“Transformative” is an overused word. Few things change us in the moment and are unerasable in their impact. Giving birth, however, is transformative—regardless of whether or not we wish it to be. The transformation is literal: a child’s cells often remain in our bodies for the remainder of our lifetimes. We are no longer singular—we become carriers of our child’s genetic code. Whether or not we care for them, whether or not they survive, once they are born, a child is etched into our bodies.
Balsam Karam’s second novel, The Singularity, translated by Saskia Vogel and published by Feminist Press, understands how a child leaves an indelible imprint on a birthing parent. The truth of the book’s main conceit rings through my bones: that the pain of one mother is the pain of another, and that its aftereffects can be felt through generations. That to become a mother is to be inducted into a world of unimaginable joy and incomprehensible pain. That nothing can comfort you after a child’s death. And that losing a child is akin to losing a home.
It’s fitting that Karam chose a quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved as an epigraph: The Singularity charts its own course through “rememory,” as Morrison’s Sethe calls it, that state where the lines between past and present blur in grief. The Singularity revolves around two mothers, both unnamed, their experiences joined after a chance encounter on the corniche of a coastal town. One mother, bleeding and in rags, sets her bag down before throwing herself from a cliff. The other, pregnant and avoiding her coworkers, witnesses the fall. In the bag, she finds fliers depicting a missing young girl and the end of a scented bar of soap. Weeks later, she learns that her baby has died in the womb. Both mothers are refugees: the former, driven from a mountain community into an alley in the tourist-infested coastal town; the latter, fleeing violence to settle in a cold, predominantly white, northern country where she experiences isolation and discrimination because of her race and refugee status.
As a translator, Vogel has said that she is attracted to formally experimental works, and The Singularity falls squarely into that category. Split into four parts, it jumps between characters, giving both mothers approximately the same amount of narrative space. The prologue revolves around the moment when the two mothers briefly make eye contact, establishing the connection that sets the stage for the novel’s exploration of grief and displacement. In Vogel’s English translation, one of these mothers—the one who, visiting and pregnant, witnesses the other’s suicide—is described using the second person. This repeated “you” invites the reader to join in her act of witnessing, and to feel the same connection to the dying woman’s pain.
“What mother doesn’t take her own life after a child disappears/dies?” So goes one of the novel’s refrains. I confess I’ve often considered this question. I’ve emailed clothing companies about water-repellent technology, become superstitious and fascistic about phone use near my baby’s head. I’ve considered moving countries after learning how much glyphosate has been found in my rolled oats, and PFAS in my peanut butter, and that the decommissioned nuclear plant in the town where my son was born has started venting wastewater. I’ve watched as, late at night, burning with a 106-degree fever, my son told me glassy-eyed that he loved me, and I’ve waited for him to fall back asleep before crying convulsively, muffling my sobs in the pillow next to him, sick with the fear that his words were a farewell. I’ve mourned miscarriages, too, possibilities I’d dreamt up, children I’d hoped to keep. I’ve felt fury, immense and bottomless, when I discovered that I couldn’t buy safety—that using my privilege to build a moat around my child wouldn’t guarantee his wellbeing.
The novel’s second part, titled “The Missing One,” follows the woman who jumped, days before she takes her life, as she searches for her daughter. The mother is not the only one in mourning; this daughter’s disappearance reverberates through her family. The grandmother descends into the shadows of the alley, and the Missing One’s remaining siblings become a chorus of yearning, wondering when their mother will return, conjuring memories of their former home on the red mountain and all the ways their older sister helped shield them from the lack and degradation they have endured since soldiers drove them from it. (“Do you remember we once asked her why she didn’t sit in the [library’s] armchair when it was free and she shook her head and said she couldn’t bear anyone looking at her as if she were soiling it. Do you remember that she then picked us up and put us in the armchair instead and said that we should never think that of ourselves, that we were soiling things?”)
For each of these characters, memories—of their life before the soldiers came, ushering them into this alley full of rats and cockroaches, with not even a wall to hold up a tarp that could shield them from the sun; of the determined irreverence of the Missing One; of the friends who have gone missing, too—are a tangible presence, just as real, if not more so, than the throngs of strangers who visit the restaurants catering to tourists on the corniche each night, or the schoolchildren devouring lollipops as they stare, or the men who try to coax the children into the same void that the Missing One was snatched into.
