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Interview with Robert Bal

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Author of Protection

Book cover half split vertically, left half black, white half white. A Tree split in the centre reverses the colours
Cover of Robert Bal's Protection

When did you write the book, and what was the inspiration behind it?

Protection was an effort to express a healing journey, and some of the experiences and internalizations that necessitated it.

How would you summarise this book in 100 words or fewer?

Protection reckons with the experience of and reaction to attachment trauma and racial oppression in London, England.

How would you characterise the style of your book? For example, would you see it as lyrical, prose or experimental? (to name but a few!) Can you provide some commentary around why you feel it falls into these categories?

I feel as if it's not for me to attach such terms to the work. What I can say is that it attempts to integrate disparate realms of experience through the music of thought and feeling.

apologies to all despair    i was once a sun and had the wish to sing, but it’s alright  instead to write it down and never get it right. it is alright  to be unartful with the word i lost for which these words  will never be enough. it’s quite alright to move through feeling  lost and let the sound of what became become a thing again.  that was the sound before division, the vision of when i came  to be - the sound that i have always made, if unbeknownst to me. i’ve been unmade in every act, but now in love is my expression. i’m on the verge with nothing left behind.  				           there is no benefit  in this. these words do not create a thing, but neither do they mark  a passing. i speak these words for nothing, the way a bird will sing  its song - not by first diminishing the self to sing but by singing  as it steps out of the way. the dark recedes enough for light to line  the circle. in this light i take my place beside the marching band, with gratitude for the chance to share in something greater than myself,  the chance to sound my little note and be uncaged at last.   the tongue that i once swallowed never had a name. i have been called  so many. this is the sound of my true name, and we are being sung.  together we’re the heart inside the bird for whom extinction beckons.  what better time to let the world converse and with itself through us:  to let it hear itself and with no reason for the song. there’s nothing  in this but the will to be itself. this is a turn to face the self, a turn  in both directions at one time. i take this turn to let a small and simple  thing be heard: the way it feels to be, like good and held, like joy and awe and wonder at the way that time is flying. this is how it’s meant to go,  the door left swinging open and the cell left still and timeless as it goes.
'apologies to all despair' from Protection

During the writing of this book, did you learn anything new? either about yourself as an author or about the crafting of the work itself?

The book expresses my learnings of the last decade, a time in which I have come to understand the pain and rage I had previously only been reacting to - and a time in which I have been able to directly experience the feeling that, for me, belies all feelings: the feeling of love for myself, the feeling of the benevolent universe itself.

Can you list some of your main influences? Feel free to include writers, literary movements, but also any influences outside of the literary sphere that have had an impact?

Bhanu Kapil, for showing me that people can come from where we come from and nevertheless remain connected, and alive, and beautiful. And Fred Moten, for his music.

Please can you list some stylistic or technical elements contained within your work, and why you feel that these are important?

I am hard pressed to name any such elements, to be honest. I'm reminded of a quote from David Lynch, where he describes being asked to talk about his work, and responds (and I'm paraphrasing here): "-the work is the talking."

two nil to them    the system keeps its promise. there is a safety in the stitching  of every single bitter moment  in a foggy, shrouded arras,  in being both the endless torrent  and the dusty, wayward scribe,  in being the ramparts and the throne,  the archer and the arrow sticking  out the sun-dried leather body.   the choice of being either the getter  or the gotten is no choice at all. i made it just so i could have it made;  i worked to stuff and frame a living  thing and fix it to the wall. i flailed against the web  in which it was impressed on me  to hold myself. i took so long to fall.  but everything must fall: everything we lose in all the distance we create.
'two nil to them' from Protection

Can you give some commentary around the book’s central themes and why these are so important to you?

As a psychotherapist the issue of trauma - whether it be attachment trauma, racial trauma, or any other form - is central to my work. I explore and address all the myriad ways in which such experience creeps into the body - and contorts it.

For someone who enjoys your work, which other authors do you think would also be appealing to them?

It's a stretch given the gulf in quality between my work and hers, but I would recommend anyone - whether they enjoy my work or not - to read Bhanu Kapil.

Is there a personal story or inspiration relating to this book? If you feel comfortable, please feel free to share!

This book originally began life as a 250,000 word memoir. I squeezed that block of coal repeatedly for several years, until what is for me a diamond finally emerged.

harbinger dhoom    i turned as if through time, went back to agriculture,  turned my martialed forces back to tillage and to care,  to irrigate the soil and grow new forms, without shame  at the unexpected sight of my defeated soldier turning  back to work the land. i sweat beneath the same sun still.  i worked the soil that held the child inside. i bodied my precious  difference. i put the self at tireless service of that growing edge.  i laboured without yoke and for an end i could never bring about.  there is no way to choose to raise not one defence against this  always being carried. there is no greater threat to us than this:  the horror of our lines all having been pre-written,  the panic  of a human life with nothing left to do but love the self.  and now i’m learning to, the world appears to me brand new,  and what a world that it could be if all of us were able to.
'harbinger dhoom' from Protection

Is there a particular audience you had in mind when writing this book? How did this impact the writing process?

I wrote this book for my inner child. In this way the writing of it was inextricably linked to the healing journey I was on.

Is there a question you wish you'd have been asked as part of this interview? If so, feel free to ask and answer it here!

Question: "Who is Aaron Kent?" Answer: "A beautiful, beautiful man."

Robert Bal is a psychotherapist and poet living and working on the stolen ancestral lands of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations in so-called Canada.


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