Mothers of Invention

Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth, 1975, oil on canvas, 42 × 30

Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth, 1975, oil on canvas, 42 × 30″.
© Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy David Zwirner, New York

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum JUNE/JULY/AUG 2015

AS AN INSTITUTION, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

But a swarm of recent books have been freshly interrogating the family as experience, institution, and site for intellectual inquiry: novels like Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and 10:04 by Ben Lerner; memoirs like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, and Making Babies by Anne Enright; essay collections like 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl; and cultural studies like On Immunity by Eula Biss. In each, the arrival (or the imminent arrival) of a child prompts a constellation of questions about selfhood and artmaking and the ethics of care. Many of these books adopt a copious, fragmentary form and gesture, some a bit shyly, toward radical possibilities for the domestic. On canvases big and small, they test out new answers to ancient questions: How best can we live this life and how best can we write about it, to what ends and with what compromises?

We can detect familiar DNA throughout, echoes of defining memoirs like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976) and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (2001), both controversial in their time for addressing the tedium and isolation of caring for small children. And if there’s a presiding spirit, it’s gentle, generous D. W. Winnicott, the child psychotherapist who reified the power of “the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care.” (Winnicott’s ghost also hovers over Alison Bechdel’s memoir Are You My Mother?) The books couldn’t be more diverse in tone, though: Ben Lerner’s metafiction is sweeping; Jenny Offill’s is stiletto-sharp. Sarah Manguso’s memoir is elliptical, and Sarah Ruhl’s and Anne Enright’s share the cozy chaos of Shirley Jackson’s recently reissued Life Among the Savages (1953). Eula Biss approaches the tinderbox of the anti-vaccination movement with every possible safety precaution in place—the carefully neutral tone, the extensive research. And Maggie Nelson’s book is a lava pool of shifting selves—she becomes pregnant while her fluidly gendered partner, the artist Harry Dodge, takes testosterone and has top surgery.

These books are committed to a kind of candor that surpasses confessionalism; there is an ethos of radical transparency at work, an interest in revealing just how the book we’re reading was produced, to out the kinds of labor that usually remain invisible. Rachel Cusk set the tone in A Life’s Work: “The issue of children and who looks after them has become, in my view, profoundly political, and so it would be a contradiction to write a book about motherhood without explaining to some degree how I found the time to write it.” She details the arrangements she made, how she cared for her daughter for the first six months while her husband worked, after which they moved from London to the country, him quitting his job, her writing full-time, a domestic experiment with very mixed results. Anne Enright follows suit in Making Babies: “I have flexible working hours, no commuting, I have a partner who took six weeks off for the birth of his first baby and three months for the second (unpaid, unpaid, unpaid). He also does the breakfasts. And the baths.” And Ben Lerner merrily shows his whole hand. His novel 10:04, which hews close to life, and also hinges on the birth of a child, contains descriptions of everything from how the book was conceived, pitched, and sold to how the author cannibalized his other writings to create it. There is no fantasy of a book’s immaculate conception here, just the good, grubby details.

If child care is, as Cusk writes, “profoundly political,” so too is the labor of writing, so too are the questions of who writes and what about—and how can they afford to. In Dept. of Speculation, our narrator, a thwarted writer and new mother, recalls her early ambitions: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” These books reveal the rigging behind the art monster: Who licked the stamps on the applications for grants? Who minded the children? Who paid the bills, and how?

“The form our creativity takes is often a class issue,” wrote Audre Lorde. She was praising poetry, the most “economical” art form, the “most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” Toni Cade Bambara was fond of the short story for the same reason—its “portability”: “I could narrate the basic outline while driving to the farmer’s market, work out the dialogue while waiting for the airlines to answer the phone, draft a rough sketch of the central scene while overseeing my daughter’s carrot cake, write the first version in the middle of the night, edit while the laundry takes a spin, and make copies while running off some rally flyers.” (One can’t help but think of Karl Ove Knausgaard; would his avalanche of prose—those six volumes of minutely detailed domestic life—have been possible without Scandinavian social services, the day cares to which he and his poet wife were able to entrust their four children?)

