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Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil. Nightboat Books. 2011.


Reviewed March 2, 2012 by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.

What is the work of the writer with respect to healing? What is the path of writing through trauma, inherited and experienced? How should the writer attend to the disintegrations of selfhood that accompany moving from continent to continent to continent (in this case from Asia to Europe to North America)? These are the implicit questions of Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene, which develops a sensorial meditation on how to write through pain toward healing, through displacement to consolation, through psychosis to stability.

Schizophrene is very much about the act of writing, and begins with an auspicious moment—the author throwing her book, “a handwritten final draft,” into her yard. It is a moment that Schizophrene rehearses and rehashes over and over again, retelling it at least seven times through the course of this short work of prose. In fact, the very first section opens, “I threw the book into the dark garden. The account begun mid-ocean, in a storm,” which picks up directly from the final lines of her previous book, Humanimal.

One of the primary threads of Schizophrene is to account for what happens when the author attempts to confront her own history by writing about it, then—presumably in disgust—jettisons what she’s written, only to become haunted by the life of that discarded text: its adherence to and disparity from the questions she’s compelled to pursue—in order to reveal their answers, to reckon with violence and loss, to sort out her lineages through the images and stories left to her—thereby finding solace in the work of generating discoveries.

To my mind, Kapil is a master of the project book, a hybrid work that should make the transnational literary scholars of future decades (if there are any Comp Lit programs left) buzz with recognition and intrigue. But it is easy to forget that Kapil’s prose is supple, somatic, and utterly vibrating page for page. Indeed, her ken for the texture of experience—for synesthesia—is disarming in its control and range. Early on she writes, “They’re walking into that, the darkness pouring into their mouths when they reach the hills.” Even the word “that” in the first clause hangs there like a viscous, tactile mystery—adhering to no prior referent. Later she writes, “I went to Vimhans in New Delhi, poking holes with my umbrella in the shimmering air.” And later still we find this:

There are perhaps eleven faces pressed to the blood-speckled window, banging on the glass with their foreheads. Being white, with the delicate skin that accompanies race, they bruise easily. They are looking at the unfolding scene with a boo and a hiss and a You fucking Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding animal. Later, they make a low roar when we, the two of us, back away from the table until our spines are pressed flat against the wallpaper, which is velvet and cream with a bumpy motif of paisley swirls as per the era.

I want to point out the contrast between the violence of the memory and the way Kapil textures everything in this short scene: the pressed faces, “the blood-speckled window,” the banging foreheads—even the possibility of bruising “easily” becomes a kind of material surface of the assailants’ “delicate skin.” To close the violence of this page with the “bumpy motif” and “velvet and cream” and “paisley swirls” of the wallpaper against which the protagonists must “flatten” themselves is almost a comfort, nearly lush. It is as though the environs of “the era” (the style, the décor, the patterns, and textures) could overlap here as a salve to the violence itself.

Kapil’s genius is to thread them together (that violence with the physical textures, the bigotry to gleaming colors) in order that they become inextricable. Neither are they set pieces to assuage any horror, nor is it just the retelling unspecified hate crimes of anonymous monsters. To fuse them is to trip into a kind of over-determination, a saturated memoryscape of relived experience—never settled, summed up, or codified—but never banished with moral platitudes either. The textures and patterns take over the scene; in this way, Kapil’s writing pulses in the imagination like the work of the best filmmakers, like the slow, pregnant scenes of a Claire Denis or Michael Haneke movie.

It is no wonder, then, that the author of Schizophrene seems as haunted by her own accounts of the events as she is by the events themselves. And that is the gist of this potent book: the writing itself doesn’t reconcile any horror, but it adumbrates her experiences in this sensory-loaded landscape of short lyrical scenes—always in Kapil’s methodical, staid prose. Repetitive but never redundant, each rehearsal of this thrown book becomes a summon to what lay beyond the words, that Kapil remind herself to keep the materiality of the words as palpable and pulsating as the events described. That she does is our gift, and that she’s found such an apt form for her work—in justified prose vignettes commanding as much white space as a scene or sentence might require—is what makes Bhanu Kapil one of the finest writers of the last decade.

The thread of this book can be traced eerily back through each of Kapil’s three previous works as well. In each of those books, we can see a carefully managed sentence, saturated by the prosodic grammar of Kapil’s familiar colors. The “strangers” of Kapil’s first book (The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers) have morphed over the years into monsters and cyborgs and hitchhikers (in her second book, Incubation: A Space for Monsters), and into Amala and Kamala, the legendary wolfgirls of colonial India (the subjects of her third book, Humanimal: A Project for Future Children). That the schizophrene has come next is not surprising, concentrated as Kapil has been on the figure of the Other: the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant, the border-crosser, or even what Spivak might call the subaltern, whose ability to signify in the terms of dominant discourse goes unrecognized. The schizophrene differs here from cyborgs, monsters, and wolfgirls primarily in relation to the interior split of the life of a schizophrene. Where Kapil’s cyborgs and wolfgirls are easily recognizable as other, the focus on the psychic life of the schizophrene is the shift to one of personal memory and history, to lineage and immigration, to violence recounted and remembered—and the infinite subtle and lasting effects on the subject thereof, both ephemeral and pronounced.

