Novelist and poet Jaspreet Singh’s latest book is for people who like memoirs—and, more exceptionally, for readers who are generally not fans of genre, too. This is because My Mother, My Translator is not your “typical memoir” as the author himself tells us. For one thing, this is a memoir that somehow got written despite its author’s own dread of writing it, a book written against the headwinds of strong resistance. “The saying goes, ‘we are the stories we tell,’ ” Singh writes. “But—we are also the stories we choose not to tell. In fact, we are more the stories we don’t tell and will never be able to tell.” In this regard, Singh cleaves to the example of predecessors such as James Baldwin, for whom writing provided a way of “finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.” With this aim in mind, My Mother, My Translator valiantly confronts the weight of silence—both the author’s own and that of others—to excavate the “woundful” tales and memories asking to be told, however painful.
The historical cataclysms of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the 1984 genocide of Sikhs in India—the latter also the focus of Singh’s earlier poetry collection, November—are two main traumas that the memoir explores. As the title suggests, it is his mother’s silences that Singh is especially concerned to fathom—partly because the author is keenly aware of the erasure of women’s history in a deeply patriarchal culture, but also because of the complex bond of mother and son in this case, a delicate balance of mutual respect and wariness. Both resistant writers, and both translators (of each other’s work, yet), Singh and his mother share literary aspirations, but not generational values. A memoir by his mother—work that remained unfinished at her death—provides the central impetus for My Mother, My Translator.
Along the way, we follow as the author explores his own sense of displacement as a diasporic, itinerant writer, frequently globetrotting from one artist’s residency to the next (an intriguing narrative strand throughout). The memoirist also uncovers a score of other memorable characters, including Bhapaji, the author’s maternal grandfather. Bhapaji, equal parts man of science and of God, holds daily “dialogues” between God and Charles Darwin, with one or the other prevailing on alternate days. His establishment of a memorial library in honour of his deceased wife occasions some of the most poignant moments in the book. (“My grandfather would wait for hours on end for the arrival of readers, but rarely did anyone show up.”). Likewise, Singh’s taciturn military father is a study in contrasts. “Father” remains a forbidding presence throughout, yet his resistance to memory (“Why go raking up the past?”) also provides welcome humour: “Time to check my latest WhatsApp messages,” he declares, whenever pressed for memories. Such mixed family ties are handled with sensitivity and compiled in an innovative form as a series of “intermittencies,” or short bursts of “flash meditations.” Glossary entries and poems also vary the book’s structure.
My Mother, My Translator does struggle, at times self-consciously, with focus. This becomes especially pronounced toward the end. Paradoxically, closure itself is the last form of resistance here—as though, once the demons of the past are loosed, all sorts of traumas clamour for admittance, from climate crisis to a sister’s buried story, all introduced at the eleventh hour. My Mother, My Translator is nevertheless impactful. After all, if “stories have consequences,” “so do silences.”
—Christine Wiesenthal is a professor in the faculty of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.