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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.

Dear writers.

Dear graduates.

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.

Dear writers.

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.

Bhanu Kapil’s Goddard College MFAW Commencement Speech
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Bhanu Kapil is the author of five full length books: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006: forthcoming in a new edition: Kelsey Street Press, Fall 2016), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011), Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015). A roundtable on her work appeared at the Believer, "Reading Bhanu Kapil": http://logger.believermag.com/post/111278518799/reading-bhanu-kapil. Bhanu maintains a blog on the "daily life of a writer" at Was Jack Kerouac A Punjabi?: http://jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com/ And tweets at https://twitter.com/Thisbhanu. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College, and for Naropa University's Interdisciplinary Studies program in Boulder, Colorado.
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31 thoughts on “Bhanu Kapil’s Goddard College MFAW Commencement Speech

  • October 21, 2016 at 9:58 am
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    Thank you, Bhanu. I came across your work (and you!), as a low-residency student at Naropa a few years back… and what a lovely coincidence to stumble across your words here. The words are many things: a tribute, an inspiration, a telling of a history, a reminder. These words feel like a hug of encouragement. xo

    • October 21, 2016 at 11:24 am
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      What a beautiful message, Stacy. Yes, isn’t it wonderful — like a tapestry — when a thread from one part of life comes through the fabric of another? It’s a synchronicity — the “lovely coincidence,” as you write — that reminds us that we are interconnected — and your making a note here made that visible. Thank you! And yes, as my friend, the poet Mg Roberts says: “Big hugs.”

  • August 31, 2016 at 2:29 pm
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    My new favorite number is 76!

    Thank you, Bhanu, for this beautiful story. I think I graduated from Goddard before you came, but I’m glad that someone as wise and graceful as you is carrying on with the teaching and inspiring of writers!

    • September 2, 2016 at 2:05 pm
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      Thank you, Karen. Wisdom and grace are, some days, the last qualities I feel capable of accessing! But I, too, am very grateful for Goddardian space, and how stepping into it — then out of it — then back in — reconnecting to it over the last decade or more — has brought out the best in me, and others. It feels good to connect. Thank you for connecting!!!!

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    August 19, 2016 at 8:20 am
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    what a moving piece, thank you

    • August 19, 2016 at 10:20 am
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      Thank you, Josie. I am grateful for the magic of this blog, too, which made it possible for a story of the body. To reach you. And all the others who found it this week. My best wishes to you in your own writing, and reading, as in life.

  • August 17, 2016 at 3:17 pm
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    This is what I needed to read at this exact moment, and thank you. This summer I have been applying for teaching jobs in my district, as well as experiencing snafus that are so illogical that it makes me want to bang my head against a board like the monks do in the opening scenes of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

    Reading your dad’s journey gave me the hope that endurance and keep on keeping on is half the journey, and our attitude toward it is the other half. Thanks, again.

    • August 17, 2016 at 3:29 pm
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      Yes, I must remember this myself! I send you my deepest and best wishes for a successful exit from the Summer of Snafus!!! Keep going. And remember to be pristinley tender and loving towards yourself — as events unfold. Thank you for writing a note. Synchronicity and magic…I hope everything goes well…

      • August 17, 2016 at 4:00 pm
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        Synchronicity and magic…two of my favorite words and what I am blessed to experience on a daily basis. Thank you for your mindful reply.

  • August 17, 2016 at 11:25 am
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    I read this with such joy — the story of your father has illuminated so much of the truth of what it is to be human. Faced with failure, faced with rejection, and responding with spirit. When my first novel manuscript was accepted by a well known literary agent, I was flushed with pride, but when it was subsequently rejected by 15 or 20 publishers, I felt like, well, a failure. Yet there it was, the very same book. The one I had put body and soul and endless early mornings before work into. I published it myself, and have not had a single negative review. Having just finished my second novel, I know I will not stop until I reach at least 76 rejections! Thanks so much for writing this and sharing his story, and yours.

    • August 17, 2016 at 2:12 pm
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      I should say, perhaps, that every family has its number. Every lineage. Perhaps all writers belong to the same lineage or family in some sense, and so it is my honor to extend — the number 76 — to you. I sometimes think the number is 8, or the threshold between 8 and 9, from my days selling spaces around a map for my friend’s dad in New Mexico. He had a company called The Map. Michael Spain. I went to the counter of a diner with $2.50, having just returned to the U.S….and I said to myself, by the time I have finished this cup of coffee, I will have come with a plan to make money. I was gearing up to ask for a dishwasher job, when Mr. Spain walked in. He trained me to make cold calls, and I remember him saying that you have to get through those first 8 attempts….

