‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine

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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

‘On Immunity’ by Eula Biss

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 3, 2014

Lucretius said to handle them with caution; Berkeley, not to handle them at all. Aristotle said that too many confound; Locke, that even one can “mislead the judgment”; Hobbes, that their natural end was “contention and sedition, or contempt.” Sontag said simply, they kill.

Pity the poor metaphor, so maligned, so alluring. We’ve been warned repeatedly — and, inevitably, in metaphors — that metaphors can do terrible things. (According to Sontag, the grotesque metaphors attached to AIDS and cancer contributed to their stigma and prevented people from seeking treatment.) And yet, it’s impossible to go without. Supposedly, we use one metaphor a minute, about one metaphor for every 25 words; we seem scarcely able to string together two thoughts without them (there goes one), they cast such clarifying, necessary light (and another).

The essayist Eula Biss is something of a specialist at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. In her 2009 collection, “Notes From No Man’s Land,” she picked apart the metaphors we’ve used to construct and report on race in America. In her new book, the subtle, spellbinding “On Immunity,” she goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a “jab,” Americans, a “shot.”

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On ‘Man and Beast’ by Mary Ellen Mark

01SEHGAL1-master495By Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, May 30, 2014

Over the last 50 years, Mary Ellen Mark has photographed twins, clowns, patients in a mental hospital, Ku Klux Klan members and Liza Minnelli. She likes to look at people who are used to being looked at, and she uses her camera like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso — as a truth-telling device that peels performance from personality. In one of her most famous photographs, “Tiny” (1983), a Seattle street kid poses in her Halloween costume: a little black dress, little black gloves and a hat with a netted veil. It’s the daintiness of Tiny’s dress combined with her defiance that gives the photograph its charge. Tough Tiny looks afraid.

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On ‘Can’t and Won’t’ by Lydia Davis

NPR.org, May 13, 2014, Listen on All Things Considered

 

In “Notes During Long Phone Conversation With Mother,” a woman listening to her mother express a desire for a cotton summer dress doodles variations of “cotton”: “nottoc,” “coontt,” “toonct,” “tocton,” almost palpably driving her pen into the pad. What is happening here? The word “cotton” disintegrates into fibers, perhaps the daughter’s patience fraying along with it as her elderly mother drones on. The story ends on that allusive “contot” — with its shades of cannot and the book’s title. Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can’t, won’t and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life’s vanishing act.

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On ‘Living With a Wild God’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

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On ‘Bark’ by Lorrie Moore

Bookforum Feb/Mar 2014 issue

The known risks of laughter, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, include dislocated jaws, cardiac arrhythmia, urinary incontinence, emphysema, and spontaneous perforation of the esophagus. None of this, I suspect, will be news to readers of Lorrie Moore, who has never taken laughter lightly. In her work, humor is always costly and fanged. Here’s her idea of a joke (from her 1998 story collection, Birds of America): found among the rubble of a plane crash is a pair of “severed crossed fingers.”

Bark is Moore’s eighth book—gaunt, splendid, and notable for having a significantly lower body count than usual. These stories rarely rise to the gaudy horror of her previous work. Death does not stalk her characters the way it once did. Children are finally allowed to survive to adulthood, and only animals meet spectacular ends—a decapitated deer’s neck is left “open like a severed cable bundle.”

But there is ash in the air; the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are a through line. We’re meant to understand that these are stories of people in wartime, peculiar people during a peculiar war, a distant, endless war. Bark alludes to Abu Ghraib, Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the recession, but current events remain for the most part offstage. Politics are invoked but rarely shape choice or fate in these stories (the way they did in her 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which dealt explicitly with immigration and interracial adoption). They fade into backdrop for the more exigent narratives: the love stories. How could they compete? Moore’s real subject has always been Heterosexuality and Its Discontents. Her chosen people are the lovelorn.

And what an irresistible bunch of characters she conjures up: star-crossed midwesterners terrifically intimidated by their children and worried about their lawns. They are sweet, in a concussed kind of way. They suffer with great élan. In an interview with the New York Times early in her career, Moore spoke of discovering Margaret Atwood’s work: “For the first time I read fiction about women who were not goddesses or winners. In some way they were victims, but they weren’t wimps. They were stylish about their victimization.” This could be a thrifty description of Moore’s own characters; their spouses desert them, but their wit never does. “If you’re suicidal,” says one, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’” It’s as if Raymond Carver’s characters preferred wordplay to whiskey. Take the depressed divorcé from “Debarking”: “He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins? or I’ll bet God really loves butter.”) They are prone to private revolutions, tart one-liners (“He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking”), joyless couplings. “Hey, cutie,” a man calls to his wife “after not having looked her in the eye for two months. It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” You’ll notice that Moore’s characters continue to sound alike—and have sounded alike for almost thirty years, since Self-Help was published in 1985. At its best, this sameness of voice and unremitting archness give her work a Wildean luster. At its worst, the compulsive punning is just punishing (sorry): “He was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.”

Even the title is a gag. The word “bark” crops up throughout the book, in different contexts and with different meanings, connoting, most often, human laughter, involuntary laughter mingled with scorn and surprise. It’s the harsh music of this collection, which has a looser weave than Moore’s other books. From what she described as the “feminine emergencies” and experimentalism of her early books, Self-Help and Anagrams, and the hard glitter of Birds of America, she’s now settled on a simpler structure and more muted tone: An encounter with a stranger forces a muffled epiphany and a languid denouement. Again and again, she assembles the powder keg, strikes a match—and blows it out. She still writes complex melodies for the ear—the sentences are full of sprung rhythms and internal rhymes (“The yard had already grown muddy with March and the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass”)—but narratively, there’s less shock and more mystery. We get ragged plotlines, a ruminative homage to Nabokov, a gentle ghost story, characters suspended in amber, mystified by their own paralysis.

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On ‘The Wind in the Willows’

NPR. org, December 27, 2013

Listen on All Things Considered

We want simple things from books in winter — or at least I do. I want a vindication of my desire to loaf, laze, retreat from the world, the assurances, in short, of The Wind in the Willows, whose edicts are sane and just: “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”