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What We’re Reading: Books for Our Current World

2016 July 28
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What We're ReadingLife, am I right? It’s been especially catching up to many of us lately in all of our spheres: National. Global. Local. Personal. With so much heartache, I am struggling to find a way through it, to a better place. We all have our own way of dealing with struggles, and soul-searching. My way of soul-searching? Reading, of course. Here are three books that we at Hazel & Wren have reviewed in full before, but are finding new meaning and urgency with recent events. There are so many more, and I hope you’ll share with us what you’re reading in these troubling times.

citizen cover

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Full review here. As reviewer Timothy said, “This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently.” Rankine focuses on microaggressions of racism within these pages, and again, Timothy said it best when he wrote: “This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page.” It’s powerful language, that puts all of the things we hide underneath the surface on the page, where we can’t ignore it.

Tiny_Beautiful_Things_book_coverTiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Full review here. I’ve been struggling in my personal sphere lately, and this book is one I go back to often to gain some perspective, levity, and understanding. It’s a collection that Cheryl Strayed penned under the column “Dear Sugar” for The Rumpus. Sugar responds to life’s chaos and universal questions with zinging humor, brutal honesty, and heartaching clarity. I found it refreshing to bounce between the different columns and questions, between dark depths and light-hearted sass. Each of Sugar’s responses is a glimmering gem that is so spot on that it’s hard to look straight at it without wanting to melt into a puddle of YES. As reviewer Taylor put it: “It is a rare and special feeling when a book can both fill you up and cleanse you.”

truthA Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota edited by Sun Yung Shin

Full review here. This collection of essays from writers of color in Minnesota hits home yet again with the murder of Philando Castile in our state. Please read this, and listen to the human stories told by these talented writers. Absorb the different perspectives, and own up to your own prejudices that arise while reading them. Own up to them, so we can change that way of thinking. From the review: “Each writer is telling their own individual story, and as a composite, this collection provides a larger, more honest and complex picture of race in Minnesota, which we as the reader, start to see with more clarity through each essay.”

Which books am I missing? (There are so many!)

What We’re Reading: Citizen: An American Lyric

2014 November 20
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What We're Reading

citizen coverCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2014)

To this reviewer, it seems like we’re having a bit of a cultural moment, confronting issues of racism and sexism on a national level. In the publishing industry, organizations like VIDA and Cave Canem are making space for diverse voices and calling on more privileged individuals to sit down and listen. This is a good thing for readers whose options are growing as well made and challenging books are brought to the fore.

Back in August I reviewed Jamaal May’s Hum and wrote a little bit about how our reading is almost always affected by the world around us. I finished reading May’s book when protests in Ferguson began and, shortly after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric the #Pointergate scandal hit and I found myself rereading Rankine’s words in light of yet another story with systemic racism at its core. I’m reading within this cultural moment, which has altered my reading list in profound ways.

Citizen contains a series of vignettes describing, in second person, various microaggressions—subtle, perhaps unintended, displays of power by white people toward people of color.

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

So begins one such vignette. Another reads, in full:

The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.

Rankine pulls news stories into these vignettes as well, referencing Don Imus, who notoriously insulted the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and men (boys in the case of the last two) like James Craig Anderson, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis whose tragic deaths were racially motivated.

This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently. As a white man, the experiences of people of color are and always will be beyond my abilities to understand. Rankine, however, provides a window into a world I have the privilege of knowing nothing about. Rankine puts the reader in the spotlight, making us see these stories anew, as a way to cast these aggressions from her body. It’s a tactic that is potentially triggering to someone who has experienced aggressions like this, but is a way to discomfort the comfortable.

Beyond the content, Citizen is formally compelling as well, though very much in the tradition of American letters, as the subtitle alludes to. Split into seven parts, the book has no table of contents and only a single section features titled pieces. This gives the effect of an extended and single work. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with its long, democratic lines, is a clear precursor, but Rankine’s work exists in the more contemporary space of lyric essay as well. Rankine uses outside text and images to illuminate and complicate, such as the recurring quote from Zora Neale Hurtson, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This text stands out most as a two-page reproduction of Glen Ligon’s rendering of the quote in black on a white background. Indeed, Hurston’s quote can be considered a sort of theses statement for the whole book.

In what is perhaps the most focused and clear section, Rankine describes another series of microaggressions, these against tennis star Serena Williams. With the passion of a fan, Rankine examines some of the more egregious offences against Williams:

The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Marina Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her semifinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Comentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening.


Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.

Notice that Serena’s detractors take form as a particular person, a shape for these events to exist in. This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page. The “form” is a way of focusing the reader’s attention on an event and asking the reader, as Rankine writes later in the book, “What do you mean? // Exactly, what do you mean?”

After reading Hum I asked if Poetry Can Save The World or, at the very least, ease your pain when the news of the world becomes too much. I ask both questions again now in the context of Citizen. Reading is an act of empathy, especially if the text you’re reading is in second person, as Citizen is. Can poetry like this save the world?