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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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,”
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
– 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.”
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.
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
“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
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.
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.”
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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