Half [ ]-half [ ]-half [ ]: Trauma and Transformation in the Humanimal
Letters to Bhanu Kapil
by Jai Arun Ravine and Lucas de Lima
Note to reader: In 2010, Ching-In Chen asked Jai Arun Ravine to interview Bhanu Kapil for a speculative literature issue for Asian American Poetry and Writing. At the time, Bhanu was in India and unavailable for an interview, so she asked Lucas de Lima to answer Jai’s questions as an interpolate. The result of Lucas and Jai’s collaboration constitutes part one of this piece. Lucas’s replies to Jai — substituted for potential statements or responses by Bhanu — appear in italics: below. The dirty starlings are his, just as the triplicate, mutating calf is Jai’s. In 2013, Bhanu, Lucas and Jai re-convened with Bhanu asking Jai and Lucas questions. The feral appendix they created appears in part two of this piece. Even though the original interview was never published in AAPW, Jai thanks Ching-In for instigating this collaborative exploration.
[Part One-half] [Jai Arun Ravine and Lucas de Lima]
September – December, 2010
Half, half, half. Calf, calf, calf. Three halves, as in haves. Three calves, as in caves.
When you dreamed of dancing with a circus acrobat, I entered the dream and cut my body in half. In half, and in half again. A luuk kreung, half [child]. Two penises — one deflated, one bloated beneath it. This is where I show you the illusion, the invisible edge that is not an edge. This is where I show you the cuts, and how I’ve learned to use mirrors.
To be human is embarrassing. I, too, want to transform after reading “Humanimal.” I get tired of feeling naked, unlike animals. They’re always seeing me cry.
On your blog in May 2010, you wrote, “I invite you to send me a postcard or letter documenting bird-human figuration, or desire for it, I guess, in your own practice as a writer. […] Please send your account of the body – its transgression, abandonment and unexpected flight…”
I am writing these letters as a document of my desire for half [boy]-half [raven]-half [winged-centaur] figuration — its traumas, transformations and conversions. It’s failing, and in the process of growing. Still, I wanted you to see it.
That’s why I observe birds without thinking about models of assimilation I can’t believe in. Marriage, despite the legal benefits to be reaped, doesn’t inspire me.
I have noticed that reading your work is a practice of sourcing from a particular place in my body. The only way I could read The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001) was first thing in the morning with a cup of hot black tea. I sense that putting your hands around a warm cup of chai is an important source — a gate — as I put my hands around a similar cup to write this.
When I encountered Humanimal: A Project for Future Children (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), I found that I needed to read it from a feral place in my body. I could not sit upright. I had to lie down, curled up in blankets — I had to make a nest. When I reached “…tentacular. Does the skin crêpe…” (9), I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop. You said the feral time was at dawn — for me, twilight. I read until the words softened, until the page broke and I had to squint.
I find it more resonant to look at starlings, their dirty iridescence.
Speculative. Spectate. Speck. Conjecture. Conjure. Conjunction.
The spectator and performer inhabit two opposing sides.
No, that’s just an illusion. Whether or not there are two sides depends on who’s looking.
Sometimes there are three sides. Three halves.
One half is the [wolf]-[child] as magic, a fantastical creature who dances in a realm of possibility and dream as a child. A narrative of lightness and phantom winglight.
One half is the [wolf]-[child] as freak show, a spectacle who is captured and displayed in the realm of other as an animal. A narrative of scar tissue and bone.
One half is the [wolf]-[child] as transformation — a re-image, a re-telling. A narrative from inside the [wolf]-[child] hirself. Who remains in the seam — not two, but many. As one.
If I stare straight up, I see a goose falling from V formation and tumbling to the ground.
You wrote, “At the edge of the jungle was a seam, a dense shedding of light green ribbons of bark. A place where things previously separate moved together in a wet pivot. I stood and walked towards it in a dream” (6).
