All I have for you is this: a brief story of failure that obviously, because this is a graduation ceremony, ends well. I think it ends well. It is a family story, an immigrant story, one that I’ve told often to my students here at Goddard, when they have felt daunted, anxious or overwhelmed at the prospect of a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th revision of a creative or critical draft, and so perhaps I will simply repeat it here again, with some notes, too, towards the body of the child whose story it is. The body as it is and the body as it becomes one in time.
My father was born on the side of the road in 1939 or 1937 or 1935 or 1940. He never had a birth certificate, though it’s generally believed that he was born in late spring, when the mustard fields were blooming a sharp yellow, as bright upon the land as the sun.
His mother was 13, and by 24, a widow with six sons, one daughter, and four other children, all dead from water-borne illnesses at birth or just past it. My father, the second oldest, supported his family in its entirety by the time he was 12, or 10. His body, in adulthood, was covered with silvery, protein-rich scars that glowed upon and dented his dark brown body. How did he get those scars? A scrawny shepherd, he’d wake before dawn to bring the goats, and later the water-buffalo, into the village to be milked. Barefoot, his feet resembled those of a goat: hard, rough and black, like hooves.
The story goes that one day, in a field, switching home the cows, my 11 or 12 or 13 year old father took a drag of his rolled up cigarette, made from raw local tobacco, and despite being Hindu, a member of a religion without angels, he heard a voice. The voice said: “You will go to England and teach English to the English.”
From here, the story progresses rapidly in typical post-colonial fashion. My father convinces his mother to let him go to school, he walks there barefoot four miles each way, etc. One day, he falls asleep at this desk and his teacher beats him to a bloody mess with a bamboo cane, etc. His sister dies one day, when she’s pushed off the roof by another brother, in play. She falls through the air, the kite’s slim rope or string still tied twice around her knuckles and thin wrist. The mother is incapacitated with grief. The father is dead, or dies soon after this, of an opium overdose. The family is homeless now and lives for a time in an impoverished shelter of mud and tin. I am not yet born, but I will be, twenty years from now.
But it is now. But then, I don’t know how he does, and I can’t ask him, because he’s not here, but eight years after hearing the voice in the field, my father scrapes a bare pass at the University of Punjab. Somehow he applies and is accepted to a Master’s in English at the same college. That, too, he graduates from with the lowest possible marks. It’s 1962.
My father scores a commonwealth visa and emigrates from India to England with a ten rupee note knotted and tied in a white handkerchief embroidered with a navy blue K. He gets off the ship at Portsmouth and hitch-hikes to Golder’s Green, in London, where he’s heard Jewish families will take people who are not white: in. That first night, he’s starving. His landlady, Mrs. Goldberg, says it’s Welsh Rabbit for tea. My father, when he used to tell this story, would pat his stomach and describe how, when the cheese on toast arrived, he ate it quickly, thinking it was some kind of snack before the main course, the rabbit itself, arrived. And how confused he was when Mrs. Goldberg smiled, said goodnight – “night, night, ducks” – and padded in her slippers up the stairs.
A post-war teacher shortage in the UK secures my father a position in a Welwyn Garden City primary school. When I was twenty or so, I found, in his records, a collection of teaching reports from that time. My stomach contracted with shame. To read: “Mr. Kapil’s English is not very good.” “Mr. Kapil is under probation until his English improves.” “I regret to say…”
But because regret and shame pass, and we forgive our parents everything in the moment that they pass, or before that, perhaps, I want to know, now, how my father endured these things. I want to know how a person might write themselves out of one life and into another. How did he do it? How did my father go from being an illiterate, nicotine addicted goatherd, and functionally illiterate immigrant, to being – to becoming – the first Indian headmaster in England?
And this is how:
When I was 17, I failed my A levels, a British version of a university entrance exam. Finding me on the stairs, crying, my father ground his teeth, which is how he expressed intense emotion, and said, “Come with me.” In the sitting room, he pulled the green sofa away from the wall to reveal his filing system: a pile of Sainsbury’s plastic shopping bags stuffed to the brim with bills, receipts and assorted scraps of paper. He took one of the bags and put in on my lap. “Open it.” Inside, were what seemed to be letters, typed, and smudgy with the violet ink of the duplicate copy. I read: “Dear Mr. Kapil, although you were a very strong candidate…” “Dear Mr. Kapil, I regret…”
But Mr. Kapil, as far as I can tell, did not regret a bloody thing. For 20 years, from before I was born and until I myself went to college, “Mr. Kapil” worked his way through the British school system, going to night school, and reading, absurdly, the books of Virginia Woolf, the most difficult English works he could get his hands on, to improve his grammar, his grasp of metaphor, what a sentence was for, and so on. I once found a prescription for a sedative, the price in shillings, a currency discontinued by the late 1960s, tucked into a copy of The Waves.
