Emily Wilson on Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue.
There is a straight stretch of ribbon before you. There is a clump of charcoal. The ribbon is red; the charcoal—well, what is the color between black and gray without waxing too poetic about it? Is the ribbon tongue or tail? Is the charcoal dirt or purifier? Will you need to interact with these objects, or are you just a witness to their existence?
It is okay that you have these questions and are impatient for answers. It is okay that the answer will be “all of the above.” The only thing that will prohibit you from moving forward is a failure to accept multiplicity.
Ban is the protagonist of Ban en Banlieue, Bhanu Kapil’s latest and fifth collection of poetry. Ban, a young woman of color, is walking home through a London suburb in 1979. A riot breaks out. Ban lies down on the sidewalk with the knowledge that she will soon die.
Ban, as a character and a narrative, is, in part, influenced by Clement Blair Peach, a militant activist killed by police in 1979. Ban is influenced by Nirbhaya, the young woman raped and beaten to death in New Delhi in 2012. Ban is her own story, but she speaks to the stories of everyone who has experienced violence on behalf of identity.
Ban is the poet and the reader; Ban is the product and the process.
Charcoal—the very thing Ban is made of—is so messy.
I was first introduced to Ban during a panel at AWP when the conference was held in Seattle last year. The panel was entitled What are you projecting? and I went to watch Kapil, who is a favorite poet of mine, speak.
She unraveled a vein of red ribbon through the center of the audience, spread a sheet of paper on the panel’s table. She had a sack of charcoal. She played a recording of herself on her iPod in which she read thirteen pieces about Ban. She didn’t speak as this played. She sat silently, smearing charcoal across the canvas, across her skin.
If you remember the importance of multiplicity, it will not surprise you that this collection is: a novel, a self-identified failed novel, an archive, an action.
Ban is not an immigrant; she is a shape or bodily outline that’s familiar: yet inaccurate: to what the thing is. How to look good on Skype. A vaginal opening. By 2011, she’s a blob of meat on the sidewalk. I progress her to meat—a monstrous form—but here she pauses, is inhibited, and this takes a long time.
Before or after the performance, I can’t remember which or when, Kapil held a $20 bill in front of the audience and asked someone to take it if they needed it. I was seated in the third row, to the right of the panel. My heart met my throat—yes, for $20, but also to touch something Kapil had touched.
Did I need it? As a student earning minimum wage, I had wanted it. But I hesitated and remained seated; someone else might need it more. A young woman finally approached the panel after a few quiet moments.
“Do you need this?” Kapil asked. “Do you really?”
Neither Kapil nor the woman seemed convinced. She took the twenty anyway.
Is zinc an element? It’s a sheen. Spread it on the ankle of Ban.
Is there a copper wire? Is there a groin? Make a mask for Ban.
If you remember the importance of multiplicity, it will not surprise you that this collection is: a novel, a self-identified failed novel, an archive, an action. Its table of contents: 1. [13 Errors for Ban]; 2. Auto-Sacrifice (Notes); 3. Stories; 4. End-Notes; 5. Butcher’s Block Appendix; 6a. Epigraphs; 6b.; 7. Dedication; 8. Installations and Performances. The collection as collage.
I wondered, throughout the duration of the conference, what the young woman did with Kapil’s offering. Maybe she bought herself a cup of coffee; we were, after all, in Seattle. She could’ve spent it on a collection at the bookfair, found someone’s work that spoke to her bones directly, shook them the way only sound can. Or, possibly, she wrote her own lines of poetry on the wrinkled and worn green and found some silent moment to slide it beneath the door of a stranger’s hotel room.
Kapil reveals that her project was originally perceived to fit inside another form. Although I am interested in errors, perhaps it is more accurate to say I wrote a book that failed—and not in the interesting vulnerable way that books sometimes fail—but in this other way—“the way of the species that isn’t registered or described; that does not emerge.” To replicate but not survive.
When Kapil offered the $20, she was implicating her audience. Who among us can take what we want? Who can leave for others? When Kapil performed with her recording, with ribbon and charcoal, she was implicating her audience. Who can sit with what they don’t understand? For how long?
Radical modernity requires something of me.
An aesthetics of violence.
To write the larger scene.
The collection as hybrid.
Hybridity is building something to attract not the insects, but the light. So, in a way, it’s a void, a kind of fertility.
You can be hybrid and not share a body with anything else. Thus, the different parts of “Ban” do not touch. They never touch at all.
My heart met my throat a second time when I was introduced to Ban on the page, when I held a copy of Ban en Banlieue in my hand. Kapil directly refers to her AWP performance on the page.
[Hold up white sheet with long red tail. Smooth it on table. Extend ribbon into aisle. Empty charcoal from Safeway plastic bag onto white sheet before talk begins. Hold up yellow sheet with black and white zig zag tail as you read the first parts of the talk.]
I had not known I needed this experience, this memory, to be preserved, but here it was: This had happened; I had happened. I had existed as witness to an artist creating. To the art becoming. The process, product, and project.
And what have I done with what I’ve witnessed?
What if the money was a distraction, the way all money is, really? The sign of capitalism also serving as its medium. How uncomfortable the intersection between art and consumerism, how dangerous. How do artists work inside the system they are trying to dismantle?
This is a bank for sentences.
All the tellers are out to lunch.
And yet. Creation is an act of survival and there should be no shame in survival. Those who are marginalized are often shamed for both their survival and their creations. What if the offering was as genuine as it was generous? How do we ask for what we are worth? How do we learn to accept it?
It is okay that you have these questions and are impatient for answers, but is it okay that “all of the above” might be the only answer we have so far?
Ban turns her head to the wall.
Imagine a cloud of milk as it dissipates, spilled on a London street in an act of protest.
Imagine mica glinting in the oily curd of the pavement.
Imagine that the rough, pink tip of a girl’s tongue slips out, extending to the ivy’s salt—for nourishment.
What did Ban do that outweighed art? What kind of art did she produce?
After experiencing Ban en Banlieue, I cannot say that, given the opportunity again, I would rise and take the $20. I accept, instead, the poetry. The language and images, the call to arms and awareness. The story of a young woman who is a desiccating form on the sidewalk. The awareness that white patriarchal violence will not dismantle itself, that capitalism’s complications will not be addressed if left unchecked. The acceptance that my participation in this dismantling has multiplicity, that it can be an imperfect yet powerful product, but mostly process.
Could I ask you, or someone else like you, who does not mind getting dirty, to take some charcoal or soot and, casually, smudge the page—and this be my page to submit?
There is a red stretch of ribbon before us, but it is anything but straight.
Emily Paige Wilson is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of North Carolina Wilmington as a graduate teaching assistant. Her poetry, translations, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Bustle, Green Mountains Review, PANK, Passages North, and The Raleigh Review, among others. Nominated for inclusion in the Best New Poets series and for an AWP Intro Journals Award, she received the 2013-2014 Kert Green fellowship, was first runner-up in the 2014 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, and won the 2012 Emma Howell Memorial Poetry Prize. Follow her @Emmy_Golightly.
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil • Nightboat, 2015 • 88 pages
Photo courtesy of Helene Childs-Budelis