Memory and Narration: An Ultra-Romantic Marxist Primer

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"Narrate the history of ways you have been in common." — Th. Donov./Rb. Halprn

Nothing comes to mind. The bus. The theater. The theater in Amsterdam drinking beer. Watching a film in French; the subtitles in Dutch. Arm in arm with a drug smuggler, on what I assumed was some kind of ultra-romantic date. Beer is a summer drink. It was November. A clue. I always understood the reality of things way too late. I thought he sold cheap reproductions of well-known paintings to discount warehouses, not understanding what was happening until it was too late, and I was sitting in a basement in Rotterdam, being offered a lychee from a porcelain bowl by a man with extremely blonde eyelashes. What was also on the glass coffee table was a small pyramid of pristine, super-fresh cocaine. They packed the frames. Also: the bus to Wales. Melissa Chen's dad was a dentist. She explained dental floss to us. We were English. We were thirteen or fourteen years old. We had bad teeth. I was Indian. In my family, there were certain people — aunts — who brushed their teeth with salt and mustard seed oil. But at night, in the youth hostel on the other side of the Black Hills, after a meal of tomato soup from cans, heated in a dented pot, Melissa Chen unspooled the floss from its plastic dispenser and wrapped it around her body again and again, so that it was — what else? — a chrysalis. Then she leaped from bunk to bunk, laughing hysterically, and had to be tackled by Antonia Woodiwiss, whose father was also, I believe, a dentist.

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"Narrate the history of ways you have not been in common." — Ditto

Have you seen a war? I have only seen civil wars. Two, if you count the I.R.A. bombings in London. (My father missed a train one night, his regular train home from King's Cross; he slapped his hands on the Perspex door but the train left the station without him. It was redirected. It exploded. It was bombed.) One, if you only count Punjab in the 1980s, under the President's Rule that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. (A second cousin was shot in Amritsar. We went to Amristar for the uttala, though there was a curfew and British citizens were not allowed into the state. I was instructed not to say anything, in case my terrible Punjabi-Hindi combo would betray us. And had to dress in a plain cotton salwar-chemise embroidered with tiny yellow flowers, that I hated. It was unfashionable. It chafed.)

I have not been in common with the people living through the wars in the Middle East. The only physical commitment I have made to an alternate narration is to get off the plane in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, en route to Delhi. And to walk around in the sweet-salty air, the red air, to see what is going on and to speak to the people living near the airport. In reality, the only women I actually spoke to were hotel/hospitality workers. In the elevator, they asked me if I was from Pakistan and during our brief coffee wanted to touch my hair; they said it looked soft. And it was. That Dove. That Suave. That hotel soap. What was I thinking? I've done this twice: seven years ago, and two years ago, mimicking, I suppose, the childhood stopovers in Baghdad. Without a purpose, or a plan, however, the adult wish — to see "with one's own eyes" — is both egotistical and naive. A functional, emotional commons must be relevant not just to the person asking, but the person being asked. A relevant question should be asked in person and then circulated in a polemic document: one that extends beyond the personal domain. There should be a training of some kind, and a resource center in which questions could be designed, tested and joined. My son just asked, glancing up from his book: "Mom, what's a bestiary?" A university, I wanted to reply — thinking of where the intellectual resources are typically held in this country, which suddenly, of course, seems wrong.

Originally Published: April 11th, 2011

Bhanu Kapil lives in Colorado where she teaches at Naropa University. She also teaches in Goddard College’s low-residency MFA. She is the author of a number of full-length works of poetry/prose, including The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal...