‘Ban en Banlieue’ by Bhanu Kapil
“you can make a book out of that and I do”
A girl lies down on the sidewalk in the suburbs of London. As her body degrades into the earth, she becomes something else—an array of pinks and browns and earth and ivy, shards of mirrors, a symbol of racial and sexual violence and art and expression and a monument of a character.
Ban en Banlieue does not only inhabit the suburbs, it effectually is the suburbs: those of a work of writing, of ethics and violence where law cannot reach, of the psyche. It takes place entirely in the space between what we all know to be reality and a place of graphic, brutal, racialized violence, one we are hesitant to admit truly exists. The work does not give the reader a choice in acknowledging the space, effectually implicating the reader in all forms of the experience; the reader becomes at once the “you” of the writer, the “you” of the enactors of violence, and the “you” of Ban—herself the victim of rape and murder.
To describe Ban as simply a work of metafiction is to undermine the functionality of the text as an open dialogue between the work, the writer, the reader, and its society. Though it seems, at the onset, to convey an extremely thorough research process—an exploration of Ban through various mediums, works of art, writings, even experiential evidence—Ban quickly exceeds the role of character to become something larger and less easily contained. In her dying, in her evolving into a symbol, Ban loses her agency and becomes a character, one whose experiences are molded into something with meaning and implications beyond one moment.
At points the text grows nearly prayerful, addressing Ban as an ever-present entity, offering instances and readings and writings up to Ban as if in an effort to please her and every young woman who has fallen victim to racialized and sexualized violence. Ban becomes timeless, yet extremely specific to the 21st century; she becomes raceless, nearly a seamless symbol of what it means to be a “brown (black) girl,” standing in for every woman who, like the speaker, “Doesn’t want to have sex ever again if it means partnering with a white man.”
Ban and Ban become the suburbs in that they are the hazy space between art and violence; the hazy space between browns, barbed wire, and bloods; and the pinks, flowers, and spores which return Ban to the earth. We are told and retold of her death, each time focusing on different experiences, as if it takes place in slow motion:
“Ban turns her head to the wall.”
“Imagine that the rough, pink tip of a girls’s tongue slips out, extending to the ivy’s salt—for nourishment.”
“Ban is slick … she is a kerosene patch set on fire with a careless match.”
The work exists in its entirety in a space between writing and written, between paratext and literature, between authentic expression and art with an agenda. As the speaker writes, “The project fails at every instance and you can make a book out of that and I do.”
The work serves as an inquiry into who is at fault for the destruction of a young girl, and who is at fault—the narrator, the writer, the reader—in treating her suffering and death as a work of art. Instead of presenting a traditionally complete art, Kapil allows the reader to understand the inner workings of the process, the hesitations and the rewritings, and witness as Ban becomes something more than a girl who “lies down on a sidewalk,” but instead something that “outweighed art” itself.
It may be easy to assume that Ban is dense or academic due to its format and meandering, but to read it as such would be to do it an injustice. The speaker is often transparent, extremely accessible and moralizingly human, candid with laziness or self-criticism (and the role those play in writing and rewriting). A sense of inadequacy in representing Ban surfaces as an undertone throughout the text. “What kind of art did Ban produce in her death?” the speaker asks, again implicating the reader in an almost exploitative desire to harness violence, tragedy, and brutality for the sake of writing. The reader becomes complicit in the violence itself, in Ban’s death alongside the writer who lies in the place that Ban has, inviting the reader to do the same.