Never Trust the Romans: An Intertextual Conversation with Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene

I began to decipher the fragments of Schizophrene from a state of disjointed volatility, having just been informed, by external forces, if there is such a thing—lab coats, stethoscopes that see inside the mind, surveys involving rankings between 1 and 10, a sphinx disguised as a mental health professional asking: has there ever been a time when you were not your usual self? a question designed to cause existential grief. i wonder: has there ever been a time when i’ve been my usual self?of the dualities within my own mind. Schizophrene appeared on my doorstep. By which I mean there was a key left in mailbox 711, located in the centre of the bank of slim metal mailboxes in the lobby of my apartment building, and when I opened the larger mailbox on the other side of the lobby, which the key did in fact unlock, there was this notebook of Schizophrene, festooned with bright colors and a red streak down the middle, like the beginning of a hemorrhage, like blood which once spilled cannot be returned. And because I was already set upon a course of looking for answers since the day that I was born, I began to thoroughly search the text for a parallel narrative, a universe in which a two-or-three-headed creature would not demand partition. I began to inhabit the wholeness of the fragment, if such a thing can be true.

by Luke Van Zyl

by Luke Van Zyl

Disclaimer: Please note. The reading of this text may lead to a fragmentation of the self. Danger. Please note. The self may consist of irretrievable fragments. Please note: On a scale from 1 to 10, the degree of current fragmentation. Warning: Dangerous undertow. Swimmers have drowned here. Stay away. Please note. You may pick up your diagnosis at the end. Please note. Diagnoses remain inconclusive.

Kapil begins with:

Passive Notes:

I thought that if I transcribed the italicized words they would spell out some hidden message, like playing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” backwards to hear the satanic verses.

For some years, I tried to write an epic on Partition and its trans-generational effects: the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on. Towards the end of this project, I felt the great strength of the page: its ability, as a fibrous surface, to deflect the point of my pen. The paper, and then the screen, as weirdly reflective, repelling the ink or the touch. On the night I knew my book had failed, I threw it – in the form of a notebook, a hand-written final draft – into the garden of my house in Colorado. Christmas Eve, 2007. It snowed that winter and into the spring; before the weather turned truly warm, I retrieved my notes, and began to write again, from the fragments, the phrases and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages.

Years to write epic trans-generational schizophrenia communities the domestic violence disorders project felt the page surface deflect point pen the screen reflective touch night had failed notebook draft house 2007 winter spring warm notes fragments, the phrases and lines decayed pages.

I thought that if I transcribed the italicized words they would spell out some hidden message, like playing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” backwards to hear the satanic verses. But all I get is a jumble, no coherent message.

Incoherence—is that a symptom identified by “British psychiatrists Kamaldeep and his mentor, Dinesh Bhugra?” Is that what they discovered at the Institute of Community Health Sciences in London? But Kapil does not get any further than his door, so she will never know, and neither will we, and the incoherence continues. And yet each word is intelligible and intentional: quite the opposite of a stammer.

The italicized clues continue: the second instance of immigrant on page 2, but none of the other 4 occurrences on the same page; expected on page 6; a deluge on page 7 A veil. A Harness. A Rope… crown… interviewee… memory or two? Schizophrenic narrative; and on page 11, We kept him in the cellar for a year.

I read the book over and over again trying to find the pattern. 2007. Why 2007? Why individual words and then a whole sentence? Is this the schizophrenic narrative? What is a schizophrene? Some body fragmented? Kapil, or the narrator, or the schizophrene writes: “Fragments attract each other, a swarm of iron filings black with golden flecks but without a soul.” Perhaps the italics are nothing more than a distraction. Or maybe I should trust my instincts.

The Romans are out to get you, she thinks.

I collect the italics like a child gathering stones. They are useless and only grow heavier in her pockets until finally the weight of them tears the seams and they all fall to the ground:



You’re disgusting

head injury




green world

Is it just me or are they starting to make sense? Are these individual italicized words beginning to cohere? Or is it just that I’m filling in the blanks with my own pre-supposed meaning? There’s a name for that… connecting words together in a cohesive sensible way. Reverse migration is psychotic.


pink bits


That’s definitely a message; an erotic haiku hiding within a fragment devoid of animation, the first paragraph on the first page of the section entitled, abiogenesis: which means life from inanimate matter. The seeker is rewarded.

blanked-out jungle space

in the sun



Die Hard 3



Denuded the garden

You put me down





The Piano Teacher

a root distinguished from its branching plant




What is it?

I don’t exist.

I’m waiting for you beneath this tree. Why don’t you come?

I’m wondering if these were the fragments Kapil, discovered when she retrieved her book, the handwritten notebook, from the garden. Are these the fragments she was left with? Is that too easy? Must anything satisfying require struggle?


Au Revoir Les Enfants



You fucking Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding animal.


And maybe all this collecting of stones is really just an attempt to feel the weight of someone else’s burden. If I feel like I feel someone else’s pain, will the doctor prescribe me narcotics? If I swallow the pills will the other’s pain cease? Does pain belong to any one body? Does it belong to a body at all? What if it all feels real? Is it psychotic to keep filling my pockets once the seams seem to have ripped? I’ll just put each rock in my mouth, and when my cheeks won’t stretch any thinner, I’ll swallow them down hard:

en route











That’s really the end. It’s all there. Mid-air: the state of in between-ness, of not belonging anywhere. Ghat: the steps to the river bank, float down to the Ganges or the River Styx, take your pick of mystical, real or imagined waterways, the way to the source, which leads to the stream, and following a river to a stream is like choosing door number three behind which is a toaster oven instead of an all-expenses-paid-trip to the Dominican Republic. Reversed: rewind the tape. “‘Reverse migration…’ Is psychotic.” urn: who has died? Who hasn’t? She carries their ashes even though she is not their daughter. Flowed: the only reality, the ebb and flow of time and space.

Swimmers have drowned here.

Maybe the italics meant nothing after all.


Cara Lang lives and writes in close proximity to the sea on the West Coast of British Columbia. Her work seeks to understand polarity: always and never. A graduate of the MFA program at Goddard College, she currently works in publishing at Anvil Press. Call her anything but her real name.