Modes of Witness: On “The Singularity” and “The Simple Art of Killing a Woman”

Despite their opposing answers to the question—what to do with the grief of witnessing?—both novels lead us up and back down the long, winding road of grief and witness.

If grief had a face, it would be a woman’s.

Florence Thompson, the portrait of the Great Depression, holds her hungry children. Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the image of the Vietnam War, is screaming, naked, running from napalm. The Cyprian woman clasps her hands over her heart. Mary is forever weeping over the body of Christ.

The historical woman is often grieving, and often she is nameless, too—“condemned to the pose for the rest of her existence,” Saidiya Hartman writes. Florence Thompson’s photo was staged to emphasize the “forlorn aspects of [her] poverty,” even as she remained unnamed and uncompensated for 40 years. And Phan’s activism, critically-acclaimed biography, and prize-winning work with UNESCO did little to change her unwelcome christening in 1972. “It’s been 50 years. I am not ‘Napalm Girl’ anymore,” Phan wrote for the New York Times. “I was a figure of pity … I feared no one would love me.”

Hartman in her own work asks what it means “to love that which can’t be loved.” Her Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is dedicated to what she calls the “minor figure” and to “retrieving [her] from oblivion.” Indeed, what would it look like to make the minor figure into a major one, or at least the main one, the main character? And what would this main character say about her own grief?

The grieving woman of Balsam Karam’s The Singularity does not have a face. She is, in fact, invisible, “her body already fading in the late summer heat,” into the “tattered sunbaked landscape cupped by two empty hands.” The first time she speaks—which is not until page 10—she reveals the reason for her grief: “Has anyone seen my daughter? … Help me find her, help me get justice.” Even then, her words are without authority, spoken in retrospect, part of the flyer she presses to a passing windshield, waved away by tourists, dissolving into the page. Each time she speaks, it is like this: she slips in and out of italics, her dialogue indistinguishable from her thoughts, memories, hallucinations, and imaginations. Her language is one that “no one here understands or wants anything to do with.” She is stateless and nameless and unseen in her grief. And so “the shadows deeper than the day before render her invisible.”

When the grieving woman commits suicide on the same page we first see her speak, another woman bears witness, a narrator named “You.” One grieving woman multiplies, then, into two. And in this moment, we are swept into the spiraling singularity of the novel: the grief of bearing witness to an unnamed thing. The death of one’s child. Men who “try to lure the children away.” The loneliness of the refugee unit. The grieving woman. The “body [dug] out of the rubble.” And even You, Yourself, your unrecognizable body trapped in time. “She still does not understand whose body it is that she’s looking at in the mirror shard dusty leaning against one wall in the alley,” Karam writes. “If the body is hers, why is it still here? If it’s still here, why is it unfit?”

The Singularity does not unfold linearly. Rather, it expands like a “woun[d] round and open,” mirroring in its form both the impossible shape of grief and the slippery infinitude of witness. One grieving woman witnesses the death of another grieving woman. One is displaced, the other a tourist. One is a mother to many; the other will give birth to a stillborn. And the narratorial voice moves beyond these two figures—once again, multiplied. It is lent to their mothers, to children of their past and present, and to the Missing One through the same indistinguishable italics. The Singularity, then, is at once a “scream unfurling” and an “eternal dance across the rocks”—piercing in its grief and plural in its delivery. Karam writes:

Grief draws in and widens the distances without the children knowing how or why, and in the bushes that no longer bloom, what is burnt pushes through the deep green and takes over; at the mouth of the alley, an orange tree no longer rises like a crown over the patch of earth …

So the narrative bears bountiful witness through repetition, widening its scope “each time using new words and in a different order.” The grieving woman is invisible, yes—inaudible, fading, and soon dead. But still Karam has chosen her as the novel’s focal point; her death is the striking moment of recognition, her invisibility the freedom, her grief the singularity upon which every other voice and memory is built. We begin every day again with this woman, until her death: “Late summer one Friday night in a city half obscured,” “Friday morning one late summer in a city,” “Friday morning one late summer in a harbour town spread out along a coastline nestled against the mountains and near a bay.” We track her invisible steps to “where the sun does not reach and something darker and larger blooms,” into the alleys tourists dare not look. We even hear her voice between the lines of the second narrator, pregnant with a stillborn child, long after the former’s death: “Can you hear me? / when I asked for a soft drink, I got it and when I asked for bread, there was more / hello there, can you hear me?” The pregnant woman then repeats the former’s words from 60 pages prior: “What mother doesn’t take her own life when a child dies?

