Sandra Lim: What was your reaction when you heard about your nomination for the National Book Award?
Claudia Rankine: Everything was intensified. The Southern California blue was for instance, the most beautiful blue. Citizen, the book and the nomination, enters the arena of the encounter: it’s engaged with what happens when two people are face to face. The nomination places us all in the room together and begins a dialogue around race that is the opposite of exhausting. It’s really a fantastic moment for me.
SL: Citizen reminds me of Judith Butler’s argument about how our “precariousness,” or dependency on one another in a polis or state, could be a point of departure for political life. Does this account in some part, for your use of the second person point of view in this work?
CR: Exactly, the second person presumes the first. What encounter doesn’t involve an element of trust in another? I also found interesting the idea that marginalization stemmed from an attachment to the “other,” another, the second person.
SL: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen share the subtitle, “An American Lyric.” What was different about writing this book, as distinguished from your earlier book?
CR: Citizen for me is focused on a dynamic that in part determines who we are as Americans. It looked for a certain dynamic in our dailiness. Lonely panned across the landscape of our American life.
SL: In Citizen, you deftly wield verse, prose, documentary images, and artwork from artists such as Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Hennessy Youngman. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with form and how the particular shapes and music of this book came together? What do you think of the term “experimental writing” and does it describe your practice?
CR: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies was in the back of my mind, with its poems and prose and portraits, at the same time as Wangechi Mutu’s collage images. Both are influential American artists whose works were kicking around in my head at the same time as the works of Ligon, Weems, Berryman, Baldwin, Fanon, etc. The question is always for me, as Eliot argued, how to bring forward your influences and engagements on the page. Many of these artists and writers are struggling with the same modes of aggression and construction around race. It’s difficult to find critical work on the construction of whiteness in Lowell, but that is what I am reading in there—a struggle with that. Poetry allows a fungibility that I cherish. It’s for me the genre that opens out to the most experimentation in its inherent relationship to voice and performance. When fiction and non-fiction writers experiment, it is always said that they have become more lyrical.
SL: What’s next for you?
CR: I am working with a visual artist and playwright on rewriting Antigone as a way to think about the murder of Michael Brown.
(This interview originally appeared on the National Book Foundation’s website.)
Sandra Lim is the author of The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014) and Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). The recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Getty Research Institute, she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.