*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #35, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
Author and academic Julietta Singh flunked out of college on her first try. Now almost 20 years later, she’s a tenured professor at the University of Richmond, and she’s authored two books — both released in 2018.
After spending over a decade in the slog of academia, Singh has had a breakthrough year. Her first published work, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements, was released in January by Duke University Press. Her latest, No Archive Will Restore You, was fresh to the shelves this November from Punctum Books.
Both books were written from a queer feminist perspective, but they couldn’t be farther apart in terms of style and content.
Unthinking Mastery is a dense, academic text that draws on postcolonial theory and queer theory, analyzing the concept of mastery in modern politics and anticolonial movements. It’s primarily a scholarly text, but the book also contains scattered autobiographical elements which aren’t typically found in academic writing.
“I used experiences from growing up, as a racially-mixed person in a very racist, small city in Canada, to elucidate some of the concepts I was trying to talk about,” Singh said. “The book became kind of infused by auto-theoretical writing, where I inserted myself into an academic book where I don’t belong.”
Her newest book, No Archive Will Restore You, takes this idea to an extreme, fully merging academic theory with autobiographical writing. It engages with a range of intellectual ideas on a deeply personal level.
Singh’s willingness to stray from the confines of academic writing is partly due to her own off-kilter journey through academia. She barely made it through high school, then dropped out of college after her first year. Around that time, she was working on and off as a tree planter in the Canadian bush: A popular summer job for alternative youth in Canada, where the logging industry is a major economic force.
“Basically a bunch of weirdo youth,” Singh said. “A lot of punks, hippies, crust punks, and all different kinds of young people pay their way through their education, or their lives, by replanting clear-cut forests.”
“We would plant thousands of trees a day, and just lived in the woods in a communal space where nudity became totally mundane. Everyone was living this radical, communal life.”
She was also involved in the local DIY scene in her hometown of Winnipeg, which gave rise to bands like Propagandhi and Personality Crisis. She spent several years working as an amateur journalist, although she quickly became disillusioned with the work.
Singh finally returned to school in her mid-20s, but said that her formative experiences in DIY spaces stayed with her as she went through her undergraduate and postgraduate programs.
“I never felt in sync with it,” she said of academia. “I always felt that I was a few steps off.”
According to Singh, she approached No Archive with the DIY attitude in mind, and it shows. The book’s collage-like narrative is artfully- and urgently-written, and embraces a certain ‘devil-may-care’ attitude not often found in academic writing.
The book is part of a growing body of feminist and queer-feminist literature, called auto-theory, that counts authors like Maggie Nelson, Wayne Kostenbaum, and Paul B. Preciado in its ranks.
“It’s a style that refuses the distinction between the theoretical and the personal,” Singh said. “Instead of theory being something that’s very head-in-the-clouds, theory becomes something very intimate to thinking about one’s life.”
No Archive Will Restore You is separated into six sections, which zig-zag between storytelling and abstract speculation. The book is written in non-linear fragments, but continually returns to themes of queer identity, race, and the body.
Singh’s narratives are deeply entangled with the work of other academics, and draw on the works of Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Derrida, and Elaine Scarry to expand on her ideas. Intertextual analysis and impressionistic anecdotes are intertwined to construct a piece of literature that defies easy categorization.
The book uses theory to think through big questions like pain, motherhood, and love in the internet age, and returns over and over to the body as a place that is both politicized and intensely personal. The following passage takes a literal approach to this duality, as the author remembers the research of a fellow graduate student:
“She was several years ahead of me in her PhD, writing about Argentine women who, as political prisoners during the last dictatorship, stored subversive literature in their vaginal canals. She called this ‘The vaginal library.’ Both metaphor and place, the vaginal library seemed to me an embodied archive in organic ruin. It brought the notion of “preservation” into the cell in a doubled sense: into those cages that imprisoned women, and into the cellular structures of their bodies.”
The passage illustrates the overlap between autobiographical narrative and theory, as well as the free-flowing style of the book. According to Singh, No Archive began as a collection of poetry, but ultimately veered away from its poetic format as she began to incorporate disparate, stylistic elements into the work.
“There’s a lot of ways in which it engages with existing genres and existing conventions in writing, but it also exceeds them, or slips away from them,” she said. “It’s poetic, but it’s not poetry. It’s got essay-like qualities, but it’s not an essay. It’s autobiographical writing, but it’s not a memoir.”
Singh began working on the book during the writing of Unthinking Mastery. In many ways, she said, No Archive was a response the rigidity of the academic work she was doing at the time.
“Writing Unthinking Mastery made me really want to think and feel and write in a different way,” she said. “It felt like something urgent that I needed to put down on paper.”
The author is currently working on several other books that are still in the early stages of writing. Her upcoming works deal with a variety of topics ranging from environmental issues to queer and feminist representations of extinction.
“All my preoccupations are about the end of the world,” she said.
Top Photo by Alexis Courtney