Offill, Ruhl, Manguso, and Enright take to the fragment and to short bursts of prose for reasons aesthetic and epistemological, certainly, but also, one feels, out of some deeper exigencies—“I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write,” Nelson writes. Enright says she wrote Making Babies in a frenzy while her babies slept and later assembled the book from her notes. The narrator of Offill’s Dept. of Speculation composes on grocery lists in the car, and scribbles on the backs of credit-card receipts. (Offill herself wrote her book on index cards.)

These aren’t the fragments—or the kinds of emotional fragmentation—made famous in the ’70s by Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Renata Adler, whose nervy, slender sentences evoked the chic ennui of women coming elegantly apart. This is a different kind of drift, a more painful unmooring. These shards are jagged—but they’re less a performance of alienation than a passionate effort at reconciliation. Continue reading

On ‘The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century’

Credit Brittany Hutson/

Credit Brittany Hutson/

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, May 14, 2015

“Thrive, cities,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” one of his great love songs to urban life. “Expand” but “Keep your places.”

This tension is at the heart of DW Gibson’s “The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century,” a noisy, tender tour of New York much in the mode of Studs Terkel, and a companion volume of sorts to Mr. Gibson’s “Not Working” (2012), which featured interviews with people who had recently lost their jobs. The new book is a slurry of voices. Mr. Gibson talks to the gentrifiers and the gentrified, state senators and the homeless men of the Bowery Mission, developers and community organizers, celebrated artists and the brokers who hype real estate as the art form of the moment.

“The momentum that was in the music business in the ’90s, where it was just so the place to be — that’s what’s going on in Brooklyn in the real estate market right now,” a wonderfully profane real estate agent says. “There is an energy that I can swim around in all the time.” He adds: “You either get down with it, or you gotta get out.”

“The Edge Becomes the Center” is set in a city of awe-inspiring inequities, with an affordable housing shortage that is approaching full-blown crisis. The book is primarily focused on gentrifying Brooklyn, especially Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, largely black neighborhoods that have seen seismic changes in recent years. In 2011, the white population in Bedford-Stuyvesant grew by 633 percent — and rents have soared.

Mr. Gibson’s sympathies are plain. He refers to gentrification as “violence” and quotes the Marxist geographer Neil Smith frequently and approvingly. But he’s also keen on unseating certainties and is wary of arguments that pit an “us” against a “them.” His book strives to show how, in New York, the categories of landlord and renter, gentrifier and gentrified aren’t as discrete as one might suspect. And he’s not especially hot on the word “gentrification” to begin with. It’s a skimpy sort of word, he says, a simplistic term for complex, idiosyncratic behavior.

“Each of us defines gentrification in accordance with our own relationship to a piece of land, a neighborhood,” Mr. Gibson writes. “We have hopes for what the land may bring us — profits, security, community — and we have fears about what it can do, what it might become.”

It’s surprising, then, that the book should feature more confluence than clash. An architect who cheerfully describes herself as a gentrifier says, “How do you put the betterment of our city into the hands of the community. What are those structures that we could make happen?” That question is repeated by land rights lawyers and state senators.

Most of the people Mr. Gibson talks to also agree that development is welcome — it is displacement that is feared. “We want the coffee shops. We want the safety,” one woman says, recalling the urban activist Jane Jacobs’s maxim: “Fix the buildings. Keep the people.”

“The Edge Becomes the Center” touches on the expansion of Columbia University, the construction of the High Line and the way landlords in Crown Heights conspire to eject long-term tenants so they can hike up rents, among other examples. In the book’s most chilling chapter, a Hasidic landlord matter-of-factly describes cheating black tenants out of their apartments. “Every black person has a price,” he says. “The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000 dollars.”

Throughout, Mr. Gibson is a skilled and sensitive interlocutor with an eye for the revealing gesture — for how one fastidious subject guards his goatee while eating or how another “always — always — yields to the car trying to take the lane in front of him.”

But he can get carried away. There are some dismal “literary” flourishes and, more frustratingly, a real lack of internal logic. The first few chapters move sinuously — one character introduces us to another and so on. The structure, however, soon grows scattershot. Characters crop up randomly; we’re occasionally given diligent descriptions of age, sex and race, but often the subjects remain ciphers — or worse, are identified only as nebulously “dark-complected.”

