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Citizen: An American Lyric
By Claudia Rankine
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Reviewing this is a change of pace for me, since I usually review fiction and Citizen is not a work of fiction. What exactly Citizen is, as genre goes, is hard to pin down. Rankine came into the literary world as a poet, but she gained prominence in the literary world with 2004's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which made its point with poetry, essays, and photos. I could describe these in "critic words" like "modern" and "innovative," and those are at once true and valuable facts of both that book, but what really matters about its modern and innovative qualities is how they make it just the right combination of alienating and comforting; first, she makes us feel alienated as the most effective means of conveying her alienation, and then, without proposing any sort of easy solutions -- probably because she doesn't provide easy solutions -- she reminds us that, despite appearances, things will indeed be okay.
Or at least that was the case for that book. Citizen continues in Don't Let Me Be Lonely's style, and in fact develops it a little: brief screenplays about racially incited violence are included toward the end of the piece, fragmentary pieces that contain aspects of, against all odds, the matter-of-fact and the hallucinatory at the same time. These are powerful vignettes, rapid and turbulent; Rankine understands how potentially alienating and difficult literary techniques can be used to nonetheless create a broader communication with the reader. The sense I got, both throughout the broader work and within this specific segment, was an invitation to feel what Claudia Rankine might've felt when she learned of these incidents.
Race is at the center of Citizen, and Rankine approaches the topic with a combination of outrage and alienation. So when she, as an African-American woman, reports on the Serena Williams "Crip Walk" controversy with understandable anger, she does so with sharp attention to the question that seems to sit at the heart of the anger: "how can I consider myself a citizen of a country that, in many ways, does not want me?" She doesn't just do this through text, either, and this is where her formal hybridizing comes out as the strongest possible choice for this book. That her use of photos conveys an undercurrent of loneliness shouldn't surprise anyone -- a particular photo in the early stages of the book shows an empty street, labeled "Jim Crow."
But what if I told you that even her use of white space between words gets this theme across? That might sound like highfalutin concept-art look-at-my-English-Degree crazy talk, but look: at one point here, in a Starbucks, Rankine replies to a racist remark with "no need to get all KKK on them." Cue white space. Cue the man behind saying "now there you go." Cue more white space. With just this use of space, space and not the conventional use of indentation, the awkward pauses and implied lapses in communication spring off the page. One of the very few tricks I've picked up in the study of poetry is how much a simple space between lines can convey, as more than just a break on the page but an actual break in conversation, a sort of disjunct in meaning. Rankine rocks it here.
So it's not just that Citizen is a great book to be reading right now, in the light of recent events that have brought the post-racial dream crashing violently against reality; it's also that it's a book that invites you, by paths both conventional and unconventional, to really feel what Rankine's saying. And you just can't ask for more than that.
Out of 10: 9.3