Unfold is the wrong word: An Interview with Bhanu Kapil
To read Bhanu Kapil‘s work is to witness it taking shape. It is as if she writes just for us, closing the space between reader and writer. That space, whose medium is the page, is cared for as one cares for a body. It takes on a consciousness. We feel comfortable, cared for, led calmly to scenes beautiful and horrific, and we trust her to be our guide. Kapil’s work is not something the reader can passively consume, it is something of which you are a part. Her novels move poetically; they are fragmented but do not surrender a narrative. She doesn’t just show us that we are looking through a window, she opens it and decorates it by setting photographs on the sill along with flowers, quotes, cups of tea and coffee; she paints it orange and red and yellow and green; she lets the outside world spill in: wind, leaves, mud, shouts of wolf-girls playing in libraries, and conversations between immigrants and cyborgs. Her narrators are liminal and migratory and her worlds strange, unstable, and yet familiar.
Bhanu Kapil is the author of four full-length works of prose/poetry: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space of monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), and Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011). This summer, she is teaching a workshop at the intersection of performance and the novel at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. During the year, she teaches full-time at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, and part-time for Goddard College in Plainfield,Vermont. She also maintains a part-time practice as an integrative bodyworker, focusing on Ayurvedic treatments. Born in the UK to Indian parents, Bhanu, “dreams of turning into a female Michael Ondaatje, writing proper novels in her garage, which has been converted into a solar-heated hut. If that doesn’t work out, she will continue to write anti-colonial literatures and pioneer new spa treatments. Currently, she is working on a paste of chickpea flour, turmeric and rose petals that is guaranteed to brighten even the most winter-bound skin.” For many years, she blogged at WAS JACK KEROUAC A PUNJABI but then, abruptly, stopped.
The interview with conducted through email.
Rowland Saifi How did you begin 2012?
Bhanu Kapil Feverish. But well-organized. With a sequence of notebooks in wire racks in a portable butcher’s block left behind by a neighbor, who lost her adjunct position at Front Range Community College and moved back to Oklahoma to take care of her aging parents. She had a one-eyed orange tomcat, Matthew. On New Year’s Day, I lay around on the couch like Lord Chatterton, napping, one arm flopping over the side. Some friends came over to make mandalas; I made one for BAN, my current writing project. The quadrants of my mandalas were filled with geometries. I felt anxious. That night, I began to read Persuasion. The next day, January 2nd, I abandoned it for Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Having abandoned my blog due to mild stalker issues, I resumed it, with, paradoxically, a post on nudity. I theorized nudity. I bought a cutlass for my son’s 11th birthday on January 6th. With various neighbors and family members, I went for assorted walks by a nearby river to observe the “ice flowers.” On the night of January 5th, I went outside and saw a “moon rainbow.” My fever diminished then returned, with a vengeance.
RS Do you find yourself often more attracted to theory over literature? Or as it simply the appeal of Agamben over Austen?
BK Well, yes. As Elizabeth Grosz writes, in her newest book, Becoming Undone — or perhaps she doesn’t; perhaps I’m paraphrasing; perhaps this is something my friend, the post-colonial scholar Andrea Spain, a thesis student of Elizabeth Grosz’s at Buffalo, told me: “The concept is the host of the event.” If fiction as incubation, then the idea of fiction hosts fiction, in this analogy. I abandon Austen out of distorted and insufficient Englishness. The England I want to read about, for example, is not the England I want to write about. I want, in my own narrative of British life, to write it’s non-being, it’s there-on-the-floor: the body’s abnegated stance. Which body? Whose body? This isn’t something I can always work out in narrative, or through images. Increasingly, the bodies I am trying to write about – emigrant and pre-emigrant: black-brown — are the ones that don’t appear, very often, in experimental fiction written in the U.S. 1. How can I write about them? 2. Is what I am saying about experimental fiction true? I read theory in order to write sentences. Maybe this is what a sentence is for: to record the activity that precedes it. Or: what a body is for [never for.] “A sentence like a nerve, throbbing on the riverbank.” And so on. I apologize. Theory – Puar-Grosz-Haraway, Spivak-Cixous, the theories of migration and mental illness brought forward in the work of Dinesh Bhugra, Kamaldeep Bhui and Peter Jones in the UK – comes [come] closest to these “areas of concern.”
