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27 March 2023

Claudia Rankine: “Eventually they’re coming for you too”

The poet on how America’s racism epidemic intersects with the erosion of women’s rights.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Claudia Rankine was writing Plot, she didn’t expect that the issue of abortion would be “back on the table” in two decades. The author’s third poetry collection, which was first published in the United States in 2001 and appears in the UK for the first time this month, follows a pregnant woman, Liv, and her husband, Erland. Through recollections of dreams and conversations, Rankine explores how pregnancy alters Liv’s sense of self.

Rankine was considering having a child when she wrote Plot, but “the book was fully an imaginative enterprise”, she told me in a hotel bar in King’s Cross, London, in mid-March. “The repeal of Roe vs Wade is not something I would have anticipated. That question of women’s rights and women’s bodies being up for grabs is barbaric. That in this day and age, when we can do so much, a group of judges feel like they can tell us when and how to decide to become mothers seems – is – shocking and surprising.”

Rankine wrote Plot before she began her award-winning “American Lyric” trilogy, for which she is best known. Those books – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Citizen (2014) and Just Us (2020) – marked her out as a formidable stylist, working across verse, prose and visual art to document the racism of contemporary America. “I think many people know me as someone who writes about race in the United States and the difficulties that exist by the projection of racial imaginaries on white people, black people, Asian people, all kinds of people,” Rankine said. Though different in theme, Plot shares common ground with the trilogy. “You could say that the subject has moved its lens, but I have always been interested in the small moments between people, the unsaid, the difficulties that come when one is in relation with another.”

[See also: My abortion showed me that women in Britain are far from free]

Rankine, 59, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1970, when she was seven, her family moved to the Bronx, New York City, where her father worked as a hospital orderly and her mother a nurse’s aide. She studied at Williams College, Massachusetts, and Columbia University; she has taught creative writing at Pomona College in California and at Yale, and is currently a tenured professor at New York University. Her work, which as well as poetry includes plays and essays, is grounded in academic thought yet invested in the experiences of everyday Americans. In 2016 she was named a MacArthur Fellow, an accolade known as the “genius grant”. Sitting across from me, wearing a black hooded jumper and a grey scarf and eating a bowl of porridge, she spoke with gravitas. She often paused mid-sentence and closed her eyes for several seconds until she found the right word. But she laughed easily and warmly too.

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Though two decades ago she did not anticipate the reversal of Roe vs Wade, in the months leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2022 to repeal the ruling, which gave women in the US a federal right to abortion, Rankine grew aware that it was a possibility. “My anxiety around what has happened politically in the United States, the move to the right, the control of the religious right in the House, the Senate – all of those moves are not disconnected from our own personal rights and personal mobility. If you go back to first-wave feminists, the personal is political. We can’t separate them. What’s happening in the voting booth will affect what you do in your house. I saw what was happening politically and understood that we were at risk.”

Rankine sees the erosion of women’s reproductive rights in the US as connected to the country’s epidemic of racism. “What we have to realise,” she said, “is that the limiting of rights for one group always ends up being the limiting of rights for all groups. Eventually they’re coming for you too. Because it’s about control.”

As she predicted through her character, Liv, becoming a mother changed how Rankine felt in herself. “Before I had a child,” she said, pausing to think, “I saw myself in relation to the world but not subject to it quite as directly. Once I had a child, I felt attached. And so the world becomes a scarier place because you’re living for two people. I felt much more vulnerable, to other people, to systems of government, to modes of injustice.”

Rankine’s daughter, her only child with her husband, the artist and filmmaker John Lucas, is now 20 years old and studying at Stanford. After her birth, Rankine found her writing began to reckon with “the world as a place that has a future, which I am now accountable to”. She described a piece she was writing in response to Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in September 2022 after being beaten by police for not wearing a hijab. “It’s hard not to see a woman like that and think of your own daughter – all the daughters, all the young women.”

[See also: To protect abortion rights, don’t let the UK ditch the ECHR]

Twenty years after her daughter’s birth, Rankine still carries that feeling of vulnerability. “Do you have children?” she asked me. I don’t. She shook her head, as if trying to describe the indescribable. “She is always present in my head somehow,” she explained, softly, “even though she lives far away, has her own life. There’s a place in me where I am always thinking about her, wondering about what she needs.”

In Plot the narrator hears a woman at the next table say that “her pregnancy made her feel less lonely”. It’s a conversation Rankine really did overhear. “The way I understood her was that she had been invisible as a woman, but she became very visible as a pregnant woman. That was also my experience when I was pregnant: strangers are very warm to you. Everybody feels like it’s a moment to celebrate, and so people get up so you can sit down, they make way for you. It’s a respect for life that you rarely encounter. Because people take people for granted: it’s as elemental as that. Until you see somebody who’s about to produce the unknown, then suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh my God, here it comes, another possible Obama!’ ” Rankine received treatment for breast cancer while writing Citizen. “I sometimes joke that the only times I felt coddled in this world were when I was pregnant and when I had cancer. Because both times people were like: ‘Take a seat!’ ”

Rankine’s next project will be about “courage and what it means to be a Mahsa Amini, to do the thing you want to do, so that in the moment you accept both your life and your death. That living is dying is living, you know?” In recent decades she has observed collective responses against brutal systems, from the Arab Spring to the ongoing protests in Iran. “I think what we see is a move towards having courage in the face of the worst.”

Black Lives Matter, she said, is part of this movement. “It’s not just about the ways in which white supremacy determines so much. It’s also about what we as a community can do when we’re not in power. Is there power in powerlessness? What is the cost of courage? Can you begin to feel that to have a life is to accept your death, in a way?” It is the Ancient Greek story of Antigone, she said. “What does it mean to bury your brother even though you yourself will be killed, that you are committed to a thing beyond protecting your own life?”

She hadn’t yet found the form in which to best explore the idea, but she felt hopeful that she would soon. A critic once described Rankine as writing “by any means necessary”. “And that’s how I feel! Like, whatever!” she said, glancing at her glass on the table. “If it means pouring some juice on the page, and that will do the thing I need it to do, I’ll do it.”

“Plot” by Claudia Rankine is published by Allen Lane

[See also: “This is the big battle”: Jan Schakowsky on abortion in America]

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