Reading Bhanu Kapil

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In honor of the publication of Bhanu Kapil’s newest book Ban en Banlieue, just published by Nightboat Books, the writers Amina Cain, Douglas A. Martin, Sofia Samatar, Kate Zambreno, and Jenny Zhang gathered together in a conversation to talk about the work of the British-Punjabi writer, who teaches in the Department of Writing and Poetics at Naropa University. The conversation will be published in three parts.

Day Two

Day Three

Day 1: Encounters

AMINA CAIN: The first book I read by Bhanu Kapil was Incubation: A Space for Monsters, which a friend lent me because she thought I’d like it. I did; actually, I loved it. In it, Laloo—Bhanu’s red cyborg girl—travels across America toward the future.

From the book: “When I was born, they did not know whether to wrap me in a pink blanket or a green one. Was I born cyborg or something else, something more toward a human being with its job opportunities and ways of loving across gender?”. I had never read anything like Incubation, with its preface “to reverse the book” and its “notes against.”

JENNY ZHANG: My first Bhanu was a chapbook from the Belladonna* chaplet series, “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure,” a sort of precursor to the full length book, Humanimal, which I read immediately after. I raced through both of the books. They made me feel feral and illiterate in all the ways that help and none of the ways that hinder. For the first time in my reading life, I wanted to use the term “hybrid,” as fuzzy and undefined as it is. “From The Wolf Girls of Midnapure” tells the story of Kamala and Amala, who were supposedly two feral girls raised by wolves and found and brought back to civilization by the rector of a local orphanage in Bengal, India. The chapbook opens with transliterated Bengali, something that immediately felt both alien and recognizable, maybe because Bhanu has a way of speaking to those of us who move through life feeling at once alien and recognizable, she speaks to us–the cyborgs, the aliens, the displaced, the feral, the untamed.

DOUGLAS A. MARTIN: The first one I read was Incubation, that was like entering a breathing painting, panting and seething and sweating love. You know that scene in Godard’s Bande à part, where they run through the Louvre? She walks slowly through, with a considered body language, hands maybe folded behind back, chin leading, until she takes down what catches her eye. She doesn’t cut out the particular element or detail, but rather crumples the canvas back down into where it becomes bendable again. Then she lets it rest. That is how I am thinking of the work right now.

AC: After that I read her first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, which is made up of questions Bhanu asked Indian women (and also herself) living in India, England, and America, the places of her birth, ancestry, and residence, that started with just one: “Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, not even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?”.

And then I tried to wait patiently for her other books to be published, devouring each one as soon as they came out. I always feel like a cannibal or greedy person when I use that word, but that is what it is like.  

KATE ZAMBRENO: I first encountered Bhanu’s language in her preface to Amina’s first collection—how she described the emotional and bodily experience of reading the stories while on a plane—which connects to how Bhanu’s work is so much about the pleasures of writing and reading. I then discovered Bhanu’s blog—”Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?”— where she was incubating her notes toward Ban and documenting her experiences teaching, what she desired out of writing, and her manifestoes toward aesthetics and politics and the sentence. The ecstatic, informal yet formally innovative writing she did on the blog, traces of it that exist in Ban the book, was unlike anything I had ever read. I then contacted her, because I was helping out at Nightboat, and she sent me the first passages of Ban, and then a few days later, Schizophrene, a notebook tracing the intersection of migration and mental illness, which then Nightboat published. I can’t recall feeling more enraptured by a book (Schizophrene, and then the promise of Ban), by a writer.  

SOFIA SAMATAR: We have a nice chain going here—Kate found Bhanu through the preface to Amina’s book, and I found Bhanu through Kate’s blog. At some point there was a reading list on Kate’s blog—a favorite book list, or something–and one of Bhanu’s books was on it, I think Schizophrene. And since I loved a lot of other books on the list, especially Dictée and Zami, but many others as well, I thought, hey, I should try this. But I think I wound up reading Humanimal first–once I’d read about it, I was so drawn to the story, this attempt to examine the Bengali “wolf girls.” And then I read Schizophrene and Incubation. And now I just keep rereading them.

DAM: I met Bhanu when she was brought to teach at Goddard College. I was in awe of the way she would hold out the ideas that drove her work, talking about things like “the gelatin membrane” or rewriting everything in some section of the work that became Humanimal through a blue filter. I knew what she meant. She is the kind of observer who would see me climbing a tree in the snow and say, “Training to be a European novelist.”

AC: Douglas, I love this story. I sometimes forget how funny Bhanu is.

DAM: She really opened a lot up for me. The way the theory wasn’t in the background, but the work was actively doing a theory of itself, a rewriting of some salient and resonant aspects, making it act like an art practice.

KZ: And the writing on the blog felt like active theory to me, this idea of writing as practice, not as product. And in the space of the Internet, as well as the page, intensely relational, but also private, nonexplicit. Her writing feels so alive, and there is a quality to her writing, that steps right up to the taboo—but this is not supposed to be said, this is not supposed to be in a book—or, also—but this is supposed to be said, this is supposed to be in a book—that is absolutely delicious.

AC: Each book really does feel alive, its own creature. And that idea of the thing not supposed to be said (that should be, wants to be said) that then becomes a book goes back to that very first question in her very first book (“is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say”).

DM: Vertical Interrogation is deceptively simple, also heart wrenching and witnessing.

