The Charm of ‘The Idiot’: On Elif Batuman

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 2017

A strange thing about novels is how often, and strenuously, they proclaim the dangers of novel-reading. Consider the fates of our most famous bibliomaniacs. Don Quixote succumbs to delusions, debt and sundry humiliations. Emma Bovary to debt, seedy affairs and protracted death by arsenic. Catherine Morland, delusions. Mary Bennet, insufferable pedantry. Jo March — unforgivably — marriage to an insufferable pedant and surrender of all creative ambitions.

The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” They are about “the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.”

In “The Possessed,” Batuman detailed how her obsession with Russian novels carried her afield — to graduate school, to Samarkand and St. Petersburg, to mastering old Uzbek, with its 70 words for duck and 100 words for crying. A staff writer for The New Yorker, she continues to report from this territory, where political or romantic ideals battle it out with shabby realities, and her investigations are frequently sparked by fiction. Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” inspired an essay on head scarves; “Gone Girl,” a bleak and very funny piece on marriage.

“The Idiot” is Batuman’s new novel, and it follows a number of her entertaining broadsides on contemporary fiction. M.F.A. programs have propagated a puritan preoccupation with “craft,” she wrote in the London Review of Books in 2010, with whittling tidy, teachable, forgettable books while leaving the work of the novel — “the juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature” — to memoirs and essays. “For human interest, skillful storytelling, humor and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of ‘This American Life’ to be 99 percent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction.” “The Idiot,” a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book, is in many ways the embodiment of this essay. It lopes along like a highbrow episode of “Louie,” a series of silly, surreal, confident riffs about humiliations, minor and major. It is a rejoinder to the pressure on literature to serve as self-help, to make us empathetic or better informed, to be useful. Here, fiction’s only mandate is to exploit the particular freedom afforded by the form — to coast on the charm and peculiar sensibility of our narrator, Selin, “an American teenager, the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.”

Selin — the language-intoxicated, 6-foot-tall Russophile daughter of Turkish immigrants — arrives at Harvard in the mid-90s, almost appallingly innocent. In the year we spend with her, she flirts with one classmate, in her stilted fashion; smokes a few cigarettes; travels to Hungary to teach English; dances perplexedly at a club — “It went on and on, the dancing. I kept wondering why we had to do it, and for how much longer.” Mainly, she reads — but how she reads. Batuman is wonderful on the joy of glutting oneself on books. In “The Possessed” she describes devouring “Anna Karenina” sprawled on her grandmother’s “super-bourgeois rose-colored velvet sofa, consuming massive quantities of grapes” and tearing through Babel while baking an ill-fated Black Forest cake; her memories of the Red Cavalry sequence forever mingled with “the smell of rain and baking chocolate.” A dictionary is a fetish object in “The Idiot,” and Batuman conveys Selin’s all-night reading benders with druggy fervor. Her instincts are, in general, excellent — she is Selin, more or less — save the odd, unhappy decision to repurpose details, characters, conversations and even whole scenes from her previous book: judging a beauty contest of boys’ legs at a Hungarian summer camp, being given chase by a wild dog. Too often, the novel reads like a greatest-hits version of “The Possessed.”

Continue reading

French Feminist Pulp That Spares No Pain: On Virginie Despentes

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 2016

“I AM WRITING as an ugly one for the ugly ones.” So begins “King Kong Theory,” the French writer and filmmaker ­Virginie Despentes’s agreeably dyspeptic feminist manifesto published in France in 2006 and America four years later, in a translation by Stéphanie Benson. Despentes offers the book as a love letter to her kin: the “too fat,” “too hairy,” “too masculine,” “women who don’t turn men on.” This is no ploy for pity, mind you. “I would never swap ­places,” she declares. “Being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.”

Who would disagree? A onetime enfant terrible of the French literary establishment, who went on to win the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2010, Despentes is perhaps best known for her notorious 2000 film “Baise-Moi,” based on her novel of the same name — “ ‘Thelma and Louise’ as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt,” in the words of one reviewer. But her real legacy lies in harrowing a genre all her own: the feminist pulp novel, gory and romantic screwball stories frequently featuring two well-armed, pissed-off women. One such novel, BYE BYE BLONDIE (The Feminist Press, paper, $17.95), will be released this month in a translation by Sian Reynolds, both singly and in a box set with “King Kong Theory” and the ­Renaudot-winning novel “Apocalypse Baby,” which was also translated by Reynolds and was published in America last year.