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On ‘Flawless’ as Feminist Declaration

Illustration by Javier Jaén

Illustration by Javier Jaén

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 2015

The word “flaw” is some 700 years old. It was born from fire and ice, first used to mean “ember” and “snowflake” — some fragment of a whole gone astray. It evolved to signify “defect,” initially in surfaces and soon after in character. But recently, it has become associated most closely with appearance, thanks to the popularity of its opposite, “flawless.” On social media, “flawless” has a celebratory sheen: Women apply it tenderly, reverently to one another — and triumphantly to themselves.

The word was ushered into its new usage by Beyoncé’s 2013 song “***Flawless,” whose declaration of proud, almost swaggering femininity was taken up by women on the Internet. A much-shared photograph of a woman in a hijab with dramatic, winged eyeliner is captioned “flawless”; so is one of Rihanna on a New York street, wearing a tight white skirt and holding a bright blue umbrella. A teenage girl shows off her “flawless” braids. A young woman embraces a pregnant friend in a hospital room: “Fixing to have a baby & still flawless.” Plus-size fashion bloggers upload a video of themselves dancing to “***Flawless.” And there’s Rihanna, again, in a pale pink pantsuit and matching fur stole.

It’s perhaps our first untroubled word for human beauty, free of the whiff of sexism that clings to many others. It doesn’t denote marriageability (like “nubile”) or beauty born of fragility (“comely”). Unlike its close relations “fair,” “perfect” and “immaculate,” it carries no overt religious connotations. And unlike “beautiful” itself, with its associations of perishability and status, “flawless” feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution. Over the years, this publication has reserved it for Babe Ruth’s swing, Sarah Bernhardt’s turn in “Cléopâtre” and a few especially strong competitors at the Westminster Dog Show.

Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect. True, “flawless” has its own conventions and idiosyncrasies: It usually refers to a certain kind of regal woman — think Beyoncé, Rihanna, Michelle Obama — with a sculpted look that feels achieved (also, possibly, complicated and expensive to maintain). But its abiding spirit is generous and even vaguely campy; it honors the artifice in all beauty and is skeptical of anything wanly “natural” or “authentic” that conceals the trouble it took. Its ethos could be Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

The idea of beauty as performance — and as successful gender performance — is not what’s new. “Women are all female impersonators to some degree,” Susan Brownmiller wrote in the ’80s; “flawless” has been part of drag argot for years. (It even provided the title of an appalling 1999 comedy in which Philip Seymour Hoffman starred as a drag queen giving singing lessons to Robert De Niro’s brooding bigot cop.) Joe E. Jeffreys, a historian of drag culture who teaches at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, told me he can trace the word back to at least the 1960s. “It’s an underground word,” he said. “People sometimes say that they ‘spooked your beard,’ meaning they can see through your makeup foundation to your facial hair and see that you’re a guy. To be ‘flawless’ is to be the opposite of that. There’s nothing to see through, it’s so perfect.”

This usage, he says, can probably be linked to one individual: Flawless Sabrina, a legendary godmother of American drag. William S. Burroughs was her lover; Andy Warhol, a supporter. Diane Arbus photographed her in Central Park looking gaunt and glorious, with her narrow body and bright bulb of hair. In the years when cross-dressing could get you arrested (and long before “Paris Is Burning”), she established a national circuit of beauty pageants for drag queens, traveling across America in the ’50s and ’60s. Jeffreys suspects that the term “flawless” followed her. Flawless Sabrina, now in her 70s, cautiously agrees. It was “tongue in cheek,” she says of her name. She was attracted “to the irony of it,” she adds. “This idea of a paragon of perfection. God knows I was anything but perfect.”

In its current life online, however, the word has shed some of this irony; it is now deployed with earnest self-satisfaction. Continue reading

‘Huck Finn’s America’ by Andrew Levy

Huckleberry Finn / SmokingBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2015

The famous preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reads like a goad: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

No book is as regularly ransacked. Bowdlerized, when not outright banned, from the moment of its publication in 1884, it has been read like a rune and interrogated for its embodiment of American anxieties about race and freedom and language, the call of the open road (or river). “The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Toni Morrison wrote, “is that it is the argument it raises.”

