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A Year in Reading: Julietta Singh

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How to Hold a Body

I spent most of this year reading through Canadian archives in pursuit of a strange new project, a search for traces of women who lived, worked, and studied in my childhood home before me. I have been trying to imagine through what logics I might say that their lives have shaped my own, what forms of ethical belonging and attachment we might invent to sustain life. I’m reaching for other women across time and text, across histories of race, class, and disability, envisioning a single brick and mortal space as a portal through which I might understand my connection and responsibility to place and people differently. 

My search has been mostly virtual because I’ve remained in a certain state of seclusion this past year, with a nine-year old unvaccinated whirlwind in my midst, trying, like all of us, to live safely together. In the face of so many tangible enclosures produced through the pandemic, my reading life this year has been attuned to affective openings, to women writers making space for each other and for other possible worlds. I’ve spent the year remembering that literature has, across my life, been a space for kinship, for breathing. 

At the turn of the new year, I lifted Dionne Brand’s No Language Is Neutral off the shelf, a collection I hadn’t read since 1999, when I was young, lost, and wanting, and did not know how to hold the heft of the world. I lit a candle, smoked a bowl, and opened that thin collection to discover these words: “this is you girl, this cut of road up/to Blanchicheuse, this every turn a piece/of blue and earth carrying on, beating, rock and/ocean this wearing away, smoothing the insides/pearl and shell and coral”… this is you girl felt like a hailing, the most intimate ecological invitation I had ever received, an aperture into queer love through which I blinked and blinked and blinked. 

In the half-cold Virginia winter, I read Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem and was felled by its everything. Grieving and revolutionary, the body here is a warrior that holds colonialism and its undoing in its bones. For all of its Indigenous love, it also asks us—through our different languages, histories, and geographies—to break down this neocolonial world and build another. I did not know Diaz when I read this book, but her words felt like sister words. Two seasons later, when she appeared one late autumn evening at my doorstep and broke me from my pandemic enclosure, she reminded me that where we discover ourselves in words is also where we ground ourselves in the world. 

In the darker months, I picked up Ada Limon’s The Carrying, which articulated so stunningly that what we do not carry also has weight, the heft of which can bend us into other shapes and configurations. I spent some time with her work after this, traveling through her collections in reverse to see how she had arrived here, to this place where my reading her made such perfect sense, where our paths became concert. I felt a deep pleasure at the late discovery that Diaz and Limon had exchanged letter poems released under the title “Envelopes of Air,” where the thickening of female friendship and the poetry of political critique are sutured spheres.  

I kept returning this year to how literature offers a sense of what you wish to have, or what you wished to have had, or what you wish for others to have. Come spring, I sat on the back porch with the greening elm tree and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, taken by how a book that so starkly details the violence inflicted on Asian American bodies manages also to portray the bonds and struggles of feminist friendship forged through art. When the book shifts into an intimate reach for the brilliant writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was raped and murdered in Manhattan in 1982, it’s as though these two writers are stitching themselves together. An impossible reach across time, but together they tell a story that has not yet been heard about the precarity of being a minoritized woman artist, and about how we might continue to hold each other across all thresholds, including our violent deaths. 

Launched back in the classroom this autumn, I took refuge in feminist classics as I struggled with the fact of being so tangibly back in the world. Rereading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was attuned to things I hadn’t considered before, dynamics of care that hadn’t yet landed for me. I’ve always thought of Phoebe, the protagonist’s best friend, as merely the gateway into the story, the one who offers our protagonist the attention she needs to tell us her story. But this time around, I noticed how Phoebe in her “hungry listening” is fueled by the possibilities of what Janie’s adventures might open for her own life. Phoebe, who is “eager to feel and do through Janie.” Phoebe, who while listening “couldn’t help moving her feet.” Phoebe, whose body is readying itself for the stories of other lives lived, whose body holds the eagerness and promise of what those stories might make possible for herself and for us. 

Rereading Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, I was likewise struck by what Mala, a woman so violently dehumanized by the force of colonial patriarchy, continues to make possible for others. In one incredible scene, she offers her transfeminine nurse Ty a dress to wear, and when Ty dons the dress, Mala simply turns away and carries on with her business. It takes Ty a moment to realize that Mala is not failing to bear witness, but rather offering the greatest gesture of feminist friendship: the creation of space and opportunity to let others thrive. 

In mid-October, I sat by the seaside on my birthday reading Divya Victor’s Curb. At the point of contact between water and land, I held tightly to this book that is all about location, those coordinates at which minoritized lives are subjected to violence, stamped out through hatred and misrecognition. Reading by the sea, where the landscape is all smooth and swell, the curbs emerged as both weapons and thresholds, wounds and possibilities. There, we find the poetic coordinates of hate crimes, but we find also the promise of desi sisters wandering the world on “anywhere walks” and learning to fight it through their “anywhere mouths.” Always at the edge of war and friendship, Curb reminds us that in brutality we still manage to lift, salvage, hold the beautiful things, not least of which each other. 

When Natalie Diaz appeared at my door in mid-November as a stranger-friend, I wanted to show her the spectacular orange burst of maple leaves outside my window. Instead, we joked about being different kinds of Indians, indelibly linked through colonialism’s power to name and consume, until our laughter loosened with a coming familiarity. Before she left, she asked if I could show her the mangle of my foot, a once broken appendage that healed so abundantly it took on the shape of a new thing. As I peeled off my sock, she wrapped her hand around the calcified swell, her palm shelling my creature-foot. One appendage becoming flesh home to another, as if to explain: this is how to hold a body—we harbor the breaks, then build the belonging-world.

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