Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Dianca London Potts, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Claudia Rankine about her book Citizen (Graywolf), which is among the final five selections and final four selections in the categories of Criticism and of Poetry, respectively, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Dianca London Potts: The hybridity of Citizen: An American Lyric creates an extremely evocative account of experience and memory. How did the structure of Citizen aid in your exploration of our nation’s legacy of racism?
Claudia Rankine: I wished to build the space of Citizen a body at a time. In a sense, the idea was to populate the space of the text by peopling it with individuals interacting in ordinary ways that get interrupted by one person’s inability to see the body across from them as just another person. Structurally, it was important to have the interactions accumulate until we were all in a room together witnessing the more blatant, tragic aggressions against the black body.
DLP: I was particularly fascinated by the use of sighing in Section IV. Could you discuss the significance of the sigh as a response to white supremacy?
CR: I was interested in the sigh as a signal of needing to breathe — the need to let something go. I have always understood it to be more of a gesture of recognition and resignation rather than an act of resistance.
DLP: Section II of your book recounts Serena Williams’s battle against racism on and off the tennis court. In that section, you include a quote by Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
What was your process in crafting the poetics and criticism in addition to presenting the visual imagery necessary to illustrate these moments of “feel[ing] most colored”?
CR: Because racism begins with perception, it seemed important to include a visual element in the text. Literally, I wanted us to look and see what all the fuss is about! I had intentions and hopes for the way the arguments of the book unfolded. I wasn’t really thinking about what I wanted from the reader. It took all my attention to get the book to perform itself — in the sense of pacing, sound, tone, and beauty.
DLP: You use repetition and anaphora as rhetorical and poetic devices in Citizen, especially in Section VI’s “Stop and Frisk.” Could you discuss how these devices emotionally reenact or recreate the experience of prejudice and injustice?
CR: Both devices replicate the experience of repeated impact on a body. If you don’t live a life where you have to negotiate a version of the same erasure over and over you can’t know how that feels. Repetition simply says, Here it comes again. Ready?
DLP: As a writer and reader, what do you see as a plausible remedy for racism in our contemporary moment?
CR: Critical discourse. If someone engages consciously in a mode of behavior that has as its intent the erasure of another then he or she are a special kind of animal, but if we call each other out in an attempt to change as a culture then let’s call that the struggle toward a better life.
DLP: In Section VI “Making Room” the following paragraph was reminiscent of the frustration and critique expressed in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of White Folk:
“You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not you.”
In what way are the anxieties of Du Bois, Franz Fanon, and James Baldwin inherited by black America?
CR: The concerns oddly remain remarkably similar. We have more legislation to safeguard rights and ensure equality but we have new legislation that chips away at those rights. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow addresses this from an informed position. Both Fanon and Baldwin are directly addressed or engaged in the work because the inheritance informs our present reality.
DLP: What was your greatest challenge, emotional or creative, while writing Citizen?
CR: Perhaps, logistically, the acquisition of rights for the images, but creatively I think I wanted to keep the moments described open to other motivations and interpretations besides race. People are complex — they are racist and in love, or racist and competitive or racist and good intentioned. Similarly, people misread the actions of others; they lose patience, and they become suspicious. I wanted the text to hold ambiguity because living in a country with such deep roots in racism makes it difficult to know precisely what’s happening at any given moment.
DLP: Between lines of lyric and prose, Citizen fosters empathy in its reader, whether the reader is willing to empathize or not. As you were writing, what did you hope to convey with each form?
CR: The lyric gave me direct access to the investigation of feeling without narrative and the prose allowed me to develop specific narrative arguments along linear timelines.
Claudia Rankine is the author of four previous books, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. She currently serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and teaches at Pomona College in California.
Dianca London Potts is the prose editor of LIT Magazine and is currently earning her MFA in Fiction from The New School. Her work has been featured in Kweli Journal, The Village Voice, The Toast, and elsewhere. She tweets at @diancalondon.