An Interview with Julietta Singh
Photo: Chase Joynt
Julietta Singh is a writer and academic whose work engages the enduring effects of colonization, current ecological crisis, and queer-feminist futures. She is the author of two previous books: No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum Books, 2018) and Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke University Press, 2018). She currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her family.
Aptly described by Coffee House Press as "a profound meditation on race, inheritance, and queer mothering at the end of the world," The Breaks is a decolonial work addressed to Singh's young daughter, a precocious girl who lives with her queer mother and asexual father at a time when capitalism, racism, and white ignorance storm the United States. Julietta and I met over Zoom on a sweltering summer day from our home offices, hers situated in a duplex in Richmond, VA, that she shares with her daughter and best friend and co-parent, Nathan. Though I couldn’t go in person, we explored that very duplex in our conversation as part of a larger consideration of queer architectures (both literal and figurative). We also discussed the value and crafting of the epistolary form and its place in the literary canon, especially when written by a Brown mother to her Brown daughter.
Katya Buresh: I thought it might be a neat way to begin this interview by creating a bridge (as opposed to a “break”) with a reference to a recent author interview. In her conversation with The Rumpus, discussing her memoir Made in China, Anna Qu said, “Of course, most parents want to shield their children from the hardships they went through, but being a child of immigrants, we’re expected to understand that hardship without being told about it. That has to change.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, as you are the child of immigrants and an immigrant yourself, writing explicitly to your daughter about some of your own experiences and those experiences that have been passed down to you.
Julietta Singh: Thanks for this opening! The connection to The Breaks here is on point, and I resonate very much with Anna’s formulation of being the child of immigrants whose histories of struggle are forming the way they’re navigating the world and parenting you. It can so easily produce a kind of intimate alienation, wherein your parents become mysteries to you and your relations to them opaque and guarded.
As a mother myself now, I think a real understanding of where I’m coming from, of why I act the way I act, and why I insist on certain things or don’t care about others, is vital to my relationship with my child. Parenting takes an extraordinary amount of self-awareness, and in turn, a lot of communication about our individual, cultural, and political legacies. For me, it’s not only my own history of struggle but the plural and intersecting histories of struggle that make up this place where we live and the people who surround us. We need to address those histories, too, and to make parenting an act of learning not just about our own pasts, but the legacies of so many pasts that make up this culture and its wildly unequal relations.
KB: Right––you’re empowering your daughter through the histories you’re sharing, encouraging her to be willing to consider the threads of the larger issues we face as humans and to ask questions. You’re offering a foundation, an honest foundation.
This makes me think of how early on in the book, your daughter, who at this point is 5 or 6, is learning about Thanksgiving in school and being told that Thanksgiving is about a collaboration between colonizers and Indigenous peoples. You disrupt that narrative to point out to her the word story in history––a gentle reminder to take history with a grain of salt because there are lots of different narratives, some more buried than others.
JS: Creating an understanding that official state history is one version of the past, and one that subjugates the struggles and resistance movements of so many communities, is crucial to revolutionary teaching and learning. I’m invested in forms of learning—even and especially in childhood—that awaken us to lived realities and histories that often oppose those state-sanctioned lessons. There are infinite possibilities in those stories, pathways to the making and sustaining of community in the face of brutality. I want children to be thinking here and now about climate catastrophe and the enduring entrenchments of systemic racism, not to become awakened to them in some distant future. The Breaks is really about what could happen if—in careful, loving, honest ways—we told the truth about the past and the present rather than cloaking kids in a fantasy of innocence.
KB: What made you first decide, or rather, how were you led, to writing The Breaks as a letter to your daughter?
JS: It actually began as a letter, which is to say that I began writing to my child and wasn’t initially intending to publish it. I had wanted to write a letter to her for years and had been mentally gathering scenes and moments that gave me pause as I tried to parent through the hardest questions regarding climate catastrophe, systemic racism, patriarchy....It developed into a book, but to be honest, I worried about its reception in a country so polarized between Black and white America. There is no stable discourse of Brownness in the United States, no nuanced or clear understanding of the capaciousness of Brown bodies in the nation. I wanted to write about race in ways that could make her feel seen and heard, that was more complicated and capacious than the discourses at hand.
While the book is a letter to my daughter, it is in no sense reducible to the two of us. It’s oriented toward a greater collective, a much more expansive, emerging, and irreducible us. I’ve written elsewhere about the term “we” and how problematic the use of the term “we” can be, because “we” is a form of inclusion that often can’t see who or what it excludes. I have this aspirational notion of an “us” that is united and revolutionary in spirit, always growing, always morphing, and ever-oriented toward making a more livable and sustainable world.
KB: That’s the beauty of the epistolary form––that it’s so personable and there’s vulnerability and invitation for engagement in a really special way that a lot of other forms can’t execute as easily. Reading The Breaks is a fascinating experience because the reader is pulled into deep intimacy with you and your daughter, only to occasionally get zapped with a jolt of realization that indeed this was not written for them, but for your own child. Honestly, while I was reading, I couldn’t help but sense a maternal warmth from you that I wanted to claim for myself.
JS: I think of the book as a calling and invitation to a you that is multiple, diverse, and countless. You mentioned earlier having this desire to claim my maternal voice for yourself, and then you wondered if that might make me cringe! I smiled at this worry because I think it’s vital and life-sustaining to feel drawn toward others who may be quite unlike you. We need more forms of kinship that are not reducible to conventional, heteronormative, reproductive families. To be able to find yourself in an address is another way of finding and making a home. As critical readers, most of us want to be held and challenged, we want to find kinship even when it’s not “about” us. To be able to find a place for yourself in that difference is an incredibly powerful experience, a necessary one.