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.
KB: I love that, and it makes me think of how people choose to open and close the second person in epistles. You mention in The Breaks that James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have written letters to their younger Black male relatives. Is this something that stuck with you, haunted you as you wrote a letter to your Brown daughter?
JS: The Black epistolary has absolutely influenced my writing, and if one could call my relationship to Baldwin a haunting, it’s a haunting I invite in and fully welcome! While I am taken by the power and force of those Black paternal voices, I wanted to write toward the Brown, feminist, diasporic experience. I wanted to center girlhood and the under-articulated questions that undergird Brown and mixed-race identities. I wanted to write something that could be shared among parents and children, something that could confront the brutalities that make up this current world with a spirit of revolutionary love that insists on facing those brutalities head-on. It’s a book that asks us to learn together, to transform together, and to write and live toward forms of parenting and teaching that are not governed by a set of prescriptions, but as a collaborative act geared toward creating new world orders.
KB: I couldn’t help but feel disappointed when I realized that “Queer Architectures,” the essay that you and your best friend and co-parent Nathan had “daydreamed for a few years about coauthoring” didn’t come to fruition. Do you and Nathan still daydream about that piece at all? Do you feel that in talking about literal architecture, but even more so about the structures that are genealogy, colonialism, family, and relationships in The Breaks, you’ve satisfied at least in part what you and Nathan had set out to do?
JS: The Breaks isn’t that academic essay about queer architectures that we were plotting, but it’s an adjacent rumination on place and space, on how we’ve cohabitated across various spaces for a very long time now, shifting ourselves and our relations in and against space in various ways. For a long time, Nathan and I struggled to find a way to name our relation—not romantic, more than friends, enduringly family. There is no name that fits our form of relation. And then we realized one day that we were so fully living out our queer dynamic, the unconventional ways we were living together in space, that we no longer felt the urgency to name it. The reference to “queer architectures” was fleeting in an earlier draft of the book, and my wonderful editor Lizzie Davis made a little margin note in her first round of edits on the book that simply said: “More on queer architectures, please!” This side note led me into a much more expansive rumination on queer life and the legacies of architecture.
KB: Continuing to talk about architecture, while perusing your website, I saw that you’re working with filmmaker Chase Joynt on a documentary entitled The Nest. Are you able to share a bit about this project and how it might draw some parallels to The Breaks? Of course, you can leave that shrouded in mystery if you need to, depending on where the film is in terms of development.
JS: The Nest has been my pandemic project, something that has obsessed me and that I’ve moved in and out of as time permits. It’s a project I began without a future form in mind, until the day I shared the story with Chase and he was utterly convinced it would become an experimental documentary. It’s becoming a visual essay, thanks to his brilliance and persistence. The project is a bit unwieldy, but in a nutshell, my mother suffered a massive stroke a few years ago at age 80, when she fell down the stairs of our family home. As she began to prepare to leave the house behind after 40 years, she told me stories about the history and architecture of the house before we lived there that totally blew me away. Everything I thought I knew about that house, and about our family, was blown open by understanding its history differently. I want to animate the life-force of that brick and mortar space, and the revolutionary women who have lived, labored and organized there over 140 years. It’s a promising project that asks us to think more expansively about how we are connected through space and place to others, a project about how we can discover and reinterpret ourselves otherwise when we reach for space and time differently.
KATYA BURESH is a writer of poetry and literary criticism. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ligeia Magazine, Metonym Journal, The Rumpus, Day Eight Interfaith Poetry Anthology on Consolation and Loss, and other publications.