When Indian missionary Reverend Joseph Singh encountered the “ghosts” of Amala and Kamala, who were living with wolves in Bengal in 1920, he stumbled over that seam with a certain percentage of awe and repulsion.
When I stumbled, the “severed fold” (34) was my desire for transformation and the ways I currently live it. I knew I was on the other side of the fold from Singh — I knew I could be hunted. Converted. Inverted.
Because of the manuscript I’m writing, this turns into an image of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. If the image compels you, it might invoke some other socially coerced death. I’m talking about the descent that — by opening the “kind of mouth” we find in the wolf-girl—recasts the fissure of grief as a moment of possibility.
I approach this fissure as though I know it intimately. I experience this seam as a part of my body. But something about it causes me to stop. I want this transformation, but I can’t go on.
The writer and reader are given space to kiss a dead being.
In a recording on the Kelsey Street Press blog, you said, “I want a narrative that can become something else, in the same way a body does, all the time. But if a body, a creature, comes into being in ways that are beyond their control, then where exactly do they have a sensation?”
Tincture of cayenne, milk thistle and calendula, wild oat, smilax, vitex, red ginseng, holy basil and anemone, and wolfberry. Seven drops three times a day. A 10 ml. vial of testosterone cypionate in sesame oil, a 1 ml. syringe, an 18 1/2 and 22 1/2 gauge needle, an alcohol swab. I prepare the injection site. Although I have no desire to pass as male, I want to write my transformation until it becomes real, until it grows wings. “How does this sentence go into animals?” you asked (27). I don’t know that I’m prepared to continue.
Sometimes I think, by contrast, of reproductive life. I sense how my body, in its attraction to the same sex, disappoints and disavows future children. If the thought shatters the gay earth mother in me, I try to write her pieces backwards into biology. This is excessive display. The spurt of pleasure that glitters because of its unlikely source.
I suppose the [wolf]-[child] is “fantastical.” To me it feels very familiar, being two things that are not supposed to inhabit the same body.
Like “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel we watch you track the absence of something that straddled the realms of human and animal. “I put my hand on her grave and waited, until I could feel the rhythm, faintly, of breathing. Of a cardiac output” (12).
For example, did you know about the tendency of male cheetahs to become caretakers of lost cubs?
But the moment the girls were discarded/abandoned. The moment the wolf took them in. This gesture also haunts me. Perhaps “haunt” is not the right word. I want to know what it felt like. How come I feel like I am not supposed to want to know?
You wrote, “I said it was cartilage — the body incubating a curved space, an animal self. Instead of hands, she had four streaks of light. An imprimatur, she saw me and flinched” (6).
This flinch contains a narrative of adaptation, a story of how each bit of blue, red and yellow sustained their bodies, shaped them into forms that kept breathing and stayed safe. The mother wolf, the jungle, held them up. With the wolves they would have survived. Would halve.
The humanimal is a twining/twinning of a girl with the jungle. The humanimal is not a fantasy.
I don’t know if I’m helping, Jai, in discussing grief and exuberance. These are the species traits I mimic while searching desperately for a clear wild floor. Somewhere to lie down as fur grows like specks of shit all over my body.
When I open the drawer labeled “Speculative!” or “Fantastical!,” I expect to see my genitals in a jar. I expect to see metal implants, censored files and sensational fonts. I don’t expect to sensate.
But the humanimal as you imagine hir, as you exhume hir and watch hir move, as you struggle to find and protect hir, is not found in this drawer. Sie is a body. A whole body. A body scarred, fragmented, sifting through its parts — but a whole, fleshy body.
That floor, I think, is what Bhanu fell through as she wrote her strange book.
You begin with a quote by Alphonso Lingis: “They open up a body that is a lesion in the tissue of words and discourses and the network of powers.” The next quote is by Ida Rolf and concerns rolfing (a form of deep tissue massage). Because Humanimal has made me think about the traumas that occur within transformation, because I am a dancer, because I am interested in how race, class and gender can either restrict or encourage my body’s movement, transformation or animalization, because I know you are a body worker, I want to ask you something about this.
