Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen An American Lyric

The minute I saw the cover I knew I had to read this book. The image of a black hoodie means so much these days in the wake of Trayvon Martin and many other black folks who’ve paid the ultimate price in the face of racism. But for awhile Rankine’s work just felt too heavy of a book for me to read. I’ve needed some space and a few lighter books under my belt before being able to pick up Citizen and give it the presence it deserves.

Rankine is really taking racism to task in her book. Citizen in some ways feels like Rankine’s much needed rant about all the microaggressions and race-based bias or invisibility she’s encountered throughout life. What I think is important though is that Rankine is saying all of this through prose poetry, which lets the rant flow and settle into your brain in little pieces that each deserve their own time to be processed.

Each section of Citizen is in a slightly different style or tackles a different subject, such as media news, microagressions, or more free-floating expression. I connected most with the sections that were about recent events, but I think there’s something in here for everyone. I bet most people who read it will have at least one line that really stands out to them the way that the quote I pulled for the intro stood out to me.

Since I grew up playing tennis and basically worshipping the Williams sisters, I particularly loved the section that talked about all the flak Serena’s had to take as a top female black athlete. Rankine shows a really awesome and sensitive interpretation of some of Serena’s early career “explosions” at umpires who were overly eager to call her serves out of bounds and police her movements on the court. Rather than chalking those outbursts up to the brashness of youth, Rankins suggest they are actually the consequences of microagressions unexpressed.

Throughout her work, Rankine mixes in powerful images, such Glenn Ligon’s 1990 painting in block letters repeating the phrase “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Those breaks, along with lots of white space helped me pause as I was reading and know where I could put the book down.

I think Citizen is the kind of work that I’ll probably read pieces of from time to time and take away different meanings. It makes me even more excited to pick up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and other recent works that take on some of the BlackLivesMatter issues. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more writing that addresses race issues in the coming years.

4Stars24 out of 5 stars

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

Affirmative Poetry

man writing

Reading books by women of color has been a lifeline for me during difficult times. Or joyous times. Anytime I’m yearning for a sense of connection and orientation to my own experiences picking up a book by Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, or Jesmyn Ward is grounding for me.

So I was confused and upset to find out about white poet Michael Derrick Hudson appropriating the name of a Chinese American woman, Yi-Fen Chou, to get his work into the latest version of The Best American Poetry. Using the pseudonym of a woman of color is a strategy that he claims to have used whenever he had a hard time getting published under his own name. He says this is quite a successful tactic.

The atrocious pattern got revealed by Sherman Alexie, who guest edited The Best American Poetry anthology and made the tough decision to include Hudson’s poem after he found out about the misrepresentation. Alexie included a letter alongside the poem that described what happened and why he decided to run the poem anyway. He said that he did favor Hudson’s poem partially because of the Chinese American female pseudonym and that he didn’t want all of the poems within the anthology questioned by pulling Hudson’s.

Understandably, Alexie’s decision didn’t sit well with some, and I have to admit I’m a little torn about it myself. Alexie did point out that “nepotism” among writers of color is just like the nepotism that white writers have been perpetuating among themselves for ages, rather than being some unprecedented and unfair action.

But he could have gone a little further than saying his selection choice wasn’t that important. He could have said that it was a big deal for him to choose a Chinese American woman, because everyone’s story matters and there have been so many barriers to people of color getting published that some affirmative action in the literary world is a good thing.

If no one made an effort to publish the women of color authors that have mattered so much to me, who knows where I would have found those guiding voices. And I reject the idea that people of color are inferior writers to white writers. There’s plenty of room in the world for Hudson’s poems, and we’re learning to make more room for the real Yi-Fen Chou’s also. Plus, I don’t hear women of color complaining every time they get rejected from a publication, even though I’d bet that happens much more disproportionately. Rejection isn’t fun for anyone, but it’s a part of the writer life.

Reflections from Yosemite and Infinite Jest-ing

Ansel Adams-style

Spending half a week in Yosemite allowed me to pause.

Just a forest, two travelers, and a tent. Well, we brought more than that with us, but the emphasis was on the basic and essential things we needed for a few days away.

