Hilary Menos reviews How To Wash A Heart by Bhanu Kapil (Liverpool University Press, 2020)
What happens when a white couple offer a room in their home to a refugee with uncertain immigrant status? And what can this “thought experiment” tell us about immigration policy and the wider problem of racism today? In How To Wash A Heart Bhanu Kapil explores precisely this: the tensions between an immigrant guest and a citizen host. She began to write the book following a performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2019, a collaboration with her sister, Rohini, which looked at the limits of inclusion, hospitality and care, and ended with the performers dumping melted red ice cubes onto the Mall. The voice in the book was inspired by a photograph of a white Californian couple “who had offered a room in their home to a person with a precarious visa status”. They looked tense, and Kapil began to imagine what it would be like to be a refugee in that situation. She says, “it is not intended to be an amazing book or a remarkable book, but rather a very ordinary or banal book that closes with the reality of how a body, a vulnerable body, interacts with the devastating structural power of immigration policy in 2019 or 2020.”
Both Kapil’s work and the author herself are not easily categorised. She is a hybrid writer; she uses poetic diction, prose poetry, prose fiction, documentary non-fiction and memoir. She rejects traditional verse forms and narrative linearity, and her work often contains more paratext that actual text — performance notes, photographs, journal entries, notes on rituals, endnotes, appendices. She stages installations, improvisations and performances, and includes parts of them, or writing derived from them, in her work. Her previous book, Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015) is a collection of notes, fragments, blog entries, vignettes, and deletions — all paratextual — and described by Kapil as “notes for a novel never written.” Kapil writes, “The project fails at every instant and you can make a book out of that and I do.” She says, “I want a literature that is not made of literature.” This is not the oeuvre of a traditional poet — but Kapil is not a traditional poet.
Kapil wrote the book quickly, and aimed to make it short enough to be read at one sitting. She says, “I wanted to write a book that someone in England could read in the duration that it would take to make and drink a cup of tea.” Drinking tea, that quintessentially English pastime, which evokes the East India Tea Company and its ruthless exploitation of the Indian subcontinent (another quintessentially English pastime). It’s just 40 pages of poetry, divided by blank pages into five sections of eight poems, and each poem is about 22 lines long. No titles. And there are (of course) a few pages of explanatory notes at the back. So while this looks more like poetry than her previous work, How To Wash A Heart is still not quite a traditional poetry book.
In the book she forms a narrative out of imagined incidents from a refugee’s life in the home of a white couple. The breakdown of the relationship between hosts and guest has a painful inevitability, and culminates in a shocking rupture. The female host takes her to a boutique and buys her a pretty bra, first goes crazy and then silent when she breaks a vase, gives her a douche and medicated powder to wash with, refuses to let her lover stay in her room overnight, and reads her private diary. She ultimately (spoiler alert) reports her to the Department of Repatriation. Kapil writes,
It’s exhausting to be a guest
In somebody else’s house
Even though the host invites
The guest to say
Whatever it is that they want to say,
The guest knows that host logic
And I will cut off the energy
To your life.
On one level this is simply how it feels to be a not-wholly welcome guest in someone else’s house. On another level it is about how it is to be a person of colour and to be perpetually relegated to the role of guest in white spaces, rather than being considered to be an active participant in or equal owner of the space. This is the immigrant experience.
The host-guest chemistry
Is inclusive, complex, molecular
part of the poem is omitted here[… ]
What are the limits
Of this welcome?”
There is violence under the surface throughout. After the vase incident, “Is silence an axe / Raised above the head?” she asks. A more lyrical piece lulls us into a false sense of security before ending with “I smell the pollen of the flowers of the mango tree / Which once concealed / A kill”. The violence even becomes her responsibility. “As your guest, I trained myself / To beautify / Our collective trauma”. What is this collective trauma? The injustices of Empire and colonial rule, the partition of India in 1947, the continued mistreatment of immigrants of colour by white people in white spaces? All of the above.
My ancestral line
One hot night.
Kapil is not afraid to say the unsayable, to criticise hospitality, to call it out as fake, to call it what it is — a new kind of colonialism — and to imply that true hospitality resides in creating a space where the guest feels free to say what she wants and be herself.
Beyond these topical and pressing political issues, Kapil also raises important questions about the long term impact of stresses such as sustained conflict and forced migration on displaced people. In the end note she writes about the ‘immigrant heart’ and the medical diagnosis of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome, the stunning (literally) effect of acute emotional or psychological stress. Migrants, refugees, displaced peoples — all those who have no home know what it is to live in a state of almost perpetual tension. Kapil encapsulates this perfectly:
The art of crisis
Is that you no longer
Think of home
As a place for social respite.
Instead it is a ledge
Above a narrow canyon.
This is where you shit
And sleep …
Woven through and around this powerful narrative are references to her performance at the ICA —
There is nowhere to go with this
To plunge my forearms
Into the red ice
— and also events and memories from her own life or from the life of the imagined refugee. Some of this is strong stuff:
Once, they burned my dolls
and all the hand-made dolls
Of the girls in the village.
What will you sacrifice
Some of it is less so; I can’t see what she is doing with,
D. is reading Madame Bovary
In a translation
By Lydia Davies.
My first friend in this country
Lanky and blonde.
But I guess this is Kapil’s style, which is to include stuff that doesn’t seem relevant. For example, somewhere in the middle of the second section she refers to Will Ransome & Cora Seabourne, two characters from a 2016 novel by Sarah Perry. Presumably this means something to someone, or maybe it doesn’t and maybe that’s the point. In which case I don’t really get the point. What I get is occasional flashes of brilliance buried in a mountain of other material. I think the narrative would be better served without it, and the movement and power of the book would be stronger. But if Kapil’s aim is to break with our expectations, yes, she’s done that.
I also found that her pronouns snagged me a few times — they shift and elide. Perhaps more importantly, it’s not clear to me which or whose heart needs washing — does the host want to wash the guest’s heart? Does the host’s heart need washing? — and sometimes I felt that the viscera has been forced into the book to give it some kind of bloody ballast.
It has been said that to criticise How To Wash A Heart as not following the usual rules of poetry is pointless — Kapil claims a more serious mission and her canvas is certainly bigger than one poem, possibly bigger even than one book. This is her first book of poetry published in the UK. I look forward to the next.