Ban en Banlieue

Bhanu Kapil

Nightboat Books

2015

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Trying to offer a clear critical comment on Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue is particularly challenging because it so stridently seeks to side-step the rational, hierarchical, closed-system imaginations which generate race riots, which churn women’s bodies into sexual fodder and carcasses tossed out of vans, which demand that we see mental illness as an individual disorder rather than as a human soul crying out amidst inhuman cultural paroxysms. “Centered” around a race riot in 1979 London, Kapil’s text belies the notion of fixed centers or single origins of cultural violence. Instead, she offers a variety of emotional, psychological, and spiritual loci around which her text coalesces. To cry out. To fail. To rise like diesel smoke in a hot summer wind.

And now I feel I must start again. The impressive psychological density that Kapil’s book opens in me requires me to try and offer a better statement, a different statement. This book is a series of mirrors folded towards each other, and they all admit night. Even as I bend my head over my keyboard to type, my inadequacy to critically represent this text rises over me. It’s impossible. I’m not sure how Kapil had the wherewithal to write it. I can see how she had to adopt such varied strategies of returns, of beginning otherwise, of writing differently with her body, in order to continue the text. I also feel, though, that I’m somehow perhaps the best (critical) body to speak to it. I have the illusion that I understand something. And so, I feel I must start again, to try again—

:: A synopsis. 

A young black/brown girl named Ban walks home from school. She hears the distant sounds of a race riot’s inception. She lies down on the ground in London to die. She is imaginary but she is also a real body, one always verging through her ((corpse)). I write corpse in double parens because Ban is perhaps already a corpse—the foul body we have cast away from us: as a black girl—read as a black girl—she is already a cast away. aBANdoned… Ban. She inhabits Kapil, or Kapil seeks to infiltrate her through a series of intuitively-based writing exercises and performances. These are some of her reflections and notes. 

An extension of Schizophrene (Nightboat, 2011), which first introduced readers to the body of Ban, Ban en Banlieue furthers Kapil’s concerns with the ways women’s bodies are written over or snuffed out as they attempt to speak. Let me try again. I can’t help but note my passive sentence construction, my disembodied “objectivity.” This book furthers Kapil’s refutations, her cries against how male social orders snuff out women’s voices by destroying our bodies when we try to speak. Her book refuses to perform “elegantly” in traditional terms—it is fractured, she withholds. We leap with her from the UK to Colorado to Seattle to India to a flight over Greenland, et cetera. I have a hard time knowing “when” I am in the text. In the “present” moment? In a distant childhood? In 1979? They fall together, all these different times. They permeate. I also feel the roots of her debut collection, A Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001)—in which 12 questions are answered repeatedly by numerous women across three continents. Across these various books, I see how Kapil’s desires to represent are also desires to illustrate the failures in representation by presenting a concatenation of voices and views. 

Let me try again. The book is organized into five sections: Contents, [13 Errors for Ban], Auto-sacrifice (Notes), End-Notes, and Butcher’s Block Appendix. As an indicator of what lays ahead, the Contents also describe sections that cannot appear in the text, such as her performances. 

Body outline on ground ringed by candles/flowers at the site where Jyoti Singh Pandey lay for 40 minutes in December 2012, raped then thrown from the bus and gutted with a steel pipe. I walk—naked, barefoot, red—from the cinema in South Delhi where she watched The Life of Pi. Then caught a bus. To this spot. The anti-rape protestors make a circle around my body when I lie down. What do they receive? An image. But what happens next? How does the energy of a performance mix with the energy of the memorial? How does the image support the work that is being done in other areas? Which hormones does it produce? New Delhi, India, 2014. (16)

In reading about this performance, I feel how Ban en Banlieue produces a different pyscho-somatic density as a “reading” experience. Its fragments and sections drag me along vectors into what cannot be contained in pages and words. It takes me into bodies. This book is so big, I think. And then I need to sit and drink some water, to clear my head. I feel heavy magma churn in my chest while considering the outline of Jyoti’s eviscerated body on the hot ground. I imagine other bodies, the ones without the benefit of names. 

Kapil’s Contents also point to sections that Kapil decided to delete, such as “Stories.”

