C: Dear Bhanu, I’ve been struggling with writing a mini-interview.
I chose to include Ban en Banlieue as part of the Penetrate: Translate reading list given its pampliset form which has the fluid ability to shift forms—sometimes recognisable, sometimes monstrous—traversing time, geographies and bodies. I also chose it out of an interested in inhabiting proxies as a means to expound, escape and speak about what is not immediately available (within the realms of any coherent language, let alone simply the English language) or is too immediate and therefore needs to be accessed tangentially.
Asking you for an analytic explanation seems inappropriate. So I thought of instead sharing a few thoughts and questions regarding drawing lines and about intimate performances.
You often write about psychosis as a state and its prevalence within immigrant populations (ie: ‘it is psychotic to return to a place of trauma’ , ‘it is psychotic to live in a different country forever… ’). Psychosis relates to the ability to separate what is real from what is not real, effectively to draw a line between two spaces or two bodies. The act of drawing a line entails constructing two distinct realities (geographic borders make this very evident) where what is real and present in one space is not necessarily real and present in another. And yet these spaces aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, bodies move in and out of different states and places.
Writing and performing are equally two constructed spaces where corporeality is differently embodied and voice(s) carry different valences. Does psychosis, this failure to separate, shape your work and if so how?
B: I understand psychosis as an extreme state of mind, one that is not [solely] housed in the body of a person identified or treated as: psychotic. See: mirror neurones, privacy, housing itself. Is psychosis particulate? Does it turn the air a light pink, a tint like yellow? I have learned about psychosis as a carer of a family member, and from that family member’s clinicians. I have learned about psychosis through my participation in conferences that took, as their focus, human rights, inclusion and care: the third World Congress of Cultural Psychiatry in 2012, and the British Columbia Nurses’ Union annual conference in 2017, were particularly profound opportunities to learn from other kinds of practitioners about the treatment of psychosis in refugee and immigrant populations, in particular. I have learned about the physiology of extreme states of mind from my own practice as a bodyworker (since 1998), and also through trainings with Boulder County Hospice and Windhorse organisation, which trains family carers and caring professionals to support individuals experiencing psychosis. Two questions that I am thinking about at the moment, in relation to the writing I want to do next:
What weakens the blood-brain barrier? Why are pernicious events experienced (acutely so) so far from the: founding day? Why do some experiences worsen, populating, in unrestricted ways, the imaginary that a person: lives-has?
These are questions about trauma that are linked to the higher incidence of psychosis, or the diagnosis of psychosis, in the community I often return to in my work, which is to say, the mostly immigrant neighbourhood I grew up in, on the periphery of west London. [Southall and Hayes.] It’s not that psychosis shapes my work, but that the experiences of sexual, domestic and social violence I experienced, and that so many people around me experienced—at that time and in that place—shaped my work. How do they shape my work? I think a shape can be made, perhaps, out of the undeveloped aspects of writing about violence. Avoidant, digressive shapes emerge, for me, from what remains unwritten.
C: Is psychosis voiced through the temporal, formal and corporeal shifts between writing to the live performance?
B: Not consciously, no. Did the rhythmicity of the way in which I was attended to, as a child, or lived, as a young person, affect my own brain? Performance, for me, is just this: a way of working out, visually or as a scene, spatialised, what I don’t have access to in language. Because (until now) I have been writing and thinking about British or Indian landscapes or part-events (there/never-there) from so far away, I have not always felt (so easily) that I could: remember or recall the images, voices, colours and textures of the possible work that might be created in relation to them. There’s nothing that reminds me of the world I am from [never-from] in the Rockies, for example. Thus, performance was a way to shift, to pretend, to articulate surfaces, to substitute one forest for another, to imagine, to feel. The shift was one of time.
C: Is it psychotic, possibly even violent, to appropriate and inhabit other bodies and voices to produce a text or artwork?
B: I can’t answer this question. Do you mean, am I committing a secondary violence in my work?
C: I suppose I do mean a secondary (unintended) violence. The question was aimed at discursively picking apart what appropriation means and the personal and/or political implications that using it as creative strategy entail. This is something I keep asking myself in relation to the work I do.
