on How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil has had a long career of exquisite failures. I mean this, of course, in the best way. Her 2015 book of poetry/prose Ban en Banlieue begins with “13 Errors” in the author’s attempt at a semi-autobiographical novel. Schizophrene (2011) is, according to its introduction, the afterlife of a partially destroyed epic she penned about the transgenerational effects of 1947’s Partition of British India into Pakistan and India. Even Kapil’s first and arguably clearest collection, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001), begins with a departure: “The project as I thought it would be: an anthology of the voices of Indian women . . . The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane.” These are failures of the necessary and productive variety, the kind that enact scholar Grace Cho’s conviction that “the purpose of diasporic vision is not to tell a story but rather to register the nonnarrativizable.”1 Over two decades of publishing in the U.S., Kapil has cemented herself as a leading voice in Asian American feminist experimentalism and as one of the most influential writers engaging the nonnarrativizable aftermaths of colonialism, war, sexual violence, and migration.

At first glance, How to Wash a Heart—the British-born author’s first full-length collection published in the UK—appears to be a sharp pivot from her previous work. Kapil’s projects tend to read like highly structured notebooks. There are section breaks, subheadings, and contrasting fonts, images and performance scripts. Driving it all is her exceedingly flexible lyric prose, which—in the lineage of avant-garde forebears like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha—is as inventive as it is heart-wrenching. It’s shocking, for this reason, to open How to Wash a Heart and see lineated poem after lineated poem. In comparison to her earlier work, Kapil’s first official turn to a British audience feels stripped down to its barest bones. The poems are untitled and short, around twenty or so lines each. New sections are denoted with a single blank page, and there is little commentary outside of a brief author’s note (as a point of comparison, Kapil’s previous collection, Ban en Banlieue, began with an eleven-page table of contents). The absence of the usual abundance of paratext, along with the brevity and restraint of the poems themselves, has the effect of encircling the book in a kind of unsettling silence.

From that silence, a voice emerges. It is, according to the author’s note, the voice of an artist who is “an immigrant guest in the home of their citizen host.” The book’s dramas play out in the tight arena between them, along with the host’s adopted immigrant daughter, the three caught in a chemistry that is “inclusive, complex, molecular, dainty”—and dangerous. Kapil illustrates the “molecular” dangers of this contract with uncanny precision, writing, “Like an intrusive mother, you / Cared for my needs / But also, I never knew / When you might open my door.” The host, who “state[s] egalitarian ideas” in public, is simultaneously welcoming of the speaker and resentful of her presence. “What’s mine is yours,” she says in one scene; in another, “Make a list of what you need / And I will get it, you ungrateful cow.” There are limits, as the speaker notes, to her welcome—but where these limits lie is never quite clear.

The guest-host relationship in How to Wash a Heart may be painfully familiar to certain readers: the “successful” immigrant, the university professor of color in a white department. It is a power relationship whose violations occur in the realm of what Cathy Park Hong calls “minor feelings” and which Kapil in her note describes as being “often felt and fleeting, rather than seen.” Indeed, the “you” directed at the host in these poems gives echoes of Claudia Rankine’s use of the second person in Citizen, a book which largely took the racist microaggression as its psychic terrain. In this state of hypervigilance, the question becomes: how to possibly write? Perhaps this is part of the reason for all of the silence in and around these poems. Here is the writer of color in the eggshell-lined house of white liberalism, whose every word is surveilled even as it is ostensibly welcomed. Kapil captures such a dynamic—and the cost of such vigilance—effortlessly in this early passage:

It’s exhausting to be a guest
In somebody else’s house
Even though the host invites
The guest to say
Whatever it is they want to say,
The guest knows that host logic
Is variable.

Though its more conventional form may make How to Wash a Heart seem less, on its surface, like a book about writing, it quickly becomes clear that the question of how to write when writing has become impossible sits once again at the heart of Kapil’s latest book. After all, the book launches with the line “Like this?” and a reference to “John Betjeman, poet of the British past,” situating the speaker both in the self-conscious act of writing and in the context of a (white, male, upper-class) literary canon. Throughout, Kapil wrestles consciously with the responsibility of the immigrant artist, asking, “Is a poet an imperial dissident, or just / An outline / Of pale blue chalk?” Under the paranoid eye of her host, the guest is compelled to speak. And the beauty of a Bhanu Kapil book is that she tries—really genuinely, I think, tries—to comply with this demand, using a number of tactics to do so: narrative vignettes, effusive bouts of lyric, attempts at humor and at evasion. Some poems make painstaking attempts at clarity, as in this plainly stated passage:

The messages we received
Were as follows:
You are a sexual object, I have a right
To sexualize you.
You are not an individual.
You are here
For my entertainment.