He worked this way up to become what was called then an “acting head,” placed in charge of failing schools. When the school would get back on its feet, he’d apply for the permanent position and never get it. I remember him coming home from interviews late at night, shrugging his duffle-coat onto the bannister then slumping in front of the gas fire, and yelling to my mother for something to eat. “Julthi, julthi.”? Quick. What’s the connection, I sometimes think, between diabetes, early poverty, and stress? That’s separate. One day, my father came home and wept, horrifying us all, as he had never wept before or since, though we didn’t know that yet. “ASHA,” he shouted. And my mother came into the room with a tray of Johnny Walker black, in a tumbler, and chicken curry, in a bowl. “ASHA,” he said, “The bastards…”
And he told her, or she told us, or I overheard. The inspector had told him that night, when my father had asked him straight why he didn’t get the job, why they’d given it to a younger white candidate with even less of an education than he: “Mr. Kapil, Mr. Kapil, I like you. I really do. You’re the most qualified candidate by far. But Mr. Kapil, you must surely understand – the board of governors will never let a black man run their school.”
This is your commencement speech and not an account of institutionalized British racism in the late 1980s, an anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia that is resurgent in this era of Brexit — postcards reading “go back home” posted through the letterboxes of the next wave of Eastern European – Polish — immigrants — and so I will end my story with the basic and inevitable fact: My father did not give up. In that Sainsbury’s bag, there were 75 rejections from jobs my father had applied for since 1979. That’s 3 or 4 rejections a year for every year he was on the market. My father said, “Count them.” It was on his 76th try, interviewing at an inner city school, the Board of Governors by then, in time, British time, a complicated multitude of races and ethnicities, that my father got the job.
That night, our house was filled with my father’s friends and their wives. A great roar of joy went through our community. The women stayed in the kitchen all night, making endless rounds of roti and curry on our small blue stove. The men drank Guiness from flimsy cans. In the morning, when I woke up and went downstairs, there was a man I’d never seen before, fast asleep on the sofa. He’d removed his pink turban and in the night, his long grey hair had loosened itself from its knot and streamed to his waist – matted, I saw, with oil.
And so, when I grew up, and failed, and felt that my heart would break over the first real obstacle to my progress in the world, my father said, “Chup.” He said: “Stop crying now. This is nothing.” In Punjabi, he said: “In this family, we do something 76 times before we give up.”
And indeed, when I came to the U.S. to become a poet, and when my first book was rejected by the first three publishers I sent it to – FC2, Coffee House, and Wesleyan University Press, as I recall – I was undaunted. And when my third book took nine years, over 20 revisions and 4 cycles of rejections before it came out, I never thought that this was wrong. It’s not that I thought that my writing was so great and that all I needed was to keep putting it out there until I’d reach the occult threshold of the 76th attempt, but rather, that I came to believe in duration. How a narrative becomes itself in time. How cycles of dormancy and expression are weirdly nutritive. How failure itself becomes a site of possibility: an aperture for chance; for the conditions of the work to arrive in a different time to the one in which it was begun. I learned to continue, to keep moving forward, to keep writing, whether the outcome of that writing was visible – perceptible – or not. I learned how to re-write my work with as much passion and joy and curiosity as I had given to the writing of it. I even invented a chant: Re-writing is writing. Writing is re-writing.
I would like to close today with a blessing upon your lives, and the writing to come; your own passage as writers in the world:
From the love that was given to me in my family, whether I knew it or not at the time.
From the desire to speak and write in a radical English, the English of a country that is not mine.
I give you the number 76. I encourage you not to give up until you’ve tried something 76 times, whether that’s applying for a job, revising a draft or sending it out. I encourage you to write with endurance and abandon.
And I hope that you fail.
I hope that you fail in such a way that you start to shine, as brightly as you did when you first began.
BK 2.21 p.m.
A glittering pink and blue water falling and rising beyond the window of House 352.
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- Bhanu Kapil’s Goddard College MFAW Commencement Speech - August 15, 2016
- “As I write these words”: An Experiment in Recursion* - April 18, 2016