Guest Review: Brian Teare on Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat Books)
Ban en Banlieue is a tour-de-force hybrid text, “an intense autobiography” whose performance notes, rituals, photographs, journal entries, short fictions, end-notes, and appendix Bhanu Kapil assembles in the aftermath of “a novel never written.” Kapil, a British-Indian emigrant living in Colorado, documents her failure to write a historical novel about a 1979 race riot in a mostly immigrant suburb (a banlieue) of London, a novel that would have also been the story of a British-Indian girl named Ban who lies down to die on the road of that same suburb on April 23rd, the evening of the riot. But Kapil’s failure to write this novel comments on and complements the way her fiction failed to separate itself from her life, from post-colonial histories, from gender oppression, from the racist micro-aggressions that trigger mental illness in immigrant populations.
“I want a literature not made from literature,” she writes. “In a literature, what would happen to the girl? I write, instead, the increment of her failure to orient, to take another step.” Instead of a literary narrative about what happens to Ban, Kapil gives us three things repeatedly: 1) the image of Ban lying down to die, 2) notes about the social, historical, and geographical contexts that intersect in this image, and 3) notes about everything Kapil does — from performance art to art installation to international travel — in the attempt to write the novel she never writes. In the same way that we watch Ban helplessly lying down again and again — and sometimes Ban is also Bhanu and sometimes Ban is Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young Indian woman who was gang-raped and murdered in Delhi in December 2012 — we watch Kapil helplessly balk at putting into motion a narrative that might in fact serve to finally “orient” Ban, to reinscribe the cultural and historical logics that lead to gendered and racialized violence.
While reading Ban en Banlieue, I was haunted by Kapil’s question, “In a literature, what would happen to the girl?” It suggests that literature might have desires for — designs on — the girl that would not serve her best interests. And of course, Ban is an Indian British girl of a particular time and historical context, “an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black.” So Kapil’s question is not only a question about gender and literature, but also about race and literature, and Ban en Banlieue powerfully reminds us of Ban’s immediate socio-historical context:
My family lived in an end terrace with a coal chute in the garden
and a rusted out, abandoned Morris Minor with a shattered
windscreen propped against the back fence. Next door lived
Stephen Whitby, a member of the National Front’s youth league.
With regularity, he’d empty out the milk bottles of our Gujrati
and Kenyan neighbors, filling them with an unrelenting stream
of urine before putting them back on the step. He must have woken
before dawn to do this. Red top for cream, silver for lowfat. Is he
Once, a man was beating his wife. Stephen Whitby climbed over
the wall and banged his head on the window. He spat at the window
then thumped it with his hand, screaming: “You fucking Paki!” He
screamed: “Go back home, you bleeding animal!” The man stopped
beating his wife, then resumed.
Although in these paragraphs we’re asked to focus on the dramatic, hateful actions of the speaker’s white supremacist neighbor Stephen Whitby, we also witness the way in which narrative and grammar can replicate the ideologies that underwrite violent histories. In the first paragraph, the neighbors who receive Stephen Whitby’s urine instead of milk remain objects of a prepositional phrase and a possessive pronoun, “the milk bottles of our Gujrati and Kenyan neighbors”; in the second paragraph, man and wife are named only in line with patriarchal marriage conventions, to be further described only by the racist epithets that issue from Stephen Whitby like spit, fucking Paki and bleeding animal. The wife, in particular, is not even a grammatical subject, but remains an object taken by the man, who was beating her.
Kapil dramatizes — through a more “novelistic” narrative approach than she uses elsewhere in the book — the situation in which Ban might have easily found herself in a historical novel: made an object of both the xenophobia of England and the misogyny of India, the same misogyny that left Jyoti Sigh Pandey on the road to die. As Kapil writes in an interview with Laynie Browne on Jacket2, Ban “lies down to die because, on some level, she is “already dead.” She is socially dead. There are two kinds of violence: the violence on the street and the violence at home. Either way, she's done for.”
In a literature, too, Kapil suggests, Ban might also have been done for by others’ violence. But in “a literature not made of literature,” in a literature made of blog posts and AWP talks and performance art, in a literature whose author tells herself to “Focus hard on life in order to write a novel,” Ban has another option: refusal. Rather than move forward into a violent future, rather than agree to become an object of violence in a historical novel, she chooses to lie down to die as a subject, a gesture Kapil calls “auto-sacrifice.” It’s a gesture Kapil herself stages and performs in the US, in England, and in India, each time conjuring the spectral presence of gendered and racist violence that haunts brown and black girls: “Ban, in a sense, was waiting for me, in the darkness of the border, no longer proximal but centered, arms waving in a blur, waiting with everything that was wrong.”
What makes Ban en Banlieue a tour-de-force is an unusual unity in its hybrid nature, a unity it maintains both as a project and as an object, a unity built from attempting to include “everything that was wrong.” Indeed, Kapil’s assemblage feels unified even while it records all the personal and historical forces that keep Ban the girl from orienting and from living, that keep Ban the novel from being written, that keep Kapil from writing a very different kind of book. On the one hand, this unity stems from the fact that Kapil has made Ban en Banlieue entirely from what is traditionally considered paratext — documents created to support the main text — so while everything that we read is not the novel itself, it has been generated in relation to that failed narrative. On the other hand, the book object itself does similar work: both the front and back covers feature a photograph of a naked woman lying down in the dirt, and Kapil uses every aspect of the book qua book — dedication, epigraph, acknowledgments, end-notes, illustrations—in service of documenting her failure to write Ban. Out of failure and waste Kapil derives a principle of thrift: no opportunity in this book of just over 100 pages is wasted. And in fact, what appears at first to be thrift ultimately comes across more like the paranoia and fear at the heart of Ban en Banlieue. On every page Kapil’s novel refuses to be written in the same way Ban lies down and refuses to move: pre-emptively, in protest and refusal of a violence that has always already arrived anyway.
I have to gush: Kapil writes beautiful sentences, perhaps because her relationship to the sentence is visceral and companionate. “It’s so quiet before a book begins,” she writes. “So quiet that when my nervous system hurts, so does the sentence, because that’s all we have: each other.” Out of this interdependence, she’s developed a capacious prose style, a recombinant genre where diary, poetry, theory, narrative, and meta-narrative intertwine to generate new experiences for both writer and reader. “To write a sentence with content more volatile than what contains it,” she writes, “So that the page is shiny, wet and hard. So that sentences are indents, not records … Their capacity to touch you in the present time.” Her sentences are haptic and somatic, weirdly physical, full of syntax that communicates the affect of the attempt to discover and record something difficult. “I want to feel it in my body,” Kapil writes about the image of Ban lying down to die, “the root cause.” And yet despite its abiding interest in failure, despite its refusals of easy solutions, despite its fatalism about certain forms of violence, Ban en Banlieue is an oddly hopeful book. Perhaps because it believes in art as an ethics, a practice, and a way of life, even when it seems to fail or feels like failure in the face of systems and histories that perpetuate violence. In fact, it believes so fervently in art that artistic failure itself becomes a resource and an occasion for reinvention. “I want to find out if I am a writer. To write chronicity, titration: the nerves,” Kapil urges herself in the book’s final lines, “Write: the findings. Write what never ends.”
[Published January 6, 2015. 109 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Brian Teare’s latest collection of poems in Companion Grasses. He is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at Temple University.