AC: The word Douglas uses—“witness”—resonates for me. When I first read Humanimal I thought of it as a book of incredible presence, like being with a friend while they are dying. Bhanu’s work does not shy away from violence, it walks into the violence and, again, in a way I’ve never quite seen before, tries to heal it. Maybe “tries to heal” is the wrong way to say it, but I do think healing happens. There is empathy (and that is probably the wrong word too), but there is also entering the space, and in a way even to enter is everything. To lie down in that space. To write from there.

KZ: The beauty of Bhanu’s project for me is somewhere in the tension between presence and absence. Because there is such—palpitating, exquisite, deeply felt—presence and body in the work, but also this performance of absence, of mourning and melancholy. The book that is thrown away, like Genet’s manuscript in his prison cell, or Anna Banti’s Artemesia, and then the furious energy to retrace what has disappeared, but in Bhanu’s work, it’s still in fragments. I think of Bhanu as a novelist, but writing anti-novels, notes for novels that do not appear, the book thrown into the garden, like in Schizophrene, the film documentary in Humanimal, but a documentation that does not appear in the text.

AC: Yes, that’s so essential in thinking about the books, the throwing away of them, and then that retracing. The novel that accompanies the book that appears, like a kind of ghost, that is both written into but also invisible. And I do think that Bhanu’s work exists in the space of fiction, even as it exists in the space of other forms too, like poetry. It has opened up for me, as a fiction writer, what a novel might be, what it can be in relationship to, and maybe even more importantly how a writer can be in relationship to it.

JZ: The small is so big in Bhanu’s books. When I was a twenty-three year old getting my MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was a constant struggle for me to remember to say, “I’m a writer,” instead of “I’m a student,” at social functions where you immediately have to identify yourself by your work. And for the first time (and certainly not the last) I was surrounded by these people who were not much older than me and not doing anything differently from me—my peers—who would leave a party by announcing, “I have to go home and work on the book,” or they would show up to a party saying, “I need to get away from it.” The sacredness of everyone’s book, the constant vocalized reminder that everyone was working on Something Significant, The Long Work, A Major Book. I remember going to a friend’s apartment and seeing his immaculate notes on his novel, everything plotted, checkmarks next to every day of the week with a word count that he was supposed to hit. Is fiction really this sterile? I wondered and for years, I didn’t want to read prose. So much of contemporary fiction reeked of nothing, reeked of a desperation to be a product, not a process. Like Kate said, the traces are intentionally there. The margins overtake the whole in Bhanu’s writing, and that was such a relief. I had previously only seen such dedication and love paid to smallness in the writing of dead white males—Pessoa, Walser—I needed to encounter more, and then I found Bhanu. Thank god.

DAM: I teach Incubation as a feminist, post-colonial On the Road.

SS: I tend to push Humanimal on people, even though at this point I feel closer to Schizophrene. That full, absolute, almost joyous act of throwing the book away. The hopelessness of being this impossible hybrid (wolf girl, cyborg)—the way that this splintered, in-between self can be psychotic. And then, when the book has been ruined in the snow, you go back to it, the way you’d trace a scar. I love that! You feel how writing involves the whole body—throwing, reaching. And such a range of emotion. I’m grateful to Bhanu for what she writes about the process of writing, what it can be.

KZ: The way she took up this project of the impossibility of writing, and the glitteringness of failure, made me feel for the first time a sense of living community, that there were other writers obsessed with Duras’ Lol Stein lying there in the rye, and the novels of Elfriede Jelinek (I remember Bhanu once writing that she put Post-It notes in a bookstore on a more commercial novel entitled The Piano Teacher to tell people to read Jelinek’s novel instead, a typical Bhanu intervention, outside of the text and so much about the text).

SS: What really captured me about Humanimal was not the story of the so-called “wolf girls” per se, but the story of trying to tell the story. Failing to tell the story, maybe. Failing to return. I love that the book is about a documentary we never see, we just get pieces of the story of the process, and then there are these images too, the photographs that are so grainy, or blown up too big, or superimposed on each other–so you just get pieces of the story of that too, pieces of the stories the images tell. I mean, of course there are lots of people writing about and in fragments, we maybe even fetishize the fragment sometimes, but for me what makes Bhanu’s work different and precious is, for lack of better words, its postcolonial framework… I do want to use better words, though, because Bhanu does. The way she shows her father’s scarred leg, scarred from a street beating, and asks: “What is a street?” So many questions there—what’s the relationship of my father’s flesh to my flesh, when our lives are so different? What’s my relationship to India as a diaspora person? Street? What street?

Day Two

Day Three

Bhanu Kapil’s Bibliography:

The Vertical Integration of Strangers, 2001 (Kelsey Street Press)

Incubation: A Space for Monsters, 2006 (Leon Works)

Humanimal, A Project for Future Children, 2009 (Kelsey Street Press)

Schizophrene, 2011 (Nightboat Books)

Ban en Banlieue, 2015 (Nightboat Books)

Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?

Amina Cain is the author, most recently, of Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). Work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Two Serious Ladies, n+1, Everyday Genius, and other places, and she is a literature contributing editor at BOMB. She lives in Los Angeles.  

Douglas A. Martin is the author of books of both fiction and poetry, including: Once You Go Back (Seven Stories Press), Branwell (Soft Skull Press), and Your Body Figured (Nightboat Books).

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (2013) and the forthcoming The Winged Histories, both from Small Beer Press.

Kate Zambreno is the author most recently of Heroines (Semiotext(e)) and Green Girl (Harper Perennial). A novel, Switzerland, is forthcoming from Harper.

Jenny Zhang is a writer, poet, and performer living in New York. She is the author of Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus) and Hags (Guillotine). She writes for teen girls at Rookie magazine & occasionally tweets @jennybagel.