I spotted Julietta Singh’s memoir, The Breaks, whilst browsing on Daunt Books’ website, and just had to read it. The book has been published by Daunt as part of their Originals list, and it has been incredibly well received. In its blurb, reviewers compare it to James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, and herald it a tender, and ‘beautiful’ coming-of-age story.
The Breaks is an extended letter, written by Singh to her young daughter. Her aim is to ‘write towards a new vision of the world, inspired by her child’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live’. Wrapped up in the entire narrative is a commentary on the climate change which threatens our existence, and which she believes her daughter will experience the full effects of during her life. She says: ‘I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now… I am writing to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.’ Singh believes that if we are able, globally, to ‘survive the looming political and ecological disasters, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves towards more equitable and revolutionary paths.’
Along with the ever-present threat of climate change, Singh also examines ‘the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism’, and the effects which all of these have already had in her daughter’s young life. The narrative opens with an account of her daughter being taught ‘a whitewashed story at school about how the first people of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilisation and progress.’ She proceeds to tell her daughter this story rather differently: ‘I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment… This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I know that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one.’
Throughout, Singh has a real awareness of what ties herself to her daughter. She reflects, for instance: ‘Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.’ Throughout, I really enjoyed her discussions about the physical body in the world, and the differing versions of history which can exist everywhere – in textbooks, in films and cartoons, and in the education system, to name just a few examples.
Another of the real strengths in The Breaks is the commentary Singh gives to the meaning of identity, and how difficult this can be to pin down. Her own family history is rich, and complicated. ‘Being as diasporic as we are,’ she says, ‘I find I have no traditional knowledge to bestow upon you, no single spiritual or cultural heritage that will reach back to precolonial ways of being and knowing.’ She writes about the ‘stolen lands’ where she was born, her father’s Indian heritage, her mother’s European one, and her experiences of growing up in Canada, before moving to the United States. For Singh, home is a concept which she has not often experienced; until she begins a deep friendship with a queer man, Nathan, who will become her daughter’s father. They live together, in a house converted to have two separate living spaces, and coparent. She writes: ‘I have only just begin to feel this home-feeling with you, with your father, in our everyday acts of collective world-making. For the first time, I wonder whether I need to stop drifting, not so much in body as in spirit… To live here, right where we are, and to articulate that living by learning who and how and when and why we have all come to live here, to belong here.’
Singh is open about the challenges of parenting her young daughter in their home in Richmond, Virginia. Early on in her memoir, she comments: ‘Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis.’ She is also aware that one day, her relationship with her daughter will shift, inescapably; she writes: ‘It is less the inevitability of our break than it is the shape and force of it that haunts me. I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent… More than any other time in history, what you choose from the past will need to be meticulously studied and selected.’
These breaks which Singh talks about also manifest literally. Whilst writing her memoir, she was recovering from major surgery, when doctors found that the discs between her vertebrae had begun to ‘explode, making it appear… as though my body is being subjected to high-impact collisions.’
The Breaks is ‘both a celebration of queer family-making, communal living and Brown girlhood and a profound meditation on race, inheritance and queer mothering at the end of the world.’ Singh, as this quote on the book’s blurb suggests, encompasses so much within her book, but she does so with intelligence, and captures everything in beautiful, contemplative prose.
The Breaks is intense, intriguing, and so worthwhile. The narrative, given that it was only published in 2021, is incredibly current; she references other challenges which we face on a global scale, such as the pandemic. The way in Singh she directs her articulate speech to her daughter throughout gives it a further sense of urgency. Singh is articulate, and gives voice to the many difficulties which the next generation are sure to face. The Breaks is heavily rooted in existentialism, and what it means to be alive today. Singh gives just as much thought, though, to how – and if – we can possibly move forwards.
I will end this review with something wonderful that Singh’s daughter said, as quite a young child. At the age of five, she declared: ‘If I was president… I would give everyone a place to live for free. I would make gardens all throughout the city that would grow food to feed us all. I would give everyone enough clothes to wear, and make sure their outfits suited their style. I’d make sure everyone had a friend.’ If the next generation is filled with wonderfully compassionate people like this, perhaps the world does have a chance to save itself, after all.