Schizophrenia (literally, “to split the mind”) is defined as a breakdown in relation between thought, emotion and behavior, leading to a sense of mental fragmentation (Oxford American Dictionaries). While fragmentation and the diasporic experience are hardly strangers within the lineages of Asian American literature, Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene maps crucial connections between schizophrenia, im/migration, racism, trauma and mental illness. This book arcs through the air in a perpetual state of departure, “[a]nd the line the book makes is an axis” (5) around which perception begins to whirl. Without much visual formatting on the page, we see that the whole image is broken. What is extraordinary about Kapil’s writing is that we experience it as a texture—the psychosis of her narrative registers in us as a sensation.
Partition, schism. Split or division, cleft. Schizophrene focuses on the Partition of British India in 1947 “and its trans-generational effects: the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on” (1). Kapil’s research into migration and mental illness can be traced back to her chapbook Water-damage: a map of three black days (Corollary Press, 2006), in which previous versions of some of the text in the “Partition” section of Schizophrene appear.
In Water-damage Kapil chooses an informative epigraph from Elizabeth Grosz’ Architecture from the Outside: “The psychotic is unable to locate himself or herself where he or she should be: such subjects may look at themselves from the outside, as others would…They are captivated and replaced, not by another subject…but by space itself.” Replaced by space itself, occupied. Replaced by segregated grids and militarized nation-state borders, lines that “split the mind.” “Because it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space” (41), Kapil cradles the colonized psyche, imprinted by occupation, in her hands.
In this review, I discuss Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press 2008) and Poems of the Black Object (FuturePoem Books 2009). Wilson’s first full-length poetry collection might be more specifically described as prose poetry, as implied by its title. There are really no formal line breaks throughout the collection, so one is forced to consider what makes such a work poetry as opposed to prose. This genre-defying work’s title also clearly derives inspiration from two canonical African American literary texts: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In Wilson’s title, there isn’t any mention of the word “slave,” but the impulse to explore the conditions of subjection and domination are still very much there. Wilson’s work thus seems to enact a neo-slave “poetic” as derived through the queer racial minority’s subjectivity. The reference to the “brown boy” and the “white man” in the title also helps situate what actually occurs in the prose poetry blocks throughout the collection. “Brown boy” suggests that the lyric “I” is a mixed-race subject and likely an adult, but clearly one who does not have much access to economic resources. He is engaged in a homosexual relationship with “White Man,” someone likely older and with clearly far more money than the “Brown Boy.” Racial difference, class difference, and age difference, among other such distinctions, generate the rubrics of power and domination that mark the tension between “white man” and the “brown boy.” Wilson’s work is raw, dense, and does not shy away from difficult topics, as demonstrated by the following excerpt, which is fairly indicative of the stylistic impulses of the collection:
“Go Shower. This command reveals [the brown boy’s] relationship to the white man. He follows his lover’s orders like a slave without anything but the promise of being fed and shown a movie” (64).