Skin-possibilities in Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
Week of the Festival: Ledbury, UK
Week of the Festival: Ledbury, UK
I’ve always felt compelled toward poetry where revelations are driven by landscape. A poetics of the environment. Lately, I’ve been asking myself why I rarely talk about this: how my body, a brown woman’s body, is placed in the natural world. It makes me wonder what I have internalised about ecology, about human presence in “the natural world.” What did my biology textbooks say about the human footprint? The human here (at times referred to as “man”) is always unmarked by any specific cultural or historical context. Is it any wonder why, then, when I think of human presence in the natural world, I am conditioned to think about the lie of neutrality? A lie that removes people of colour from the centre.
In Threads, Sandeep Parmar asks, how do poets of colour “differently embody the ‘I.’ Or how does it come to embody us?” (11). Turning to the Humanities, what apparent universal truths did the Romantic poets find in their perceptions and experiences of a natural world? I very deliberately resist using “the” here, as in “the” natural world. Just like the “I” placed in it, this perceived world is a version of the natural landscape often assumed and portrayed as a neutral, universal, place. This normalised, but mistaken, neutrality ekes into poetics of the environment. In Allegories of the Anthropocene, Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s discusses these occurrences at length:
"There is an unprecedented production of climate change books written by geologists, in which an undifferentiated “man” has a starring role in the history of the planet, causing speculation about the behavior of the species in the past and dire warnings about its actions in the future (11)."
Parmar’s questions challenge the coded whiteness, the supposed universality, of the lyric subject. As I think about the lyric “I” in my own work, I am forced to consider how my poetry is placed in current poetic movements and Western traditions. What truths (or more accurately, what limits of “the truth”) does my subjectivity reveal? How is the lyric “I” in my work localised, specified, or exoticised in relation to a supposed commonality from which I am excluded? However, while the white gaze certainly occupies my thoughts, I orient this essay specifically toward Parmar’s question of embodiment. Of course, when the “I” enters a poem’s terrain, when the eye scans its landscape, even with an emphasis on interiority or reflection, so too enters a body and its vantage point.
For poets of colour, then, the lyric “I” is not merely representative of a turn inward, or a self that engages in meaning- or truth-making. It is not only a perceiving eye, or a body that takes up space on a poem’s landscape. It is a body with skin. It is a racialised subjectivity, and it is read as such by audiences. In Britain, the racialised subject is so often one who simultaneously experiences a history of migration – experiences that Sara Ahmed suggests are felt at the level of embodiment (Strange Encounters, 92). For poets of colour, the lyric “I” is a hybrid, a subjectivity marked by certain social realities, and thus, recognised as unfamiliar. All of this untangles next to Parmar’s next question: is the lyric “I” “no more than the dead metaphor of our failed universality, of our being other?” (11).
And so, I return again to that question I keep asking myself: how do women of colour take up space on landscapes? Bhanu Kapil’s cross-genre collection, Ban en Banlieue, interacts vibrantly with a version of the natural world, and attends to a poetics of embodied engagement with the land. In my reading, and in consideration of my earlier question, I am drawn to thinking about sensations of and on skin – not only in the context of racialisation, but also in terms of skin’s contact with the landscape. What are the resulting skin-textures, skin-writings, and skin memories in this work? My thoughts are guided by Sara Ahmed’s description of “skin memories” in Strange Encounters:
"Migration stories are skin memories: memories of different sensations that are felt on the skin. Migrant bodies stretch and contract, as they move across the borders that mark out familiar and strange places (Strange Encounters, 92)."
I begin with the question, what came before Ban en Banlieue? I find myself wondering about the interstices of this collection, what had to overlap – collide – for it to come together. Bhanu Kapil writes generously about her artistic process. For one, she writes with clarity about the butcher’s block she finds on a curb, the one she comes to own, and which eventually houses the fictional subject’s, Ban’s, fragments in its wire cages. It is so literal, so physical, this image. Kapil washing down the butcher’s block. Assembling notebooks beneath its board. Ban’s several consciousnesses, within those notebooks, existing in a network, in relation to one another, in relation to the butcher’s block, which is now part of the narrative. A group of Bans – a tableau.
In my curiosity about process, I am drawn to something Kapil writes in her “Notes” for the collection:
"I had made a prior appointment to meet Dr. John Dueber, an innovator in the field of metagenomics, to ask him for a definition of hybridity. He laughed. ‘An organism that shares a membrane with other organisms is a false indicator of hybrid form,’ I wrote afterwards … you can be a hybrid and not share a body with anything else (100)."
