I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
As rioting continues in the UK, Bhanu Kapil’s first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, now published ten years ago, feels as relevant as ever, giving us a chorus of voices talking about dismemberment and change. It is a series of prose poems based on interviews with Indian women living in India, England, and the United States. The book weaves in and out of these different voices, all answering a series of twelve questions that are the titles of each piece, like “What is the shape of your body?” and “What are the consequences of silence?” Since Vertical Interrogation was first published in 2001 it has become a favorite for writers like Jean Valentine as well as hosts of anonymous readers and writers who, whether they directly contributed to the book or not, have found their own voice within its pages.
Kapil teaches at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and at the MFA program at Goddard College. She is also the author of Incubation: A Space for Monsters, an experimental autobiography; and Humanimal: A Project for Future Children, which is based on the true story of two girls found living with wolves in 1920 in Bengal, India. In anticipation of her latest book, Schizophrene (Nightboat, 2011), we had the chance to speak with one another—an interrogation of sorts.
Katherine Sanders What does it mean to be vertically interrogated?
Bhanu Kapil You are inverted, always, above the place at which you are caught. Caught living.
KS Who or what is your personal interrogator?
BK The interrogator, in colloquial or contemporary life, is a torturer of some kind. This is a time in which torture is very real for so many people, and so it is difficult to answer the question casually. Perhaps I would not have used that word as part of the title for the book I wrote, the book your question is connected to. The title itself was invented. It was not well thought out. Patricia Dientsfrey called me from Kelsey Street Press in California, at 5:00 PM on January 5th, 2001. I was an hour or so into labour, twelve hours from giving birth to my son. I answered the phone in the kitchen, in Colorado. Patricia said, “Hello.” She said they were going to press the next morning, and that they needed a title. I can’t exactly recall, but perhaps there had been some difficulty with the title. Then it burst out of me: “The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.” And I hung up, to go through the process of birth. At a certain point in that night, I thought: “This isn’t pain. It’s intensity.”
Meanwhile, of course, I have an immediate and private answer to your question. I think of being pressed down against or upon something and not being able to get up—a definition, perhaps, of nationality. Of sexuality as well. All sorts of things.
KS For you, what is the difference between a personal and a collective memoir/story?
BK I could try to answer this through the kinds of books I am writing now: a text of the race riot/domestic violence scene happening even as the street deploys its flares beyond the windowpane. Indian people don’t have net curtains. The personal element of this scene is tactile: the ridges of the wallpaper, velvet and cream as per the era, behind the thighs of the girl backed up against it. In the room. The collective element of this day then nighttime space—the room illuminated, neighbors screaming at the occupants—in various stages (the space) of what we might call now: distress—would include a reference to the social justice work that circulates upon and near the bodies in question, even if it doesn’t (this work) reach them in the time being written of. I don’t mean to be oblique. See: The Southall Black Sisters.
I think, as well, that the two kinds of stories have different textures or sensations. In the collective, the sensations, in repetition, form a kind of boundary or ridge. An accumulate. Is that a word? That then can be broken down into the elements of speech. Choral revenue. Vibration. The place at which colors convert into sound. I think of the unguents of the body, for example, that are shed onto the jungle floor (carpet) during an act of wartime or in-country (home) violence. The narrative of rupture, and how—through a collective gathering or ordering (a partial retrieval)—a performative ritual might allow for the recirculation of that: paper. That organ meat. Those blood-soaked materials or remnants of materials. I am, in particular, interested in acts of violence that happen deep within the larger or more public violence: roars, sighs, and almost inaudible exclamations.
I am saying this in a very generalized way but have tried to write about these ideas through the peace studies work Elizabeth Lozano has been doing in Colombia, and also, forSchizophrene, through the cross-cultural psychiatry of Kamaldeep Bhui and Dinesh Bhugra. Migration and mental illness. More recently, I’ve been obsessed with the image of a girl, a dark-skinned girl walking home from school, who lies down on the sidewalk. Tiny mirrors balanced in the ivy next to her face. From one direction, she hears the roar of the riot and in the other direction, the sound of breaking glass. She orients to this second sound and realizes it is coming from her own home. Which direction should she go? Either way, she is done for. And so she lies down. She lies down again and again. Sometimes, it is afterwards, when she is already dead. What happened to her? In a book like this, the narrative moves between the body and the larger space or auditory environment around it. From somatic experiencing, a form of bodywork/trauma therapy pioneered in Colorado by Peter Levine, there is a word for this: titration. And its companion work, in language: a gesture that resembles touch. Light, consistent or secular touch that remedies, in certain forms of exchange: a disturbance. That discharges something from the nerves. Looking again at Vertical, ten years later, I want to ask if a question, repeated, is also a kind of touch?
KS What was the editorial process like in Vertical? Were you thinking about creating a series of memory-collages? Were you more interested in finding similarities or differences (or both?) between these women’s responses?