Others seem to operate squarely in the lyric-narrative genre. Take, for example, this poem:

My grandfather fermented the yoghurt
With rose petals
And sugar then buried it
In the roots of a mango tree.
Come here, he said, extending
The sweetest fruit I have ever tasted
Come June.
On the far side of the orchard
He grew saffron and the mangoes there
Were red and pink.
In the dry well
He planted a pomegranate tree.
This is where they threw
The bodies
Come August
Can you find your way home
By smell?
Metallic, the air tilts along a diagonal line.
I smell the pollen of the flowers of the mango tree
Which once concealed
A kill.

What more could a Western reader want from the diasporic poet? Here, we get a contained narrative, told by a coherent lyric subject; we get familial characters and legible cultural markers. The succession of three fruit trees offers a nicely rounded premise, leading to the expected volta two-thirds of the way in, which hints at a past violence without forcing the reader to confront its messy details. Finally, following a brief touch of mystery (“Metallic, the air tilts along a diagonal line), it’s all sealed together with the satisfaction of the ending three iambs. By all accounts, this is a successful poem, as well as a beautiful one—a poem I dog-eared even as I wondered where it sat in the field between the writer’s assertion, “I don’t want to beautify our collective trauma,” and her admission, “As your guest, I trained myself / To beautify / Our collective trauma.”

“Would you like me to write a poem about it?! I can,” Kapil writes in her author’s note. She can, and she does. Right there, in the middle of the afterword, Kapil inserts a completely new poem, even though the book is supposedly over. Reading back through the collection, I keep hearing echoes of that irreverent, moody quip—Would you like me to write a poem about it?!—reverberating around the edges of each lineated page, in the silence that surrounds the book, and in harmony with the opening “Like this?” Tragically, the host will never be satisfied with these attempts. “No,” she says. “I want to hear what happened afterwards / Not before.” The host is impatient, picky, intolerant of mess. She finds the guest’s diary and reads it out loud, therefore also becoming the critic, who marks and questions the writer’s every move.

Here, I have to pause. Throughout the book, it is all too easy to read the you as a discrete and distant character. But of course, this you is also, necessarily, me—the person who, any affinities with the writer aside, is tasked with reviewing this book from something like a critical distance. As Rankine’s second person did in Citizen, “you” necessarily implicates the reader in its web of relations. Would I like Bhanu Kapil to write a poem about it?! Have I celebrated her for beautifying (or refusing to beautify) “our” collective trauma? What part do I play in creating the conditions that necessitate the silences of this book? These are uncomfortable questions, given the stakes of the power arrangement at hand. The dramas of this house are, after all, only “fleeting” and “minor” until its unambiguously violent end. The afterword, too, is clear about the direction in which oppression moves, ending on a note about anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. and the UK. Up to its final sentence, How to Wash a Heart refuses to look away from you, from the harm that you is always on the edge of inflicting.

And yet, I have to remember, this book is ultimately a performance not of obliteration, but of relationality. That is, it is a book that began from an interactive performance art piece, in which Kapil (in this instance, playing host) greeted guests to the space with red ice cubes. That originating piece makes reference to a performance by Lygia Pape, in which participants silently maintain eye contact as ice cubes made of red ink melt in their hands. Scholar Vivian Huang writes that “Asian performance of feminist parasitism insists upon relationality by performing it, allowing for the distance necessary for such relationality to take shape.”2 In both Kapil’s performance and in the echo of Pape’s it contains, I see figures caught in that relational web of guest, host, adopted daughter, and in the space between them, something not simply “exhausting” but also “inclusive, complex, molecular, dainty.” I may certainly occupy the you in this moment; but, like Kapil, I am also the racialized writer in white liberalism’s guest room; also the young Asian American hungry for a link to her lineage. Between these selves, what is possible to say? Like all of Kapil’s previous work, How to Wash a Heart is born from a failure to speak. From that silence, three slowly dissolving hearts begin to mark the floor with ink—begin, that is, to write.


1. Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korea Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

2. Huang, Vivian L. “Inscrutably, actually: hospitality, parasitism, and the silent work of Yoko Ono and Laurel Nakadate.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 28:3, 2018, 187–203.


Liverpool University Press, 2020. 64 pp. $19.95.


Franny Choi is the author of two books of poetry, Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019) and Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014). She is a Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in English at Williams College and co-hosts the podcast VS with Danez Smith.