Columnist Dan Dorr gets advice from author Bhanu Kapil.
Make it messier.” These are words and instructions to live by from Bhanu Kapil during her lecture last Tuesday at Main Campus. There, she passed around “nude” sheets of paper to audience members, along with thick sticks of charcoal used to dirty the paper.
She said that she was putting these sheets into a chrysalis in her garden and that the sheets would be used as research for her upcoming book, “Ban.”
Kapil is a poetry professor at Boulder College and Naropa University and has published four books. Her lecture in Anderson Hall was anything but an ordinary writing lecture. Kapil spoke of complicated theories such as embryology, metagenomics and pendulation somatic experience – all starting points for her new book. Her work re-imagines human nature in a world where boarders of all forms are disappearing.
Kapil also had a well-attended reading last Thursday at TUCC. Kapil read from her newest published work, “Humanimal: A Book for Future Children,” which was a great opportunity for me because my creative writing capstone class just finished reading it. The book is about two young girls in the Bengali Jungle who were “rescued” from a pack of wolves they had been living with for some time.
Kapil was happy to be in Philadelphia, visiting Temple and learning about the city and commented on the atmosphere of being in Anderson Hall.
“I even sang a ghazal in the bathroom on the 10th floor of Anderson Hall,” Kapil said. “The acoustics in this building, though the building itself has a very low aesthetic appeal, were – how can I say this – wonderful.”
She also keeps a blog, “Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?” which she uses for her class assignments and to catalogue her ideas. This made me wonder about the role her blog plays in her writing process, so I asked her why she sees this type of note keeping as essential.
“It’s important to be in conversation with other writers,” Kapil said.
A lot of the scientific theories she was discussing in her lecture are also present on her blog. There are various exercises and explanations to these overarching ideas, which formulate her thinking in a linear order.
“The blog is also a place to gather notes towards the book,” Kapil said.
The electronic organization of data is undoubtedly one way to proceed in the creation of a novel. But when one is out “in the field” – in the world they are trying to understand – an Internet connection is not always available.
When conducting research for “Humanimal,” Kapil used other methods, such as photographs, to ensure that a lasting impression of the Bengali Jungle would stay with her, even after she left to return to the U.S.
“I would take these photographs and lay them on the forest floor, in the place where I live,” Kapil said. “Here, I re-entered the text, in other words, through its colors. Not its colors. Its light. Not the light. The activity of transposition.”
It is hard to label the style of writing Kapil generates. It is a combination of nonfiction – in that she is transcribing an experience she has undergone, poetry – in her style of exposition and imaginative language, and fiction – in the way she organizes her text in a linear way and creates character motivation and history. The outcome is a kind of fiction that is best and fully understood by a well-read reader.
In a world where Harry Potter and crime-thrillers dominate the best-seller charts, it’s a difficult stretch of the imagination to believe that publishing houses would risk putting out such an experimental type of literature. So, I asked Kapil how her first novel was picked up and published by Kelsey Press.
“I had never heard of the press and perhaps would not have ever considered sending it there. In fact, left to my own devices, and back in Europe, perhaps I would not have sent it anywhere at all,” Kapil said. “Chance, magic [and] friendship were the forces that led to my publication with Kelsey Street Press,” Kapil said.
The main aspect of what I learned from Kapil is that there is no path – in the rational sense of the word – to becoming a “writer.” There is no process that makes it impossible to fail, and the only way to succeed is to have a goal and get there by any means possible. That is not to say that chaos will bring you to conclusion, but to avoid chaos will deter you from becoming who you will be, if you let it consume you.
So, this weekend I decided to do something a little out of my comfort zone to inspire my writing, following my own path lit by Kapil’s words. I was sitting at my desk watching online TV when I heard a voice from above. No, not a muse of old or a ghostly spirit, but my neighbors on my roof. There is a stairwell that leads up there, so I crept up close enough to hear them so that I could eavesdrop, pen in hand.
Despite the slight trespass against my neighbors’ privacy (which I do apologize for), doing this helped me formulate a scene where a group of people could be talking all at once about different topics simultaneously. Now, it wasn’t leaving the comforts of modern society and tracing a story’s lineage through the Bengali Jungle, but it also wasn’t something I would have normally thought to do.
Daniel Dorr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.