Why We Should All Read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

While incredible books such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi are currently at the top of multiple best sellers’ lists, it would be remiss not to mention Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem and winner of the 2014 national Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric. In her book, Rankine describes the impact of microaggressions with the power only a poet possesses. The book is written in second person, forcing the reader to be in Rankine’s mind. From a white girl refusing to sit next to her on a plane to a heartbreaking list of names of the countless victims of police brutality, Claudia Rankine gives the reader a glimpse into her everyday life as a black woman. 

Along with her experiences as a black woman, Rankine analyzes multiple microaggressions we have seen on television (and most likely dismissed). Amid this analysis, Rankine goes into detail on the treatment of Serena Williams at the 2009 US Open. Rankine beautifully writes: “Serena in HD before your eyes becomes overcome by a rage you recognize and have been taught to hold at a distance for your own good” (28). In her recounting of the 2009 US Open, Rankine relates to Serena Williams’s anger and frustration, something she has been forced to hold onto her entire life. Citizen serves as Rankine’s attempt to communicate these seemingly perpetual annoyances that have not crossed many readers’ minds. 

Despite the fact that Citizen was published in 2014, Rankine’s poetry continues to be incredibly relevant. Rankine ends one of the most powerful sections of her book with a quote that horrifyingly rings true six years after writing it: 

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

You can get Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine delivered to you from these bookstores now. 

Photo courtesy of Big Bang Poetry

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Revisiting Pat Parker (1944–1989)

June 2020: 50th anniversary of LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Traditions. 

June 2020: America again fought racism and police brutality. 

In these turbulent times, being non-racist is not enough. The words of Angela Davis are being immortalized—whether it be on placards or on social media posts—with voices rallying and urging for global awareness on anti-racism. By turning to literary sources, people are educating themselves about the systemic racism and the white privilege and supremacy that continue to reign today. 

In the wake of this enlightenment, it is only befitting to shine a light on Pat Parker, one of America’s most prolific activists and poets, who was not only black but also a lesbian. 

Parker published a total of five works, Jonestown & other madness (1985), Movement in Black (1978), Woman Slaughter (1978), Pit Stop (1975), and Child of Myself (1972). In 2016, Sapphic Classics published The Complete Works of Pat Parker which was edited by Julie Enszer with an introduction by Judy Grahn. The poem, “My Lover is a Woman”, from Pit Stop explores the dynamics of being in an interracial relationship with sharp commentary on the ostracization of queer, black women in society. 

The opening lines of the poem: “my lover is a woman/& when I hold her/feel her warmth/I feel good/feel safe” gives the underlying tone of warmth and tender love. This tone especially stands out when juxtaposed against the lines “never think of the policemen/who kicked my body & said crawl/never think of Black bodies/hanging in trees or filled/with bullet holes/never hear my sisters say/white folks hair stinks/” (Parker). It is notable how in just these few lines, Parker packs the complex themes and events of oppression, discrimination, and prejudices that caused immense anguish in her life. 

There is also the extensive use of refrain in the poem which lends almost a musical quality, and one can very well imagine this being sung by a church choir. For instance, there is the repetition of the words “I feel good/feel safe” which reflect the solace sought by Parker while also encompassing the depth and understanding of their love. In contrast, the melancholic refrain of “never hear my mother cry/Lord, what kind of child is this?” (Parker) brings out the lack of acceptance from her family of her identity as a lesbian in a time when even being black was a struggle. 

Despite all this trouble and turmoil, Parker still accepts and chooses to be with her lover. It matters not whether her lover’s eyes are blue and hair is blonde, for love itself trumps all. And isn’t love and acceptance what we all crave and deserve in the end?

Pat Parker was born in Houston, Texas, and after high school, she moved to Los Angeles, California where she earned her bachelor’s from Los Angeles City College in 1962. In the late 1960s, after two divorces, she identified herself as a lesbian and was soon actively involved in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements. At these events, she performed pieces of her poetry and soon, she joined the ranks of great poets like Judy Grahn, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and more. 

Bibliography 

Parker, Pat. n.d. “My Lover Is a Woman by Pat Parker – Poems | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org. Accessed June 19, 2020. https://poets.org/poem/my-lover-woman

 

Amala Reddie

 

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Feasting on Red, White and Royal Blue

In 2019, Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue took the world by storm. The novel, which received praise and accolades across the globe, not only provided a perfect breezy rom-com by subverting tropes but also gave readers an endearing LGBTQ couple and highlighted several sociopolitical issues. 

The plot revolves around Alexander, son of the President of the United States, and Henry, the Prince of Wales,  who start off as nemeses and end up having to fake a friendship after a scandal at a Royal Wedding. The quintessential twist arrives when both start to fall for each other. Appearing at first as a run-of-the-mill romance, the story unfolds to be so much more. 