I think of a membrane as the skin of a single-cell organism. It surprises me that a shared membrane is a false indicator of hybridity. I negotiate this in my analysis of skin memories. Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” a vital backdrop to conversations on hybridisation, human limits, and embodiment, feels so very resonant here: “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” (Manifesto, 75). I find myself enthralled by these different connections, these different skin-possibilities. Earlier in Ban en Banlieue, Kapil writes: “one thing next to another doesn’t mean they touch” (13). I collect all these relational thoughts, place them in my own butcher’s block –a “theory of wholes and parts” (Manifesto, 181). I consider: what does the hybrid subject feel/write on the skin – what memories are triggered in response – even without the involvement of touch?
My eyes glide over the pages. I think it’s important to note this detail of perception. The book opens with earthiness, with the outdoors: a photograph of ivy in Middlesex, taken in 2012. In “Walking Women,” Eleanor Widger examines “radical landscape poetry” by Harriet Tarlo, Frances Presley, and Helen Macdonald, and suggests that these writers understand “visual perception as an act that can be carried out consciously, in different ways, and as an embodied activity.” Widger suggests that the form of a poem may reflect the way the natural landscape is perceived by the writer. I keep this in mind as I gaze at Kapil’s photograph. I look first in the left corner, where there are shadowed leaves, then drag my gaze to the brighter-lit bottom half. As the opening page, this is the first instance of embodied engagement with the land, land that is both real and imagined. Who is the lyric “I” in the photograph? I think it must be the photographer. Or it is the author who selects this photograph and places at this exact moment in her book? Also, I think she, too, must be there: Ban. She is either the blooms themselves, or the roots underneath. Just as often as we glimpse the figure of Ban in Ban en Banlieue, we also metaphorically glimpse this photograph. To me, it is reoccurring. The photograph is Ban, even though the two subjects – image and figure – do not touch.
I am skeptical of linearity, here, in the metaphorical butcher’s block. Ban en Banlieue is an intergenre collection, and as it crosses genre it also crosses temporal space. What I know of context: this book balances on a point. That point is an April night in 1979, the night of the Southall riots – what began as a peaceful protest against far-right political party, the National Front. At the time, Southall was home to many immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. And, on 23rd April 1979, Blair Peach, the protestor to whom this book is dedicated, was hit on the head by a member of the Metropolitan Police and later died from his injuries. All of this comes before the flowers in Middlesex, 2012.
But, as I trace the linearity in Ban en Banlieue, I think that perhaps it doesn’t come before. The image that opens this collection captures an atemporal space, or an everlasting space. Just as that night in Southall left its mark on human life and memory, it also marked the landscape. Can the ivy in Middlesex remember the 1979 riots? I think of the poet Pratyusha’s ecological poem, “if still forest (winter):” “sap remembers everything” (bulbul calling, 11). Might the Southall riots, as they live in this collection, still also live in the leaves, in the roots, in the ivy’s absent-present figure of Ban? Think of the soles that have imprinted soil; the shoulders that have grazed more unwieldy growths.
If the landscape – imaginary or otherwise – is marked by the riots, the landscape is also marked by everything before them: every line of flight. The foot that stepped into its soil, the cheek that leaned toward its pollen; both have their own historical trajectories. In Cartographies of Diaspora, Avtar Brah writes that “analyses of South Asian cultural formations in Britain must be informed by an understanding of the colonial history” (20). The non-human, the land, grew amongst the post-war migration of South Asians in 1950; the poverty of Britain’s ex-colonies; and, before that, Partition. The network surrounding Ban continually extends with the passage of time. In Ban en Banlieue, the written and visual landscape come to embody the history that led to cultural formations in Britain, and thus, the subsequent Southall riots. This embodiment occurs through the subject herself – her metaphorical skin that both experiences and remembers. It is through the skin that, in some strands (notebooks) (performances), even becomes the land. It is through this very specific action: Ban, a brown (black) girl lying down on the ground on 23rd April 1979.
Most of this book is one long, numbered, hybrid prose-poetry sequence titled “Auto-sacrifice (Notes).” Thus, many of my thoughts below are about this sequence piece.
"Pink lightning fills the borough like a graph. All day, I graph the bandages, race passion and chunks of dirt to Ban—plant-like, she’s stretching then contracting on the ground (27)."
Ban stretches and contracts on the ground, just as Ahmed’s migrant skins stretch and contract as they move between familiar and strange spaces. Originally, in the novel Kapil set out to write, Ban was an immigrant. In this hybrid poetry collection, Kapil comes to the realisation that Ban is not an immigrant, but a “monster.” Again, I am pulled into the realm of Haraway; I think of how the figure of the cyborg and the monster come together: “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence” (Manifesto, 151). There are suggestions of familiarity and unfamiliarity across all these figures; a perceived otherness, a statement against the binary. At the start of the poetic sequence, Ban is also plant-like. Figuratively, she becomes the landscape. I flip back to the photograph of the ivy. At different points throughout the collection, and perhaps even simultaneously, Ban is the ivy’s dark shadow (charcoal, “the very thing Ban is made of” (22)) and/or its illuminated spots. Skin, and skin memories, also become a part of the earth in a more literal sense. Through decay, through the breakdown of organic skin-materials, the subject becomes the soil which nourishes the ivy: “Ban fulfills the first criterium of monstrosity simply by degrading: by emitting bars of light from her teeth and nails, when the rain sweeps over her then back again” (28). Skin breaks down and the body leaks.
