Bhanu Kapil’s latest book begins with an annotated list of its contents, although some of those contents are only present in the list itself. Even “annotated list” might be misleading—each item appears on its own page, and the annotations are not just glosses but impacted narratives of each component’s genesis or eventual excision. Part palinode, part overture, the table of contents for Ban en Banlieue reads like a draft for the work as a whole, with all the striking turns of thought, incident, and phrase that readers of Kapil’s work have grown to expect. And yet this section also modulates our expectations, priming us for a series of notes and revisions within the texts that follow: “notes/instructions written into an AWP panel talk” titled “13 Errors for Ban”; “Auto-sacrifice (Notes),” the work’s long central section; thirteen pages of acknowledgements labelled “End-Notes”; and a “Butcher’s Block Appendix,” which extracts one passage at random from the thirty-three notebooks that preceded the published work. This accumulation of notes suggests a kind of palimpsest, and Kapil shares with other contemporary writers an interest in the formal problems that emerge when an individual or collective memory overwhelms its record. But Kapil abandons the palimpsest as a visual form in favor of a practice of addition and emendation in time, translating the visual form of the palimpsest into a book of cyclical, amalgamating prose—a book that can be inventoried even as its contents resist being mapped or contained.
paperback, 112 pages, 6 x 7 1/2 in.
Publication Date: 2015
An evocative exploration of body and politics by one of our most exciting innovative writers
Bhanu Kapil's Ban en Banlieue follows a brown (black) girl as she walks home from school in the first moments of a riot. An April night in London, in 1979, is the axis of this startling work of overlapping arcs and varying approaches. By the end of the night, Ban moves into an incarnate and untethered presence, becoming all matter— soot, meat, diesel oil and force—as she loops the city with the energy of global weather. Derived from performances in India, England and throughout the U.S., Ban en Banlieue is written at the limit of somatic and civic aims.
"Stunningly unique." — Time Out New York
Ban demands “a literature not made of literature,” while Buzzeo admits the need “to resist the cataloging which saves nothing which petrifies everything.” If you read a novel not made of literature, what does it become? Suspect, fugitive, waste? Merriam-Webster lists two definitions for petrification. The first is to frighten someone so thoroughly they are unable to move or think. The second is the change of organic matter into stony concretion, whereby its original substance is replaced by mineral deposits. I find both of these meanings useful when meditating on the limits of literature. It is tempting and disturbing to see this process in writing. Is this the result of literature, to frighten (language, ideas, subjectivities) into stony concretion, so that what previously was (is) becomes overdetermined by forms that can drown and maim the original contents and motivations?
Kapil’s work brings to mind Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts.” Hartman delves into the wreck of the archive in order to find experiences of the Middle Passage from black women slaves. What she finds instead are stories “not about them but rather about the violence, excess, mendacity, and reason” that “transformed them into commodities and corpses.” Hartman warns of repeating the violence in the attempt to “place” or represent what has been lost and/or silenced. Rather than continuing the story to its (assumed) predicted conclusion (death), Kapil does not finish the sentence. Ban refuses to be trapped in a grammar of violence. She’d rather lie down. In the space of a novel that cannot be written, Kapil presents us with notes, errors, performance gestures, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s licking dead tongue, blog entries, earthen silhouette offerings, a butcher block, remembrances for bodies left to die. How to memorialize a young Indian girl who, when walking home from the cinema, was caught by several men, raped, and abandoned in the street?
In Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, place and its particular violences are memorialized in the body. The book considers Ban, a fictional girl from Kapil’s hometown in London’s suburbs and the protagonist of a novel Kapil began but never completed. Ban, who lies down to die in a race riot in 1979—an act repeated throughout the book she inhabits—is at once a single body, the absence of a body, and the presence of trauma in many bodies. In Ban Kapil is Ban but also isn’t; she uses her writing, protest, and performance art to expose the ambient violence she has experienced and carried since childhood. Thus, she honors “the ‘person left for dead’ who—perversely—does not die.” Broken into sections, including “[13 Errors for Ban],” “Auto-Sacrifice (Notes),” and “Installations and Performances,” Ban en Banlieue becomes its various procedures, made hybrid by living in its imagined forms. These procedures are as communalistic as the violence Ban holds. In the twenty pages of acknowledgements, Kapil thanks Jena Osman for the week “I got to think through pilgrimage” and a family member for “lying down next to the ivy, at the age of nine.” Many of Ban’s catalysts are intangible, either in the past or imagined, yet together they become the concrete book the reader holds. As Kapil notes: “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.”—Davy Knittle
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—
— Sueyeun Juliette Lee