Being an immigrant is a unique experience that has existed since international travel began and white people needed a term to successfully create an “other” out of people who were not born in or from a certain country. Bhanu Kapil’s poetry collection, How to Wash a Heart, highlights some of the effects of this othering by depicting the uncomfortable dynamics between an immigrant and her white, middle-class host. Due to this radical collection, the British-Indian poet has recently been awarded the most valuable prize in British poetry, the TS Eliot Prize.
How to Wash a Heart shows how the immigrant in the text addresses her liberal host which explores how “it’s exhausting to be a guest/ In somebody else’s house/ Forever”. The collection took victory over works by other poets including Jo Morgan and Natalie Diaz allowing Kapil to receive the £25,000 prize. Chair of judges, poet Lavinia Greenlaw, even said How to Wash a Heart was unanimously chosen by the panel which included herself, Mona Arshi, and Andrew McMillian, two other poets.
Greenlaw also had this to say in regards to the collection.
It’s formidable. It has extraordinary, uncomfortable dynamics within it, but it’s a really invigorating, and testing, read. We are aware all the time that these figures are emblematic, and that they’re speaking to universal tensions within what feels to some like an act of generosity, and feels to those receiving it far more complicated.
Kapil has said she was inspired for the collection by a photograph in a newspaper showing a couple in California who invited guests into their home” with a precarious visa status”. In an interview with her publisher, she says the hosts’ tautness of muscles around their mouths caught her attention as the soft tissue contraction of these muscles are ‘at odds’ to a smile itself. She also says she didn’t intend to write a book so quickly so she didn’t retain that photograph. However, she still began to imagine a story of being welcomed and welcoming in that is also ‘at odds’ to the situation itself. Kapil explains how the book is a way for her to write about the discrepancy between being in spaces that present themselves as inclusive and yet the experience of living in these spaces being “excruciating”.
Last year, Kapil was also one of the eight to receive the Windham Cambell prize which awards $165,000 to unsuspecting writers in order to encourage them to continue their work with no financial concerns, because they know like we do, writers are valuable in the world. The prize was well deserved by Kapil who was previously balancing writing, teaching, and caring for her elderly mother during the pandemic. How to Wash a Heart is her first full-length collection published in the UK and in my opinion, fulling deserving of the TS Eliot poetry prize. Seeing a woman of color winning in any aspect is inspiring and this win is allowing new voices to be heard.
Featured Image Via Twitter @PavilionPoetry