Reading Bhanu Kapil

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Bhanu Kapil performing from Ban en Banlieue at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, 2014.

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 One

Day Three

Day 2: In Conversation

KATE ZAMBRENO: Bhanu Kapil is one of the most vital writers working today, and a crucial writer (and thinker) of postcolonial and displaced identity.

SOFIA SAMATAR: I don’t know what to say about why her work is important. It just makes me want to put her books into people’s hands. I do agree with Kate that Bhanu is thinking through postcolonial and migrant identity in powerful ways, and to me that has everything to do with what we’ve been saying here, about the ghostliness of her work, how much feels missing. There’s no invitation to easy discussions, no piety, no “message.” It’s very hard to essentialize the voice in these works, because it’s so fractured. And that makes it difficult to commodify the work in a way that often happens with postcolonial texts.

KZ: I think how difficult it is to commodify the texts. This integral aspect of her work and performance that is about not only refuse but also refusal.

DOUGLAS A. MARTIN: Bhanu lives in the book while she is writing it. Every day is part of the book. I suppose we all do, to some degree, but every day has the potential to seismically shift her work.

JENNY ZHANG: You know a while ago, the writer, cultural critic, and editor of The New Inquiry, Ayesha Siddiqi tweeted “why are my tweets better than your thinkpiece? bc you grew up entitled to being a ‘writer’ and I grew up being resented by white teachers” and then went on this brilliant sequence of tweets where she basically lays out what it feels like to be denied and erased and dismissed and ridiculed and disbelieved at every step of the way by the educational system when you are considered an alien in the western, industrialized world, when you are that subaltern who was supposed to fail but didn’t.

There was something so fucking powerful about Ayesha’s insistence on using a form and a forum like Twitter instead of writing that Important Thinkpiece in that Important Publication and insisting that she can do better in 140 characters than what most people can do in a “proper” thinkpiece published in an established place with institutional backing. And then Ayesha ended up tweeting a series of shout-outs to people of color who gave themselves permission, who didn’t wait to be asked before they spoke, before they created something, or before they gave themselves the same amount of room to make mistakes and stumble that is often afforded to those who are considered native, who are considered educated, who are considered experts, who were born permitted.

It was exhilarating to be witness to that tweeting tear from Ayesha, and for me, Bhanu’s work does much the same, although in a different tone and in a different landscape, both offline and online. She gives herself permission to totally and completely fuck it, and by doing so, she gives me permission, to totally and completely fuck it. We’re not writing The Important Book, we are throwing it in the garden, and the tatters are what end up mattering more.

SS: That’s such a perfect example, Jenny, because of how Bhanu’s work speaks across distance. I mean, it speaks directly to us, like Ayesha’s tweets. I’m thinking too of the people she credits, constantly, her thank-yous, her shout-outs. Making community visible seems central to her work (nowhere more so than in Ban but that’s jumping ahead!).

KZ: I realized lately that the friends I have found through my desire to write as a form of communication and community, are in many ways my mentors. Lacking formal training or defined aesthetic communities, I have searched out writers who give me absolute bravery and permission to somehow remain an outsider. And Bhanu has been such a mentor to me. I feel a jolt of possibility for what writing can be whenever I exist inside the space of her language. I feel that intensity. I feel more alive.  

AMINA CAIN: I’ve probably already said what is important for me in Bhanu’s work: it’s hard to talk about her books and the larger project that comes out of them without getting to what’s at stake there. Without sounding too dramatic, I think that everything is at stake in a very big way, the very questions of being alive, and of dying, of writing, language, kinship, cruelty, presence, absence, reversal. There is also lightness and humor. And she writes maybe the most incredible sentences I’ve ever read.

SS: I think I’d put her work in conversation with other writing about art that failed or never happened—Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia, Renee Gladman’s To After That (TOAF), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? And also Duras. Maybe especially The Lover, which has a similar richness and despair over living in this world, with its structures of race and class and gender that might just be expressed in a look but can also actually kill you. And there’s a similar beauty in Duras too, that shining quality.