BK I collaged sentences, entire sections and fragments from the responses I’d gathered from others with (into?) my own. There were some years between the first two responses: my own—to the Georgia O’Keefe painting, Red Canna, that I’d bought at a yard sale—and the first question I asked, to a young Muslim woman at the Air Turkemistan ticket counter—Indian parents, thick Glaswegian accent, “Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?” She burst into tears. That was how it truly began. I said, “I’m working on a project where I ask Indian women these questions… .” I invented questions as I went, centering upon these core twelve when I put the book together. It is strange to think of all the notebooks in my house filled with responses: responses to many more questions as well. I have to say, too, that when I began, I was simply scrawling things down in my notebook. That first girl or woman—the flight was delayed for seven hours, I was taking my father’s ashes back to India from London via a former Russian republic… a very dodgy aeroplane—was so open. She was so open to that question, and in the same breath, asked that I not use her name. Thus, the main reason I decided to intersect/collage the voices, rather than individuate them as sources, was that—at that time, it was challenging to speak or write openly about the body. For an Indian or Pakistani woman. In that era. In the places that I was. As it was for myself. As it still is. Maybe there was a part of how this project was documented/not documented that allowed me to be more explicit. There was/is: a quality of threat to—undoing the body, like that, exposing it (to view): in a public space. The similarity that you ask about was visceral: every person, every woman, almost, that I asked a question of wept.
KS What surprised you about The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers?
BK Well, at first, as with most first books, nothing happened. It was published, I had an excruciating book party (lit with a red lamp) in the Colorado home of a friend of Anne Waldman’s, Mary Kite—I remember meeting Laird Hunt for the first time, he had a shaved head—and then: nothing. Nothing, and then, a couple of years later, I received a letter. Then more letters. Then emails. From women and girls, really, who had found the book and begun to answer the questions themselves. They wrote, uniformly, to say that the questions had opened writing up for them. That reading the book was an encounter with what a book could be (for them). The first letter of this kind was from Mexico. The questions that seem to have meant the most to people are (were), “Tell me what you know about dismemberment” and “Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?”
KS Was there anything left undone or unsaid for you about this project?
BK Undone: when I submitted the book to Kelsey Street press, there were another two sections. One of them was a narration set on the Underground Circle Line, with embedded stickers/captions. And another section was more of an essay, writing to the project. When I received the letter from the press, accepting the book, they said they could only publish the first part, for financial reasons, and they totally understood if I wanted to go with another press that could publish the whole thing. And so, the discarded bulk of the book, as it was, is currently somewhere in a suitcase in my house. I read an interview with Jenny Holzer once, ages ago, that I wish I could find again, where she described seeing these stickers all over London, pasted onto the escalator tubing and subway walls. I recall the surge in my body when I realized that was, or might be, me: that those stickers were mine. Maybe she saw different stickers; I don’t know. Mine were the ones with MUNICH and WHO ARE YOU AND WHO DO YOU LOVE? and I WANT TO GO TO PARIS on them. The sticker habit—stolen “mailing labels,” as we call them in the US—from W.H. Smith’s—started early. I think I was 14 when I began that—hundreds of stickers, with all my dreams and desires upon them, in combination with “The Survey” that I did with my friends: Richa Bhardwaj, Ann John, and Ann Lewis. We were schoolgirls, and pretended we were university students doing a psychology project. With clipboards, we’d position ourselves outside the Buckingham Palace barracks or the lobby of the Musuem of Natural History, and stop young, good-looking men and boys. “Excuse me, we’re doing a survey of men between the ages of 16 and 24, for the University of London. Could we ask you a few questions? Great. Question 1: What is your ideal woman? Could you describe her? Do you think rapists should be castrated?” And so on. Those are the origins of a process that, by the time I embarked upon Vertical, was completely natural. It was natural to invent something and it was natural for others to respond. Unsaid: all the responses. Hopefully, the choral vibration as it is represents those. That. In fact, my book, as it is, feels like a fragment of what a book of this nature could have been. In many ways, it fails as a non-fiction work and also, perhaps, as a work of poetry. At some point, I want to publish the responses in full, perhaps as a pdf. It’s a fact that the lens I used for the book was predominantly that of my own body: a person grieving for so many things; a young woman in love with men who did not, in the words of Stieg Larsson (yes, I’m reading his trilogy this summer!)—love women.
Also, in the way the book was edited, Kelsey Street felt it would be more cohesive if the book focused on India, England and US. In fact, there were entire sections gathered in Chile, where I lived during 1996 and 1997. Belatedly, I consider the ethics and chance effects of what was left undone about this book. That said, I never imagined that this fragile collection would ever be something that would come to mean so much to others. I was living in London when a friend I’d gone through an MFA program with, Kim Fortier, sent it out on my behalf. Left to my own devices, the whole manuscript would be … trash. A kind of note-taking never made public. And I would still be in the UK, working in a group home for six adults with Down’s Syndrome, work that I loved and which was, at that time, the only work that I could get. We’d go shopping for chocolate biscuits, and dance.
