What is her work? Who will she love? Think of everything she left behind.
—Andrea Spain, from a talk on Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto
This is the start of not writing, the first time I’ve stopped since I began.
All of the dreams I’ve had since returning to England are about translation, travels by air or train, vehicles disintegrating beneath my touch.
I can’t see where I am going.
I’m thinking of pulling over, when the dream ends.
Hamesha pyar, texts D.
“I will always love you.”
With a click, I delete his text.
Loughborough borders the Charnwood Forest, a Precambrian portal to the world of fairies, according to a local story. Each afternoon, I slip into the woods with a library book. There, in an oak, I read until darkness falls, a candle balanced on a bough.
Here in the forest, I am surrounded by things that are intrinsically faint. My brown skin feels like a benefit, a way of staying connected to the moving chemistry of the forest, the way it overproduces stems, buds, and grainy-red or pink outlines.*** Thirty-two years from now, a friend will use the phrase “thwarted belonging,” and I will recognize myself in the pressured way she says it. I am thinking, in particular, of the day I brought D, then a boy younger than my son is now, to the forest. We lay down beneath the oaks, and when we woke up our bodies were covered with flowers. All night, the flowers dropped out of nowhere. There’s nobody here, said D, but I saw them: the violet crinkles and gleams of the fairies as they snapped their fingers in the mush of the forest air.
***After so many years, I can see that my discomfort in the lived space of the university was indexed to the strangeness of my being there at all. This is 1987, and so nobody uses this language yet. Nobody asks, “Who cares for this space?” Nobody looks around the room to notice who’s not there. My tutor is a poet who plays saxophone in a local pub on Thursday nights. I attend “jazz night” only once, braving the hard stare of a cool third year with a mop of blond hair and bright blue eyes. Ensnared in a conversation about literature written between the first and second world wars, I excuse myself to go to the bar.**
The image of a carcass* swinging from a hook fills my mind, the story of a butcher in Lahore. Prewar, the mangoes are lowered into the river Ravi to cool before they are guzzled, juice on the shins and the muslin of my mother’s lap. Is this the moment I become the person without consistent access to these stories, or a way to tell them? The person who drinks cask ale and pretends to enjoy jazz?
Six years later, just south of the ballpark in Denver, I will order a Rolling Rock for a dollar in El Chapultepec, where Jack Kerouac once drank a beer, and I will love it. I will sip lager from a green bottle, letting the clarinet and the double bass bite my heart.
*The soldiers were coming. And so he stuffed the jewels inside it, said my mother, tucking the duvet beneath my thighs.
**It’s here that I meet D, whispering, “Just act like we know each other.” On cue, he rubs my upper arms as if he wants to get me warm. “Come outside,” he murmurs, “into the dark green air.” Soon, I am outside with a responsive stranger, losing my chance to socialize with adequate peers. There’s a great rushing softness in these English trees, and soon they are above me, like an antidote.
Hang on, let me do some math.
Yes, precisely twenty-eight years later, on a brisk November morning, I meet this early boyfriend on the Millennium Bridge. We duck into the Swan for coffee, and I’m knocked almost sideways by the love I feel for him. When it’s time to say good-bye, he says, “Me aap ko…” Well, I won’t repeat the whole thing here. My phonetic Punjabi is ragged, unpronounced. D tells me he loves me in the language of my home, something he memorized when we were young. Did he ask my mother? Did he call her on the telephone? I can barely process the fact that he is telling me he loves me, and don’t immediately respond. In the moments that follow his declaration, my internal organs kick in, sending and receiving the appropriate sensations of reciprocal desire. Simultaneously, D turns on his heel and wobbles off on his long, thin, pin-striped legs. There is the Thames, a cygnet bobbing at its edge. I surprise myself, and a party of schoolchildren who have just left the Globe, by bursting into hot, vocal tears.
These tears are like a rusted key. Where’s the door?
***At night, I write in my diary about everything that has happened and everything that has not happened yet. This is the writing I will carry in my body to the United States when I win a fellowship to study poetry in New York, a place where I experience such overwhelming personal freedom and joy that my body emits pale green light. It takes me many years, most of my life, to reevaluate this experience of ease or pleasure upon arrival as settler glee. By this time, I am easily taken down by predators**** for whom, initially, I have reverence. Write anyway, I scribble, chewing the top of the lead pencil, then spitting out the soggy wood. Yes, I’ve climbed a tree to do this. A harness of sky and dirt.
****If autobiography requires its author to be open about the physical life they have lived, then this is the page I tear out. This is the page I douse in ghee. It’s not possible to speak about my body in this context. Is the Diary the way I show myself to you, descendant? Is the Diary the way we both get out of here intact? Is it a map?
Light a match.
Many years later, I return to the country of my birth on a bright September morning, pears rotting in the grass of my cousin’s garden above Wembley Stadium in the borough of Brent. Waking up on the sofa in the kitchen, before the kids have gone to school, I make a mug of tea and sit at the table to write. Is the Diary a time crystal? Does it change states during times of transition? Will it shatter?
Sometimes I think that experimental writing was a way of concealing my body and its drives from my family.
Sometimes, a roommate or lover stole my Diary and read it, becoming upset that I had not described them in ways that were adequate, elaborate, rife with blobs.
Here in the diary, I write about D but also about Kingsbury, where I am. Late in the morning, when my cousin and his wife have gone to work, I walk to the Iraqi café at the bottom of the hill for an espresso. Taxi drivers are playing cards and smoking menthols at the outside table, a tiny spoon on each saucer to stir the cream. Here, like a cut-price Jean-Paul Sartre, I embark upon my novel.
This lasts about five minutes before my skin starts to prickle with the heat of being observed.
An entire year passes like this, in various cafés.
Sometimes I meet D for a tea in Liverpool Street Station.
Sometimes I stop at the bakery to buy bread for my hosts.
An experimental writer specializing in broken forms, I am invited later that fall to give a reading in Amsterdam. Here I am to read from recent work, newly translated into Dutch, to a small audience in a poetry bookstore. Before the event, the owner asks me how I am feeling. I reply, “I am a failed Asian housewife who is as yet to write a British novel, so…you know!” “Madam,” he responds curtly, “do you want me to feel sorry for you?”
Ashamed, the kind of shame it will take me weeks to recover from, I take to the stage.
A “culmination, a reversal, a going too far.”
In the Diary, later that night, I metabolize the community I make with others, the lag between what the words try to shape and the actual world that’s coming into view.
The autobiography is shapeless.*****
The autobiography does not resemble the work nor symbolize it.
Waking up the next morning, it’s raining hard, and I return to bed with coffee from the hotel lobby. The event, a tiger’s cage, is now unlatched. Like a robot, I make my way to the airport then wander around for hours, eating cheese from the sample trays outside the Schipol Duty Free.
This essay appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Bhanu Kapil is an artist by-fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. She is the author of six full-length works, including How To Wash A Heart and Ban en Banlieue. She teaches at Goddard College as part of the low-residency MFA in creative writing.
Image: Detail from Yo Sugano, Fantasy in green, etching, ca. 1937–69, Rijksmuseum.