In “Huck Finn’s America,” a capacious, companionable study of the novel, some 20 years in the making, Andrew Levy allows that, “One doesn’t say anything new about Huck Finn — a fact that, in itself, is not even a new thing to observe.” But in sifting through the scholarship, he discovers contemporary readers might have been misconstruing the book. We understand “Huck Finn” as a story for children and also a serious book about race. But in Mark Twain’s time, it was the other way around: The novel was regarded as lighthearted minstrelsy that contained a pointed and controversial critique of how childhood was being debated.

“The current fight over ‘Huck Finn’ is most recognizably a fight over the ‘n-word,’ ” — which appears more than 200 times in the book — “and whether or not the book ought to appear in secondary school classrooms,” Mr. Levy, an English professor at Butler University, writes. But in the 1880s, another noisy public discussion reigned.

Children were being conceived of as a social class for the first time. Public playgrounds and pediatricians had started appearing. The number of public schools increased, and compulsory attendance came to be enforced. There were battles over corporal punishment and whether dime novels (the video games of their day) were a dangerous influence. With “Huck Finn,” Twain “was contributing something more than a lighthearted ‘boy’s book,’ ” Mr. Levy writes. “He was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular culture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at risk children and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor.”

Debates about race simmered at the time, too — Reconstruction began collapsing in those years — but Mr. Levy says Twain was less central to that conversation. “He was somewhere nearby, ingenious, outraged, self-interested, vastly more interested in how many Americans play with race than in how they rise above it, or render its terms obsolete at the ballot box.”

Twain began composing “Huck Finn” in the summer of 1876, Mr. Levy writes, in a “little octagonal study filled with cats” in Elmira, N.Y. Life seeped into the writing; Twain’s small daughter Susy, a terrific liar and a terrible speller, acted as partial model for Huck, and the book’s central plot derived from a real incident. A friend of Twain’s once found a fugitive slave hiding out on an abandoned island and tried, and failed, to help him. The slave was caught, mutilated and murdered.

Mr. Levy shows that much of the violence in the book, abhorred by critics at the time, was ripped from life. Twain’s childhood was filled with gothic horrors — he watched his father’s autopsy through a keyhole — and the newspapers of the day served up a steady fare of thrilling savagery. “I have to have my regular suicide before breakfast, like a cocktail, and my side-dish of murder in the first degree for a relish and my savory assassination to top off while I pick my teeth and smoke,” Twain wrote.

The papers at the time were especially excited by a new menace: feral boys, “made morbid by the habit of reading,” an editorial cautioned. “Victims as well as the patrons of the literature of crime.” Continue reading

‘The Sexual Night’ by Pascal Quignard


Illustration from “The Poem of the Pillow,” by Utamaro.

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 2014

“The Sexual Night” is a damp little relic, the sort of psycho­sexual mumbo jumbo one thought — one hoped — wouldn’t survive Norman Mailer. Alas, the French writer Pascal Quignard, best known for his 1991 novel “Tous les Matins du Monde,” has resurrected the genre in these Freudian disquisitions on classic depictions of sexual imagery.

He summons all the usual suspects: Leonardo’s anatomical sketches; Kali standing astride the body of Shiva; Caravaggio’s “Medusa”; Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde”; the 19th-century Japanese woodcut “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” which features a woman blissfully entangled with a pair of octopuses.

It’s a glorious gallery of what the Romans called lucubrationes, activities that take place by lamplight — sex, certainly, but also the other great adventures of the nighttime: doubt, prayer, melancholy, crime. Quignard says humans have always had a need for an “enclosure within which images succeed one another on the inner walls” — caves, cathedrals, museums, movie theaters — and this book becomes such a space.

Many of the paintings are half-eaten by shadows; the figures seem spied on through keyholes. Quignard’s particular obsession is with what Freud called the primal scene — a child’s first witnessing of sex, usually between his parents — although Quignard understands it more broadly, and less about sex than epistemology. The primal scene forces the child to confront the mystery of his origins, and of consciousness itself. “I’m trying to take one step closer to the source of the terror human beings feel when they muse on what they were before their body cast a shadow in this world,” he writes.

The trouble with “The Sexual Night” is that we cannot linger on the images forever; we must, at some point, reckon with the prose, where we encounter such silliness it’s almost impossible to stay the course.

