January 29, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric

Reading CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine challenged me on multiple levels. The material examines issues of race in America and the daily experience of going through life as a black person. Whether Rankine is writing about the thoughtlessly racist statements made by friends and strangers or the tragedy of racially motivated killings, her words hit hard, provoking both discomfort and thought.

The book's format presented another reading challenge for me. It's classified as poetry, which I don't read often, and most of the text didn't match my expectations for the poetic form. The pieces take a variety of formats, but many are prose poems, one or a few paragraphs that convey a moment or an image. Some of these struck me as very short essays, while others recount a brief scene. The collection also contains some longer pieces I'd describe as essays, others with the frequent line breaks traditionally associated with poetry, and a set written to accompany videos. I'll admit that the more poetic and abstract material was harder for me to understand and connect with than the more straightforward prose.

But rather than me trying to explain the poems any further, it's time for some excerpts of Rankine's work. This poem provides a good example of both the format and the subject matter:

A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the cafĂ© you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something--she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?--her son wasn’t accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater's legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn't seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive.

This second person narration is used throughout, with "you" as the protagonist. It's an effective choice that forces the reader to briefly experience the microagressions and abuse the collection focuses on. Several more poems are available at the Poetry Foundation site, along with audio of Rankine reading them aloud.

One section looks at individual racially charged news events, and each of these pieces is labeled as a "Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas". One video, with a script designated "In Memory of Trayvon Martin" in the book, is displayed here with additional information about the project. More of the videos are available on Rankine's site under Situations.

Alongside all these powerful words, Rankine has included some photographs, mainly of artwork relevant to her themes. These are presented in glossy color, and the whole book is attractively designed, making it a physical object worth handling.

There's a lot going on in this important collection, and I recommend all readers undertake the challenge.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the NaNoWriMo Blog, Robin Stevens explains Why the Most Important Thing About Your Novel Is the Story, Not the Words: "They might be nice words, they might be really beautiful words, but if they don't help your story move forward, they need to be deleted. If you wrote them once, you know that you can write something equally good, or even better, again."

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