Hello and welcome to Episode 35 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.
#DESIREADS WITH JULIETTA SINGH — INTRODUCTION
Julietta Singh is a nonfiction writer and academic whose work engages with 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.
The Breaks: An Essay is a profound meditation on race, inheritance, and queer mothering at the end of the world.
In a letter to her six-year-old daughter, Julietta Singh writes toward a tender vision of the world, offering children’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live. In order to survive looming political and ecological disasters, Singh urges, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves toward more equitable and revolutionary paths.
The Breaks: An Essay celebrates queer family-making, communal living, and Brown girlhood, complicating the stark binaries that shape contemporary US discourse. With nuance and generosity, Singh reveals the connections among the crises humanity faces—climate catastrophe, extractive capitalism, and the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism—inviting us to move through the breaks toward a tenable future.
The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.
And now, here’s Julietta Singh.[music]
#DESIREADS WITH JULIETTA SINGH
[Excerpted with permission from The Breaks: An Essay by Julietta Singh. Copyright © 2021 Julietta Singh.]
In the run-up to Thanksgiving last year, you learned a whitewashed story at school about how the first peoples of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilization and progress. You came home from school and unzipped your backpack, revealing with artistic pride a picture book you had colored and stapled yourself. Your kindergarten teacher had asked you to color in a little Native American girl, then a Native American boy, followed by a pilgrim girl and boy, each one garbed in their traditional attire. I admired the craft of your book, a swell of parental pride coursing through me as I witnessed the evidence of my progeny doing and making things in the world beyond me. And I relished that you had colored all four children Brown like you.
As you flipped through the pages of your book, you narrated a sad story about how much the pilgrims had suffered when they arrived on this land. I felt a surge in my body, an immediate, unstoppable need to explain the other forms of suffering elided by this disturbingly singular narrative. I described some of the impacts of this arrival on Indigenous peoples—the European theft of their autonomies, cultures, languages, and lands. I explained that colonial practices dramatically changed how humans live in relation to this land. And I told you that this historical moment of colonial contact was crucial to understanding how we arrived at the global ecological crisis we face today.
I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment. We were sitting on the landing at the top of the apartment stairs, the contents of your backpack scattered around us. This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I knew that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one. That’s okay, I said. My job as your mother is to tell you these stories differently, and to tell you other stories that don’t get told at school. I pressed on to explain that history is a story based on a version of the past. Can you hear the word story in history, I asked? You nodded slowly, a little body in deep rumination. These stories need to be told from the perspectives of those who have been most damaged by history. These other stories, I said, can teach us how to keep living.
“Can you hear the word story in history, I asked? You nodded slowly, a little body in deep rumination. These stories need to be told from the perspectives of those who have been most damaged by history.” #JuliettaSingh #thebreaks #desireads .@desibooksTweet
From the onset of your public education, you have been learning what it means to be American through a manicured version of history that keeps European whiteness at its center. This form of education willfully forgets the lives that were destroyed, the bodies that were brutalized, and the cultures and traditions that were abolished or displaced to establish that center space. It tells you a singular and continuous narrative of Western capitalist expansion, obscuring the bleak fact that much of what we call “progress” has been a direct and unrelenting line to the wholesale destruction of the earth. Against this obliterating narrative, I glean from the fragments in an attempt to teach us otherwise. I scramble to harvest alternative histories omitted by the textbooks, the histories of those who have faced annihilation and lived toward survival.
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. This morning, you went off to school to learn discipline, to hone your reading and writing skills, to study official state history. I am at my desk sipping tea, turning over words. The birds are chirping outside my window. You, me, the birds. We are all creatures living as though we have a future, as though tomorrow will continue to resemble today. Meanwhile, plans are being devised to drive the marketplace forward when the earth’s nonrenewable resources are exhausted. Scientists and businessmen are plotting to colonize the moon in a relentless drive to create an alternative human habitat when this one can no longer foster us. There is no consideration of ceasing extraction, only a maniacal mission to discover other worlds to plunder.
When the earth is rendered uninhabitable, when extractive capitalism leads to wholesale ecological collapse, we will not be chosen for this new other-planetary world. We, along with nearly everyone else, will be left in ecological destruction to scavenge what we can from the wreckage, or to perish. The truth is I am glad not to be among the chosen ones. I know in my body the cost of “discovering new worlds,” the brutal violence that accompanies the colonial mission. No, I do not want to leave this planet. What I want is another world. And when I say another world, I mean this one, toppled and reborn.
Another Thanksgiving is upon us, and this year you inform me that your first-grade class will soon be studying Pocahontas. You ask me earnestly whether we might watch the Disney movie together. Intuiting my hesitation, you add that Pocahontas comes from the land near where we now live, and that she is a superimportant person. I concede to your request, knowing you will see this film sooner or later, and finding myself oddly curious about how Disney has rendered this history.
In preparation for our date, we slice apples, pour chamomile tea, and fill bowls with popcorn before climbing into my bed to watch under the covers. Early in the film, you declare that Pocahontas reminds you of yourself, and I ask you how you see a resemblance. Eager to keep your attention on the movie, you briefly list her kindness and her connection with nature. Then, in a fabulous offhanded gesture that makes me laugh, you add that Pocahontas’s hair, which is long, immaculate, and shining black, is quite similar to your own short, ever-disheveled, and unmistakably brown hair.
Moments later—on the heels of your declarative affiliation with Pocahontas—you say, for the first time in your life, I wish I was white. I hit the space bar on the laptop to pause the film. I feel like I’m sliding through time, careening into transmutation. Thirty-five years ago, I too was a little girl wishing for whiteness. I am astonished by the twinning, even though I know intellectually that a childhood wish for whiteness is as mundane as it is predictable. Still, in that split second I want to look into your eyes, our eyes, and say, I have always loved you, little misfit.
“… you say, for the first time in your life, I wish I was white. […] Thirty-five years ago, I too was a little girl wishing for whiteness.” #JuliettaSingh #thebreaks #desireads .@desibooksTweet
Instead, I ask an inane question: Why do you feel this way? You respond without hesitation, bluntly, Because I want to be one of the good guys. I remind you that the only expressly “bad guy” we’ve seen so far in the film is the white Ratcliffe. But I know you are intuiting and absorbing the representation of the “savage” that the film propagates, and so while there is one “bad” white man in this narrative, the “uncivilized” ways of the Indigenous peoples of this film are presented as the real problem. In other words, you are reading the film through its own disturbing lens: the white man is fundamentally good if we can just beat off the one bad seed, and the Indigenous peoples are inherently misguided and belligerent, even while we are given permission to love the girl who dared to love a white man.
How to explain all this to you? How to say in simple terms that we are steeped in layers of ideology that make up a collective sense of goodness, beauty, and civility? To explain that these dominant narratives come to inform, if not dictate, what we desire and how we live our most intimate lives. I cannot shield you from these structures of belief or their profound and abiding effects on you. But I can complicate and unearth them with you. Indeed, my role as your mother may be nothing more than an endless task of reading narratives against the grain, of resisting the mainstream’s consumptive ease.
When the film is done, we turn out the lights to fall asleep together and our ritual unfolds. I whisper, I love you for always. You’re my favorite thing. You respond, Tell me a story, Amma. Then, often together, we say, Once upon a time, a long, long time ago . . . before I break into a fantastical story that you expect me, night after night, to invent for you on the spot.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a magical little girl—
You interrupt me promptly and insist, No! Not magical, Amma!
So, I begin again . . . There was an ordinary little girl . . .
And then, frustrated with my easy adjectival foreclosures, you interrupt to assert that I should not make the story so obvious . . .
Who is the teacher and who is the student in this elementary pedagogy? In the end, it is you who schools me—to always complicate the story, to never prescribe, never reduce. There is infinite promise in this teaching. I hold the lesson in my body.
On the sixth day of a nine-day work trip—the longest period I have been away from you—I FaceTime home and find you deeply engaged in an act of fruit sculpting. You tell me you are making a Powhatan village. The Powhatan people are represented by banana slices, and apple skins make up their shelters. Off to the side of the village, you have crafted colonial ships by slicing kiwis in half, gutting their insides, and attaching the skins to the little fruit boats to serve as sails. You have created rough waters out of banana peels, and a wall of carved-apple manatees that surrounds the kiwi ships on three sides.
What’s happening in this scene? I ask.
The rough waters and manatees are pushing the Europeans back home, you reply earnestly.
I am blown away to witness this art-making against the state, this anticolonial fruit installation that is also a fantasy of organically reversing history. What I love most is that in your historical revisioning, you move us beyond the subjugated histories of Indigenous resistance to colonial force. Instead, you turn your attention to the sea, letting it emerge as an actor in the opposition to the colonial mission. Your artwork veers me away from the anthropocentric position, carefully and imaginatively invoking what the earth itself might desire.
” Who is the teacher and who is the student in this elementary pedagogy? In the end, it is you who schools me—to always complicate the story, to never prescribe, never reduce.” #JuliettaSingh #thebreaks #desireads .@desibooksTweet
You’ve been listening to episode 35 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was from Julietta Singh, reading from her latest book, titled The Breaks: An Essay.
Episode 36 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at email@example.com. And please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter.
Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.[music]
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