There is some unpardonably bad sex writing, most of it unprintable here (and, in a just world, anywhere). We must contend with “uterine” as a favorite adjective. We must contend with a tender, anxious regard for virility and the concomitant dread of the “female sex organ,” variously depicted as cave or coffin. We must suffer nonsense like: “Woman steals sperm as Prometheus stole fire. Stealing what belongs to the gods.” Or, worse, Quignard’s odd ideas about evolution: “There is only one human posture — standing upright on account of the erection.”

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‘The Wallcreeper’ by Nell Zink

71cXxcL4PHLBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Dec. 2, 2014

You don’t read Nell Zink so much as step into the ring with her. Every sentence is a jab or feint, rigged for surprise. Every word feels like a verb. The plot leaps will give you vertigo.

Her debut novel, “The Wallcreeper,” is a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance — rude sex comedy meets environmental tract. Tiffany, our narrator, a creature of almost profound indolence, marries Stephen, her senior colleague at a pharmaceutical company, within three weeks of meeting him. Imagining marriage as a kind of early retirement plan, Tiffany hopes only for a protracted break from work that would allow her to pursue a nebulous course in self-actualization — as well as discreet sexual adventures. She follows Stephen as he is transferred from Philadelphia to Bern to Berlin; they start to get to know each other but quickly think better of it. Soon they’re into birds, Berlin’s radical activist scene and sleeping with other people. Stephen dabbles in drugs, Tiffany in eco-terrorism. They are magnificently ill suited, and they cannot be parted.

“The Wallcreeper” has the lineaments of a familiar story — young Americans go abroad and come apart — but it also has Tiffany, who sounds like no one else in American fiction. She has a voice that announces itself immediately, in the book’s indelible first line: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.”

The rest of the opening scene unfurls like something out of “Fawlty Towers.” Bleeding profusely from the head, Tiffany collapses on the ground (“not in the vomit but near it”) while Stephen ministers to the bird he hit, a wallcreeper. (The species is a bird with a secret: When it opens its wings, it looks like a butterfly.) It’s “a lifer,” Stephen says, a major sighting that will go on his lifetime bird-watching list. He swaddles the bird in a bread bag while his wife rests her head on the loaf of bread and retches to stay awake.

It’s an antic episode, a fine introduction to the universe of this book, its off-kilter charm. And it allows Ms. Zink to toy with us a bit, which she likes to do. Having taught us to expect flippancy, she now slays us with the full measure of Tiffany’s grief: “I wasn’t pregnant, I noticed. I clenched my hands into claws and cried like a drift log in heavy surf. Stephen put his hands on my ears. Much later he told me he thought if I couldn’t hear myself I might stop. He said it reminded him of feedback mounting in an amplifier.”

She is especially crafty when it comes to sex. “My down there plays a minor role in several scenes to come,” Tiffany tells us, and these scenes are coarse, warm, unprintable. “He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate,” Tiffany says about Stephen after a particularly clumsy encounter. “Can I get more orifices?” She goes on: “Not that three isn’t enough, but that the three on offer aren’t enough to sustain a marriage.”

Ms. Zink brings the same frankness and astringency to writing about nature. There are moments of unapologetic advocacy in the book — about the ecological costs of dams, say — but the best moments are the quietest: how geese passing overhead made “so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.” Or how crows, patrolling a field, “spread out in teams like policemen looking for a corpse in the woods, turning their heads from side to side, staring at the grass with one monocled eye and then the other.”

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‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine


By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2015

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium, a slender, musical book that arrives with the force of a thunderclap. It’s a sequel of sorts to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), sharing its subtitle (An American Lyric) and ambidextrous approach: Both books combine poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, words and images. But where Lonely was jangly and capacious, an effort to pin down the mood of a particular moment—the paranoia of post-9/11 America and the racial targeting of black and brown men in those years—Citizen’s project is more oblique, more mysterious.