I left home intending to conquer, to see Yosemite Valley from the top of some peak. Instead, I learned an important lesson from the woods: It’s not always about how far you can push yourself.

When it came down to planning our hikes, I just didn’t feel up to the ones labeled “very strenuous” that would have positioned us for those heady, breathtaking views. So over a few days we hiked the valley floor and spent a luxurious day on the shore of Lake Tenaya. It was a gorgeous and needed experience, even as I had to battle feeling guilty for not climbing something tall and unwieldy to tell stories about later.

At our campsite and hiking around I noticed that we were some of the only people of color around, which, while not a surprise, has me thinking about the culture of outdoorism and how different kids grow up. My partner and I chose to explore the woods by buying camping gear and picking campsites and choosing routes and planning tiny stove meals. We taught ourselves, it wasn’t something we remember from childhood. During this trip, I was amazed at how many white families had chosen to camp with small children, probably wanting to instill some sense of the great outdoors from a young age.

I’m wondering how the woods can become that familiar and accessible to families of color also. Without idealizing the concept of “nature,” I would hope that its concrete benefits like stress reduction, fitness, and emotional development are something that one day all people will feel comfortable enjoying. Professor Carolyn Finney has a book that I would love to read on this topic called Black Faces, White Spaces, where she explores “the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America.”

Speaking of books, I started reading David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest on my trip, and so far have been blown away. Not too long ago I saw End of the Tour, the movie produced about an interview Wallace did with a Rolling Stones reporter before Wallace’s death. While I found the movie itself a little slow, it sparked my interest in him again as an author and was the impetus I needed to finally start Infinite Jest, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time.

I was surprised at first to find myself wanting to write about Wallace, a white male, on this blog which is most often about diversity and social justice. But I think what really intrigues me about his writing, aside from some astoundingly well-crafted prose, is the fact that he sought so deeply to universalize the human experience. It’s easy to go too far in that endeavor — trying to be race-blind or gender-blind, or any other kind of blind that doesn’t really further our understanding of ourselves as people — and I’ll of course be keeping an eye our for that. But as for now I’m really looking forward to giving it a more full review once I get through the 900+ pages and 200+ footnotes. Onward.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

I felt the way I often felt in this country – simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

the book of unknown americans

I picked up The Book of Unknown Americans thinking that maybe it would read as a familiar immigration narrative where a family moves to the U.S. for a better life, faces lots of hardship, and eventually works its way into a somewhat decent living and into the fabric of American culture. Pleasantly, Henríquez plays around with the story format I was familiar with and creates a new and complex one.

Maribel and her parents Alma and Arturo make up a Mexican family who decided to move to the U.S. when Maribel has an accident that causes her brain damage. They move to Delaware in hopes of getting Maribel into a special rehabilitative school that can help her regain some of her past personality and mental health. The story is rich with relationship dynamics of love, guilt, obligation, and trust, both within Maribel’s family and among the rest of the characters.

Right off the bat I loved that this story centered on someone in a different mental state from the other characters in the book. Besides reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a long time ago, I can’t remember too many stories I’ve picked up that have mentally-variant main character.

Each chapter in the book is told by a different character in the Latino housing complex that Maribel’s family moves into. Henríquez really brings out her characters and the multitude of joys and challenges in their lives through the alternating narrative format, which I enjoyed. The word “community” rises strongly to mind.

I also really liked how the book tackles the sensitive topic of “legal” vs. “illegal” immigration status, showing the real injustice of having to have one’s visa sponsored by an employer in order to immigrate legally. All kind of unpleasant consequences are created by that system, even while it can provide some opportunities.

I won’t give away the ending, but I have to say that was the one part of the book I was a little disappointed with. I felt that some of the complexity fell away and left me a little unsatisfied. But maybe not everyone feels that way — I’d love to hear other thoughts.

