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16Feb

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.

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