      Another dad story. The point is, yes, don’t stop. And find a way, if you can, to take pleasure in what you are doing. In the ritual, you could say. I send you much light for your second novel!!! Thank you for writing!!!

  • August 17, 2016 at 7:22 am
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    Thank you for this.

    • August 17, 2016 at 2:13 pm
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      My pleasure!

  • August 16, 2016 at 2:57 pm
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    Failure. I never really understood its importance or band width. Possibly, like your father, I learned to bear it as a cloak; a means to twirl into invisibility and look deeper into the black blue abyss. There is honor in failure. I think your father followed a burning light few see.

    • August 16, 2016 at 8:38 pm
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      Honor and horror in failure, yes. And with the proviso that my father died only 2 years after he got the job. Or got sick. And with the proviso that it takes the marrow of a person, their brilliant core, all of it, to exceed: the abyss. This story of my father “ends well” but of course that is because I chose to end it there.

      And I feel suddenly, what about erasure? The erasure of a life that might come at Attempt 1.

      I hope the vitalism of my story retains something of the grief that this story is also written from. Upon. Loss.

      And most importantly thank you for reading and for your own beautiful words Kyle.

      • August 17, 2016 at 2:03 pm
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        We publish a magazine in Tamil, called ‘Solvanam’. It is an online, fortnightly, non-profit magazine. Free to readers.
        Will Ms. Bhanu Kapil permit us to translate this commencement speech and publish it in our magazine?
        Our magazine can be viewed here:www.solvanam.com

        I am a member of the editorial group.
        Ravishankar

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          August 17, 2016 at 2:44 pm
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          Yes, you have Bhanu’s permission, and thank you!

        • August 17, 2016 at 2:56 pm
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          Blimey — this is fantastic! Thank you! If you could link back to this blog, that would be super. Would you post the link here as a comment when it is up? That would be very amazing, Ravishankar!

  • August 16, 2016 at 12:37 pm
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    This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Thanks, Bhanu!

    • August 16, 2016 at 3:28 pm
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      Thank you, Nancy. For finding my words! Reading the story of my father again today, I do find that it makes me, also: miss my father. I wish he were still alive. I wish I could have a cup of tea with him today, or a glass of wine this evening, and let go — into the feeling of being inspired and held in life — in this rare way — by a male relative — by a parent — again. There it is. Perhaps I will pour a glass of wine at 6 p.m. and leave it on the counter, for him — while I myself, like a student, like a teacher, like the writer that all of us are — try to get on. With the stories that I hold in my body like a tenth or eleventh: wave.

  • August 15, 2016 at 5:05 pm
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    Loved hearing this in Port Townsend – bright and shining!

    • August 15, 2016 at 10:11 pm
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      Like the sun on the last day. Above the Sound.

  • August 15, 2016 at 4:33 pm
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    What a glorious piece to wake up to.
    I thank you for sharing.
    This story is an important one.
    This site or webpage or blog or whatever this goldmine of writing is called continuously revives revamps rekindles reawakens reminds me of the expansiveness of love.
    It is an important exchange place.
    A jumping off or jumping back in place.
    I thank you all for continuously reminding me of what we are all here for.

    • August 15, 2016 at 10:10 pm
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      Here to write, to write something that changes the molecules and cells…the reader’s heart and the bone above and over the heart also…

      • August 15, 2016 at 10:37 pm
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        Lovely. Yes. Exactly.

  • August 15, 2016 at 1:44 pm
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    Thank you, Bhanu Kapil, for sharing your father’s story of perseverance with us, for delivering it with language that compelled my attention and moved my feelings, and for being the embodiment of the power you write of. You have transformed my sense of failure into the gravel with which to lay my path forward. To 76!

    • August 15, 2016 at 2:26 pm
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      Gravel…the stones warm or cool, covered with ice, or steaming after a monsoon rain…

    • August 15, 2016 at 8:15 pm
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      I remember being in tbe back of the hay barn,and being a g2,a second year runt. I was so moved by the courage of your father’s determination. In that moment your graceful,gentle words changed the frecuency in that auditorium to a loud tune of posdibility!!!

      • August 15, 2016 at 10:08 pm
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        To tell the story for a second time made it more acute, like a drop of water and blood that drops on the ground. Goddard brings out the beauty and strangeness and real in all of us, perhaps!!!!

  • August 15, 2016 at 10:33 am
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    So glad to have this. Number 76 is in motion, but I forgot the failing part, the shining one.

    • August 15, 2016 at 2:27 pm
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      To shine, to refract, to become who we are: in time…

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