RS So in this sense do you feel that theory addresses what it’s like to be living now more than literature?
BK Yes. The re-loop, the degradation. The neomort‘s address [cry.] My “neomort” is an Indian girl. To write her, I theorize vectors rather than — trying to understand her, I suppose. This not trying feels closer to life. To indifference. To what it’s actually like: to circulate. To be/never be. I am not trying to speak in some kind of code; this is my subject matter. I can’t seem to have a subject matter without these other kinds of preceding actions and thoughts: the “pre” — as I called it, when I was thinking through the monster. For the neomort (the girl) (the Ban): all I seem capable of writing is the line that diasppears. A girl walking home in the first minutes of a race riot, before it might even be called that — the sound of breaking glass as equidistant, as happening/coming (simultaneously) from the street and her home. The violence is, in this very faint sound of breaking glass, understood (felt) by the body — as racial, sexual, social: at once. In a literature, how do you write a traumatic narrative without coding for aftermath: the act of narration itself? I want a literature that is not made from literature. At the same time, what is this text that loops, inexorably, through ivy/asphalt/glass/girl combinations? Abraded as it goes? (Friction.) (Concordance.) I think, too, of the challenge (in/for a literature) of reproducing (writing): the doppler effect of curved, passing sound that has no fixed source. In a literature, what would happen to the girl? Would it be a choice: to walk home (into what?) or away from home, towards the riot proper? I think, in order to create a movement, there would have to be a choice that I represented somehow, as a writer: I would have to choose a direction and track that, as a narrative activity. Instead, when I stay with the girl — writing her body in the tiniest increments of its failure to “orient”: I understand that she is collapsing. To her knees; then to her side. It has taken me two years of writing this newest book to understand that my character is committing suicide; that is: exerting “sovereignty” over herself. At the beginning of this writing, when she “stopped,” I thought about her physical ambivalence as the “choice” she was making; but as her body settled on the asphalt and she turned her face to the ivy, I saw tiny mirrors positioned there — like a Robert Smithson installation. The London street a tiny jungle: dark green, silver and shimmering a bit, from the gold/brown tights she was wearing under her skirt. In order to write a girl who stops walking and lies down on a street in the opening scene of a riot that is a real riot — an historical riot — I had to stop trying to make a literature out of what I was doing. This is why, perhaps, theory works better from here on out, as a way to speak about suicide/the body/performance: this other physical space or activity that’s happening inside the larger scene. The event of the riot, for example, decays around the body of the girl lying on the street, and at points I am more interested in the rain falling upon her. In the loose genetics of what makes this street real, the freezing cold, vibrating weather sweeping through South-east England at 4 p.m. on an April afternoon is very painful. There is a mixture of imaginary and true things happening in the text. The sensory panel, or circuitry, wires across them: so that sometimes the girl opens her eyes, and sometimes she is dead; sometimes there is a historical day and sometimes there is a street scene reduced to its symbolic elements. The vector is obliterated. Everything is so fast, so slow, so wet. Is this theory? I want to document the forces a body comes to bear or withstand, not through the articulation of those forces but, rather, their impressions. This is why a raindrop indents the concrete with atomic intensity. This is why the dark green, glossy leaves of the ivy are so green: multiple kinds of green: as night falls on the “skirt.” The outskirts of London: les banlieues.
RS Is this a literature that resists the performance of literature?
BK On the contrary. I spend half my time staring at a mobile butcher’s block. The three wire cages are filled with notebooks and on the chopping board are the books I think will help me resolve the problems I am working on. On top of that is an A4 sized moleskine that sits without a word in it. I thought it would be a substitute for a computer. I was meant to write a first draft during Winter break, but did not. Should have stuck to a spiral bound college ruled jobby. And so dear Rowland, for all my big talk about theory, I am obsessed with the desire to write a work of literature. I behave like a failed novelist on a regular basis. I recriminate myself for not having come up with a form: for example. I re-read the first three pages of every Sebald novel in my house. I force myself to read Cassandra by Christa Wolf but give up by nightfall. I get my mother to knit me a blue and white sweater with a unicorn on the back, and Clarice Lispector’s “exploding star” positioned on the stomach. All of this is performance. When what I really want is to burst out of my own skin. There is no such thing as skin. Rowland, are you a writer too?
