How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil
PBS Summer Choice 2020
Bhanu Kapil’s extraordinary and original work has been published in the US over the last two decades. During that time Kapil has established herself as one of our most important and ethical writers. Her books often defy categorisation as she fearlessly engages with colonialism and its ongoing and devastating aftermath, creating what she calls in Ban en Banlieue (2015) a ‘Literature that is not made from literature’. Always at the centre of her books and performances are the experiences of the body, and, whether she is exploring racism, violence, the experiences of diaspora communities in India, England or America, what emerges is a heart-stopping, life-affirming way of telling the near impossible-to-be-told.
How To Wash A Heart, Kapil's first full-length collection published in the UK, depicts the complex relations that emerge between an immigrant guest and a citizen host. Drawn from a first performance at the ICA in London in 2019, and using poetry as a mode of interrogation that is both rigorous, compassionate, surreal, comic, painful and tender, by turn, Kapil begins to ask difficult and urgent questions about the limits of inclusion, hospitality and care.
Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart catches the thinning smile of that ancient human ritual: hospitality. In a time of increasing hostility against migrants, Kapil demonstrates how survival tunes the guest to its host with devastating intimacy: ‘It’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.’ In these lines an ancestral trauma pours from the heart of the unwelcome across a warzone, a threshold, into a spare bedroom edging its occupant out. Ultimately what Kapil teaches us is that although the heart might be where desire, gratitude, even love exist, it is an organ to which, like a country, we may never fully belong.