What makes Schizophrene so good as a book is its insistence on making new meanings through expanding on the old. For example, a schizophrene is one who incurs “a type of psychosis characterized by loss of contact with environment and by disintegration of personality.” The root schiz means to split or cleave apart; the root phrene is perhaps more complicated, coming from ancient Greek to signify mind, but also heart as well as diaphragm, apparently, which is that “partition separating the cavity of the chest from that of the abdomen.” We think of the diaphragm in relation to breathing and singing, but a muscular wall dividing the body has an odd similarity to Kapil’s psychic and familial fascination with the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. In fact, Kapil writes in the notes (in a related context), “I tried to make myself, as close to the border of India and Pakistan as I could get, which was my own mother’s garden in Punjab.” The fact that the term schizophrene might also be translated into split diaphragm or even torn partition is not lost on Kapil. Indeed, the penultimate section of Schizophrene is called “Partition,” and it begins as follows:

My mother’s mother put a hand over my mother’s mouth, but my mother saw, peeking between the slats of the cart, row after row of women tied to the border trees. “Their stomachs were cut out,” said my mother. This story, which really wasn’t a story but an image, was repeated to me at many bedtimes of my own childhood.

Sometimes I think it was not an image at all but a way of conveying information.

But what information is the image conveying, exactly? To inherit and retell this story is an effort to teach the next generation what they were not alive to see. The insistence of Kapil to utilize the retold stories of elders (so familiar to her other books as well) is never an endpoint for her work, but a springboard into deeper investigation—a new method of writing and processing, and an alternative means to meditation.

The detail in the work that is easy to miss is that tactile move that Kapil often subtly deploys here: “My mother’s mother put a hand over my mother’s mouth, but my mother saw, peeking between the slats of the cart.” It is not over the daughter’s eyes but her mouth that the mother “put a hand over.” The shock of the scene is no doubt terrifying, but what of this desire to cover the mouth and not the eyes? Perhaps it was to keep the child from screaming, to prevent their being found out. Perhaps it a gesture instead of ‘Look, but do not speak of what you’ve seen’? In such a powerful moment of Schizophrene, this tactile detail of sensory prevention is the moment that resonates into lasting poetry. To see, to say, to bear witness and retell, and to pass down as stories or images or information become powerfully bound up here in such stark, and even beautiful, ways.

This is the genius of Kapil’s Schizophrene, to place these pieces together, (e.g., the partition of the country, a grandmother, her mother as a little girl in Punjab, which literally became one of the dividing lines in the Partition of 1947) but to refuse to oversimplify the relationship of the component stories and images. Instead, to insist on their irreconcilability—how should a mother keep a daughter from the trauma of violence? How could she have? How should the grown daughter remind her own children of that very era? What is the responsibility of a story or image in relation to these? Indeed, the partition here is a membrane between generations, between countries, between memory and experience, between thinking and feeling—artificial as it is imperative, elusive as it is binding, like any national border. As obsessed with gathering and recounting as Kapil is, Schizophrene’s work is to recast those methods and find a new one:

But this is to individuate a common sorrow in the time extending from August 1947 to the present era, which is already past. Folds generate density on a contour map but for what? A map is a kind of short term memory: the genealogy of an historical time versus the chronology of geographical form. No. I need a different way to make this decision.

When I began reading Schizophrene, Slavoj Zizek’s words hung in my brain: “I think that madness is something horrible—people suffer—and I’ve always found it false to try and identify some liberating dimension in madness.” Though it comes from his critique of Deleuze and Guattari’s use of schizophrenia as a metaphor for how capitalism can be understood, I worried that Schizophrene might somehow extol the virtues of schizophrenia. My fears were not only unfounded, they were exploded. In point of fact, Kapil concludes in her notes:

From cross-cultural psychiatry, I learned that light touch, regularly and impersonally repeated, in the exchange of devotional objects, was as healing, for non-white subjects (schizophrenics) as anti-psychotic medication. In making a book that barely said anything, I hoped to offer: this quality of touch.

Indeed Schizophrene’s seemingly simple questions often pack the most distilled power in the book, such that coming on a carefully-worded query in all the book’s texturized prose can stop you short, as when she simply asks, “What kind of person goes home?”


Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the editor of The Volta and lives in Tucson.

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