RS In reading your work, it seems to me that you have found a form, one that addresses problems I confront when thinking of writing. In the way you present narrator who addresses the characters as she writes them, not in a traditionally metafictive way, the narrator is not addressing the text, but a kind of caring for a character in a way that makes them, and the narrator, real, even though the mechanism of writing is revealed. Perhaps it is a way of being responsibly subjective in writing? I think this is what I meant about a literature that resists the performance of literature, I feel your novels resist this performance of objective creation, of chronicler of life by creating a more complete experience of living a text as we read it.
BK Thank you, Rowland; I feel you are making conscious the narrative elements or approaches that are automatic, secret. It is hard to say: this is what I do. As in my own life, I only seem to understand what has happened after a subtle delay or extreme delay. As to characters, yes — I feel that it is not enough, and somehow unethical, to describe the historical body of a mutilated boy or girl. To work only, that is, through description: which is writing. Because I am perceiving this body, I have the chance to function, in a kind of reverse time, as — not a witness: but as touch. To be with. To accompany. To touch. I channel light to a character in the same way that I would channel light to my son, if he was crumpled up from the day; this is not to say all my characters are devastated creatures! (Or that my child is.) I am thinking of what happened when I encountered the graves of the “wolf-girls” in India, during my research there; my sense of the grave as breathing, pulsing lightly beneath my hand. The sense too, from other disciplines, of the morphogenic field; the cross-activation and interaction of “inert” particles with each other. I am thinking, in particular, of Melissa Buzzeo’s presentation on The Devastation, her new manuscript, at last year’s Summer Writing Program at Naropa: how, as she said, the “parts of the dust” might “magnetize” each other. And how, in the non-local, many writers are working on the parking lot, the monster, the red thread knotted three times around the wrist, Andy Warhol, and Japan. Structure is empathy. Writing brings you closer still.
RS There is a shift in style between Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, and Incubation. Although there is a strong placement of the narrator in Vertical, in Incubation you address the reader and even at one point give out your phone number. Was this a conscious shift?
BK As the narrator of Vertical, I was still a person, on the whole, for whom the world was — roughly — intact. I had a mother and a father, I had a home in England, I had a British passport, I had a husband, I had an extended family of male cousins and uncles. By the time I came to Incubation, many of these things were no longer true. Diaspora is shivery and mad. Diaspora takes the fight out of you. I think narration, for this second book, came out of these diaspora notes or sensitivities — the feeling that I had lost my place in certain societies for ever. Perhaps that feeling, that I could slip off completely — slip off what? — resulted in a forceful desire: to link up. To adhere. In writing. In retrospect, that would be an explanation for the kinds of conjugal or friendship factors that appear in “book two.”
RS So breaking the text and having a story in the act of becoming to activate the dyadic and triadic relationships of diaspora in the book itself, rather than to simply have it be a theme or plot point as in a book like Andrea Levy’s Small Island?
BK Yes: to register the event in a place that is not language. And, as a variation of Small Island (which I loved actually), can I suggest Almost Island — an online journal of experimental writing edited and published in India? Also, in thinking through the triptych space as national space, I think a “telling” might also register reversed/impeded/recursive movements: diaspora, as narration, has not been, for my family, a consistent trajectory. Breaking the text is not a philosophy of the text, in this sense. More explicitly, I’ve been trying to think about syntax as the the place where cultural expressions might most accurately unfold. Unfold is the wrong word.
RS I feel like language is a large part of Humanimal, not just the languages that the wolf girls, Amala and Kamala, are described in by Rev. Singh, the reference to the fragments of a forgotten language the children possess used as a graft for new language and “civilizing,” but also the language you must contend with investigating the project, and the incomplete and repeating alphabet which structures the book. Is there is a connection between these layers and transitions through languages and the interstitial existence of the wolf-girls?