No, I don’t think so. I wrote a companion series or sequence of childhood stories to lie next to Ban, but when it was time to publish them, here (in section 3), I pressed the delete button and stored them in another file. (9)

This gesture is quite indicative of the way Ban en Banlieue coalesces: some parts fall out, cannot appear, or are erased. Their vacuity is remarked upon as a necessary contribution. Kapil makes it clear she’s responding to other internal parameters with these authorial/editorial decisions: she isn’t here to tell us stories, but to “discharge” this psycho-emotional mass that Ban has become inside her body, inside the cultural body. We grieve or don’t grieve over these absentings. A young girl lies down on the floor to die. Do we imagine her together.  

:: A narration of a haunting.

Kapil opens by invoking Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. On the very first page, she writes

Two weeks later, exhausted, trying to write [re-write] Ban, as I do every day, I lean over to the bookshelf and brush [touch] Dictee, a book I have not read in many years. I close my eyes then open them, my finger on page 4. A volt of violet [orange] fire goes through my body when I read these words: “Now the weight of the uppermost back of her head, pressing downward. It stretches evenly, the entire skull expanding tightly all sides the front of her head. She gasps from its pressure, its contracting motion.” In this way, Cha’s “dead tongue” licks the work. (7)

Experimental filmmaker, performance artist, and writer, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was raped and murdered in New York. For some reason I originally wrote strangled to death. Let me try again. She was only 31 years old and DICTEE had just been published when her corpse was found. Cha’s film and art work seek to manifest what cannot be said. I think of Cha’s video piece “Mouth,” in which we observe a mouth slowly opening and closing over the sounds of static white noise. I think of Cha’s recently released collection EXILEE, of her ground breaking epic DICTEE, which meditates on matriarchal lineages, murdered women, confessions, women’s bodies caught on film: the light cast off of them and chemically captured. Ban is a type of Cha, I see. There’s a brutal symmetry between their bodies’ outlines. 

:: An “intense autobiography”—

Ban is and is not Bhanu. They blur. Ban died when she was nine years old during a race riot in London. And yet, “Towards the end of her life, in her early forties, still very beautiful despite her age, dark brown hair knotted with paintbrushes in a tatty bun above C7, the last bone of the spine as it goes down through the neck, Ban returned to India, where her ancestors were from, and lay down, as close as she could get, next to the border with Pakistan” (56). This echoes  Kapil’s performance in New Delhi, or perhaps houses a performance Kapil failed to perform. In another section, Kapil describes how after her father slapped her hard across the face, “I became Ban” (55). 

The “Bhanu”/Ban elisions recompose “auto/biography.” Who is writing? This is and is not about Ban, for Ban cannot be captured. She is a phantom body on the ground. “Bhanu” similarly rises and falls from view. I regularly get the impression that perhaps this text is writing itself. Kapil is transcribing, tracing, translating—not composing—it. Her Auto-Sacrifice (Notes) make it clear that she also does not know where she’s headed. That is not a negative statement. Kapil is sliding down a nerve, a flash of “pink lightning” she follows as she writes. Her resultant notes read as a series of attempts, of cascading retrievals. 

3. What is Ban? 

Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitument (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas. 

Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke. 

To summarize, she is 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 or riot, or what will become one by nightfall. (30)

Ban is multifarious. She drifts. She is BANal. An anal retention, a mass. And also, psychotically, socially unremarkable. One dead body—imagined or not—in a long series of dead female bodies. She’s hard to hold onto. She’s a project, a narrative, but also a body on the ground. There are, sadly, many Bans.

In tracing Ban for us, I see, too, how Kapil annotates herself. Their two bodies mix and meet. Can we read her (the multiple her) otherwise than through the vector of a black body, of that curling smoke? Kapil’s father slaps her across the face. “I became Ban.”

:: An exegesis of a text in erasure, a text that refuses to be captured and written.

Kapil leaves us with remnants. Her Auto-Sacrifice (Notes) section, which is the bulk of the text, is a series of prose pieces culled from years of notebooks. The work emerges as revisitations on a single, roving theme. She invites us to imagine memory like a grid, how she hangs these remnants upon it in order to build a structure, to capture the smokey body of Ban. “How do you caption smoke?” (23).

:: A novel in which the narrative behaves like a continuously re-blooming stain on the asphalt.

:: An anachronicle of social madness. *

:: A sane response.  

:: An absent body. 

* Did I make this word up? An anachronistic chronicle. A narration that refutes timestamps, that makes me wonder where the then of the story lives.

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