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Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine

This was a reader/book mismatch, and I try to avoid criticizing books simply for not being my thing. But I do want to provide the information that would have been helpful to me in deciding whether to read it.

So, I’d heard that this is a brilliant new book about race in America, and only afterwards that it is poetry, which is most definitely not my thing (that whooshing sound you hear, that is the sound of a poem going right over my head. I love words, but I am literal-minded). But then I read an excerpt, here, and it is nothing like your typical poetry. These short pieces have been called “prose poems,” and while I suspect “prose poem” is simply a fancy way of referring to regular old good writing in small fragments, the fact remains that these self-contained pieces are excellently-written, hard-hitting, and easily understood.

And having read Rankine’s work, I think “prose poems” are probably the ideal format for writing about microaggressions. ("Microaggressions” are small, often thoughtless actions that are offensive or hurtful because of their cultural context. Examples: a salesperson suspiciously following black shoppers around a store; a white college student telling a black one that she was probably admitted because of affirmative action.) By their nature, these small and disconnected events would be very difficult to write an interesting and cohesive novel about (this is one of the things Adichie attempted in Americanah, unsuccessfully in my judgment, but no wonder). As distinct, disheartening fragments that don’t have to connect to one another through some larger narrative structure, though, it works.

What I didn’t know before reading this book was that less than 50 pages of it is comprised of these pieces. For the rest, there’s some rather more traditional poetry; some photography and images, whose meanings were often obscure to me; some essays, which seemed to omit crucial background information on the assumption that readers are already familiar with the situations Rankine was writing about (for instance, the long essay on bad calls made against Serena Williams); and some experimental pieces, identified as “scripts for situation videos,” which are perhaps best described as stream-of-consciousness pieces from the point of view of characters inspired by recent events. The best word for this whole collection is “experimental,” and if you are into experimental writing you should absolutely give it a try. I, unfortunately, am not, and so most often this book simply left me baffled.