Continuing a body
A review of Bhanu Kapil's 'entre-Ban'
Bhanu Kapil’s 2015 book Ban en Banlieue is a novel of meandering lists. The second (and largest) section of the book, titled “Auto-sacrifice (Notes),” is one such list, and it includes other lists within itself. The notes are less notes than collapsed vignettes offering insight into historical trauma and the creative process of articulating harm both physical and emotional. The notes work together to create a ragged narrative, one that seems contingent on a certain character — “Ban” — but also independent in itself. Note number three makes material the work’s central question: “What is Ban?” The poet imagines an answer, asserting (among other things) that Ban “is a warp of smoke.” Note number eight elaborates: “Ban is a portal, a vortex, a curl: a mixture of clockwise and anticlockwise movements in the sky above the street.” Ban is essential. Ban is perfection. Ban is unknowable.
In her 2017 chapbook entre-Ban, Kapil continues to hint at (or prove) Ban’s essentiality, the strength of a foglike presence that acts more as ambience or mood than something belonging to character. The chapbook serves as a collection of marginalia, deletions, and clippings from the body of Ban en Banlieue. The chapbook then serves as an addendum — a gathering of text that makes more whole the groundwork for the concept of “Ban” that Kapil begins to form in the preceding work.
Like Ban en Banlieue, entre-Ban is a catalogue of lists, beginning first with “57 Deletions [Mutations] for Ban ,” in which Kapil numbers and details ten “deletions” before stopping short at number eleven. These deletions suggest the connection between the act of listing and the act of constructing a body. One can attempt the latter through the former, through the careful assemblage of glancing characteristics and anecdotes. This work of genesis on the part of the poet makes possible the partial visibility of people who, without this act of calling out or listing, might disappear, disappear as Ban does so frequently. Or disappear like the work’s audience, who Kapil asserts in the preface to entre-Ban is made up of those who are “oily, overly present, or existing beneath a dominant gaze” (5). The phrase “overly present” refers to a passive presence rather than an active one — a presence that hinges upon the violent gaze of a powerful, dominant force. It’s a presence that is overt in its need to be ignored. It’s a presence that belongs to the othered body.
In the deletions/mutations, and in the sections that follow them, Kapil continues to outline a faint circle around the meaning of Ban. The fourth deletion in the series — marked by the number 4 on the page — explains:
And it’s here that Ban lies down, neglected, but also alert, grasping something, the changing light, like a vine. Or an antique rose. Descending, she’s also tasting. Out slips her lime green tongue. This, for example, is the wet, silky, tamper-proof smell of smoke that Ban has carried into the forest. In the folds and creases of her creamy skin, the smoke sets. I note her dangerous expression and also her uniform, which is pink and white in summer, and maroon come the Autumn term. (12)
Ban, the elusive creation, is simultaneously nonhuman and heartbreakingly human. Her lime-green tongue and her inherent (tamper-proof) smell of smoke contrast her sense of abandonment, her need to rest, the schoolgirlish quality of her pink and then maroon uniform. Kapil asserts Ban’s personhood but simultaneously takes it away; she makes claims like those she makes in Ban en Banlieue — asserting that Ban is a warp of smoke, for example, or that Ban is a spine — but these claims are always given at arm’s length. They provide the skeleton of a syntax through which it’s possible to begin to understand why, when walking home from school, Ban needs to lie down. But only begin to understand. After beginning to reveal the significance of Ban, Kapil retreats into herself again and again, providing personal anecdotes that confuse and obscure the narrative rather than make clear the character she is attempting to form.
What entre-Ban does provide, though, is a closer look into Kapil’s own stake in Ban’s construction. Kapil makes clear her process of writing Ban en Banlieue; of creating both the literary work of Ban and the “creature” of Ban:
Should I include memories — germinal, endocrine, angular, sooty — in Ban? Should I write about the red dirt road, the muddy white horse, the sun? (13)
Ban, it seems, is an amalgamation of Kapil’s own colonized experiences, in addition to being the fleeting manifestation of a more general body without a place. The chapbook is the continuation of a collapse — a collapse of the personal in the fictive, the poetic within the boundaries of the form of the novel, the collapse of the novel as an event and historical events included and bound within it.
“No, I am trying to write about a rape” (14), Kapil writes. Why does this require a framework that self-cannibalizes, that stops itself at deletion eleven out of the proclaimed fifty-seven? That creates a character but also uncreates her? Perhaps the answer to that is obvious — pain resists the act of articulation.
