Let's write about love... Rediscovering a lost art | Sonia Cancian | TEDxLausanne

Translator: Amanda Chu Reviewer: Peter van de Ven

When was the last time you received a love letter in the mail?

Oh, on our smartphones,

we receive lots of love messages,

n'est-ce pas?

Messages like this:

[r u thr?]

And then,

[Hey wats up?]

finally, heading out to this one -

the full declaration.


So, when was the last time you received a love letter in the mail?

Ah, you may say, love letters are the preserve

of well-versed literary authors and poets:

individuals like Victor Hugo, writing to his young bride, Adèle Foucher;

or John Keats,

penning love letters to his next-door neighbor,

Fanny Brawne;

and what about Simon de Beauvoir? -

writing her final breakup letter to her long-distance love,

Nelson Algren.

These authors described in intimate detail

their loneliness, their longing, their affections, and their desire.

Oh, how we wish we could write like them.

"I spent my entire day thinking of you.

How long must I wait before I can hold you again?"

"When the children are asleep and it's late,

turn to one side of the bed, rest your cheek on the pillow.

After a little while, you will feel a tender caress

and the endearing breath

of the man who loves you and who will love you forever."

"I reread your last two letters.

They bring me everything I need to continue to love and to hope."

These are words written on now yellowed airmail paper,

written by migrants separated by their loved ones

at a time when the only way to communicate was through letters.

Who else wrote love letters?

Well, not only migrants and their loved ones,

soldiers in the battle field and their loved ones,

and what about sweet hearts living even in the same town

who were determined to meet, albeit secretly.

Not so long ago, like millions of others,

my grandfather left his young bride at home, in northern Italy,

to go to work in the factory of Amiens, France.

To stay in touch, my grandparents wrote letters.

And I remember reading these letters

some time ago, in the fall of 1986.

I had returned to Italy for a language course in Siena

and decided to visit my grandmother one weekend.

As we sat in the kitchen,

I asked her,

"Tell me a little bit about your life story."

And she began to recount the experiences of her youth.

She sprinted to the bedroom and returned within a few minutes.

She returned with this white shoebox.

As she opened the box,

the letters that she and my grandfather had exchanged

during the first year of their marriage

were neatly lined together.

I was mesmerized.

And as I delicately began to pick them up, one at a time,

I remember being marked by one particular set of two words,

these two simple words: "forever yours."

These words that held a promise of a love

that could not and would not be extinguished by distance.

This is one episode in my life that led me to becoming a historian.

In my research, I study letters of immigrants and loved ones,

written in Italy, Canada, the US, and other countries.

And I look at letters to understand

how migration has affected family relations, gender roles,

and the expression of emotions.

What did people write about?

What were these letters like?

Well, people wrote about everything.

Imagine this:

Gliada here writes to her fiancé in Venice.

She's not heard from him in over a week

and begins to wonder.

Gliada and Maurizio met shortly after the end of World War II.

And this was when a group of young men

had arrived to her home town, in northern Italy,

to complete the construction

of one of Europe's highest electrical dams.

Gliada and Maurizio met, fell in love,

and throughout much of their relationship before they were married,

they wrote letters.

Now, in September 1948,

Gliada immigrated to Canada with her parents,

and this young pair feared they may never see each other again.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of this,

their attachment in the letters grew stronger than ever.

And so,

when each of them didn't receive any news,

each of them worried and wrote,

"My love, there is no place for me to find peace.

You can imagine why, can't you?

Not even today did I receive news from you.

I'm devastated and disheartened in a way that I cannot describe.

Why? Tell me. Why do you do this?

Do I deserve this kind of punishment?

Maurizio, let me know something so that I can put my heart at peace.

You see, tonight, I'm anything but optimistic.

Believe me.

It feels like everything is against me,

and there is no other reason for this but your silence."

Now, what if instead of silence, we hear music?

Music that brings back a longing.

We turn on the radio,

and we hear a song that reminds us of the precious moments

we spent together with our loved one.

What do we do?

In our minds, we begin to play back those memories,

and we seek to relive them,

as Gliada did -

and I'm sure this is a feeling that many of you must have experienced

at some point in your lives.

(Music: "Un bel di vedremo," aria from Puccini's “Madama Butterfly”)

"I recall the moving story of a young Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-san,

and the marvelous romantic music, 'Un bel dì vedremo.'

This is the way she waited, with constancy and faith.

He was required to return home where the young girl waited for him.

Poor her. How deceived she was!

My story is very different.

My story with you is about hope and happiness.

(Music ends)

Oh my darling, how I miss you!"


what of the frustration of separated love?

How far can it take us?

Here I have a letter by Giordano, a young man in his early 20s,

living and working in Rome,

the city where he met and fell in love with Aster,

this just a few months

before Aster was to embark on an ocean liner heading for Canada,

for her to join her brothers.

And so, Giordano wrote,

"Dear love, if you only knew how much I miss you.

I spend my entire days thinking of you.

Do you still love me?

How much time do I need to wait before I can hold you again?" -

how can I be sure she still loves me?

"Dear, what did you do today?

Did you work?

Or did you go out with a handsome Canadian young man?" -


perhaps she will not take too kindly to that accusation.

"No, I'm joking.

I know well enough that you will not do this wrong to me." -


or should I try to be funny and make her feel guilty at the same time?

"Do you know what I did today?

Well, Miss,

no, I did not go dancing.

No, I did not go to the movies.

I did not go out with blondie.

I'm sorry, Miss. Your time is up.

The answer is … a lousy 'nothing.'

My precious,

don't you think I'm a little crazy to be writing these things?

Please ignore them.

When we will be together, I will stop acting so foolish."

Well, the authors of these letters are ordinary individuals.

These letters are anything but ordinary.

Imagine the void, the emptiness between these lovers

if these letters had never been written.

Writing letters was about much more than keeping in touch.

Writing letters put words to affection, imagination, and desire.

As historian Jack Goody once noted,

"Writing letter, much like writing poetry,

has important repercussions on people's emotions."

Writing not only expresses already existing feelings,

but the enforced reflection expands on those feelings.

The process continues.

There is the moment of anticipation, and even anxiety,

as we carefully open the sealed envelope.

We feel, touch, unfold, and even smell the paper.

We run our fingers over the writer's calligraphy,

and imagine our lover penning his or her thoughts to us

with that hand,

the very hand that had touched ours when we had been together.

The letter engages all of our senses.

As food becomes fast,

we rediscover the need to slow down and enjoy what we eat.

As fashion becomes disposable with new collections every two months,

we rediscover vintage fashion of well hand-stitched pieces.

As our smartphones suggest words before we even have thought of,

we rediscover the time,

to take the time

to think about, to ponder over what and how to write,

we rediscover our innate ability

to write creatively to lovers and loved ones,

or as Wordsworth said,

to "fill your paper with the breathings of your heart."

In so doing, we enrich our experiences towards personal growth.

I began by asking,

"When was the last time you received a love letter?"

I close by asking,

"When will you write your next love letter?"

Thank you.