Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene investigates the traumatic trans-generational aftershocks of the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the subsequent Diaspora and the disfiguring experience of non-white immigrants within systemically racist cultures that fracture identities as they fix them in place with language. Through its meditation on immigrant experience and the power of the word “immigrant” itself, Schiziophrene unearths the embedded violence in both our language and our methods of telling and reading stories. Its very structure ultimately challenges us to become smarter, kinder and more generous readers in order to facilitate healing.
“Immigrant” is the incantation that sets the book in motion as this word builds transfiguring momentum through its repetition: “Immigrant. Nothing happens. Immigrant” (2). With the added emphasis of the italics, we are alerted to the word’s activation. It works its way into the body and begins to dismantle its host, forcefully and violently unpacking their claim to citizenship, to belonging some(any)where, until the self is relinquished to its new word:
Dazzling you, I select your suitcase. You watch it float over the railing and into the air. Yellow lightening in the silver sky and the three sheets of rain, so bamboo, so cream. Stupid man, you watch your suitcase sink, burning up its requisite energy simply by breathing. Everything breathes, even you. Breathe, immigrant. Fly, immigrant. Sail, immigrant. Blue. (2)
Thus unpacked, the immigrant is born and directed to action by an external voice: an author, a reader. “Immigrant,” as Kapil reveals, is conjured by a violence inherent in language’s dependence on binaries to make meaning. As it insists on an insider and outsider experience to build significance, “immigrant” locks its subject outside of both their old and new country. It holds its host in a permanent and exhausting travel between origin and arrival that create a series of phantom selves that are not allowed to cohere into one, unified identity. The violence at the origin of “immigrant” and the rupture of psyche and soma it causes its host to suffer link “immigrant” to psychosis in Schizophrene, “because it is psychotic not to know where you are in a nation space” (41), “Psychotic to live in a different country forever. // Psychotic to lose something forever” (53).
Because the psychosis is caused, in part, by the binary violence of the word “immigrant,” the psychosis of Schizophrene unveils the violence in all our impulses to conscript language towards border patrolling (inside/outside, etc.). Our language becomes our borders; city grids, screens, citizenship statuses are all sentences directing us towards our proper places in a system. These divisions, Kapil notes, are also psychotic: “it is psychotic to draw a line between two places” (53). The psychosis of these divisions diagnoses language, which is endlessly self-referential and which wrenches us away from direct, sensorial investment in and connection to the world, as inherently psychotic. As a psychotic system, language renders writer, reader and text psychotic. The question then becomes, what kind of a psychotic will we choose to become?
The incoherency and illegibility of Schizophrene’s immigrants becomes productive and generative. Both Kapil’s immigrants and the narrative that holds them crack and fissure, spill light or ash, digest anything that touches their bodies or clothing. They are in a perpetual state of flux, which Kapil notes is “where the body always is” (6). From that flux, a new possibility for writing and reading (and thus existing in language) comes into being: one of interplaying, interpenetrating and, at times, antagonistic surfaces: the schizophrene.
Kapil wonders, “Schizophrenic, what binds design? What makes the city touch itself everywhere at once, like an Asian city, like the city you live in now? What makes the wall wet, the step wet, the sky wet?” (15). As “schizophrene” characterizes both a family of psychotic disorders as well as a the phenomenon of culture-wide psychosis, the model of the city Kapil offers us becomes a key for reading schizophrenic design and understanding its potential in this book. The radical contact and permeability of the schiziophrenic design, which “touches itself everywhere at once,” begins to make a livable space for those in flux precisely because it, itself, is in flux.
Schizophrene is schizophrenic in its design. An anti-novel, resistant of the novel’s rubric and boundaries, it is the disembodied meat, bones and ghost of an “epic on Partition and its trans-generational effects” (i) that Kapil pitches into her garden on Christmas Eve 2007 when she realizes that the structure of the text itself is counterintuitive to her project, literally deflecting the point of her pen: “towards the end of the project, I felt the great strength of the page, its ability, as a fibrous surface, to deflect the point of my pen” (1). The creation of Schizophrene mirrors the creation of the immigrant(s) it writes as that static whole (of an epic, a book, a novel, etc.) is abandoned to the flux of what is decipherable after abandonment: “the fragments, the phrases, and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages” (i). What we encounter is the ghost book, positing that perhaps the best stance a book can take is that of a ghost because a ghost—phantasmic, interpenetrating energy that confounds physical, historical and cultural boundaries—is an ideal schizophrenic design:
a ghost mutates through intensity, gathering enough
energy to touch you through your thin blouse, or your
leggings or your scarf.
A ghost damages the triptych of ancestors composed of
descending, passive synthetic scraps.
But what if the ghost is empty because its making a space
for you? (36)
As a schizophrenic design, an arrangement of residues, the ghost resists borders and boundaries; it pulls us into its energy by emptying room for us. This ghost book fixes nothing in place. It whispers beautiful, lush and terrifying things to us, touching us through fragments, phrases and lines across white space, which ultimately becomes a model for healing.
Reflecting on the discovery that “light touch, regularly and impersonally repeated, in the exchange of devotional objects, was as healing for the non-white subjects (schizophrenics) as anti-psychotic medication,” Kapil hopes to replicate that “quality of touch” by “making a book that barely said anything,” which reconfigures language from a psychotic force to a devotional object we touch lightly and impersonally in exchange across the pages of the book (71). It shatters us, places and replaces us to disrupt our reliance on binaries by restoring us to a multitude of surfaces we slide over and through. In constructing a book that recognizes and revels in “the capacity of fragments to attract, occur, re-circulate or shake (descend): in play” Kapil offers hope for healing schizophrenic cultures through recognizing and resting into flux, which requires us to be open to it against our binary linguistic impulses. To read this ghost text, we must read like ghosts ourselves, coming to the edges of ourselves and emptying enough space to make permeable boundaries and room for the text to flow into us and touch our surfaces, to “recirculate or shake (descend): in play” (71).