C Magazine


Issue 150

The Breaks — Julietta Singh
by Olivia Michiko Gagnon

The Breaks opens with a scene of clashing pedagogies. Julietta Singh’s daughter returns home with a kindergarten lesson that tries to conceal its violence under the veneer of childhood education: “a whitewashed story […] 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.” It’s a dangerous but familiar tale––resonant with others that deform history in service of a settler, white-supremacist, extractive capitalist project. It has also been pulled into increasingly painful shapes by recent discoveries of murdered Indigenous children’s unmarked graves at former residential “school” sites. As Singh writes, only white children “have the privilege of their innocence, while others learn their exclusions from both history and everyday experience.” False stories like the kindergarten lesson are a reminder that some bodies––Indigenous, Black, Brown, migrant, queer, trans, femme, disabled––are rendered more disposable than others. And so, Singh gently reshapes her daughter’s received narrative: “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. […] These […] can teach us how to keep living.”

Crafted as an epistolary offering to her daughter, The Breaks is so far-reaching in what it wants to say, so rhizomatic in its movements, that it’s difficult to capture in words; however, Singh might remind us of the colonial, anti-Black logics of mastery and, therefore, of the desire to capture anything. What I can say is that this brilliant, bursting work (at once aesthetic and poetic) elaborates the need to practice other pedagogies––against coloniality, whiteness, liberal citizenship. Slanted toward survival on a harmed planet, these pedagogies foster resistance by drawing wisdom from anti-colonial struggles, Black and Brown liberation, queer world-making, feminist art-making, and woman of colour feminisms. Grounded in multiple Indigenous worldviews (Oohenumpa Lakota and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, as well as the activism of the American Indian Movement), they push back against our learned separations, immersing themselves in interspecies kinship, co-presence with land, and the inseparability of racial and ecological justice.

From this place grows an expansive ethics that asks how we might become accountable to more than we possess. This call against self-containment hails us toward something queerer in its desire to move beyond the privatization of the heteronormative nuclear family, to make kin and home otherwise. In this, I hear an invitation to really live, as Denise Ferreira da Silva writes, our “difference without separability.” The pedagogies that Singh unfolds cultivate solidarity among the oppressed; work in interstitial spaces concealed by racial binaries; hold complexities of Brownness, migration, belonging nowhere, and the impossibility of returning anywhere; labour to build collectivities through unexpected forms of intimacy; and never disavow complicity, never stop breathlessly asking: how might we “yoke together to change the course of history?” Acknowledging that for many of us, none of this—land, water, the place we call “home”—was ever ours. “I am sorry. Please take it back.

Revolutionary parenting can be a site of such pedagogies, on the condition that it forgoes investments in reproductive sameness. And so, Singh–– drawing on Black feminist works by M. Jacqui Alexander and Saidiya Hartman––unfolds the trans- formative possibility of parenting as the disruption of everything hitherto taken for granted. At stake is a reworlding that demands we upend our under- standing of inheritance itself as we waver––together, if differently––on the brink of extinction. What if inheritance were not something passed down intact? No longer property nor accrued capital, but an opportunity to un- and remake ourselves together? And if we insisted on doing this in the present, as we come into contact with pasts both revolutionary and violent, stories told and silenced? If we did this in service of a future that must continually be enacted here and now? Singh needs us to know that this will necessitate coming undone, breaking with all that we can no longer sustain, with everything we thought we needed, who we thought we were or should be.

The Breaks’ final scene is framed by violences of the present. The COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and that which emerges in response: Singh’s daughter’s alternative at-home education, the uprising of bodies taking to the streets. Singh and her daughter are heading toward what the latter has renamed the “All Free Forest” (where “everyone […] can be as free as they wish, as long as they respect the land”) when they encounter two mounted police. Both are unnerved, but the horses’ presence means that Singh’s daughter begins chatting away. Singh reluctantly makes conversation with one of the cops, their focus turning to the ongoing global health crisis, which she insists is “hailing us toward an ethics that is so much wider and more capacious than we have known, so much less divisive.” The officer says that he used to be a drug unit cop, but that “This guy here”––referring to his horse––“has changed everything for me.” Singh is unexpectedly moved as he strokes the animal’s muzzle, though this tenderness doesn’t make her feel that she and her daughter could ever be safe in the presence of these enforcers of state discipline.

There’s a strange unresolved everythingness to this last scene. It holds the weight of police brutality, racisms past and present, alongside a flash of humanimal kinship, the powerful reverberances of Black Lives Matter, a reverence for land (the “All Free Forest”) shaped by a Brown decolonial maternity, and a dawning ethics of care grounded in bodily vulnerability. It’s as if violence and possibility are glimpsed momentarily in the same frame. If we are to live through the breaks and heal into new collective shapes not yet known, then this might be the place to work from: refusing to look away from violence, we must “[cull] what is of use from history,” while letting go of more than we ever thought possible—no less than possibly everything about how many of us live our lives, given how entwined they are with racial violence, extractive capitalism, and colonial dispossession. There can be pain in moments of breakage, but it’s this necessary rupture that we must choose as our inheritance––whatever comes, however we find one another in its aftermaths, whatever kind of thing we might become or cease to be. As Singh writes to her daughter, “I desire never to lose you, but for the sake of life itself, I need you to lose me”––an offering so bursting with generosity and urgency, love and grace, that I couldn’t help but weep.