How much does the projection of one’s own experiences, history and inherited histories come into play within practices of appropriation; and, subsequently, does this projection entail a failure to listen and thus an erasure? That is, a misinterpretation of the appropriated body, whose form we reconfigure—in ever so slight ways—to be able to fit our own words inside. A misinterpretation that arises from a failure in listening because we do not understand and cannot understand—like attempting to make sense out of words in a language we don’t speak.
eg: You write, ‘The error of the performance was not that I did these things—but rather that the discharge or something long held—in the body does not—affect—or modulate—the resurgence of a latent—and vehement (British) Far Right. My mistake is that I perform works intended for a European audience—in California and that I do not have the courage or means to go home.’ (pg. 27 Ban en Ban- lieue)
I read these sentences and they resonate inside me. They remind me of my own experiences writing between tongues and continuously creating work that is erotic, sexual and violent. Work presented to European audience but which is the ‘discharge’, to borrow you term, of being a Mexican woman. For ‘I [too] do not have the courage or means to go home.’ (pg. 27 Ban en Banlieue)
The resonance evokes memories that cloud over me. I as a reader can no longer grasp exactly what you mean. Instead, I dig from my own stories. And I wonder if this does not equate to flattening both your experiences, your voice, and mine. Does this process, this flattening, distract from the urgent need to speak out against permissible forms of violence and the fervent resurgence of a xenophobic right?
But, maybe this resonance is also a way of finding solace and combatting loneliness. You ask: ‘Can loneliness perform a politics?’ I think it does. Can we be lonely, together, and supportive of each simultaneously? The collation of different voices and the failure to separate these discloses underlaying relations, histories and value systems. There is an agency in the misinterpretation and in failing to clearly define by way of bringing attention to the existence of divergent realities and the experiences that recur between them.
C: From what I understand, your work moves between private and public spheres. There are intimate domestic performances such as ‘Performance for Ban’ where you lay down in your backyard, public performances for an audience, and writing a work that once published publicly narrativises acts of ‘laying down’ and the failure of writing Ban, the main character/space, as coherent textual body.
Could you expand on the political implications of intimate or private performances (ie: Performing Ban in Colorado)?
B: I think here of the politics of community, in the place where I lived for so long. After speaking up, institutionally, about the ways in which experiences of racism, appropriation and harassment lodge [have lodged] in the body—and bodies of various kinds—I found myself on the outside of avant-garde (white) poetry community, in particular. Excreted, I wrote in my Diary, finding a language for my experiences in university settings only when I found the blog of Sara Ahmed. At the same time, I was building joyous, intimate community with writers of colour in other spaces. The performances I made, for Ban, were indexed (for me) to the deletion/ostracism that followed: all of that. No, I misremember. Performance preceded these institutional experiences, then integrated them. No, discharged them. A way to come back to life. A way to combat loneliness. A way to remember and write what I could not otherwise remember, then write. Can loneliness perform a politics? I am thinking here, too, of something I heard M. NourbeSe Philip say, during a talk she gave at Naropa University, and which I scrawled on a napkin: ‘The purpose of avant-garde writing for a writer of colour is to prove you are human.’
C: Is it possible to access a personal form of agency outwith the framework of institutionally through such intimate acts?
B: Yes. Through performance, I gathered the strength to return to the domestic sphere, as a carer and also a single mother (with three full-time jobs!). I gathered the courage to teach seminars at the intersection of art and social justice. Though sometimes, it should also be said, I lost my courage. I felt my agency drain into the carpet, and then the floor. I only knew any of this afterwards. Sometimes the performances took the form of protests that retrained or inhibited the institutional frameworks I was responding to. Can a performance be experienced, by an institution, as a crime? Perhaps I am speaking too vaguely. Much of this I have documented on my blog, but I don’t know where, and sometimes, of course, I changed the settings of those blog entries, which are archived in my Drafts folder: until when? And for whom?
C: Yes. A performance that breaches the institution’s values, falls outwith its structures or fails to portray the image it wishes to present to the outside world, can certainly be experienced by the institution as a crime. This can happen in an artistic presentation or work as well as in the day-to-day performing of identity, in which case the presence of that body and its gestures becomes a crime. Unfortunately, the presence a body and a person may infringe on the law. ‘For whom?’, you ask. For who do you perform? For who do you continue to write? Maybe for all those who also perform crimes. ‘A way to combat loneliness.’
C: Is this maybe just not enough and therefore entails colluding within an imposed real of silence?
B: I don’t know. I am interested in the technology of collusion, it’s true. Dorothy Wang:
‘Sometimes it’s the ones who most resemble you who can hurt you the most.’
Bhanu Kapil has recently returned to the U.K. after 21 years, or 29 years, in the United States, where she wrote five books. Her newest work, derived from a performance at ICA London in 2019, How To Wash A Heart, will be published by Pavilion Poetry (Liverpool University Press) in April 2020.
Catalina Barroso-Luque is a Mexican artist based in Glasgow. Her practice spans across writing (Spanish and English), installation, performance and arts programming; utilising language and sexuality as instruments of power. Between October and December 2019, Catalina led the Penetrate: Translate reading group organised in association with MAP.