I think that the entire process of you going to Midnapure with a film crew, reading Singh’s diary entries, going to the Home, writing from photographs of Amala and Kamala, walking in and out of the jungle — all of this, the space within and the space next to writing — opens up a body, and the body becomes a lesion, becomes a scar, becomes a seam.
You exhume this body, you create it from ghosts/photographs/light/memory, you work on this body with your hands, you transform their bodies. Humanimal is a text of the (re)generation of this “bodywork,” how transformation works on and un-works the body. I want to know how your approach to and the practice of working on bodies relates to transformation, to writing, to texture. I want to know about the primacy of texture, the ferality of texture, the closeness of the text. “Reaching and touching as the beginning actions, re-organized in time as desire” (64). This is no longer a question.
She asked me to act as “an interpolate” to your questions. Bhanu, whose weeklong workshop I attended at Naropa, is suggesting our symbiosis.
I am remembering when you said: “To write this, the memoir of your body, I slip my arms into the sleeves of your shirt. I slip my arms into yours, to become four-limbed” (15).
And this: “I wanted to write until they were real. When they began to breathe, opening their mouths in the space next to writing, I stopped writing. I imagined all the children in the sky, part of the monsoon wind, the molecules of rain circulating from ocean to land and back again. A pressure. A loop. In this way, I wrote until the children left the jungle, the country itself, their families of origin, and time. I saw how they changed time” (42).
And this: “Writing makes a mirror between the two children who perceive each other. […] I’m scared of the child I’m making” (55).
I hope this is can be a document of our intersection in flight.
I don’t know what to ask next. I know what you meant when you said, “These are the wrong questions but they pass the time. They make a body real. This is a text to do that. Vivify” (63). If your text made a body real, if you created a body, then what walks parallel to this vivification is the trauma of being animalized. I think this is what you meant when you said you took notes for a feral childhood in two spaces. The first humanimal is a “blue sky fiction,” a seductive fantasy in which you imagine their future in fairytales and fables, in projected dreams whose boundaries and edges keep them safe.
“At the edge of the garden was a line of blue chalk. My mother was crouching there, waiting for me in her dark coat. In the dream, I walk towards her and she stands up. She opens up her coat like two wings and I step into her cloth heart, her cleft of matted fur” (11).
The second humanimal took shape when you said, “I am not interested in animals. Return to the work as memory. Say it is a wolf becoming a girl, the action in reverse” (16). More so than the misplaced, sensationalized tragedy of a girl’s hideous transformation into a wolf, what became strange and paranormal were the ways the girls’ were animalized and othered, the ways the boundaries and edges between church and jungle lead to the murder of the wolves and their capture, the ways their bones were bent back through corrective therapy, the ways the “animal” was sliced from their bodies, Singh’s intentions for domestication and the girls’ subsequent death. This humanimal body is full of scars — attempted escapes, a straining between girl and animal, church and jungle — a record of a failed conversion.
“In the time I am writing of, villagers from the settlement of Midnapure came regularly to the orphanage, lining up at the gate to catch a glimpse of the two jungle children. For a few minutes a day, Joseph’s wife, the Home’s Mother, let them in and they swarmed to the room where the youngest girl was failing. They watched her fade and jerk in her cot, the spittle coming down over her chin. From these stories, I constructed an image of the dying girl as larval; perennially white, damp and fluttering in the darkness of the room” (23-24).
At some point both humanimal bodyspaces cross, so close the texture is feral. Their crossing leaves a scar, a lesion that won’t melt into the skin, but stays raised, unabsorbed, like a seam. This is the part of the body you touch. This is the part of the body you inhabit.
I hope, by exchanging colors, we bleed through white paper.
I am remembering when you said, “The edge of the jungle is not the place where the line shifts the most. That is deeper in where the caves are, pink with bones” (62). I enter the cave and cut my body in half, in half, and in half again. The wetness of the wolf’s mouth reaches around each half with a crisp, vaporous heat. The O is the tapetum in our eyes that glints as a way of speaking. The O is the mouth and the mirror, a gate between three halves of a seam.
[Part Two-half: Feral appendix] [Bhanu Kapil, Lucas de Lima and Jai Arun Ravine]
March – April, 2013
Bhanu Kapil: Perhaps I can begin. Perhaps I can begin by asking you a question from Somatic Experiencing, the therapy pioneered by Peter Levine — “What kind of animal are you?” To begin:
What kind of animal are you?
Jai Arun Ravine: Today in dance class we talked about engaging our lats, the slats on the sides of our ribcages, underneath the armpit. And knitting the meshy space between diaphragm and pubic bone. In working on technique today, in tracking the relationship between my head and tail, inverting (being upside down), moving to/up/away/back down to the floor, pushing into my hands, pushing through my feet, giving my hands my weight — these experiences live in a proximal space to being animal. And for other reasons, today, an expansiveness and openness in the body, the sides opening up and spilling. Or dancing alone in my room, or biking and looking at the sky.
expanding as an animal quality. an animate quality. an animating quality. re-animated.
Lucas de Lima: I am in love with a man who is a children’s make-up artist, the guardian of two dogs and two cats, and the son of a native/black woman who practiced mediumship in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda. He, too, sometimes sees the dead. They show up in the room where we sleep or other rooms. Before meeting this mystic, I had to find the light of a book. I wrote a book about the dead, both human and nonhuman. It was a war cry on censorship, a ululation through the figures of a bird, an alligator, and a dead friend. Then I tried, perhaps in an arbitrary manner, to write poems inspired by horses. I wanted to continue freeing the dead — this time on the land that borders water and sky. I now vomit at the thought of whatever I was trying to become on four legs. I vomit with love for my mystic, a feeling so dreadful it does not let me eat. It is like I left my hand and mouth in my first book of grief. I’m whatever animal shoots from my loaded mouth, its species invisible to me.
BK: Jai, Lucas:
I have just returned from New York City where I glitched and slept in a rose garden on the campus of Pratt Institute, to cease my resemblance to other forms. And crawled out, finally, a shard from the garden’s bed gripped in my hand.
I couldn’t read Lucas’s animal answer properly on my shattered poem, I mean — cell phone!!!! FREUDIAN SLIP — and so just read it just now — about the love for this mystic — this very full experience — and I read Jai’s answer before leaving for New York — and so I feel my entire experience has been “book-ended” by your answers.
I wrote to Xian just now to explain to him that we had begun to do this — extend — and his exact reply was that it sounded exactly like a drug. What it might mean to take one. How?
I can say that I felt that way [altered a bit] reading both of your answers — a way to start thinking about earth memory and its “occurrent arts.”
So, there on the Eastern seaboard, I met this young African American writer, Jamila Cornick, who — comes from nothing — out there — whose father and mother are both dead — terrible, frightening, brutal deaths — and who was a student in Melissa Buzzeo’s class — a class that Melissa called the Murder class because so many of her students — had experienced or witnessed murders — in that borough — where the class was taught — and in that class they studied Humanimal — and Jamila — I finally met — who was Melissa’s student and is now her friend — beyond the frame.
I asked Jamila how the feral shows up in her work. She replied: “I think the people most obsessed with saying what is feral and what isn’t are the perpetrators. They are the ones with the greatest capacity for violence.” Amazing, right?
I feel both of you — Jai, Lucas — have begun to answer this — but perhaps I can ask it more formally — having opened the space of the human-animal in the previous question:
How does the feral show up in your work?
I feel as if I could say: as a philosophy, as an activity of narration, as a way of writing the figure….
But perhaps the question is more frightening just as it is.
I can’t tell.
I have been thinking a lot about figures this week, through Massumi’s Semblance and Event: activist philosophies and their occurrent arts. He has this amazing stuff about the proto-figure — the way that eye movements are constantly not habituating: to an outline — and how — if the figure actually appears — then this – is the point at which — the figure is ANNULLED.