KS If you think of your writing as a hybrid body, what are its parts?
BK Lately, I’ve been interested in symbolic bodies: the body as meat seen through a window by neighbors, throbbing, gesticulating, pre-meat perhaps—in a scene of domestic or sexual violence displayed to the street. There is an ethnicity to that: “Indian people don’t have net curtains.” And so—the true hybrid has become the performance of those scenes in one area (today, I have to go to Hobby Lobby to buy red neoprene for my mother to sew into a sack, that I will crawl into, to become meat—a meat dance—for a performance in L.A. this weekend, as part of a symposium on Voyeurism curated by Teresa Carmody and Amina Cain) and the writing/streaming, this summer, of stories of childhood, set in India and England, that are written in prose so basic and straightforward, I keep double-guessing myself and them. In a sense, this is less about my physical parts, the text of the shared membrane, than it is—I sometimes think—about the brain, the nervous system: how visual, sensory and narrative records are being processed in different ways.
KS Can you talk a little about Schizophrene?
BK Schizophrene is an experimental work examining the link between racism, domestic violence and mental illness. In particular, I was interested in hallucination as the matter of the image, displayed/dispersed. How to write back from the ochre shards to—to what? The moment when fire and water begin to stream: from a red earth triangle held up in the air. That then falls to the step of the ghat. And breaks again. The hallucination, or reversal, lasts a few seconds at the most. Fragments, in other words, but also the question of how fragments attract. The work is set in the diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities of northwest London, and tracks to India and Colorado, where I live now. My research led me to the news that migration is a stressor for psychosis, but, in fact, it is a more subtle factor—a chronic racist atmosphere, you could say, rather than a particular event (a race riot)—that affects or changes the brain. I also wanted to experiment with narration as a mode of light touch. How to write a healing narrative? A book that titrates. (Pendulates.) That moves between storytelling and sensation: the body, vibrating, above, in or next to the sea.
KS What are you working on now?
BK A novel of the race riot, BAN (Ban en Banlieues). Weird to be writing about a riot even as the riots are happening in the UK, where my own novel is set, in the late 1970s.
A collaboration with Claudia Rankine: stories of extreme girlhood.
Upcoming performance, at the MAK Schindler house in West Hollywood, of a scene fromSchizophrene, a book of prose that will be published by Nightboat in the next few days. The scene is a butcher scene. As I said, I want to be the meat. Today, I want to work on the recording of a chopping sound mixed with my mother singing fragments of a Krishna-Radha bhajan. Or maybe I’ll just get into the red silk sack with two knives. Meat ballet.
A memoir of late childhood: stories set in the world I am from. My colleagues at Goddard College, where I teach part-time, gave me a voice recorder. I have been speaking into that.
Two panel talks for the &Now conference in San Diego curated by Anna Joy Springer. I have to give a talk on the brain. If it’s not too boring, I think I’ll speak about somatic trauma therapies that resource narrative and sensory elements in innovative ways. Perhaps I’ll also speak about a bike accident I had in my twenties, temporal lobe epilepsy and memory. How, for two weeks, I remembered everything—my mother reaching for a blue glass in the cupboard above the sink in 1972, or playing with Michelle Whitby in the tall grass next to the alley—in microscopic detail. The most ordinary of days. It was such a gift. A banal gift.
Also, I want to work on a performance for the launch of Schizophrene in New York this Fall. So far, this involves me standing in the lobby of a mental institution or care facility catering to the Asian community in Queens, and reading the whole book. Shouldn’t take long! I’ve also been invited to give a talk in London in March, as part of the World Conference for Cross-Cultural Psychiatry, on my research into creativity, healing and schizophrenia. This is daunting.
I am also designing a semester’s worth of experiments for my graduate and undergraduate classes at Naropa; our work will center upon memory and time, so there is the opportunity to create the conditions for other people to write truly amazing things. I want to re-imagine the space, for them. As part of my work at Goddard, I have to write four-page letters to six people, starting now. I want to write these responses in a way that opens me to writing, too.
Abandoned projects include: Chimp Haven, a dystopic comedy set in a rehabiltation center for ex-entertainment industry chimps. I write so slowly (though if I had two weeks alone and without jobs, am convinced I could finish all the projects I am working on, at once!) that, from the time I came up with the chimp idea and began to write it, three people have published books with talking chimps that were reviewed in The Guardian. Horrible! I am a complete failure on the chimp front. Also… well, I’ll stop there.
Katherine Sanders is an MFA student at Columbia University, a member of Harlem Writers’ Circle, and the managing editor of Crescendo City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee