tue 23/07/2024

Extract: The Breaks by Julietta Singh | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: The Breaks by Julietta Singh

Extract: The Breaks by Julietta Singh

Mothering when the future must look different and tomorrow will not resemble today

Singh is associate professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Richmond in VirginiaChase Joynt

How do we mother at the end of the world? Among the ruins of late capitalism, climate catastrophe, and entrenched white state violence?

Julietta Singh “admit[s] that at a conceptual level there is a crucial part of me that wants to throw in the towel on human life.” Yet, she adds, “motherhood complicates this conceptual willingness.” The Breaks, addressed to Singh’s daughter for her to read (at six years old) and re-read throughout her lifetime, meditates on the rupture between mother and child that will be necessary for her to inherit and transform this world: “I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent.” Her wish is for this break “to be not an end, but an act of profound and collective renewal”, a breaking with rather than from. Her essay-letter explores the possibilities this might offer, while moving lyrically and urgently through the points of crisis. It is written out of a desire to “complicate and unearth” the ideological narratives her daughter is surrounded with, as a Brown American girl: [Y]ou have been learning what it means to be American through a manicured version of history that keeps European whiteness at its centre.” She knows she must give her daughter other stories and other ways of understanding those stories. Yet fundamental to The Breaks is Singh’s desire to be taught “against [her] own teaching.”

Breaking might be an act of fracture, the making of a gap, a decisive movement away, but it might also be an interval. The book’s inky cover is suggestive of the collapse and continuity of waves, which break with one another, again and again.


Last year, as we walked to school hand in hand through the lush green streets of Richmond, Virginia, you asked me with stark curiosity whether you would have been a slave had you lived here in another time. The question did not come as an absolute surprise, because I knew you had been studying Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson in kindergarten. Only months into your formal education, and you were already immersed in a top-down history that tells you Black folks became free through the noble gestures of white presidential slave owners. This history slyly refuses to include the resistance from below that has always made freedom possible. It is a history that will not tell you how hard and through what means Black and Brown people have fought to be free, how crushing the blows of European ‘progress’ have been to those subjected to its force.

Your question was hard for me to answer because its limbs extended in so many directions, because it required not a single answer, not a reductive no or yes, but a careful inventory of moving bodies. Some of those bodies came with colonial minds, some were ‘discovered’ here and brutally eradicated or displaced, some were captured from elsewhere and forced across the ocean, and others came from distant lands to save or improve their lives. At its root, your question was a way of asking where your body fits into the racial economy of this nation. And the answer to that question must necessarily be a dynamic one.

I tightened my grip on your hand, slowed our pace, and drew you close. I told you that people like us did not live here during the time of slavery. But already I was wondering about the words I used – people like us. Who was this us I had summoned to make sense of things for you? At the time, I had undoubtedly meant those critically impacted by the force and manipulation of British colonialism in India. But my utterance also implicated the Jews who were exterminated and those who narrowly escaped the Nazi camps. 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.

Our particular histories are those of imperial conquest, mass extermination, and nearly unimaginable forms of racial and religious violence. But here in America, it is toward the local histories of genocide, slavery, forced religious and cultural conversion, and internment that we must reach in solidary. Each of us who emerges from the subjugated ends of history, who stands outside whiteness but is also saturated by its power, shares something not only at the surface of our bodies but also deep within them.


I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now, the one who both insists on her unequivocal need for my body and loves to perform her independence from me.

You slide your hands along my skin, expressing your endless love for my body as you lock your arms around my waist. I am busy with some task – an email, the groceries, a lecture that needs to be written – and when I try to unlatch, you strike a dramatic tone and declare, But I need your body to live! We both laugh, understanding that in this fantasy you are a helpless infant and I a gigantic breast, the wellspring of your survival. You have outgrown my womb and my milk, but my body remains your target. A deeply desired dwelling place, a fantasy of origin and endless return.

The Breaks front cover Yet in the social world, you are all independence and moxie, a creature that appears to have sprung autonomously, fully formed. You toddled, then dashed, now saunter into social spaces and make your presence known. At the farmers’ market, you help the farmers organise and sell their produce. At the grocery, you join your ‘co-workers’, chatting with the employees as you help bag groceries or work the customer service desk. You don’t always mind your parents nearby but make clear your strong preference that we kick back at a distance, let you navigate your own social relations. You both need me to live and love to not need me at all.

I am writing also 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.

Over half a century ago, James Baldwin repeatedly wrote and tore up drafts of a letter penned to his nephew and namesake until he was able to articulate the plain, pitiless fact that the younger James would face profound struggle for no other reason but the fact of his Blackness. More recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates followed Baldwin to elucidate for his son the brutal truth of state violence inflicted against Black bodies. It is no coincidence that both Baldwin and Coates have felt an urgency to write to fifteen-year-old boys tipping into manhood, their Black paternal mouths spilling with revolutionary promise as they equip their boys to face a criminal justice system designed to exploit and devour them.

I write to you with a different urgency. I write not with the immediate fear that you will be gunned down by police in the streets, or that you will be metabolised by the prison industrial complex, but with an adjacent set of fears about being a Brown girl in a country that thinks and feels race through a sharp binary. I write with an impossible desire to prepare you for political and ecological catastrophe. I write because the burden of history – the indispensable need to keep us all from coming apart – keeps falling on the shoulders of girls and women of colour. I write because, as mother and daughter, we are unmistakably entwined, and because I know – which is to say I feel in the most microbial registers of my body – that the shape of our entwinement will need to be radically reformed as we fight global patriarchy, extractive capitalism, and indiscriminate planetary destruction.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters