On Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene: Disability and a Diasporic “Break”

Schizophrene, a book of poems by Bhanu Kapil, came out in December 2011 from Nightboat Books. The collection exemplifies Kapil’s cross-genre aesthetic: it is written in fragmented notebook prose excerpts. Kapil examines the relationship between mental illness and migration for women in the South Asian Indian diaspora post-Partition. Schizophrene illuminates how racialization and pathologization have co-functioned to abstract (as extracted) from livability the material, historical, lived experiences of violated nonwhite bodies. In Kapil’s text especially, her use of the “break,” borrowing Fred Moten’s musical term, creates a moment of escape from dominant meaning-making grammars within global finance capital, colonization, and migration via Atlantic water routes. This micro-reading traces how Kapil centers a queer crip [1] (or a queer feminist disability studies’ lens) for thinking through racialization and colonization as recursive, nonlinear processes. Poet and scholar Jane Wong, for context, has already provided border-crossing interventions emergent in Kapil’s multimedia and grammared work: “as a multimedia artist, Kapil traverses narratives that challenge borders including the physical, national, and historical. Her work is transnational in time and space, linking together the narratives she actively seeks out. The borders of time—the past, present, and future—collapse” (Wong 49). Kapil’s nonlinear narratives also, however, offer a new method for reclaiming diasporic and disability coalitions without obfuscating their violent conditions. What better place to start than the “in media res” that opens the book?

Kapil begins Schizophrene in the middle of the notebook’s “notes” and in the middle of the ocean, making nonlinear narrative a material relationship between the text, the writer’s experience, and the physical environment: “I threw the book into the dark garden. The account begun mid-ocean, in a storm” (1). The two sentences, alone and a third of the way down on the page, contradict any possibility of writing from a linear, American English sentence, normative temporality: the book’s various stages of decomposition (pun intended), as well as its being repeatedly thrown into the garden, recur throughout the text. There is not a clear subject, followed by action upon an object. Notably, Kapil does not say the account “is” begun, which would make a complete sentence, nor that it “began,” which would clarify the statement’s subject. The story itself becomes a potential speaking subject so that neither the account itself nor the “I” of the speaker begins in isolation from the other. The implication of begun is that it now has begun, or it was begun—two different tenses, neither of which are resolved. The confusion of “where”—garden or ocean—collides with the “when,” a beginning that is both middle (mid-ocean) and end (decomposition). In this way, the opening challenges poetic traditions’ assumptions about the beginning, middle, and end remaining temporally and spatially secured within a larger narrative arc. The migratory experience, which Schizophrene here portrays as a material relationship between telling the experience and the experience itself, always already bears nonlinear ties to narrative trajectory and normatively/nationally bounded “home.”

The speaker’s subjectivity requires this recursive space, as when Byrd examines how indigenous narratives occupy “liminally” the “ungrievable spaces” of suspicion through presumed unintelligibility (2). One such space, as Gayatri Gopinath’s seminal text on queer South Asian Indian Diaspora, Impossible Desires, demonstrates, is often the home of a queer female’s migratory experience. Gopinath argues that archives are often critical histories not bound by nationalist geographic limits (15). Here, the book lands in the garden of that home that does not necessarily begin as reproductive or even propertied. The uncertainty enacts Gopinath’s critique of how South Asian diaspora has gendered womanhood as bearing home-making burden across the continents families travel or “home-make.” [2] As Gopinath explains, “…female sexuality under nationalism is a crucial site of surveillance, as it is through women’s bodies that the borders and boundaries of communal identities are formed” (9). This language also recalls how dominant portrayals of postcolonial indigeneity and racial capitalism often conflate subjugated populations and lands as a combined commodity and laborer-as-caretaker (Wynter 7). In contrast, Kapil’s garden bears a critical relationship to the global matter of a physical garden (not defined as “her” garden, but “the garden”). It also originates outside of a land-bound space for nationalistic surveillance: mid-ocean.

The play on tense undermines Kapil’s female-gendered body as being a potential site for state surveillance by not making her the presumed “home-maker,” property owner, or domesticator of the “garden.” Simultaneously, the opening explicitly centers on linguistic temporality. The beginning is an imperfect, ongoing past act embedded within the text decomposing in both cultivated land (garden) and ocean (mid-ocean) by the speaker. This resistance dovetails with the slippage between a linear, English grammar sentence as the beginning to create a twofold refusal: her spatial and temporal location elides easy nation-state mapping; her subjectivity is not necessarily one of ownership. That is, her self-declared authorship elides both ownership and home-making surveillance of the feminized diasporic subject. As the narrative progresses, this linguistic act becomes inseparable from the process of material schizophrenic pathologization in Western scientific medicine: “Because it is psychotic not know where you are in a national space” (Kapil 41). This line marks the most popularized point of analysis around Schizophrene at the time of this writing. It has been read as marking the Partition producing madness or the madness of colonialism’s violence against land and subjectivity (Singh 127). However, by close reading “the middle that begins the book,” we can also see how Kapil does not here call herself psychotic in a self-pathologization, but rather calls out the problem of propertied space as also national, responding to how being migratory and cross-bordered is also a way of being non-rooted and subsequently pathologized in the dissociative and displaced experience of non-national belonging: being named psychotic. Kapil does not just invert the pathologizing binaries to re-mark “psychotic”; instead, Kapil here implicitly critiques how the nonlinear opening and embeddedness within both garden and mid-ocean connect inextricably with materially and historically constructed space and through that subjectivity. Foucauldian and Fanon critiques of diagnosis and medicalized mental illnesses have been well-recycled since the 1960’s. However, what emerges in this close attention to Schizophrene grammars is Kapil’s dysfluencies, experimental poetics, and experiences as a trans-national and diasporic queer female subject, converging with an overrepresentation around what is named legible, why, to whom, and to what end. Kapil’s poetics suggests that if it is “psychotic” to be out of space and time with a nation-bound project, then treatment and care options within a nation-bound, privatized system of health care are inextricably bound up with the diagnosis and pain itself—not to extoll schizophrenia or “psychosis” as a virtue or idealized state that should forego treatment. Instead, the need for care takes at its core the complexity of coalitional work across disability diasporic experiences. It seems appropriate in this micro-reading to return to her words as one such method:

From cross-cultural psychiatry, I learned that light touch, regularly and impersonally repeated, in the exchange of devotional objects, was as healing, for nonwhite subjects (schizophrenics) as anti-psychotic medication. In making a book that barely said anything, I hoped to offer: this quality of touch. (71)


[1] See Robert McRuer on how crip and queer are joined in their analytic for otherwise socialities. In this analysis of Kapil, though, it is as simple as nonlinear kinship through property transfer across patrilineal lines, as well as through excess beyond ordered meaning-making.

[2] ….A queer diasporic framework insists on the imbrications of nation and diaspora through the production of hetero- and homosexuality, particularly as they are mapped onto the bodies of women.” (Gopinath 9-10)

Works Cited

Jodi A. Byrd. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of  Minnesota Press, 2011.  

Gayatri Gopinath. Impossible Desires. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2005. 

Bhanu Kapil. Schizophrene. Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2011. 

Robert McRuer. Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance. New York University Press, 2018.

Fred Moten. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis, Minnesota:  University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 

Balbir K. Singh. Militant Bodies: Policing Race, Religion, and Violence in the U.S. Sikh Diaspora. University  of Washington, Ann Arbor, 2016.     ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1844058114?accountid=14784.

Jane Wong and Brian M. Reed. Going Toward the Ghost: the Poetics of Haunting in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. University of Washington, 2016.

Sylvia Wynter. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3,  2003, pp. 257–337.

C.R. Grimmer, who  also goes by Chelsea Grimmer and uses she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably is the author of The Lyme Letters. They are also the author of O–(ezekiel's wife), a chapbook and audiobook collaboration from GASHER Journal and Press. Recently, C. R. completed their Ph.D. in Literature and Cultural Studies with support from fellowships such as The Simpson Center for the Humanities' Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Public Humanities Fellowship. C. R. created and hosts The Poetry Vlog, has poems in journals such as Poetry, FENCE, and [PANK], and has published articles in journals such as The Comparatist. You are welcome to connect with them at crgrimmer.com.