and says a lot of interesting, important things. Sometimes, those messages got lost in the framing of the essay. I would not recommend this as an introductory text, but would recommend it if you’re trying to develop your activism.

The next section is a bit of a rant about one essay. I debated putting them in two different posts, but I think they’re stronger in the same post. The rant really highlights my issue with the framing in this book, and is (in my opinion) one of the worst and potentially most damaging cases.

*TW for suicide, suicidal ideation, and harmful messaging re: suicide*

Regarding the essay on Robin Williams: a rant

This essay talked about Robin Williams and the way we discuss suicide, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. I think a lot of what Thom said in this essay could be potentially very harmful. I wanted to highlight two in particular.

First, at one point, Thom says, “most, if not all, people think about suicide”, which is incredibly harmful for people who may be suicidal. Do most people think about suicide, in a passing, potentially joking way? Sure, yeah, I’m not going to argue with that. But do most people genuinely think about or consider suicide? No. Someone who is genuinely suicidal and should get professional help could read a statement like that and think that their issues are not all that serious, because “all people” think about suicide. One of the main reasons suicidal people don’t seek help is because they don’t know what they’re feeling is not normal. Saying “all people think about suicide” is not useful.

Second, Thom says, “suicide is always a tragedy, but it is also often a message”. [screams] These types of statements just push the rhetoric that there is life after suicide. That life will be better after you kill yourself. But it won’t be!!! You will be dead!!!! Some suicides may be a message, yes. But we should not be pushing the rhetoric that your suicide will be a message to the people who have harmed you, or to the world that treated you poorly. The best thing you can do, the best message you can send, is to do your best, go to therapy, get help, be successful (whatever that means to you), and help change the world, even in small ways. Killing yourself should not be a message, and it is harmful for Thom to push that rhetoric. Especially as a trans woman of colour.

I understand Thom is saying “every suicide is a message that society messed up”. That is very true for most cases of suicide. My issue, again, comes down to the framing of this message, though. There is a way to get that message across without literally saying “every suicide is a message”. Saying “suicide is a message that highlights our injustices!” could convince even MORE trans people of colour to kill themselves to send such a message, rather than using their platform for change, rather than being a living message to other trans people of colour that they are valid.

Thom comes pretty close to making the point I think she wants to make in this essay. My mom used to be a psychiatrist, and I asked her once about how she dealt with her patients committing suicide. She said that in med school, one of her supervisors told her that you have to view suicide as the natural progression of the illness. Someone with cancer will likely ultimately die of cancer. Someone with heart disease will likely ultimately die of heart issues. Someone with mental illness will likely ultimately die of suicide. And I think Thom tried to make that point in this essay. She talks about how discussions about access to therapy were not useful in Williams’ case because Williams went to therapy and took medication for his illnesses, and still committed suicide.

But Thom frames this discussion almost as a failure of the medical profession, that the fact Robin Williams, someone who was privileged and had access to therapy and medication, killed himself is evidence that treating mental illnesses as medical issues is not useful. Which is so close to the point, but doesn’t quite get there. It would have been a much stronger discussion had she framed it as “sometimes you can do everything possible, and the illness still wins”. I do think that the discussion about how society impacts mental illnesses is an important and necessary one to have (I literally study how to prevent health issues by changing public policy), but it was framed incorrectly in this discussion.

We can have discussions on how medicalizing mental illness has it’s flaws, and how society contributes to mental illness, and how therapy and treatment sometimes fail, and how society frames suicide is problematic, and we can have those discussions all at once, which I think is what Thom tried to do. But I don’t think she managed to get there and critically engage with any of these topics. And this essay is only four or five pages long, so that’s not surprising. But it then also didn’t need to include those harmful statements in it either. Those statements could have also been useful had Thom had the space to further explore them rather than just dropping them there. But this essay never got there on any of the themes it tried to explore.

Alrighty. Now that that’s all out there. Those are my thoughts on this book! Overall, I am really glad I read this book. It was very thought-provoking and made a lot of great points. I just had issues with the ultimate framing. But, I still highly recommend this book to certain people.

But have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Let me know!

Ally xx


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