Karam’s grief-stricken characters aren’t the only ones experiencing a split reality: the observers, those on the outside, seem to blink themselves into and out of existence. In a passing moment, white tourists see the mother, the children, their wounds, and their hunger. Then they will their attention away—down the road, across the street. Tourists do not step back from the lookout point and waiters do not stop serving aperitifs as the mother throws herself off the cliff. Of course, they may not have noticed her—but the text begs the question: did they fail to see this woman because they’ve decided that people exhibiting suffering do not exist?
Karam doesn’t waste words on their motivations—the tourists and spectators are a peripheral presence pressing down on the text. What matters is the work of a mother walking her rounds, talking to her dead daughter, waking from a wind-battered night and creating a pillow out of stones on the beach so that her daughter’s ghost will know that it is a place to rest.
In Vogel’s translation, Karam’s writing is sharp, piercing, full of chasms. Karam is of Kurdish descent, having lived in Sweden from a young age, and she depicts refugee life—the vulnerability of homelessness, the cruelty of forced assimilation—with unflinching prose. There are also glimpses of care and humanity: a community of college students sheltering in a half-constructed house; the greengrocer who brings food to the alley; the children who, moving their stones from one side of the alley to the other, build their own haven, then offer a group of orphans water with which to wash themselves. The children in this book are written incredibly well—their desire to occupy their mother, like territory; their need to receive; their adaptation and their play. And again and again, grief is shatteringly rendered. “If the loss without end is present—and it is, she can feel it like she can feel her fingertips on her eyelids and the dust that sometimes sweeps along the street and disappears—it has been inside her as far back as she can remember,” one mother reflects.
The third and fourth parts of the novel leave the corniche behind and inhabit the perspective of the second woman—the “you” from the prologue. After returning from her work trip, she cannot forget the woman who threw herself from the cliff. She keeps the Missing One’s flier in her notebook and holds on to the small stump of soap. When two white doctors explain that her baby is stillborn, she feels certain that her unborn child died at the moment she saw the woman jump. She feels as though the barriers and circumstances distinguishing herself from that woman—even the cell membranes—have become null.
Formal experimentation abounds in these final two sections. In part three, the narrative breaks down, splitting between the dialogue in the present, where white doctors and therapists ask the mother to induce labor and rid her body of her stillborn child; her memories of leaving her homeland; and the retold experiences of the women who came before her. These three distinct perspectives appear side by side in the text, separated by slashes, such that the narrative begins to mirror the singularity its protagonist is experiencing, weaving these mothers’ pain together in a tighter and tighter cord until it is difficult to tease apart. This choral structure gives the reader a glimpse into the full weight of loss that the woman has inherited, even as the external authorities fail to understand how, faced with adding the memory of her child’s death to those she already carries, she is considering letting herself die as well. Part four is composed of fragments—memories of a childhood friend who died in a bombing shortly after she fled her home country, or a conversation in which her mother tells a caseworker about being tortured in prison and the caseworker replies that it will be difficult for her to find a job.
The Singularity shares similar visual touchstones with Balsam Karam’s first book, Event Horizon, which made use of science fiction elements to tell its story of people who live on the outskirts, some crocheting potholders to sell on the street. Although that novel was never published in English in its entirety, Vogel worked on translating an excerpt—an experience that surely contributed to her deft and incisive work on The Singularity, whose prologue is undeniably powerful in its marriage of economy and fluidity. While Karam’s second novel also takes its title from astrophysics, The Singularity reads as a great argument for realism: Karam’s world and its characters are excellently rendered in its harsh light. Reading the novel, one is confronted with the fact that the most essential part of mothering—and humanity—is inconsistent with being a bystander. When pain is something we can pretend doesn’t or shouldn’t touch us, the lie creates a barrier. This artificial remove, nurtured by our fears, kills our essential instinct to care. Without it, we would all clearly see that every mother’s pain is also our own.
© 2024 by Liz Wood. All rights reserved.