Tag Archives: Claudia Rankine

2015 favourites

Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.

Three movies made both our top five lists:

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Testament of Youth (directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising  Gallipoli  was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.

Meet the Patels (Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.

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He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.

The Emerging Artist’s other two:

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Selma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.

 The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.

My other two:

 Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.

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Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.

The EA’s top five books:

The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.

But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:

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Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.

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Jean Michel Guenassia,  The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.

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Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.

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Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .

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Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.

My top five books:

I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:

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John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.

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Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.

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David Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.

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Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.

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Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.

And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Text 2015)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the US magazine The Atlantic. He’s a very engaging blogger, and his writing about racism in the USA is revelatory. Between the World and Me is an extraordinarily generous book on that subject, framed as a letter to his fourteen year old son in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

When it was announced that no one would be indicted for that killing, the teenager said,’I’ve got to go,’ went to his room, and could be heard sobbing. The book is his father’s attempt to reach out to him, to spell out ‘the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country that is lost in the Dream’. (‘The Dream’ in this book is the version of the USA that ignores ugly realities like racism, and which allows the Dreamers to perpetuate those ugly realities.) Coates describes this as the question of his life. So the book is something of an apologia pro vita sua – and like John Henry Newman’s contribution to the genre it transcends its immediate stimulus.

The title is from a Richard Wright 1935 poem. In that poem, what comes between the world and the speaker is the charred remains of a man who has been lynched. In the book, the construct of race and racism rises up in a similar way, a threat to the integrity of his body and his son’s body.

I was having trouble thinking what to say about this book apart from READ IT, IT’S GREAT, when I came across a ‘review’ on the Internet, which gave something to argue with:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a diatribe against white people by a paranoiac black writer. I don’t even think it is well written.

Well, maybe not argue with so much as repudiate.

1. It’s not a diatribe

It’s not even a polemic. Instead, there’s a substantial memoir that gives us an insider’s view of Baltimore as fictionalised in The Wire, where street and school were the poles between which a young black life had to be negotiated, and where harsh discipline accompanied the safety of home; that takes us to what Coates calls his Mecca, Howard University in Washington DC, a campus where he experienced the diversity of African and African-heritage people; and that shows us his growing understanding of racial politics in the US, from his youthful disdain for what he saw as the passivity of the Civil Rights marchers, through his embracing of Malcolm X, to an understanding that African-American experience in the USA is deeply complex.

There’s also some beautiful, richly suggestive thinking. I love this:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition …

But race is the child of racism, not the father … [T]he belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organise a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

Many subjects are touched on that could sustain whole books of their own. For example, at the very end he draws a line between the habits of mind that led to slavery and those that are now threatening the environment (‘It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age.’).

2. It’s not against white people

I don’t see how any careful reader could think this book was against white people. Even if you dismissed as mere rhetoric Coates’s argument that there are no such beings – that there are only people who believe they are white – it remains true that the problem isn’t white people, but deeply embedded institutionalised racism. And facing up to it, he recognises, is a massive challenge:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.

Those last two sentences, it’s worth pointing out, are addressed to his son. That they are all the more true for white readers, and not only those who live in the US, is not a point he labours.

3. It’s not paranoiac

To read this book as paranoiac would take extraordinary mental nimbleness. True, Coates describes mid-teenage years in which

each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practised the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.

And he describes other moments when he felt the threat from racist institutions with terrifying immediacy. Racism is felt viscerally, he says. But still, surely what he is describing are social realities. (Come to think of it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric would make a great companion book.)

4. It is well written

The book is a very fine example of an extended lyric essay. I want to quote passage after passage. Here’s just one, more or less random:

‘Make the race proud,’ the elders used to say. But by then I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform colour or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream. Not long ago I was standing in the airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Indulge me if I quote a little more from this passage:

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds – the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then. And my eyes – my beautiful eyes – were growing stronger each day. And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.

Do seek out this book. As Toni Morrison says on the front cover, ‘It’s required reading.’  Jeff Sparrow’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press 2014)

In the current instalment of his regular ‘Critic Watch’ feature in Sydney Review of Books, the formidable Ben Hetherington reflects on the state of poetry criticism in Australia. The article, ‘The Poet Tasters‘, is well worth reading, but I mention it here as an occasion to protest my ignorance. Hetherington says that all the reviewers he discusses seem to have taken ‘the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’”.’ Well, they have left me in their dust: I hadn’t read Heaney, or Larkin, or Ted Hughes-for-adults, before I started blogging, and I barely know how to pronounce L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (though I do know the meaning of ‘poetaster’, which Hetherington had to google).

1555976905One feature of my ignorance is that, deep in my heart, I want poetry to be about something. It’s no disparagement of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that it definitely satisfies that desire: in a word, it’s about racism.  It gets right inside that word and lights it up, makes it ultra-visible, ultra-clear, from death-by-a-thousand-cuts micro-aggressions to brutal murder.

In short pieces – prose poems / flash fictions / case studies – she gives us moments among friends or strangers when racism intrudes, the kind of thing a recent Beyond Blue anti-racism ad called ‘casual racism’; Claudia Rankine is much more incisive with her language than that. These moments are of a kind with the ‘joke’ made by the white MC at last year’s US National Book Awards. Claudia Rankine isn’t interested in stirring up a twitter-storm like the one that followed that remark: she wants something deeper than our outrage or our guilt, she’s trying to understand and invites us to join her.

A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest, and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.

That mightn’t look like poetry to you, but, what can I say: don’t let category problems put you off. If poetry is about language at its most intense then this book is the thing.

There’s a brilliant essay on Serena Williams’s moments of rage and exuberance on the tennis court, and a number of pieces about well publicised moments of brutal racism and sometimes violent reactions to it. Some of the latter are labelled as scripts ‘for Situation video[s] created in collaboration with John Lucas’. At least some of these videos are on line and well worth seeking out, but the scripts stand alone as prose poems. The one on Zinedine Zidane’s tragic moment at the 2006 World Cup works well on the page: much of it consists of quotations and here the sources are given as they aren’t in the video; and the pages’ illustrations do at least some of the work of the video. But even on a tiny browser window, the video packs an enormous wallop as Rankine reads the poem while those moments on the football field play out in stop motion over 6 minutes. Here’s a link: ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup‘. As a public service, here are links to two more: ‘February 26, 2112 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin‘, ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘.

The book makes up for being typeset in an unpleasant sans-serif font on shiny paper by being illustrated by a number of brilliant and brilliantly apposite artworks. It has reached a much wider audience than usual for poetry, with more than 40 000 copies sold (though it’s not so easy to get in Australia – Gleebooks ordered my copy in from the US).  It’s in the list of finalists for two of the US National Book Critics Circle Awards – poetry and criticism – the first book to have managed this. There’s coverage of its success on Harriet the Blog.