Feral as proto-figuration, in this sense?
The body. How the soft tissue vector keeps splitting as it is — written — with such desire.
JAR: I recently took apart my closet trying to find a piece of writing from ten years ago. I was looking for a specific page, and in the process found other pages. So many, many pages! Often I wonder why I have written so much and perhaps said so little. Or, in this page was I really there, or just tabbing over and printing out a finished document? Perhaps these thoughts mean nothing here.
Which is to say I wonder if the feral of ten years ago (and more, 15, 20) appeared as the things I did not say or write, the things I did not share, I wonder if the feral appeared underneath and somewhere outside the writing, which grew into its own furry beast of unfulfilled desire, emotions I didn’t think I was allowed to feel, a repository in that fuzzy, vibratory beast heart. The things it would eat. And we did not eat together.
The feral as what is not touched or loved, the feral as what is hated.
The feral as what is wanted.
But if I were to speak of the present I would say that this feral of the past has been given space to breathe, that some things in fact have been felt and seen, instead of being stuffed into the beast heart gut they are displayed, like a plant or food item casually placed on a table. But how do I know if this is true?
In the work I’m writing now, I think of whiteness as being feral. White desire, the desire of white people. Colonization as feral. The desire to travel, to own, to dominate, to consume, to colonize. As feral desires. The way tourism feeds off of these white desires as feral. Feral tours. The Flight of the Gibbon, Tiger Temple, Hangover 2, ladyboys — a desire to see the feral in the other, eroticize it and murder it at the same time — that ferality.
But then, me being inside a feral desire in part trained on me — as I go from being born invisible to vibrating through sound to becoming a freestyle rapper (said Charlie Jane Anders) — me vibrating inside occupation, inside a tour bus of whiteness — I then am feral too, what comes before the figure but is moving so fast it blurs.
LdL: Dear Jai and Bhanu,
In Hilda Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D, the narrator is a delirious widow who observes how the “[t]he eyes of animals is a dead question.” Before the feral, no answer or knowledge in the stable, positivist, Occidental sense is possible. This makes me imagine a human trembling in the animal’s line of sight, deprived of the ancestral memory that once made other life forms our brethren.
Maybe the fact that the feral gaze is so overwhelming feeds into the proto-figuration Bhanu mentions. What would it mean to once more think of ecology as an all-encompassing web? What kinds of transformations would we open ourselves up to by destroying species hierarchy, which is fundamental to power structures at large? The language I’m using to frame this question is political, but I experience it as an act of the imagination. To become feral—to feel the world out as our pulsation—is to unlearn the doctrine of organic boundedness that says we are atomized and self-determining beings. It is to initiate oneself to irrational, painful, and awe-inspiring identification. To speak with and through living, dying and dead bodies, and ones that haven’t been born yet.
Another example, also Brazil, where I was born and am now living in again: Mário de Andrade’s preference of “entidade” (entity) over “identidade” (identity). If the feral impulse is about abjection but also more than that — as I think Jai’s response suggests — is there something both basic and sacred about trying to elude recognition? Might this yearning for wildness, queerness, and inhumanness actually forge a path to (and through) God?
BK: Thank you. Your answers are very beautiful and are the foundation of your own art-making practices. Perhaps one day we could do this again and think about cyborgs. I believe in your art. I wish you all the best in your radical and unseen [glittering] [pavanine] efforts.
Jai Arun Ravine is the author of แล้ว AND THEN ENTWINE: LESSON PLANS, POEMS, KNOTS (TinFish Press), The Spiderboi Files and Is This January (Corollary Press).
They are the creator of the short film TOM/TRANS/THAI and a staff writer for Lantern Review.
Author site: jaiarunravine.wordpress.com
Lucas de Lima‘s chapbook Ghostlines was published by Radioactive Moat.
His first full-length collection is forthcoming from Action Books.
He is a contributor to Montevidayo and a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.