Indeed, the grieving woman’s invisibility becomes the novel’s precise mode of narration, its character trait and formal intervention. She who has lost her child, she who is displaced, she who is forsaken, silenced, italicized, childless, old, and unrecognizable even to herself—this mere “woman” is now every voice in the narrative. She is the grieving woman. She is the pregnant woman. She is the grandmother in the alley, and also Gran, and Mum, and “my friend Rozia … found in the rubble after a bombing.” And she is “You.”

It’s early winter, you’re lying on a hospital bed / it’s late summer, you’re standing with your feet in the sea—can you see it happening?

Karam’s masterful breaking of form—and Saskia Vogel’s tender translation—transforms the grieving woman’s property of invisibility, her textual slipperiness, into a narratorial superpower. The Singularity refuses clarity and specificity in order to fully hold this one woman and her one grief, which is also many women, and also many griefs. Such is the polyphonic, multiplicitous singularity.

What would it look like to make the minor figure into a major one, or at least the main one, the main character? And what would this main character say about her own grief?

If Balsam Karam refuses specificity as a mode of witness, Patrícia Melo insists on it. Melo’s newest book, The Simple Art of Killing a Woman, is a mixed-genre account of femicide in Brazil—and how this gender-based violence intersects with indigeneity, Blackness, and socio-racial legibility. Melo’s politics are plain, and her mission is to name. “It was a pain like this,” she writes, “particular and queasy.”

And so, very particularly, she names:

“They killed Txupira. They killed Queila. They killed Daniela. They killed Eudinéia & Iza & Silvana & Degmar & Raele. They killed Jucielle. They killed Regina … They killed Scarlath. They killed Tatiana Spitzner. They killed Elaine Figueiredo Lacerda. They killed Rayane Barros de Castro. They killed Fernanda Siqueira. They killed Rita, the journalist.”

The novel is set in Acre, home to 15 indigenous groups and, at the time of the book’s original publication, the site of the highest rate of femicide in Brazil. Melo wants to name this, too. In emphatic, angry prose, she writes that “indigenous people are lower than Black people, who are lower than the poor, who are lower even than women … We treat our indigenous peoples like shit.” Later, she states again that indigenous people “simply don’t exist. They were decimated; they’re still being decimated.” And even later: “With their machetes and their mirrors … these people hoodwinked the indigenous community, who had always been there and who were the true owners of this vast jungle. They ejected, killed or enslaved the indigenous people.”

Although much of The Simple Art of Killing a Woman is a project of naming, Melo’s narrator herself remains nameless. She is a lawyer who has come to Acre on a pro bono assignment, who has her own obsessions with rectifying gender-based violence: her mother was murdered by her father. As she documents Acre’s femicide court proceedings, and as she runs away from the ex-boyfriend who slapped her, our narrator also unravels the mystery of her mother’s death. She finds that deaths like her mother’s are “endless” and “monstrous.” They are “mulheres empilhadas”—women stacked, piled up, the direct translation of the novel’s original title.

Thus the grief of the novel is, like Balsam Karam’s The Singularity, the grief of bearing witness to an unnamed thing: these “mountains of dead women stretched all around me—too many names recorded in my notebook.” If indeed the cries of these women have become a mere “part of our soundscape,” then The Simple Art of Killing a Woman attempts to alter the soundscape altogether in its insistent repetition. Melo’s directness leaves no room for mistranslation: “We women are dying like flies,” she writes. She repeats: “we are chopped up and buried,” “women are dying on an industrial scale,” “they kill and we are dying,” “in our homes is where we’re dying,” “we’re also dying like mosquitoes.”

So The Simple Art of Killing a Woman bears bountiful witness through its repetition, not of metaphor but political statement, fact, and serious proclamation. “When a woman dies, her story must be told and retold a thousand times,” Melo writes. This is the justice—the mode of witness—of the novel.

After all, as the narrator’s grandmother says, “Our silence is bullshit. Your mother died because of the silence. These women died because they weren’t able to speak. Not speaking … is the tragedy.” So Melo transforms her nameless narrator into an oracle. She is both storyteller and sacred witness, and through her, dead women speak; “she becomes me and I become her.” Transcending form, grammar, and language, the narrator “& Elaine. / & Fernanda. / & Iza. / & Ketlen. / & Raele. / & Eudinéia. / & Txupira” come alive again and again, each with a “vagina [that] is free now, winged like a bird, and its mission is to pursue and terrorize her murderers.” Indeed, the novel responds in stride to The Singularity’s grieving mothers’ pleas: “Can you hear me?” “Help me … help me get justice.”

