Review | I Will Always Write Back by Catlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, with Liz Welch

Book Cover of I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda

I Will Always Write Back is a heartwarming story about friendship across continents, cultures, and class differences. It is the true story of Martin, a bright young boy in an impoverished city in Zimbabwe, and Caitlin, a more-privileged friendly American girl. Their relationship started as a pen pal assignment, and developed into an almost-kinship that changed both their lives. Check out the goodreads summary.

I admired Martin and Caitlin’s commitment to their friendship over the years. Especially with the irregularities in the mailing system, and all the obstacles that should’ve impeded their relationship. It’s one thing to promise ‘friendship forever’ as children, and another thing to actually follow through. I also admired Caitlin’s generosity, and her determination to help her friend.

There was a lot of insight into Zimbabwean culture, which I enjoyed. I also liked that the writers provided some context into what was going on at the different time periods that the pen pal letters were written. I think it made the story more real to think of different important events like 9/11, and then consider how they affected the lives of the young American girl and the hopeful Zimbabwean boy, differently.

I listened to the audiobook, and I liked how they used different actors to play Martin and Caitlin. You could tell which character was ‘speaking’ from the voice, accent, and tone. Martin was so effusive in his letters, and maintained a formal tone (which reminded me of my grandfather). Caitlin, on the other hand, was more chatty and informal, she used a lot of American-lingo.

One of the things I didn’t like about the story were the (brief) discussions about race. It’s clear that Caitlin’s relationship with Martin taught her a lot about privilege and empathy for less-privileged people. But I found that the discussions she had about (racial and economic) privilege lacked nuance or depth. There were some instances of insensitivity with issues related to Black and African culture. I’ll chalk that up to her ignorance as a teen, growing up in a predominantly white area.

I think the book turned into borderline poverty-porn at some point in the story. I don’t want to give too many details away. But I will say that the writers got repetitive in describing the poverty that Martin faced, and how much help he needed. At some point it just felt like they were saying it to elicit some emotive response from the reader, instead of just aiding the progression of the story. Which felt a little exploitative in my opinion.

Besides that, a minor issue I had with the book was the amount of detail in the descriptions. Considering that the authors wrote this book, years after the events in the story, I wondered how much of what they were saying was true or factual, and how much of it was fiction. Instances like going to the mall were described with so much detail: what they did, the conversations they had, etc. And I don’t think it’s believable that someone would remember what they did at the mall more than 10 years ago.

I did however, enjoy the message at the heart of the book. How love and friendship can transcend borders and change lives. I Will Always Write Back is a feel-good read, with lots of high-stakes moments. I’d definitely recommend this one. I rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve read this story, or something similar. Check out my post about I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi for more African non-fiction.

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