9781250316776_p0_v6_s1200x630Set in 2016, in an alternate reality where Ellen Claremont from Texas becomes the first female President of the United States, the story presents a “what could have been” setting that stands in stark contrast to the existing political climate. Through the pairing of the son of the “most powerful person in the world” with the son of the “most powerful Royal in the world”, McQuiston aptly delineates the power struggle and expectations from the two institutions (the White House and the Royal Establishment), the rigmarole of the press, and societal pressure that transcends all territorial boundaries. 

Even the romance doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of conforming to society standards and coming out on your own terms. This conflict is beautifully underlined in the email and text messages exchanged between Alex and Henry. In one such email, Alex remarks to Henry, “thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too. I kinda wish people still wrote like that. History, huh? Bet we could make some.” On the forefront, these emails have a humorous banter-like tone, but as the story progresses, they unearth the heartache and the emotional intensity of their feelings. 

While there are a few unrealistic elements, the earnest and poignant writing prevents it from becoming a saccharine read. And given the current climate, this book feels like a breath of fresh air and reminds us that love is indeed love. 

 

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Seeking Comfort in Sally Rooney’s Normal People

A common theme of quarantine is loneliness, whether it be physical or mental. We are living in an unprecedented time in which many of us are experiencing variations of the same feeling. Waking up to the same environment every day is deeply disheartening and has left a lot of us feeling unmotivated and uninspired. It is difficult feeling fulfilled when there is nowhere to go. Many people are relying on art to transport them or make them feel a semblance of community. 

An author that embodies this sense of loneliness while still managing to create a world so different from the one people are currently facing is Sally Rooney. The television adaptation of her most recent novel, Normal People, was released at the end of April. As the Hulu show gains more and more popularity, the novel does as well. Despite bookstores closing due to COVID-19, Nielsen BookScan reported the love story as the current highest selling novel. It remained on The New York Times Best Sellers list for eight weeks. 

imagesNormal People is a story that contains the best of both worlds; Sally Rooney takes the reader through multiple European countries, assigning each place with different tones. The story opens with the two main characters, Marianne and Connell, stuck in the bleakness of Sligo, only to transition to the energetic and youthful nature of Trinity College in Dublin. Rooney takes the reader to Marianne’s villa in Italy, eating strawberries in her backyard, to her snowy semester abroad in Sweden. Despite Rooney’s ability to transport the reader to multiple countries in the comfort of their own home, she layers the novel with a theme of loneliness, something that indeed resonates with those in quarantine. As Rooney states in her novel, “Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head”(208). 

Normal People by Sally Rooney is where adventure and culture intersect with the feeling of mental and physical isolation. The exploration of utter loneliness combined with the desolate portrait of Sligo will touch readers—especially in the current climate—in a way they never have before. 

 

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Why Black Voices are Essential to the Publishing Industry 

The publishing industry is important; there is no doubt about it. It provides an outlet for writers’ voices. However, as protests for Black Lives Matter sweep the nation and the world, there is no ignoring the industry’s blatant lack of diversity. 

Lee & Low Books (one of the very few minority-owned, multicultural children’s book publishers) recently conducted a study on this prevalent issue, revealing that 76 percent of the industry itself is white. This is a 3 percent difference from Lee &Low’s’ study in 2015, in which 79 percent of the industry consisted of white staff. These statistics alone negate the purpose of the publishing industry: to amplify the voices of others. Black voices deserve to be deemed as essential as white voices; according to Lee & Low’s statistics, the industry does not seem to fully align itself with that belief. Now, more than ever, black voices are more than necessary, considering their stories and voices have often been disrespected and silenced in the past. 

Nonetheless, there are many influential people tackling these statistics. Writer and poet Kima Jones started her own literary publicity firm, Jack Jones Literary Arts, in 2015. According to their website, the firm’s roster is 98 percent black women and women of color. Jones’s firm specializes in “projects to audiences who seek literary art that is unorthodox, underappreciated, and unparalleled.” Jones has worked on the publicity team for multiple bestsellers, including Angie Thomas’s novel, The Hate U Give, and Tyehimba Jess’s poetry collection Olio. Jones and her firm emphasize the importance of broadening the publishing industry in all departments, including the executive, editorial, and sales levels. 

As the Black Lives Matter movement brings more awareness to this diversity gap and magnifies the need for black voices in the publishing industry, many are looking to purchase books from black-owned businesses, such as Mahogany Books in Washington D.C., Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Black Pearl Books in Austin, Texas. 

Exposure of black artists and authors is fundamental to our perception of the world and ourselves; there is no industry without them. As Lee & Low Books states on their website, “The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out.” 

