Grownups Book Review Club: Ban en Banlieue

“Do you understand? Are you open: to receiving it: into your own hands? The book chooses you as its reader, and not the other way around. This is not about picking something up and figuring out whether you like it or not. This is not about taste.”

–Bhanu Kapil, jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com, 3/16/15

 

Ban en Banlieue

 

3/5: What does it mean when reading a book makes you want to throw up, but not with disgust – no, it’s more like motion sickness – , when you can feel an energy vibrating at the base of your spine and then shoot up and out of the top of your head so fast you’re dizzy, you’re nauseated? Vomiting words.

 

2/20: Writing on Ban so the color is naturally red. The colors are naturally shades of red. The colors are naturally shades of the female body. The female body is naturally a site of colonialism. Micro and macro. Pink lightning, river dolphins, a butcher shop, a silk meat sack, the dirt of South Dehli, the mud of Loveland, Colorado, the red leather jacket, the rusted trees, the maroon patent leather shoes, the rough red skirt, the heart “formed through descent.”

 

3/17: There are days when I think this book is about rage. Today is one of them. That Ban is so many things, all of them born of a kind of violence, and that this is the only appropriate response [rage]: “To what degree are creative acts antidotes to the desire for cultural or institutional revenge?”

 

3/18: Ban en Banlieue, published by Nightboat, is Bhanu Kapil’s fifth full-length work of poetry/prose/social theory/field notes. Hers is a genre that is hard to encapsulate, or a genre that cannot encapsulate, can only permeate, spread, ooze. This one was an attempt at a novel, the novel of a race riot, with a young (brown) girl at its center, an attempt at historical fiction.

 

3/10: But that is not what it is now. “Although I am interested in errors, perhaps it is more accurate to say I wrote a book that failed.” She failed to write a novel of a race riot because “the more time passed, the less and less was Ban. Something that could be written down.” So Ban en Banlieue is, then, a book made out of a failed project. This failure is one of form, or perhaps classification, and through it, Kapil attends to something much deeper and more primal than the novel, a vector of fragment and excerpt and ritual and myth. “I wanted to write a novel but instead I wrote this…I wrote the middle of the body to its end.”

 

2/13: Tried to read in a coffee and gelato shop in Logan Circle while eating kale quiche and drinking cappuccino – but too difficult – too personal, her bare back on the cover, for the hotel even – so I had to take it home and start again.

 

3/10: Because Ban resisted this recording, this accretion: “That’s something that’s come clear to me over the year that I’ve known of her, through other and finally, though it was too late, in person: Ban. Who wants: to carve out her body from her body, to conceive herself with a human life in mind.” I think of the monolithic church at Lalibela, in Ethiopia, the earth chiseled and brushed away to reveal an intricate structure beneath. Built not by the accumulation of material but through its removal, through excision.

 

3/16: I am a reader of Bhanu’s blog – regular, but not daily. As such, Ban came to me not as a new work, bound and whole, but as the force which ended the process. As “‘organ speech’…a sound or act that ‘serves to halt, even as it exposes, the ceaseless dispersal of the text.’” That’s what the book is, why the book is. On the blog there are probably years worth of writings about Ban, writing around Ban. I don’t know what could hold it all, what that book would look like. “I wish I had the courage to let the blog be my book instead.”

 

3/9: Process is a key element, and not many authors foreground this in a text quite like Kapil does. Her work can be regarded as a ceremony honoring the process of the creation of a book as much as the artifact that is produced from that process. I remember with stunning clarity the moment I read, in The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers: “I write because I cannot paint.” So how do you make the brushstrokes visible? Her previous book, Schizophrene, was shaped by the interaction of a notebook with frozen, then melting, snow. There is always something else, something that’s not quite writing, that burrows in and makes a home for itself and displays itself in her texts.

 

2/19: Following the evolution of her latest book is like watching the ocean; how the waves pick up pieces of the world and then spit them back out onto the beach, rearranging everything they touch, imposing some new, momentary order that dissolves again with the next gesture. Bhanu asks in Ban: “What happens when a wave goes over a life?”

 

2/20: What’s most striking to me is the porosity she manages to maintain in the eventual text – something so difficult to achieve among the inert energy of the printed page – and a breathing organic element to those words. You get the feeling that if you turn your eyes away for a moment, all their letters and spaces might mingle and shift, so that when you returned to it you’d be reading something different entirely. Kapil crafted a book in which the mind almost an entity shared between the writer and reader, and she makes you believe it’s alchemy – happening before, not in back of, your eyes: “In this way, I want swarming movements mixed with static forms.”

 

3/23: Ban is what happens when a wave goes over a text.

 

2/20: And it is an excruciatingly beautiful and an exquisitely painful book – that intention announced with immediacy by the cover – the body – sprawled naked on the dirt. OK. This is a signal to open it like you were opening a package you received but weren’t expecting – with an attempt to ready yourself for whatever might emerge.

 

3/24: A mirror to the way its author writes. As if she too is waiting to be surprised by what she engenders, when the conditions are right. Through experimentation, an actual test, or several, designed to determine the limits of what a book – a novel – can be.

 

3/10: Kapil is like a scientist: she does not change her data to suit her prediction; she lets the process prove her wrong. The results were not what she’d planned, but the experiment became the novel – replaced the novel, superseded the novel. Became what the novel could not be: a space for Ban, all of her, the multitudes. “I write these notes for Ban. / You read these notes for Ban. / Why? I feel bad for you, having read this far into the nothing that these notes are. / And must be.”

 

2/20: Open to Contents, not a table contained to a page, but a blurb for each component part, some of which are represented in the text that follows but others that make their only appearance here: the epigraphs, the dedication, the list of installations and performance, and also the stories, which were to comprise the third part before they were removed, because they were “disclosure” and not “discharge.” The pieces created across various media – notebooks, conversations, blogs, performances – altered by those interactions and compressed between the covers. The very first page, an invocation to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the “‘dead tongue’ licking the work.”

 

3/23: Then the text proper, though one might argue that term, since the remainder of the book is presented in note form.

 

13 Errors for Ban – the mistakes one makes in conceptualizing: duration, nudity, monsters, history, detail, home, charcoal, sound, girlhood – when you mean to be writing about something but it refuses to be written and clears a place for something else instead.

 

Auto-Sacrifice (Notes) – the bulk of the text, some descriptions of Ban, a scenic element, an attempt to establish a sense of place, bits of the history of a race riot, there is London, there is India. But mostly notes for Ban, a way to draw together the associated contexts, approximate her: anamorphia, love notes, inversions, fictions, regression, embryology. And after the funeral pyre, carried away by the pink dolphins to begin her next life.

 

3/25: End-Notes – which take the form of thank yous and further elucidate elements of the process, the acquisition of new kinds of language, an assemblage of modalities, and geography.

 

3/10: Butcher’s Block Appendix – sentences, sections, lifted from various notebooks comprising the process of writing Ban, along with some rogue notebooks from other times that sneaked in to alter the landscape. They penetrated the space and remain, of course, because their presence indicates their necessity; they found their way in, so why would the author ask them to leave.

 

2/19: Reading this book is agonizing. It is brutal. A document of war crimes: gang rape, sati, disembowelment, dead children, murder by police. It is not a personal ache or even the ache of the tortured representative but an ache for all, for a broken world, one that is so timely it’s hard to believe Kapil conceived of this book all those years ago. So resonant that you’d think it was inspired by current events. Hard, now, to go a day without a story of sexual assault or racially motivated violence.

 

3/10: An elegy for Blair Peach. For Jyoti Singh Pandey. For the widow, for the mermaid. For Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. For Ban. For Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Michael Brown, whose names you know. And for Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, and all the other (brown) women killed by police, whose names you might not know because of their gender. That is our violence, our “witness account.” “What was in the work – as an image – had appeared beyond it – as a scene” (25).

 

3/17: “I hate white people…I hate white people in groups.” To concentrate my awareness this morning, I went to Bhanu’s blog. And read these words, which appeared there as well, zoomed in on the photograph of Claudia Rankine, the poster on the podium, strained to decipher the signs but could only see “– Dictee” because, when I made it big enough to decode, it became blurry and out of focus. Like love but not hate.

 

2/27: Been trying to read this book for some time now. I can usually do it in a matter of hours, but this one – stops and starts, fits and fissures – I cannot establish a presence as I read, I cannot let its presence establish itself within me. “Ban is a difficult person to love, full of transience.”

 

3/9: There are moments that arch backward toward her prior works, to the bodies of monsters and cyborgs and wolves. The red string of fate, binding the ankles of all who are destined to meet. This is “intense autobiography.”

 

3/14: I saw an article recently: “Why are white people expats while the rest of us are immigrants?” While I read it, I thought of Ban. I thought Ban was an immigrant, I thought Ban was a monster, “but Ban is neither of these things.”

 

3/23: Been trying to write this piece for some time now. Stops and starts, fits and fissures. There are some subjects, there is some content, that can never be intact, and, as such, can only be expressed through failed attempts. A failed attempt at a book review.

 

2/20: I encountered Bhanu nearly ten years ago; my husband had started an MFA program at Goddard College where he was introduced to a magical community of writers who were concerned with questions of interface and impact – what can a book do in the world? what bends when art encounters life? can a text function as a membrane between writing and reading?

 

“What did Ban do that outweighed art? What kind of art did she produce?” (35).

 

And when I first read her work I had a confusing visceral reaction, both felt like the book was a part of my body – an appendage, or, better, a piece of my own tissue removed and ensconced delicately in paper fiber – and, at the same time, I was reviled – if there was anymore of this left in me I wanted to puke it up.

 

3/25: Ban started out as one thing but was too complex an organism to remain any one thing, singular, to occupy just one body. It was not about choice, it was not about taste. “You can be a hybrid and not share a body with anything else. Thus, the different parts of ‘Ban’ do not touch. They never touch at all.”

 

 

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