BK The mouth stretched to an “o.” Yes. How pre-speech sounds are gamete-like: a kind of reproductive material that is simultaneously non-genetic and yet propagates a future way of speaking. I can say that after the fact of writing, but during the writing of humanimal itself, I think was most interested in attending to the connective tissue of the mouth; how the post-colonial body — or more accurately, the colonized body — is altered [shaped] by the forces upon it: violence, but also: acquiescence. How “interstitial time,” as you describe it, is passive time. The time you’re given over to. I’m still working on the language in your previous question: the “becoming you.” How a person becomes their own other. [“Mother.”] The ultimate mutation.
RS How did you start writing? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
BK Very young. Almost before I could actually write. Perhaps at 2 I knew I wanted to be a novelist/priest. Someone who could sing, read books and be a vehicle for color (light) at the same time. But, at 12, when I stayed up late on a Thursday night to see Salman Rushdie win the Booker — perhaps then, for the first time, I understood that someone like me: could. Could look like me and write. Even before that, at 8, in India, I wrote poems in a bird notebook given to me by a Scottish “aunty” from Hayes, Middlesex — Joyce Morzuch, who was married to a Polish man who had been in Auschwitz. “Uncle Bernard” would grow strawberries for me in his tiny greenhouse next to the alley, and Aunty Joyce would make me learn a poem by heart every week, that I would then recite aloud on a Saturday afternoon in lieu of the piano lesson she’d officially been asked to give me. When she knew I was leaving for India, she pressed that notebook very seriously into my hands, with the injunction, in a thick brogue, to “write about something you see every day.” At 6, I stood on the table in my “Infants” class and gave talks on “the sun” to my classmates, quizzing them on the meanings of their names. “My name means the sun. Michelle Whitby, what about your name? What does it mean?” “Dunno.” And so on. In India, my ecstatic, chess-playing grandfather could recite the national poetry of Turkmenistan from heart. In this sense, everything has always been poetry, the desire to read poetry and to write it. I feel punctuation in my body before I see it on the page. Before I was born, my mother would sit beneath a rose-bush, of pink roses, Queen Elizabeth roses, singing the bhajans of Mira Bai: incubating me. Before my own son was born, I’d sit in aspen groves in Colorado, hoping to flood him with golden light. What did I read to him? I can’t remember. Something. From the time I was about 10, my father, every few weeks or so, would pull up outside Foyles or Dillons, hand me a ten pound note, park on the double yellow lines with the engine running and say: “Quick! Run in, find a book you can’t understand, and come back out. Five minutes!” Once, I returned with an anthology of metaphysical poetry and spend the next part of childhood trying to get my head around The Ecstasie. On a holiday to the Lake District, when I was 13, Mrs. Manders — the mother of an English woman my father almost married and who inexplicably remained a family friend — waited for me in the car while I sat, with my notebook on my knees, beneath the bridge Wordsworth had written beneath, when he was a child, though it was pouring with rain. When I got back into the car, it smelled of the milky coffee she’d been drinking from a thermos.
RS In the introductory note to Schizophrene, you wrote, “I tried to write an epic on Partition and its trans-generational effects … On the night I knew my book had failed, I threw it — in the form of a notebook, a hand-written final draft — into the garden.” This was in the winter and you retrieved it in the summer and wrote the book off what of the original notebook remained. Is this material aspect to the writing normal in your process?