Deletion number seven asks why it’s unacceptable to create a “fluid, starred image” (13) in literature — something apparently allowed in photography. The note dissolves into a series of instructions, detailing how one should manipulate a photograph. It concludes: “Is there a part of you that believes you will never be loved?” This last sentence, a question to an anonymous “you” that might be Kapil herself — or the reader, or and all Ban represents — presents a return to the poet’s earlier work, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. That earlier work, which Kapil calls an “anthology of the voices of Indian women,” reveals a similarly biographical thread. When Kapil asks, “Is there a part of you that believes you will never be loved?” the line sticks out, wounded but also wounding. The twelve questions that run through and repeat and form the structure of The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers are also wounded, accusatory questions. One isn’t even a question at all, but a demand: tell me what you know about dismemberment. It’s an accusation that seems most sharply pointed inward rather than outward. In The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Kapil asks (parallel to her question in entre-Ban): who are you and whom do you love?
The relationship to the wound, both internal and external, and how the body articulates the wound, is a theme continued from Ban en Banlieue. “Some bodies don’t somatize,” Kapil writes in the work — the novel that is not a novel. And she continues in the preface of entre-Ban: “I am interested in other people’s books, written or published during the time it takes to write a pamphlet. I am interested in the idea, so present in these other books, of bodies that don’t somatize. Or get through. Where do they go?” (5). Somatize, get through. How can a body be more than what it is? In this way, entre-Ban is the extension of a body, or an amputated limb. Or the space between these two.
Present within Kapil’s dialogue with the body is the body’s relationship to change, specifically the violent change of mutation. In deletion number eight: “Ban is like that pallid, flame-headed mermaid in some sense, the one who arced up and out of her own pyre” (13). The inbetweenness of the form of the mermaid is not new for Ban, whose being is made up of the act of being caught in the middle. That inbetweeness implies uncertainty, a reluctance to become whole that speaks more broadly to the inherently hybrid state of the colonized body. “What is a mermaid?” asks Kapil, who continues:
The great silence speaks to a violence that is sexual, historical, domestic yet non-consensual. The silence, but also the thighs, which are fused, coppery and blinking, with exposed pulpy veins. Her mutation is never to open, never to replicate, never to bleed. (14)
The mermaid in entre-Ban recalls an act of transformation that appears in Ban en Banlieue, one in which the image of a mutilated woman jumps from the fires of a husband’s funeral pyre into the river and is carried by dolphins to the Bay of Bengal. The woman’s body, the “image that precedes Ban” (74), is just an image, but an image that Kapil later inhabits. Shifting to the first person, she writes: “I drift beneath the falling stars, the blackness, the darkness, the river, for whom it is preserved” (82). The mutation has gone too far. The wavering between Ban and Kapil herself and everything else. The poetry is a growing ruin.
In the preface to entre-Ban, Kapil asks: “Who can’t, at the end of the day, go home?” (5). The question of home, and more specifically of returning home, is central to both entre-Ban and Ban en Banlieue. It’s intertwined with Kapil’s focus on the stain, on the body’s capacity to leak and spread beyond its boundaries. In the section following her truncated fifty-seven deletions, she writes:
A stain blooms on the sidewalk, in city after city, for example. A pavonine sheen in its slick. We gasp to see it, the rainbow, then retrain our feelings on the spot. We look away. (15)
There’s a disconnect between the recognition of trauma, of violence, of spilling-out, and the way that one reacts to it. There’s a difference in agency between those whose bodies leave stains on the sidewalks of “city after city” and those who witness these shimmering, slick stains.
entre-Ban does not clean any of the spills, residues, or leaks of Ban en Banlieue. It complicates them, makes their presence more difficult to confront and more heartbreaking to leave behind. How should the reader interact with the trauma of either work? The one who witnesses the stain? Kapil notes that the reader has the luxury to choose entre-Ban for their bookclub, to invite her to discuss it with them. “Just send me bar of chocolate and coconut ‘joy’ and put me on speakerphone” (7), she writes. She speculates later that her readers “think seriously about growing their vegetables but never do, and that what they like best is to wake up and go outside with their tea or coffee” (23). There’s a gap between Kapil’s intended audience (those who, as she notes in the preface, are overly present) and her perceived readership. She seems to find humor in that tension, between those who have a home and those who cannot return home.
Kapil leaves nothing for these readers. Who is Ban? she chants over and over, resisting any answer.