 

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The Daydream of Violent Social Upheaval in 1914 and 2020

In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed and a world power that had existed since 1867 ceased to exist. However, the fall had begun much earlier, and indeed the most potent wedge that would split the nation was the Great War. In his little-known memoir, The Burning of the World, only-first published in 2014, Bela Zombory-Moldovan describes his time on the Russian front in the early confused stages of the war. Though he has been dead since 1967, Bela’s words read with a strange, daydream-like quality of confused violence and the subsequent social changes against the established norm.

Bela himself was a well-to-do young artist at the beginning of the war. While on holiday at ancient Croatian village of Bribirk, he finds out about the war from the bathing attendant who suddenly leaves his post and informs an unaware Bela of the news in broken Hungarian. However, the laconic nature of his parlance due to the language barrier adds to the feeling of quiet unease. “Leaving? I must go to the army. There is going to be war… Please. The notice is there on the wall of the bathing station”

This strange half life in the twilight years of the old empire is further developed by Bela’s experience of confused combat against the Russians. In Bella’s first and only combat, his unit is destroyed, and he is wounded, limping back to his own lines with no surviving chain of command to direct him. While he recovers back in civilian life, he suffers a sort of emotional block, as he cannot go back to the normalcy of his dying way of life. He writes, “I bought a newspaper. I had not read one for weeks. Bellicose guff about final victory. The big German offensive towards Paris had ‘stopped’ at the Marne. No decisive developments anywhere. Slow dusk. Budapest.”

The Burning of the World is a title that would work for a book today as well as it did back during the turmoil at the beginning of the 20th century. The lack of decisive action in todays politics and current events maddening, yet there is some solace to be had in the narratives of others who came before. People like Bela Zombory-Moldovan are proof that turmoil and upheaval are the natural progression of history, and though it may at times feel surreal to be caught up in the middle of it, eventually there will be decisive action. It is only a matter of time.

 

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E-books and Online Libraries during COVID-19

The debate between digital media and print media is an argument as old as time itself and one that has often divided the reading community. In 2019, 37 percent of people read only print books while 7 percent read only digital books. However, the onset of the pandemic certainly changed this landscape. At a time when public libraries and independent bookstores are facing huge losses, e-books have proven to be a silver lining, especially for those on a tight budget. On Libby, the e-book reading platform that provides access to local libraries, there was an incredible upswing of 247,000 downloads and 10.1 million e-book borrows in just one week.

From turning physical pages to swiping across the screen of a smartphone or tablet, the very structure of reading during COVID-19 has been transformed. Although it is disheartening to no longer interact with beloved booksellers for that perfect next read, online databases of various libraries have gathered and compiled reading lists based entirely on the books borrowed and downloaded by users—a move that opened up a new avenue of discovering our next read. It even goes a step further by cataloging the books with relevant tags for better assistance. As a staunch print book reader and avid library frequenter, access to these resources indeed manifested as a surprise and made for an enriching reading experience!

In the case of audiobooks, Audible recently made thousands of titles available for free for children and adults alike, and people have adapted to new routines, such as listening to a cookbook recipe and following the instructions (without worrying about burning–or worse–staining the pages) or listening to Marie Kondo’s Joy at Work while actually cleaning up their  shelves. This is not to say that people no longer continue to purchase print books. In fact, people have requested curbside deliveries by local bookstores. While it is definitely encouraging to see the rise of digital books, it begs the question: has the pandemic changed the way we perceive digital media forever? Or will the prejudice against e-books prevail once life returns to normal?

Amala Reddie

 

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Marie Kondo in the Time of COVID-19

Over the last few years, mindfulness literature has been a growing subsection of the self-help nonfiction genre. What began as a response to a growing anxiety within America has suddenly come to a head with Covid-19, a crisis just as mental as it is economic. 

Amidst this with fortuitously good timing, Marie Kondo, known for her previous New York Times Best-Selling work, the life-changing magic of tidying up, has released a new book titled, Joy at Work, co-written with Scott Sonenshein. Kondo is a Japanese writer focused on the mindfulness and philosophical elements of decluttering one’s home life. Her books, fittingly published in stark white binding with red cover lettering, are beautiful hard-cover volumes that give practical and simple advice to working on the core of one’s home life. At the center of this approach is the idea to sort through items by category based on if they “spark joy” in your life. Her sophomore book is titled Spark Joy, and functions as an illustrated companion work to her first book. Her stance on reducing one’s possessions is refreshing in a time when we are physically unable to go out and spend money.

Kondo’s newest work is particularly applicable now that many Americans are working from home. The bedroom writing desk has been suddenly thrust into the position of full-time workstation. The home is neither physically nor emotionally designed to function as a universal space for all aspects of our lives. We can see this effect in the collective longing for external  work and social spaces. 

