on Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
I recently put together a short curriculum on the poetic fragment. Afterwards, as often happens in teaching—especially with conceptual material—I started seeing signs of the fragment everywhere. Was a slice of an apple a fragment (fragment of fruit)? Was the stray blue jay feather found on the ground a fragment (fragment of bird)?
When I found myself commenting on the sentence fragments in my students’ composition papers, I laughed. It is only hegemony that says a fragment is incorrect, inadequate, wrong. Not a full thought. Sentences are supposed to each represent a complete idea. Supposed to.
I picked up Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil because I am writing an essay collection that uses hybrid forms and the book was recommended to me as one potential model. What I didn’t know was that reading Ban en Banlieue would mean an in-depth continuation of my observations of the fragment.
Ban en Banlieue is about a narrator/writer who is trying to write a novel about a character /proxy-self named Ban. Ban en Banlieue is a kind of notes for/toward/on a novel (or is it a novel unto itself?). Kapil writes, “A book for recovery from an illness. A book that repeats a sentence until that sentence recuperates its power to attract, or touch, other sentences” (63). The multi-valent word “sentence” is one of the launch points of this book that troubles the hegemony of narrative. Is a sentence (words) a sentence (punishment/limitation/fate)? Is this sentence inescapable? What if we allowed other possibilities to organize our language?
Kazim Ali’s essay “The ‘Tradition’ of the Fragment” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2019/04/the-tradition-of-the-fragment) was, for me, a helpful backdrop for Ban En Banlieue because Ali points out that we often choose to view fragments as incomplete. What if we thought about fragments with a sense of wholeness instead of deficiency?
Kapil points out the (embodied) experience of being an immigrant as an experience of living as a kind of fragment. Just as I ask my composition students to assimilate their “sentence fragments” (I’m the one who puts the label on) to my hegemonic expectations, so, too, does hegemony and power ask/require/violently implore immigrants to conform.
This is an expectation that can never actually be fulfilled, and so, the immigrant continues to live as a fragment, always conceived of as incomplete. Kapil writes, “What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English? Under what conditions is a birth not recognized as a birth? Answer: Ban. And from Ban: ‘banlieues’” (30).
For me, Ban en Banlieue unfurls a swath of questions on wholeness, fragmentation, and (in)completion. It’s also a rich well of investigations on hybridity and interstitial spaces like banlieues, the suburbs of Paris.
This book brought up more questions than answers, which I think is part of Kapil’s project. Tying up all the strings one unravels is yet another hegemonic expectation. This book does not suit up again at the end. Instead, it’s a “nude page” (50).