BK A “pen made of snow.” [Waldrop/Jabes.] Yes, I think it is. I don’t know why. Perhaps, most obviously, that the choice to become a writer was identical to the choice to leave my culture, my family, my country. I gripped that pen like animal. My notebooks, in some sense, are the only wealth I have. Once, I lived in the mountains in Colorado. There was a forest fire. A wall of orange smoke behind the house. I tucked my newborn son under one arm and lugged a suitcase of notebooks to the car. In late adulthood, it is still a fetish of mine to re-create a balcony setting, a cafe scene, in everything I write: a pristine morning near the sea — that “notebook life,” as per Carole Maso’s AVA. One day, I hope to live in a country I haven’t imagined yet. I long to write for many hours a day. A writer I love, John McManus, regularly travels to residencies in France, Spain and South Africa; I force him to send me mobile phone photographs taken from his bedroom window, and to tell me what he had for breakfast. Materiality — the presence of writing paraphernalia and situations — in my writing: turns out to be the desire to live a more dramatic and sophisticated literary existence than the one I am living now; though I can’t complain. It is Valentine’s Day. I had smoked salmon and strawberries for breakfast and wrote in my notebook throughout the bulk of the Tuesday morning faculty meeting. But perhaps you are also asking me about the evolutionary becoming that a book also is: the book of attempt/remnant, the book of the fragment. Although I am interested in the earthly and durational processes that alllow these fragments to recombine, to attract, I am also interested in energy: the dramatic energy of lightning and electricty, of fire and water mixed together. The hallucination. Energies that forge a new material process, that change the fragments themselves. To this end, I have been re-reading the POLLEN SEED INDEX at the end of Miyung Mi Kim’s Commons. “The book,” she writes, “emerges through cycles of erosion and accretion.” Its “rehearsals” function: “not as description, but as activation.” Function is the wrong word. At the end of Schizophrene comes an activated, non-human figure, pre-Ban: the funeral urn smashed on a ghat. The shards of ochre clay reverse theselves toward each other, in the air. Hovering there, for an instant, no longer than a few seconds, they stream fire and water. Why? Not for the book, a fact that makes the book weak, impersonal, a sketch: but for the book-to-be: Ban.
RS What is Ban?
BK Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas. Looping the city, Ban is an orbital of smoke. To summarize, she is the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall. April 23rd, 1979: by morning, anti-racism campaigner, Blair Peach, will be dead. It is, in this sense, a real day; though Ban is unreal. She’s both dead and never-living: the part, that is, of life that is never given: an existence. What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English? Under what conditions is a birth not recognized as a birth? Answer: Ban. And from Agamben’s Homo Sacer, the accompanying concern of sovereignty and sacrifice: the capacity for a banished person to be murdered. To step beyond the boundary of the city, in medieval Europe, was to stop living, a marker of which was murder: how can a person be killed when they are “already dead”? And from Ban: “banlieues.” (The former hunting grounds of King Henry VIII. Earth-mounds. Oaks split into several parts by a late-century lightning storm.) These suburbs are, in places, leafy and industrial; the Nestle factory spools a milky, lilac effluent into the Grand Union canal that runs between Hayes and Southall. Ban is ten. Ban is nine. Ban in eight. Ban is a girl walking home from school just as a protest starts to escalate; the National Front have decided to hold their annual meeting in the council hall of a neighborhood with an almost entirely immigrant — Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Bangladeshi — community. Pausing at the corner of Lansbury Drive and the Uxbridge Road, she hears something: the far-off sound of breaking glass. Is it coming from her home or is it coming from the street’s distant clamor? Faced with these two sources of a sound she instinctively links to violence, the potential of violent acts, Ban lies down. At first, she’s frozen, then folds to the ground. This is syntax. From Agamben, I derive the new idea that by doing so, she is exerting sovereignty over herself: she is sacrificing herself. Is she? Ban lies down on the sidewalk next to the ivy. I narrate that, and this writing is the bulk of my activity between September 2010 and February 2012. I narrate a person’s decision to lie down forever on the ground, in the rain, in England. As even more time passes, as the image or instinct to form this image desiccates, as Ban herself becomes a kind of particulate matter, I place tiny mirrors in the ivy behind her body. I think about the cyclical and artificial light that falls upon her in turns. Or perhaps the mirrors deflect evil. Perhaps they protect her from a horde of boys in laced-up Doc Martens, or perhaps they illuminate — in strings of weak light — the part of the scene when these boys, finally, arrive. I don’t know. This is the part of Ban — a novel of the race riot — my first formal attempt at an anti-colonial literature — that still continues. In March, I am going to London, to lie down in the place I am from, where this work is set: on the street I am from. In the rain. Next to the ivy. As I did, for Schizophrene, on the border of Pakistan and India: the two Punjabs. Nobody sees someone do this. I want to feel it in my body — the root cause.
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A distant cousin of an Arkansas state champion duck caller, Rowland Saifi is the author of the novella, Karner Blue Estates (Black Lodge Press 2009). Having no idea how to call ducks himself, he teaches writing and literature at a few of places in Chicago, including The School of the Art Institute.