The novel I forgot I wrote

Alexandra Singer awoke from a coma, created a new reality and became an overnight sensation.

By DEBORAH DANAN
March 15, 2012 10:31
Alexandra Singer

Alexandra SInger 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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When Alexandra Singer, now 29, was a child, she went to her local synagogue in Manchester every Sunday to attend Hebrew school. Sometimes she would grow bored learning about religion, and on these occasions the enterprising nine-year-old would make her escape to the synagogue’s library.

There she would find respite among the books of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Perhaps it was no coincidence that she and the author shared a surname. She devoured every novel and short story that the Polish Jewish author ever wrote, and his writing inspired her to make the decision that she, too, would one day become a writer.

Sixteen years later, she became perilously ill with an autoimmune disease that threatened not only her writing, but her life. Diagnosing her with cerebral lupus, an autoimmune disease that alters the immune system so that the antibodies it creates attack the body’s tissues instead of protecting them, doctors had no choice but to induce a coma to prevent irreversible brain damage. While lupus is not so uncommon – especially among women of child-bearing age – cerebral lupus is. Singer had suffered from bouts of lupus in her late teens, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when the lupus attacked her brain, that her life took a turn for the extraordinary. The subsequent chain of events would turn her overnight into a media darling in the UK and make her the ultimate poster-girl for overcoming adversity.

She spent two years in the hospital, of which three months were spent in a comatose state. A couple of months after she awoke from the coma, Singer, who had suffered from extensive memory loss, posed a peculiar question to her family: Before the coma, had she by any chance authored a book?

She recalls thinking that while she was in the coma she may have dreamt or imagined that she had written a book. As it turned out, when her brother, Joshua, cleared out her London apartment, he stumbled across a skeleton manuscript for a novel.

The book, out this month, is called Tea at the Grand Tazi and tells the tale of a young British woman’s experiences living in Marrakech. The book is inspired by Singer’s own trip to Morocco, and by her description, it is a story of expatriates, of experience and of indolent days under the North African sun. It follows a young woman’s trajectory from restless innocence into corruption and explores the question of what it means to be a woman in an alien and hostile environment.

Many of the characters in the book are based on people the author has met, including the novel’s main antagonist, the jovial yet evil Mahmoud. Prior to the coma, Singer had been an enthusiastic traveler and had lived in Rome. At the time she became ill, she was living in London, training as a lawyer with an international corporate law firm. In addition, she found time to study Greek ahead of a placement in her firm’s Athens office. She had also been planning to make aliya once her training contract was over.

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But when the lupus struck her brain, her busy life and her plans for the future dissolved. At first, the doctors feared she would die. Suffering through tremendous pain, she was kept on massive doses of morphine, and by her own account does not remember much more than a blur of faces from the period after she awoke from the coma. Ultimately, though, she proved the doctors wrong, and even though she was paralyzed and was using a tracheostomy tube to breathe, she was very much alive.

The doctors had also warned her family that there was a strong chance she had suffered severe brain damage. Yet again, the resilient writer proved them wrong. She is also refuting the doctors’ final fear – that she would never walk again – with each day that passes. Even though she uses a wheelchair or zimmer frame to aid her, she is determined, and with intense physiotherapy coupled with remarkable willpower, it looks like she might very well achieve her goal.

Singer speaks of the tremendous pain she experienced at the start of her physiotherapy, but does not dwell too much on it.

“There’s not much point grieving for the healthy body I had before,” she asserts. “Crying for a couple of hours is just going to give me a headache. Better just to get on with it.”

This was an attitude that carried her through some of the darkest moments in the hospital.

“There were times when I was extremely depressed,” she recalls, “I was in terrible pain. I wanted to die.”

But her level-headed pragmatism ultimately triumphed, and when asked if there was ever any point when she was angry or bitter at the world, she answers, “Since it wasn’t anyone’s fault, that seemed like a waste of energy. I needed my energy to do things like learn to eat again. There was no one to be angry at, and I couldn’t be angry at my own body.”

She admits that she doesn’t know where she got the strength to carry on. But at a certain point, she knew she had to overcome the paralysis in her hands and teach herself to write again.