“I hear her sobs, her shouts, her cries for help …,” Melo’s narrator says.

The Simple Art of Killing a Woman is broken into three overlapping chronologies—a numeric one, which documents real-life femicide cases via poetic verse; one organized by Latin alphabet, which records the main plot; and one arranged by Greek alphabet, which describes the narrator’s dream-state encounter with the Indigenous community of Acre. These chronologies are formal repetitions that hold space for the repetition of witness: the women who die in the novel and in real life are eulogized in all three poetic, narrative, and lyric forms. Together, their voices compose a Greek chorus, a song, and the dance upon which the novel ends: “I felt an irresistible urge to hit the dance floor,” the narrator says, “and move like there was only tomorrow.”

What does one do with the grief of witnessing a thing the world refuses to name—femicide, the death of your child, Indigenous land bought for “two million pounds sterling,” the bombing of your friend’s house, a woman who reminds you of yourself jumping off the corniche? How might one simultaneously hold a tender space for grief while fiercely pursuing justice? Finally, as Saidiya Hartman asks, “what does it mean to even imagine that life is possible and to want something like the good life when life itself cannot be taken for granted?”

Through poetry, repetition, and narratorial slippage, The Singularity and The Simple Art of Killing a Woman create a space for these contradictions of grief, memory, and justice to coexist. In this world, our Fridays can be infinite, vaginas can fly, and “heart and knives [can] danc[e] to the same tune.” In this world, “you stroke and stroke your belly and hope your body will hold,” and “I take hold of my mother’s hand and sit down.” Here, “the grandmother dances, wishing for the impossible” because “right here is where her granddaughter had sat.” In fact, here is where all the women sit, dead and alive, joy and “grief and drought, a tattered sunbaked landscape cupped by two empty hands.” Here is where the black hole of grief opens.

Indeed, grief is itself a character in both novels: a black hole. The hole first appears in The Singularity when the pregnant woman hallucinates at the hospital, hysterically mourning her stillborn, her childhood friend Rozia, and the suicide she witnessed. In The Simple Art of Killing a Woman, it first appears in a confession: “having a mother who’d been murdered was my secret identity. It was the black hole of my life.” Yet while Balsam Karam calls the black hole “the singularity,” wherein “the force of gravity is so strong it can’t be calculated,” Patrícia Melo describes it as a place “I’d managed to go … [I took] photos of the great black hole—and returned.”


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So for Karam the black hole is unfathomable and should not be wrangled. The Singularity breaks form to hold grief—simply, gently, and generatively—in its every shape. “She should at least in death be allowed to rest,” Karam writes. “Afterwards none of you know what to say.” Indeed, for Karam, speech is too exhaustible, and language is never enough. For Melo, however, speech must be enough. The black hole must be wrangled, put into photographs, records, precisely documented. The Simple Art of Killing a Woman breaks form in order to “say their names” over and over again, and in its pages the dead “rise, rise, rise … feed from the Earth, shaking with hatred, conquering.”

Despite their opposing answers to the question “What to do with the grief of witnessing?,” both novels lead us up and back down the long, winding road of grief and witness. In both, the women resist: “I come from a tradition of loss,” Karam’s narrator says, “and I don’t intend to continue in that tradition.” “I was not going to die like my mother,” Melo’s narrator says. “No fucking way.” In both, language becomes the landscape, voice, and people—and then language transcends itself. And by both novels’ ends, we return to the exact setting in which they began: for Melo, the dance floor, and for Karam, “the sea and sky dark against the glittering corniche.” The narrators, both unnamed, have dressed up, gone out. They look beyond what we can see on the page—perhaps toward the faces of their dead loved ones, perhaps toward that tattered sunbaked landscape. Or perhaps what they see is the vision Lucille Clifton once had. “No hollow in the world,” Clifton said of the dream, and perhaps not even a black hole.

no fur clumped bloody

on the ground

only a lovely line

of honest women stepping

without fear or guilt or shame

safe through the generous fields1

This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín and Bonnie Chau.

  1. From “a dream of foxes.”
Featured image: Detail of Young Woman with Her Hand over Her Mouth by Edgar Degas (ca. 1875). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art