Despentes has become a kind of cult hero, a patron saint to invisible women: the monstrous and marginalized, the sodden, weary and wildly unemployable, the kind of woman who can scarcely be propped up let alone persuaded to lean in. “I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that — as a girl who doesn’t attract men — I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around,” she writes in “King Kong Theory.” “We have always existed, and never spoken. Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or to being loved by them.” These are the very women she creates: Manu and Nadine, who cheerfully carve up rapists and bad tricks in “Baise-Moi”; Gloria in “Bye Bye Blondie,” whose terrifying tantrums frighten away her lovers; Lucie and the Hyena in “Apocalypse Baby,” private investigators who spy on the wayward daughters of the rich. Her heroines are plain and very powerful; they are Roman candles, agents of chaos.

Despentes’s work is frequently situated within a ­tradition of French extremist art that examines sex — particularly violent sex — with a kind of Flaubertian detachment. Think of the Marquis de Sade; “Story of O”; Georges Bataille’s novels; Catherine Millet’s memoir, “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”; the films of Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis. The sex in the film version of “Baise-Moi” is unsimulated and, to most people’s tastes, not very pretty (gun, anus). Yet “the point is not to be shocking,” Despentes has insisted in interviews, “but to change the shape of things.” This is the idealism that is so often overlooked in her work — she makes the hidden violence explicit, and almost always leaves open the possibility of a happy ending, however unhinged. It’s a commitment to redemption that reminds you that the novels directly channel the life; there’s nothing arid, nothing emptily philosophical in her considerations. Continue reading

On the Literature of Terrorism

0508-BKS-RovingEye-blog427-v2

Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, May 3

THE WOMAN IN the photograph doesn’t look frightened, even though she has reason to be; on the other side of the crumbling wall behind her, a small boy is pointing a big gun at someone just outside the frame. Something in her posture, however, the way she cranes her head to look at the boy, suggests impatience more than anything else. She’s on her way home from shopping, it seems, and carrying a large purse and a pale, heavy object — a ­cauliflower? She’s standing on rubble, but her clean white sandals and beautiful bare legs gleam.

This is a favorite image of mine, a snapshot of unknown provenance, supposedly taken during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, 15 years of fighting, that pulverized much of the capital, leaving 150,000 people dead and more than 17,000 missing. It was a war that unleashed sustained and inventive terror, a war fought with child soldiers, and car bombs — 3,641 of them killed some 4,000 people. It is the preoccupation of the alarmingly prolific Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, whose novels are finally being translated into English, by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. The latest, the dreamlike and unhinged CONFESSIONS (New Directions, paper, $14.95), was published this spring.

What the sea was to Melville, terror is to Rabee Jaber. He knows its smell, its subtlest moods, its allure and tedium — how the sight of a child soldier, say, can provoke more annoyance than fear. In 18 novels written in about as many years, he’s traced how terror has remade his country by way of displacement and forced migration through the 18th and 19th centuries and into the present day. “The Mehlis Report,” his first novel to appear in English, was published in Lebanon in 2005, the very year it covers, and follows the aftershocks of the assassination of the prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing, which prompted an investigation by the United Nations led by a German judge, Detlev Mehlis. “Confessions,” a slender book with a high body count, is set in the middle of the civil war, in the thick of kidnappings and ambushes on refugee camps, when a child’s bag of marbles turns out to be, horrifyingly, a cache of human eyes.

Of course, the figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful? But with a few notable exceptions like “Secret Son,” by Laila Lalami, and the richly researched “Harbor,” by Lorraine Adams, there was a series of ­belly flops from our major writers. The fictional terrorist remained a creation of both condescension and envy, a tissue of projection, anxiety and stereotype informed by little curiosity or context. John Updike infamously relied on “The Koran for Dummies” while writing his 2006 ­novel “Terrorist,” which imagined an American high school student of Irish and Egyptian descent who becomes a suicide bomber.

What makes Jaber so unusual is his indifference to terrorists. He’s not curious about what impels them — he rarely bothers to even name them; they’re figures of vague dread rather than glamour. Continue reading

Ways of Being: New Immigrant Fiction

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 10, 2016

THE MIGRANT IS the “defining figure of the 20th century,” Salman Rushdie wrote 20 years ago in the literary magazine Granta. In “this century of wandering,” of refugees and writers in exile carrying “cities in their bedrolls,” migrants taught us what it was to be human, he said, because they’d lost those very things that gave shape to their humanity — roots, culture, social knowledge — and were forced to devise new ways of being. And the migrant writer hatched a new language along the way. “To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free,” Rushdie wrote in his 1991 essay collection, “Imaginary Homelands.” Shoals of people still move across the world today, but the idea of a literature of migration seems to have fallen out of fashion — not with readers but with writers, some of whom chafe at being narrowly categorized, consigned to an ethnic beat, their work treated as sociology instead of art.

