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30 September 2020

Claudia Rankine Q&A: “Phoebe Waller-Bridge needs some black friends. I volunteer!“

The author talks Fleabag, Leonard Cohen, and the US president. 

By New Statesman

Claudia Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963. A poet, essayist and playwright, she is the recipient of a  MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the author of five books, including “Citizen”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Walking on a dirt road with my cousin, Precious, as she explained that most people go to school. We were apparently on our way to school. I don’t know if it was my first day and a moment of clarification or a day of resistance that needed framing.

Who are your heroes?

Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) from The Avengers and Angela Abraham (Regina King) from Watchmen. Both of these characters performed a pragmatic service in a dangerous world that didn’t cease being precarious despite their weekly efforts.

What book last changed your thinking?

Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism gave me language to examine why our culture remains attached to dynamics that are harmful and toxic. The book takes on fantasies in which we are collectively invested, in our desire for the good life.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Maxine Waters, who coined the phrase “Impeach 45”. She said this before Donald Trump was impeached. Impeachment didn’t make a difference but it was aspirationally comforting for a long while.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Tennis. The hours I have spent watching as a fan, I could have received an advanced degree in many other things.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would have liked to travel with Mary Seacole in the 1800s. I would write about how racist Florence Nightingale was and then send it to Florence for her comments.

What TV show could you not live without?

Fleabag. I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius. Anyone who can make me laugh these days is some kind of superhero. She needs some black friends though. I volunteer! I am looking at the cast list. You have to dig deep.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Her people seem solitary, as if quarantining and social distancing is second nature to them. I need their skill set.

What’s your theme tune?

“Different Sides” by Leonard Cohen is the running theme in my head when I’m not listening to Lizzo. “We find ourselves on different sides of a line nobody drew…”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Not to drive, after I passed my driving test. I have more or less followed the tester’s advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

If by currently you mean always, I’d say the US president. He owns all the real estate in the realm of what-the-fuck?!

What single thing would make your life better?

Biden and Harris in the White House.

When were you happiest?

When my daughter walked into the room. Any room. Any day. Any time. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Professional mourner. Wait. I think all black women have that as a second job.

Are we all doomed?

That depends on the asteroid heading our way. 

“Just Us: An American Conversation” by Claudia Rankine is published by Allen Lane

This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union