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Forward Prize-winning poet Claudia Rankine on what it means to be black in America

“Only looking back do I gather up the moments.”

Claudia Rankine is challenging our notions of what poetry should look like. Her latest volume, a mediation on race called Citizen: An American Lyric, has been variously described by critics as one “book-length poem”, a collection of “lyric essays”, and “like viewing an experimental film or live performance.” Having already won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, Citizen last night won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. “As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readers’ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object,” said Forward judge Carrie Etter. “So be it.”

Citizen questions the very idea that that a person can live as a full American citizen in dark skin, calling to mind Langston Hughes's famous 1935 refrain, “America never was America to me”. “Americans,” she writes, “battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’”. For black Americans, this battle is a painful one.

Rankine herself moved to New York from Kingston when she was seven. Her parents both worked in hospitals, her father as an orderly, her mother as a nurse's aid, and encouraged her education. At her Embankment hotel, Rankine tells me she spent much of her childhood in a predominantly white neighbourhood: “I was often in situations where I was the only black person in the room.” Did that mean she was particularly vulnerable to racism from her peers?

“There were some incidents,” she says. “Only looking back do I gather up the moments.”

Citizen at times functions as a written exhibition of such incidents, exposing them under a stark glare. It opens by narrating, in the second person, a succession of microaggressions: layered moments of racism experienced by Rankine and friends she interviewed during her research. No one suspects the white schoolgirl who copies your work in every exam. A friend calls you a “nappy-headed ho.” You hear a woman with multiple degrees say, “I didn't know black people could get cancer.” 

“What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?” The reading experience soon becomes overwhelming.

“The intention,” Rankine says, “was to recreate the feeling of exhaustion, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the life that you’re living.”

Citizen is often, and to great effect, written in a voice brimming with anger. In person, Rankine is warm and generous: softly-spoken and quick to laugh. She tells me that while Citizen was meant to be abrasive, she also aimed for it to be an inclusive work, that would allow people from all backgrounds to think about race.

“By using the second person,” she adds, “the reader has to to inhabit the ‘You’, and make decisions about who is receiving the violence, and who is doing the violence; who holds the power, and who is the victim. It becomes a public space that you have to step into, and decide how you fit into it.” 

This certainly suits the work's radical, experimental form. As she collages different experiences and perspectives, her book adapts formally, weaving from essay, to short stanzas, to stream of consciousness-like prose, eroding boundaries of place or self. 

“I’m really interested in this idea of community document and curating the space of the text. So many of these pieces were brought to me through interviews where I would ask a question like, ‘When were you involved in an intimate exchange with someone, and suddenly race entered?’ The question was what to do with these stories once you have them: you can’t take them as your own, because they’re not your own. And yet, I wanted to replicate the sense of having these stories come at you.”

This string of smaller, racially coded moments is regularly interrupted by mediations on the instances of violent racism that rocked a nation: the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. The effect is to distort a traditional conception of micro and macro: suddenly, a new colleague’s kneejerk greeting, “I didn't know you were black!” feels as catastrophic as physical attack. 

“I think we’re used to thinking about race in terms of spectacle,” Rankine explains. In a piece for the New York Times published just after the Charleston massacre, Rankine wrote that by transforming the slain black body into a public spectacle, America is able to observe these atrocities from a distance, without comprehension or mourning. This, she tells me, enables us to continue living our daily lives under the illusion that, aside from these terrible, isolated incidents, they are not tinged with racism. “In fact, people like Dylann Roof are in our culture, hearing all of these microaggressions daily, and are being built out of that.

“I wanted to show that the consciousness is the same. Even if the person who says something like, ‘I didn’t think black people could get cancer,’ isn’t going to go out and shoot a black person, they may still go on a jury and not be able to prosecute a white policeman for the killing of black people, because they still don’t understand black people as fully human.”

Citizen is a work preoccupied by negative space. A white woman on a train stands rather than take the last remaining seat, next to a young black man. “The space next to the man,”Rankine writes, “is the pause in the conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill.” It’s the thin outline of a hypothetical suspect. It’s the awkward moment prompting what Rankine calls, “close-the-gap laughter”. It’s the split-second it takes to fire a gun.

These spaces always feel dangerous. “It’s the space of projection, basically,” says Rankine. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds, or in that empty seat, is all of white supremacist history building up. You end up on the other side of that with a dead body. Or a deadened body: deadened by understanding the self to be completely other, completely crimialised, completely demonised, within the imagination of whiteness.”

In one of the book’s most striking moments, this space visually intrudes the page. Three lines of poetry sit in isolation:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

In a long essay on Serena Williams, Rankine writes that the tennis star's body is “trapped in disbelief - code for being black in America.” This idea of disbelieving black bodies calls to mind Eric Garner, the New York resident who, arrested by police, died in a chokehold after repeating the phrase “I can't breathe” eleven times to dismissive officers. I mention that when Dylann Roof was arrested after the Charleston shootings, he told police officers he was hungry. They bought him Burger King. 

Rankine laughs. “The incommensurate experiences between how the police in the United States treat white criminals and innocent black people is insane. To be white and violent is not an equation that exists in the United States. Men like Dylann, to those policemen, are their sons. This is my boy, he made a mistake! And he happens to be hungry right now and so, he needs to go to Burger King. And ultimately, what did he do? Nothing. But kill some black people.”

The aftermath of the Charleston shootings saw a renewed debate about symbols of white supremacy in the US. The Confederate flag, which Roof proudly wore on his jacket, was removed from South Carolina capitol grounds. A discussion was reopened about roads named after confederate generals. Symbols like these permeate Rankine’s text at a visual level: one of the handful of photographs and artworks that pepper Citizen is an image of a road of whitewashed wooden houses with a prominent sign reading Jim Crow Rd. 

“These symbols are huge,” she says. “They subliminally prop up the history of race in America even as people deny that the history exists in the present. They’re incredibly important in maintaining the fictions that whiteness subliminally exists around.”

These reminders of an America built on the backs of black people may be starting to come down. But Citizen resists the idea that Americans can ever escape their history: “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” If this is true, is Rankine still hopeful for the future of black Americans?

“I don’t think I would be talking to you, or writing what I write, if I didn’t feel hopeful. I do think we are making progress. Just not at the rate that’s saving lives yet.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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