For the book is, first of all, a surprisingly seductive object. Its pages are slick and pearly, and the full-color images—paintings, TV screenshots, photographs—give it the feel of a gallery catalogue, which, in a way, it is. Citizen guides us from spectacle to spectacle, from a consideration of Serena Williams’s career and the racist taunting she has endured to a beautifully reproduced photograph of Kate Clark’s Little Girl, a sculpture of a hoofed woman; from an elegy for Trayvon Martin to Carrie Mae Weems’s Blue Black Boy, in which three identical blue-hued prints of a boy are presented side by side, one labeled BLUE, one BLACK, one BOY. And in the book’s most powerful passages, Rankine reports from the site of her own body, detailing the racist comments she’s been subjected to, the “jokes,” the judgments. It’s what we commonly call microaggressions, what Rankine calls “invisible racism” for how swift and sneaky it is, how ever-present. It is the word uppity. It is the word strident; it’s “No, where are you really from?” It’s stop-and-frisk. It’s what Hilton Als calls “phantasmagorical genocide,” what Kara Walker calls the “perpetual reminder that in this culture a Black body is not safe and my humanity is not real.” It is death by a thousand cuts.

Increasing attention has been paid to microaggressions in recent years. There have been books like Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? (2011); social-media campaigns like “I, Too, Am Harvard,” in which students discuss comments that have made them feel marginalized on campus; even BuzzFeed lists (“21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis”). And there’s “Killing Rage,” a classic of the genre: bell hooks’s 1995 essay about the array of racism she encountered on a trip to New York, a scalding piece of writing that begins with the indelible “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” Rankine works in a cooler register. She renders her encounters in language rinsed of color, cant, and emotion. Her descriptions could be courtroom testimony: “The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you.” “You have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” “The woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer.”

It’s the framing that gives the vignettes their teeth: By telling us these stories, some of which she borrowed from family and friends, in the second person, Rankine builds her book on shifting sands—the reader is never immediately sure who in the story is black or white, whom to identify with, whom to trust or fear.

That indeterminacy, that unsettling openness in the text, recalls the paranoia racism evokes (“Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?”), and it’s an unusual feature of writing about race. From Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 memoir to James Baldwin’s essays to Teju Cole’s rereading of Baldwin’s essays, the dominant mode has been pedagogic, messianic: the writer trying to persuade white America of her humanity, trying to save its soul.

But Rankine keeps a different faith. In her work can be felt the opposing strains of wanting, and wanting badly, for her writing to serve some practical purpose (“I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness,” she writes in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely) as well as something more anarchic. When she quotes the filmmaker Claire Denis—“I don’t want to be a nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an observer”—it isn’t critically. Rankine is profoundly interested in witnessing how power and pain move through the body and the body politic—but without prescription. She doesn’t declaim. She rarely consoles. Instead she creates a space for readers to engage with their own preconceptions, fears, and hostilities. It’s the visual artists she seems most in conversation with, those who approach race at a slant—Weems as well as Kehinde Wiley and Yasumasa Morimura—with their reliance on repetition and juxtaposition, their ability to bring the viewer into the work. The plainness of Rankine’s prose, the deliberate flatness of her second-person set pieces, recalls Kara Walker’s silhouettes, those panoramic nightmares of plantation life mounted on bare white walls, on which the viewer’s shadow also falls. So do we enter Citizen. We are invited, we are implicated.

Click to enlarge

Carrie Mae Weems, Blue Black Boy, 1987, toned gelatin silver prints with text on mat, 17 × 49″.

We are also disoriented. Rankine scatters elliptical, enigmatic images and poems throughout. Take Clark’s sculpture Little Girl, a beguiling creature with the body of a deer and the face of a wary woman. Along her face, something glints, like tears or jewelry. They are tiny nails drilled into the skin. She appears to be the victim of some enchantment, one of those women from myth punished for spurning the gods. She huddles low on the page, puzzled and puzzling—until we read on and the riddle seems to reveal itself.

Racist language is, after all, itself a kind of enchantment, a kind of spell. And Rankine stages her encounters so we can see, almost in slow motion, how it enters and lodges itself in the body, and what havoc it causes. There is first the shock (“Did I hear what I think I heard?”), the somatic response (“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs”). The taste it leaves behind (“a bad egg in your mouth”), that feeling of being marked, befouled (“puke runs down your blouse”). And confusion, even self-blame: “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed, he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.”

Rankine reminds us that racism is an intimate violence—its perpetrators are not just institutions or strangers who deny our humanity but friends, colleagues. It is language that renders one “hypervisible,” she writes, quoting the philosopher Judith Butler. The body is made a public place, subject to scorn, suspicion, regulation. Continue reading