“I Will Always Write Back” bridges the gap between two continents

When people ask which book is my favorite, I will always say it’s I Will Always Write Back, by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, with Liz Welch, published in 2015. This is a story where two different worlds collide, and everything that happens in the memoir is a telling of real events that happened between Martin and Caitlin, two penpals corresponding from different continents between 1997 and 2003. 

I love this book because of the extensive character development throughout the memoir in both authors. Both authors become more and more intelligent as the story progresses, and they learn the true value of friendship and love through writing. I’m also a fan of how the two managed to defeat extreme obstacles together as they navigated early adulthood, eventually leading up to their meeting face-to-face. 

This “joint memoir” is a retelling of their story from the very beginning, where Caitlin, a 12 year old girl living in a middle-class Pennsylvania suburb, is given the opportunity to choose a country where she will receive a penpal from. Unlike her other classmates who pick countries like France and Germany, Caitlin chooses Zimbabwe. She is paired with Martin, a boy of similar age living in a lower-class village outside of Mutare, Zimbabwe. The two correspond over the course of six years, and because of their correspondence, their lives both change drastically in response, with Caitlin gaining a new outlook on humanity, and Martin’s life switching paths all together as they correspond through the mail. 

This book also includes some history about Zimbabwe, especially in regards to its economy, with extreme inflation present as a major theme in the story. I learned things about life in southern Africa, as illustrated by Martin in beautiful detail, and you really get a glimpse of life in lower-class southern African villages. 

Caitlin’s setting differs drastically as she lives in a middle-class suburb, which I related to a lot more. However, despite her setting, the reader watches Caitlin realize that the entire world isn’t a comfortable suburb, and you can see her world view expand as she learns more about Martin and his home. 

This book was a beautiful representation of how friendships can form without in-person contact. Many are skeptical of the true friendships that don’t form from the traditional way of meeting face-to-face, however this book proves that unbreakable friendships can still form from letter correspondence, and they’re not any less valuable than friendships in your vicinity. 

A pen-pal of mine, one of my best friends, lives in Amsterdam, so this book really hit home with me and my experiences. I feel the parts of the book where people were extremely skeptical about Caitlin and Martin’s friendship are very relatable to me as well, as that is inevitable when you tell anyone that you’ve never actually met your best friend in real life. I recommend this book to anyone and everyone, but this story will especially strike those who have a long-distance best friend; this story perfectly captures both the struggles and the positives of long-distance friendships. 

I initially had this book read to me in the fifth grade by my teacher; unfortunately, there were a lot of parts that my teacher had to censor, so I didn’t get the full experience of the book. Censored, were the descriptions of violence, and the 9/11 attacks as witnessed on the news, however they are quite vague and not incredibly detailed. I then listened to this book on audio back in February. My view of the book shifted slightly as I realized how polarizing their lives actually were, however I enjoyed it just as much, if not more. I can certainly say the recording is very well-made and fully kept my attention throughout. The narrators truly capture all the funny tones and emotional rollercoasters throughout the memoir, which I find quite rare in the audiobook world. 

Image source: I Will Always Write Back

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