How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil review – unsettling reflections on displacement

The British poet, inspired by the tale of a California couple who shared their home with a migrant, examines the nature of hospitality in this TS Eliot prize-winning book

Bhanu Kapil, poet and performance artist, recently won the TS Eliot prize for How to Wash a Heart. Kapil, born in Britain to Indian parents, recently returned to the UK after years in North America. She explains, in her afterword, how the work was triggered by a news item about a “couple in California who had offered a room in their home to a person with a precarious visa status”. Kapil was unsettled by the photograph of the citizen host in the newspaper, observing “taut muscles around her mouth as she smiled”. She felt “something I could not put words to when I read her ornate way of describing the hospitality she was offering”.

Finding the necessary words became Kapil’s project. In her earlier work, she has written about trauma in the south Asian diaspora. Here, trauma is amplified by displacement. There is a deliberately uncomfortable sense of breaking a taboo in being critical of hospitality, of seeing its – in this instance – self-serving complexity and nouveau colonialism. This is an extended song about “host-guest chemistry”, about mutinous dependence. By implication, it establishes that real hospitality should not be merely about food and shelter, let alone about a host’s self-congratulation. It should be about creating the conditions in which a guest can feel free.

Continue reading...


All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran review – a confrontation of pain and poetic form

The aftermath of abuse is met head-on by subtle and delicate skill in the Vietnamese-American poet’...

Read More >

Lea Ypi: ‘Hope is a moral duty’

The Albanian author and academic on what she misses most about her homeland and how a communist chil...

Read More >

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort review – a bright new voice from an endless winter

This exceptional collection from the Belarus-born poet digs into what happens when the self goes mis...

Read More >

Every Family Has a Story by Julia Samuel review – why we inherit our parents’ problems

The bestselling psychotherapist explores how trauma and anxiety can pass through generations in thes...

Read More >

Unexhausted Time by Emily Berry review – language that defies all limits

These strange, intimate poems blur the boundaries between waking and dreaming, past and futureIn Emi...

Read More >

C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor review – punchy tales of lesbian life

The winner of the TS Eliot prize offers a rallying cry for gay unity amid prejudice and deathJoelle ...

Read More >