Review: Bhanu Kapil’s SCHIZOPHRENE


Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil | Nightboat Books 2011 | $15.95

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.

Touch is an incredibly important part of this book. In the “Quick Notes” at the end of Schizophrene, Kapil clues us in:

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. (71)

So it is in this way that the book functions as an archive of gestures of restorative touch—a move toward personal and communal somatic healing. If “[s]chizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly many times” (61), then Kapil mimics this mental process as a vibration—in the text’s repetitive pulse, in the ways it begins again, “mid-ocean, in a storm,” and continues to depart.

* * *

Schizophrene begins with several different departures: a book, an aeroplane, a boat, a suitcase, a ferry. In mapping this field of departures and flight paths, in drawing a line from schizophrenia to im/migration and back again, the LCD display crackles, the grid snaps—a zig-zag stem becomes a triptych becomes a door. Only after attempting to track their lines and subsequent arcs do we see the field come alive with fragments. Kapil writes that “‘[a]ll trajectories are [psychotic] in their reliance upon arrival,‘” and so to never arrive (home) means that to depart is a perpetual splintering.

Kapil senses “a flux where the body always is” (6) and discovers boarding passes sewn into her lost coat. Like so many other diasporic subjects, Kapil processes the inheritance and genetics of hand-me-down traumas—of being uprooted and relocated due to war and imperialism—as one would de-frag a harddrive. Kapil wanted to arrive; she indicates that “[t]hese notes are directed towards the region I wanted to perceive but could not” (5). The failure of the book, the fact that Kapil threw a hand-written final draft of it into her snowy garden in Colorado in 2007 and recovered the damaged notebook months later, beginning to write again from its fragments, makes her poetics a poetics of retrieval, a way of massaging the schism.

When I was a child, I used to strip down and beat myself with a stick. Is this, a root distinguished from its branching plant, kept in a jar on a shelf to grow, watered, schizophrenic? Is it a right thing or a mad thing not to want to re-connect, to avoid reading or writing because of what those will bring? (28)

It is the arrival, the rupture of im/migration, and the attempt at re-connection and return that causes this breakage, that requires this touch. When Kapil asks herself, “What kind of person goes home?” (19), she knows that “home” is located simultaneously in several physical addresses as well as in ancestral memory, and that it requires commute time, crossing an international date line and remembering what cannot be explained. The avoidance she mentions above—the fear of re-connecting, arriving/returning and writing—are symbolized in the failure, the release, the throwing of the book into the dark garden. The way this kind of information can function as a grave (41) is both a paralysis and an erasure for many diasporic writers in the process of decolonizing the mind.

These electrobion notes, which are not really notes but dreamed up, basic observations which bely the facts, the following fact, which is turn destroys a content as yet unwritten:

I don’t exist.

I never existed. We shift our chairs to avoid the sunlight, eclipse light, which could damage us forever. (32-33)

This moment in Schizophene instantly recalled a similar moment of im/possible existence in Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoem Books, 2009):

Each shot (photograph, point, poem, sentence) my memory, truncation, embrace, deferral, a poetics, is not writing out of or into, but through the center of whatever I mark to be the current state of what is the deliberate gesture in:

It is impossible to say who I am. (59)

Kapil and Wilson are both working with the intensity of fragmentation as diasporic subjects, as colonized subjects, and they both embody that fragmentation as visual and textural fields. Kapil throws the book into the snow, tries to touch everything at once, tries to adhere to the surface of the city, the surface of the page, and fails. But this book is what comes after. “Later that night it rained, washing the country away. A country both dead and living that was not, nor ever would be, my true home.” (69). With this shattering final line, Kapil’s Schizophrene squats inside the wetness of the place that can never be home and retrieves every piece, every penciled sentence.

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