“Despite having a strong support network of friends and family, I spent a lot of time on my own in bed, paralyzed. I came to the conclusion that the only person who could get me out of this hole was me. However connected we are, ultimately only we can do things for ourselves.”

ABOUT A year after she was first admitted to the hospital, she was transferred to a neurological rehabilitation center where many of the other patients were prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts whose lifestyles and addictions had lead to neurological illnesses. Singer praises the nurses and doctors at the center for treating her with the utmost care and dedication, but admits that her time there was very tough. She would lock herself in her room and work on the book she didn’t remember starting. She points to an inner strength and the power of imagination as the chief factors that pulled her through.

“Essentially we have to be as independent as possible, and it was basically that grit and determination that got me through it. I created an imaginary world to block out my own reality,” she says.

After the book was completed, a local newspaper in Manchester caught wind of the sensational story behind its creation. Most of Britain’s major newspapers and media outlets – including the BBC and The Independent – followed suit, and the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of interviews and TV appearances. So how does she feel about her newfound fame?

 “I’ve been so surprised by people’s interest,” she says modestly. “I’m bemused by it. People are inspired by it and find it a really positive story. But for me it’s just something I’ve gone through.”

Yet at times, she has found it hard to perform for the cameras. “It’s really surreal. The [journalists] keep asking how I feel. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me because I don’t get excited – maybe since my accident I’ve become blasé. I can’t cry on command, and then people think I’m being heartless.”

The good news is that Tea at the Grand Tazi has already received rave reviews, with one critic slating Singer as the hottest new author to watch in 2012. And for Singer, writing is what it’s all about.

“Writing is not just the desire to tell a story, it is a need to explore certain issues in society and in the subconscious which I cannot find an answer to in any other way,” she says. “I am probably over-sensitive to emotions and am fascinated by the psyche; essentially writing is an exploration of the human condition.”

A member of her local Orthodox synagogue, she believes that being “strongly Jewish” affects her writing. “As a Jew in Britain, you always have one foot on the outside. I am sure [being Jewish] contributes to how I view certain situations and places as an outsider, which makes it possible for me to observe them.”

When she was in Birmingham University studying for an undergraduate degree in history and Italian, she was active in pro-Israel lobbies. She says that sadly, many of the pro-Palestinian activists were not interested in talking, and their activities were nothing more than a cheap guise for anti-Semitism.

Since her hospitalization, she has transferred her activism prowess to fighting for disability rights and, in particular, procuring more government funds for researching neurological diseases. She says that Israel is far more advanced when it comes to the treatment of diseases and disability – both in the medical arena and on the street. She observes that when she is in her wheelchair on Britain’s streets, people are either full of pity or downright rude.

“They stare,” she says. “I feel like a loser. I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, how embarrassing.’ Sometimes they make inane comments like ‘I’d like one of those,’ or else they look at me like I must be mentally deranged or I’m brain damaged. This hurts because I’m quite aware that I could have been brain damaged.”

After she was released from the hospital, her first trip abroad was to Israel to relax and visit her younger sister, who lives in Jerusalem. She notes that in Israel, most people take wheelchairs in stride, and the only time people looked at her was when she needed assistance, something that passersby were all too willing to give.

Will Singer ever fulfill her aliya dream and join her sister in Israel? While she certainly doesn’t dismiss the notion, her demanding physiotherapy regime means that she will stay in the UK for now. With hopes of influencing governmental policy, she is also studying for a master’s in healthcare law and ethics to add to her two other degrees. She has already started on her next novel, which is set in Rome.

Memory and religion will play a large role in the novel, with the latter bearing a particular allure for her.

“I am fascinated by the hypocrisy of religion, particularly certain religions which have so much wealth and power in their hierarchy. Take, for example, the placid way in which the Roman Catholic Church reacted to the round-up of the Jews of the Roman Ghetto in 1944.”

For this remarkable woman, going up against the Roman Catholic Church is all in a day’s work.

Alexandra Singer's debut novel is Tea at the Grand Tazi, (Legend Press). For more information, please visit www.alexandrasinger.co.uk.

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