4Stars24/5 stars

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

Book Review: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights 2

People liked hearing that Texas was back, that they were tough and could take it and were up on their feet again. Fact and fiction merged. They liked George Bush in the same way they absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

A few years ago I worked for an organization that focused exclusively on rural issues. It was my first foray into frequently speaking with and researching people who didn’t grow up in the liberal bubbles within which I navigated my life. I quickly realized that the things I had “known” about rural places, particularly rural white places, were often just stories and caricatures of a way of living very different from my own.

Since then there’s been this pull inside me to learn more and read more about rural places — not just the news headlines about crazy conservative politics, but first person narratives and in-depth journalism that can only come from lived experience.

A lot of my reading about rural places has been from authors of color, like Louise Erdrich’s beautiful works about Chippewa reservations (example: Love Medicine) and Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic odyssey The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration. In picking up Friday Night Lights, I felt like I had found a thoughtful, respectful book about small-town (if not exactly rural) white America.

On face, Friday Night Lights is all about football. The author-journalist Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas in 1988 to capture the entirety of one high school football season. He moved his whole family with him, sending his kids to school in the Odessa school system and doing his best to fully embed into the community through endless interviews and longer-term profiles of the team’s coach and several key players.

Bissinger eloquently captures the frenzy that overtook Odessa every Friday night that a football game was happening — the intense pride and unity that all community members supporting Permian High School felt for “their boys,” as well as the intense pressure the football players themselves felt to be perfect both on and off the field so as to live up to their community’s dreams. There are stories of the school district chartering a jet for fans to travel to away games, of teachers giving the football players test answer sheets along with their test to help keep grades up, of players delaying X-rays on knowingly-fractured bones so as not to become ineligible for playing in the next game, of the near-celebrity status of the stars of the team.

You can see pretty early on though that this is not just a book about the craze of football. It’s also a book about the town itself — its people and its politics, as well as the way it represents a lot of small-town middle America overall and the values of much of that demographic.

Some of the parts I found most interesting were about how the town of Odessa grew and changed over the years, including the race politics of the city. Oil created Odessa, which was mostly white in its beginnings. During the boom years new people arrived and the town flourished, and in the years when oil prices were low the town fell into a stagnancy and economic depression common to so many other small-town places. The black community of course lived almost exclusively on one side of the tracks, in the least desirable part of the city. When Latinos began moving to Odessa in larger numbers, most of them lived on the black side of the tracks as well, though some were able to make it to more affluent part of the town.

As the city got bigger the eastern part of town became the most affluent, most white section and also the location of the football powerhouse high school Permian. Bissinger chronicles how football played a role in perpetuating racism as it grew. When the town was forced to integrate its schools for instance, the black high school got closed down. Permian High School got to have a larger share of the black residents bused to their high school than the third high school across town because of the belief that blacks were faster than whites and the best candidates for runningbacks on the football team. Bissinger discusses several other unsavory accounts of race biases and discrimination throughout the book.

Some of Friday Night Lights is about politics. I felt that Bissinger did a great job of capturing why conservative politics resonated so strongly with the residents of Odessa. Respect, pride, and fighting for your lot in life were values burned into them by the indignities of the economic depression and the isolation they felt from the government. A few particular chapters of the book took me forward light years in understanding (not agreeing with) conservative towns — that it’s not about the policies but the rhetoric and the ability of politicians to tap into a hazy, dreamy vision of American grit. I kept having flashbacks to that Chrysler/Eminem commercial from the Super Bowl of a few years ago as Bissinger detailed the particular political ethos of the town.

I do have some reservations however about what this book meant to the residents of Odessa. The book faced a lot of controversy when it came out, and many people in the town didn’t appreciate the way Bissinger talked about their frenzy for football or their racial dynamics. Bissinger stresses his journalistic objectivity in defending his book, but the idea that anyone can be a completely impartial reporter has never sat well with me. So I do wonder what is missing from the book — if there are ways in which it doesn’t completely capture what the town was all about.

I think it’s about being open to multiple truths. You can learn a lot through documenting a new reality or from reading someone else’s first-hand experience of a new place, but I’m sure there are even more stories to be had that rest with the people of Odessa themselves. All in all, a well-created portrait.

5Stars25/5 STARS

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.