DAM: Some of the pink dolphin stuff in Ban reminds me of one of my favorite Duras books, Yann Andreas Steiner, where the narrative channels into that odd turn of the story of a camp counselor and a young boy (am I remembering correctly?) and then a shark becomes a character, a melancholic character. Lemurs crying in trees. That’s the vault in Kapil that kills me.

KZ: I connect Bhanu’s project closely with Claudia Rankine’s, especially linking the notes I’ve read towards Ban and CITIZEN, a tapestry of racist microaggressions, the fractured ambition of a (trans)national lyric. Sebald. Teju Cole, especially his “Small Fates” project. Anne Carson. Genet. Jelinek. Duras. Lispector. Jalal Toufic. Cixous. Gail Scott. Renee Gladman. Intensely engaging with thinkers like Elizabeth Grosz and Giorgio Agamben (and in Ban she’s engaging with Agamben’s etymology of “ban”). Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, her texts and performances. But also her work is so entirely singular. At once in conversation with other texts, including those of her friends and community, and so entirely singular and fearless.

DAM: Everyone knows she wrote a master thesis on Rushdie?

AC: Melissa Buzzeo. Melissa’s book The Devastation has also just been published by Nightboat. I know it was important for both of them that these books—Ban en Banlieue and The Devastation—come out together. In Ban, Bhanu writes: “How the sea creature of The Devastation was profoundly in relation to Ban, stirring, somnolent, reptilian: a gesture-posture on the brink.”

KZ: I situate her work in the context of the performance of disappearance—of the book as a trace or documentation of this performance—her recent work is in dialogue with Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas.

DAM: The performance of a life, too. In Incubation the way Kahlo’s painting provides a framework to read within, and to pull further figments, bloodlines out from. It is Kahlo “from her wheelchair diary,” too. Thinking of the body busted up in Ban, falling or no now thrown, tossed, from the bus. Speaking of the street.

SS: I’m thinking too of the relationship between the texts. Of the note at the end of Schizophrene, where Bhanu talks about removing the second period at the end of each sentence, “a method of punctuation learned in England.” She describes herself as “reversing a line of black dots.” And she adds that the dots “became the matter” for her next work, which is Ban. I see her project as a series of erasures and fragmentations, yes, but also a series of relationships.

AC: This series of relationships you talk about, Sofia, makes me feel that if possible her books should be read in order, though of course this is not absolutely necessary, each book stands so strongly on its own. But that is what I would suggest, to read them all, for the larger project of them, for those relationships. I don’t think I can suggest any one over another, each one is so ravishing in its own way. But if a reader can’t start at the beginning, read the most recent? To see what she is doing right now. Read Ban.

DAM: Unlike other writers I have read as deeply as her, everything they’ve published or whatnot, I cannot seem to get myself out of the way of my own experience of her books individually. I feel her intimately, presumptuously probably, as a familiar before these encounters with the particular idea or time being framed. She is coherent to me outside of them, somehow. Just ‘cause I think I know her? Maybe that’s still just my idea of her. I would go to her first books there in the library when I still haunted ones around the city, and think they were in the wrong place, because of how the cataloguing was still for a husband’s name.

KZ: Ban is what Bhanu incubated for years on her blog, and in talks and performances, and even though each text is ravishing—a perfect word, Amina—it is always the work that fills me with the most possibility and ecstasy. I feel that Ban is the work she’s been building up to to write, the intense desire to write a novel, to write a narrative, a biography/autobiography, and then writing notes instead.

JZ: Yes, the desire to write a narrative seems to build up unbearably and softly through all her books. The agony of the speaker behind these works knowing that there are too many examples of how narrative does violence to the immigrant body, to the subaltern psyche, that there are too many examples of these kinds of lives being used for other people’s glory, that when we are narrated by someone else, we lose too much, we become specimens and curiosities–and this knowing paralyzes. In these books, there’s a mounting sense of trying to combat the subaltern’s existence from being colonized for someone else’s desire for creativity. But that fight is so soft, it’s almost just noted. “I ate language,” she writes in Humanimal. “I was officially somewhere on the edges of the story.”

Day One

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.