 “I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction,’ ” Jhumpa Lahiri said in a 2013 interview in the Book Review. “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?” There’s a feeling that the designation edges writers to the margins — they are forever hyphenated and their work sapped of its universality. “I’m not an immigrant writer,” the poet Richard Blanco told The Los Angeles Review of Books. “I am the son of immigrants, and I’m an immigrant myself who is a writer. You always worry if you’re writing in the context of your story, it’s not ­mainstream.”

This is all very reasonable. Aren’t the themes of immigrant literature — estrangement, homelessness, fractured identities — the stuff of all modern literature, if not life? “Can it be that we’re all exiles?” Roberto Bolaño asked. “Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?” Alienation is alienation, after all. Kafka spoke to everyone when he wrote in a (possibly apocryphal) diary entry: “Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country; . . . I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites and very language defied comprehension; . . . though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals.”

 The trouble is that the migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. Two novels published this month make this plain, rendering the trauma of migration with harsh clarity. A LIFE APART (Norton, paper, $16.95), by Neel Mukherjee, and THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS (Knopf, $27.95),by Sunjeev Sahota, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, recount the stories of Indians making a miserable transition to life in England — from the costs of the journey (much dignity, one kidney) to the caste politics at either end to the first beating, the first sight of snow. Bolaño may be right, we may all be strangers in strange lands — but for some of us, these authors point out, this terrain is not merely internal, and it must be navigated without language or aid (to say nothing about that kidney).

Both books are elegies of sorts for the many characters who don’t survive the journey, who are broken or just turn sour or strange. But they couldn’t be more different. Sahota writes about the lowest castes and the tribes of the unlucky — lonely men lacking even nourishing fantasies, who suffer at home, angle to enter England by any means necessary only to be greeted by violence and dangerous, low-paying work. His sentences are crowded with incident, but he’s fundamentally an aloof, emotionally reticent writer. Mukherjee, who has inveighed against this very kind of prose in his criticism (“the dominant and unquestioned orthodoxy of contemporary Anglophone fiction”), is fussier.He is partial to elaborately upholstered sentences, sometimes unhappily so, and a contrapuntal structure — there’s a novel within this novel. He follows just one character: a young Bengali writer studying at Oxford on scholarship. But in both books, the favored and unfavored quickly lose their footing. They run out of money and overstay their visas. They’re forced into the twilight life of sex work and hard labor.

“A Life Apart” and “The Year of the Runaways” are part of a wave of recent books that cast a more critical eye on migration than usual. The immigrant novel has tended to be optimistic by nature — stories of upward mobility tinged with nostalgia for the motherland and animated by the character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the family or community. Continue reading

On The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty

PrintBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, June 16, 2015

VENDELA VIDA’S HEROINES have a particular talent for suffering. When their marriages cool or ancient family secrets worm into the light, these women take their troubles on holiday. They prefer to do their grieving somewhere picturesque: the Philippines (“And Now You Can Go,” 2003), Finland (“Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name,” 2007), Turkey (“The Lovers,” 2010). Ms. Vida has become known for these travel/trauma narratives, wry, amiable novels prone to some clunkiness; the gears always grind a bit loudly. Nothing in them anticipates the smooth engineering of “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” her fourth and finest book, a taut, suspenseful story that ticks along with marvelous efficiency, like a little bomb.

There’s a catch, though. Ms. Vida has opted for the second person, hoping, it seems, that its intimacy might invite the reader to plunge more deeply into the story, that it might complement her investigations into identity. As is often the case, however, it produces the opposite effect, so naked are its designs on the reader, so unguent its overfamiliarity. There’s a temptation to set the book aside immediately, preferably with tongs. Resist the urge. With its echoes of Hitchcock and Highsmith, this novel is full of darting pleasures.

Chief of which is our nameless narrator: a shifty American, whose terrible decisions keep the story moving at a clip. She arrives in Casablanca and is promptly robbed. The police notify her that her bag has been recovered — only to present her with another woman’s possessions. She claims them as her own. And it begins: Fearing she will be found out, she takes another name. And then another. She will become Sabine, Megan, Reeves, Jane and Aretha. She will chop off her hair one minute, and wear a wig the next. She will shuck selves as soon as she can assume them.

The real woman beneath this frantic dissembling remains agreeably hazy. When we first meet her, we know only that she has suffered and that she is a liar. We learn later that she is getting a divorce, and that, on the plane to Casablanca, she saw someone she feared.

Continue reading

‘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.”

Continue reading

‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine

poetry_rankine_citizen_f

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