Joy at Work takes the same approach of mindfulness and decluttering that was so critical to finding joy and peace within a home, and applies it to the office for the purpose of maintaining focus and productivity, a task made all the more difficult by the tumultuousness of the present. Mindfulness works like Kondo’s are critical to maintaining a sense of momentum and poise in a time of crisis.

Kondo has unintentionally cued into a Covid-19 zeitgeist of craving in the American public. Much like how Nintendo soothed the youth of America’s need for control and plasticity with their recent Animal Crossing release, Kondo has done the same for the sudden shift in the American work life. If there was ever a time for self-help books to bring about overwhelming positive change in the face of adversity, it is now.

 

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The Guttural Poems of Billy Childish

With the world trapped at home, Americans have had their lives and communities forced into micro focus. Poetry is one expression of day to day life under adversity. Concentrated prose is a natural fit for moments that are small, honest, but also potentially ugly. An artist who expresses this reality like no other is the English writer Billy Childish, whose work examines the grit and grime of the domestic and the industrialized community.

billychildish-696x522-1Childish is well known for his poetry collections and longer form memoir. However, he has also had a successful career as a punk rock musician and studio artist. His accentuated British style with tweed, suspenders, and a waxed mustache makes him out to be a living deconstruction of working-class England. As an art school dropout and someone who lived on the dole for over a decade before making a living as an artist, Childish certainly walks the walk.

His poetry books are interspliced with original paintings and prints which create a modern Neolithic style, depicting sex, naked bodies, and misery. These drawings, which feel like neolithic cave paintings, make Childish out to be the artistic intersection between a back-alley addict and a Celtic shaman before the arrival of the Romans. Childish’s poetry is written like a primeval record of a cockney England in its most degenerated form. His writing forgoes the principles of the King’s English in favor of phonetic spellings in lowercase type with minimal or no punctuation. Stanza breaks and enjambment are the reader’s only guide to what feels like the ravings of a drunk outside an English pub. If Bukowski is modern masculinity unveiled in its ugliest and most honest face, then Childish walks that same path back much further to literary tradition of a decrepit England spanning back to the settlement of the British Isles.

His writing contains raw expressions of sexuality and violence. He writes in a poem titled, when the spunk hits yur in the face, “then this bloke says/ ‘ya nans dead’ n its the same man/ who raped you/ then it starts raining/ then someboidy makes yu nob sore/ then all this spunk starts flying atcha// then the bus comers/ but it dont go your way/ it aint half fare…” Childish not only fully displays the raw violence in life, but also a mundane ache and pain that comes with the grime of day to day living. This juxtaposition, combined with strange phonetical spelling and the fearlessness of his subject, makes for fascinating reading. 

The poetry of Billy Childish looks at the world with an apocalyptic glee. His focus and introspection is critical at a time when we are all confined to looking at the world through unwashed windows and bad news on the radio. I return to Childish for a connection with an ancient neolithic dread made new by industrialization. Though not uplifting, the poetry of Childish is certainly liberating in its unflinching gaze into the dark night of the city. 

 

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Authors Discuss Escapism in Literature

In her recent article Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic for Lit Hub, Siri Hustvedt posed the question: “if you are well and at home and have enough to eat and can concentrate on a book, do you read toward or away from your fear?” Along with reading Hustvedt, I spoke with novelist Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection and My Ex-Life, among several other acclaimed best-sellers, to gain an understanding of how different authors are processing the desire to escape into literature during these tumultuous times. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a total immersion in fear. As Hustvedt states, one can, “consume every factual tidbit available about the virus and its spread, the best mask to wear, or how to clean your groceries to avoid contamination.” She goes on to ask, “what could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Hustvedt’s answer is an escape to the fantastic. In fairy tales, she explains, “the hero or heroine is tested sorely, but in the end, he or she is rewarded with happiness.” And to the magic in fairy tales, “the laws of nature are overturned and replaced by human desires.” 

However, magic is not the only way to find a respite from the fear and facts of the news. As McCauley explained, a piece of fiction can be utterly immersive and calming without the use of witches and evil stepmothers. “I find I’m not interested in reading anything either too grim or too suspenseful. [My] nerves [are] frayed enough as is,” he said, referring to the Covid-19 virus. “Since this leaves out much of contemporary fiction, I’m sticking with classics.” Having not read any Dickens in many years, McCauley has now immersed himself in Little Dorrit. “I’d forgotten what a singular pleasure it is to read Dickens,” said McCauley. “His sentences are lavishly embellished, his plots border on incomprehensibly complicated, and the cast of characters is immense. But once you ease into his style and accept his pacing, it’s spectacularly enjoyable. ‘Oh, good, here comes Flora,’ you think and then settle down for ten pages of the character behaving exactly as you know she will. It’s a thoroughly immersive experience.”

What are you reading under lockdown? Let us know in the comments, or write to us on our Facebook or Twitter.

 

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