How does the voice of a writer enter one’s being and create an intimate space where a reader may travel safely through the text? Bhanu Kapil, a poet raised in London who currently teaches at Naropa University and Goddard College, does so by writing from multiple perspectives and locations and by incorporating her readers’ voices. She does so by exploring subjects previously unexplored in verse, such as the experiences of a young, female cyborg-immigrant hitchhiking across unfamiliar territory. She does so by choosing familiar forms, such as the list, interview, or instruction manual, and employing them in surprising contexts.
Kapil’s first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001), for example, begins with a survey. Kapil writes, “From January 12, 1992, to June 4, 1996, I traveled in India, England and the United States, interviewing Indian women of diverse ages and backgrounds.” She asked the following questions:
- Who are you and whom do you love?
- Where did you come from / how did you arrive?
- How will you begin?
- How will you live now?
- What is the shape of your body?
- Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?
- What do you remember about the earth?
- What are the consequences of silence?
- Tell me what you know about dismemberment.
- Describe a morning when you woke without fear.
- How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death?
- And what would you say if you could?
From her respondents’ answers, Kapil invented a collective voice. The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers becomes a choral collage of responses to these intimate questions. In the beginning of the book she invokes Hélène Cixous: “In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.”
All of the questions in her survey probe female and multicultural identity, sexuality, violence, and impermanence. The book achieves its intimate collective voice by weaving a range of sensibilities into a textual tapestry, and by presenting material using the first person. But her “I” is not the “I” of the singular narrative voice. Rather, it becomes transparent, as the “I” within a crowd of possible “I’s,” which escort each other as travelers through a text as if through unfamiliar territory:
“I saw a woman bicycle past, a cello strapped to her back in its black case. It resembled the carapace of an insect about to rupture its shiny skin. I should have seen my future then, in the way that woman carried what she loved along the length of her spine: her home / kept moving.”
Kapil can be seen as a collector, interpreter, sorter, and creator of procedures that both create and extract meaning. For example, in her second book, Incubation: A Space for Monsters (2006), she works through palimpsest (writing over existing documents), erasure (selective omissions), and interruption (repeatedly breaking a narrative flow) to move away from the expository mode of dictating or reporting associated with nonfiction into a highly sequenced series of insights and epiphanies.
In this second book, she uses these procedures to explore the borders of the body, travel, and identity. One of the book’s subjects is hitchhiking, a metaphor for navigating—freely and independently—in a postmodern, hyperfast, at times inhumane world. Each section of the book begins with prose in numbered lists; between each section is a black page bearing a section title, which effectively blots out the connection between sections, fragmenting the text, like an eclipse, a blink, or a lapse of memory breaks up the day, sight, or memory, respectively.
This lapse also connotes stumbling. What does this text ask of a reader? Perhaps we stumble in differentiating between human, monster, or cyborg? At the center of the text is the question “Who exactly is a monster?” In “Wish (2)” Kapil writes, “The monster is that being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances.” And in “Handwritten Preface to Reverse the Book,” she writes, “The secret pleasure of refusing to live like a normal person in a dress / with a sex drive and fingers / dreamy yet stabilized in the café of languages.”
The interior of Kapil’s text is an incubational space for a being in the midst of metamorphosis, lending a rawness to the work. Also in “Handwritten Preface,” she writes: “I want to have sex with what I want to become.” The rawness, though, is coupled with a dignity that is as solid and reassuring as an outstretched arm, yet there is no shying away from darkness, disempowerment, or harm. Hitchhiking, after all, is dangerous. Warnings and instructions are provided in the text. In “Notes to Stop the Car (A–L)” Kapil writes: “This is the story about a girl who went too far. There were consequences, but I like to think of her, the girl who left hearth and home, as re-established in a town or city central to your country, washing dishes like a robot or falling in love with a needy, cool robot.”
In her newest book, Humanimal: a project for future children, Kapil continues to explore liminal identity, turning to research and documentary to create a mosaic-like account based on the true story of two girls found living with wolves in the Bengal region of India in 1920. Kapil’s source material for the text is the diary of the Indian missionary Reverend Joseph Singh, published in 1945. Kapil also traveled to Midnapure with the French filmmaking company Mona Lisa Production as part of a documentary on human-wolf contacts, and was filmed as she went about her research on the two wolf girls, Kamala and Amala.
In choosing this subject, she is again posing questions about female identity. What does it mean to be civilized? How is the body a culprit? What are the historical and narrative circumstances that create a feral existence? How is the story of the feral child a metaphor for violence and neglect of those who experience themselves as outside, primal, territorial?
The reader must continually ask of the voice of the narrator, “Is she of one form or another? Human or wolf?”
“I want to stand up but I can’t do that here. They would know I am a wolf by my sore hips, the look in my eyes. At the edge of the garden was a line of blue chalk. My mother was crouching there, waiting for me in her dark coat. In the dream I walk towards her and she stands up. She opens up her coat like two wings and I step into her cloth heart, her cleft of matted fur.”
Her voices’ sympathies are never singular, and they are spoken in a space between boundaries, localities known and unknown: the space of the unescorted. And yet, her voice escorts us. The poet-detective traces a line, and we are compelled to follow. In the jungle we learn that the notion that history moves in one direction is a myth. Culture is beyond time, a learned mechanism of being. We become caught within the questions of the Humanimal.
What is the opposite of feral? Feral: “Latin, from ‘fera’ a wild beast. Relating to, or having the nature of, a wild beast; uncultivated; undomesticated; barbarous; wild.” The question is deliberately not answered. Would one say civilized? Hardly, considering that the violent treatment of the two feral girls by the “civilized” is not at all civil:
“A girl is a dot arising in space, and then the girl after that, and the next. Viral, schizophrenic, the two girls shook in the garden, and then in their beds like photographs. In the first days of their captivity, they screamed for their mother, then stopped. Dehydrated, they sucked tea from rags. Accepting nourishment like this was a primary act of human culture. Hopeful, their Father brought them home. No. They were home and then they got sick, unable to tolerate the food they were given.”
This book gives voice to “monsters”—to those who are unnamed, uncounted, unclothed, unemployed, uninsured, represented only in the margins—and provides another way to approach subjects often explored only under the guise of anonymity. Kapil searches out voices not often heard, because of either invisibility or the opposite—a type of gawking that is not seeing at all, as if at an animal. Of the feral girls she writes,
“For a few minutes a day, Joseph’s wife, the Home’s Mother let them [spectators] in and they swarmed to the room where the youngest girl was failing. They watched her fade and jerk in her cot, the spittle coming down over her chin.”
The girl is captured from the jungle and placed upon a cot in full view of the civilized. The civilized and domesticated have unintentionally made the feral child ill. The “civilized” cannot understand or aid but wish to watch her decline. A revelatory cruelty exists in the story of Humanimal. Through Kapil’s deft interweaving of perspectives, we can almost hear the breath of the wolf-girl in protest. It is beyond language.
Each of Kapil’s books presents poetry as journey, social document and investigation. Her voice is a roadmap and an inquisitor revising the probable. Kapil elegantly and dramatically carves out a space for the unutterable. She writes beyond singular personhood, in an intimate voice rooted in a listening empathy.