What does Ban’s skin physically touch as she “folds to the ground?” (31). On that evening of 23rd April, when it rains, before Ban begins to degrade, what is felt on her skin? And in contrast, what (when) still marks her skin without touching? In one strand of the story, the “roar” of the race riot dims, and “Ban is crumpled like a tulip.” I imagine her skin feels the vibrations of the roar, of its sounds, “groans, murmurs, and shouts,” (48) as she crumples. That same night, there is a late April storm. The rain, writes Kapil, is “why the dark green, glossy leaves of the ivy are so green: multiple kinds of green” (33).What memories are nourished, turned green, by the rain; what memories are dislodged by vibration? The gaps and divisions of the poetic sequence are poised to answer these questions. In the fifth section of “Auto-Sacrifice (Notes),” Kapil unravels such memories. They are perhaps buried in the unconscious, not fully renarrativised; they surface as threads, introduced in those moments where the body – the skin – makes contact with woods or rain:
"Perhaps I should say that I grew up partly in Ruislip. The Park Woods that bounded it were rimmed, themselves, with land forms that kept in the boar. I used to go directly to those masses and lie down on them …
One morning I went there though it was raining.
To soften this scene would require time travel, which I am not prepared to do. I am not prepared to take off my clothes … One night, I went home, and my hands were caked in dirt and dew. My skirt was up around my ears. My legs were cold. The insides of my eyes were cold. The bath I took, I couldn’t get it hot enough … (34)."
Throughout the collection, it is Ban’s skin unfolding on the ground on the specific date and time of the riots – an action reiterated again and again – that bridges landscape and subjective memory. It is interesting to note, as well, the turn toward a subtle (perceived) skin autobiography, where the lyric “I,” too, lies down on the land. This movement, where skin metaphorically and literally grazes bitumen, dirt, and ivy, revitalizes a historical narrative – it is a way for two narratives to hybridise across time and space. Here, I am reminded of Elspeth Probyn’s “Eating Skin,” which orients me, again, toward a kind of “beginning:”
"Any investigation of skin must start here. It must start in the present in order to seek ways of connecting to the past. It must start in the acknowledgment of the fact that skin matters, matters viscerally, and in different ways. It must begin in an acknowledgment of the different shades, textures and feel of skin, of skin as testimony both to the subjective state of individuals and to the histories that have moulded them… (87)."
Ban is a brown girl. This is emphasised; crucial. Southall in 1979 was a suburb housing many South Asian immigrants. The riots were a product of racial tension. That skin matters – matters “viscerally” – is unavoidable and deeply felt in this text. And I find myself fixated on Probyn’s idea that this is where investigations of skin must start. So, I end up (as I often do) looking in the metaphorical mirror. Ruminating, again, over the lyric “I.” I turn to my richest source of memory, history, ancestry, and racial understanding. Over the phone, my father tells me that he, himself, visited family in Southall in 1977 and 1978. Though he has never lived there himself, having immigrated instead to Canada, he has vibrant memories of the cinema, the markets, the bus rides. Before I mentioned this essay to him, I did not know about this strand of his (my) history. Now I am in the UK and somehow feel a strange closeness to this loose end. A strange closeness to both India and Southall, the way two places destabilise and restabilise one another.
"I am resolute: I think, eventually, I must lay down in all these worlds."
Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters. Routledge, 2000.
Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora. Routledge, 1996.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. Allegories of the Anthropocene. Duke University Press, 2019.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991, p. 149-181.
Kapil, Bhanu. Ban en Banlieue. Nightboat Books, 2015.
Parmar, Sandeep, et al. Threads. Clinic Publishing Ltd, 2018.
Pratyusha. Bulbul Calling. Bitter Melon, 2020.
Probyn, Elspeth. “Eating Skin.” Thinking Through the Skin, edited by Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey. Routledge, 2001, p. 87-103.
Widger, Eleanor. “Walking Women: Embodied Perception in Romantic and Contemporary Radical Landscape Poetry.” Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, 2017.
 (black) here refers to ‘political blackness,’ a term that Kapil acknowledges was prevalent in 1979
Language, breaking silences and Irigarayan mysticism'
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