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Writing a Breakthrough: Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN

How does a writer or artist make their work accessible? "I couldn't get into it" rings as the most frequent damnation from book club circles everywhere. Rebecca Mead lampoons the increasingly prominent "scourge of relatability" in the New Yorker. The commercial audience demands it of their fiction and throws up their hands in despair of any and all poetry. Is it necessary to identify with a work of literature? Especially if your aim is to publish and sell books in an industry that is (not coincidentally) largely staffed by and marketed to white people?

In Citizen: An American Lyric, a National Book Award finalist from Graywolf Press, Claudia Rankine chronicles her day-to-day experiences with racism. A neighbor calls the police on the babysitter because a man of color on the front lawn is enough to arouse his suspicions. A stranger laments that her son would have gotten into the college of his choice if the acceptance letters hadn't gone to less talented beneficiaries of affirmative action. A new therapist reacts to finding the author on her doorstep:

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It's as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that's right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

That attack echoes a different one - the shooting of Renisha McBride, the 19-year old car accident victim who knocked on a nearby door for help and was killed with a shotgun by the resident. How distant are these two encounters? Citizen reveals the violence inherent to the racial resentment that her peers confront her with on a daily basis. How easily that violence can be amplified by the offender, and how consistently the victim is silenced.

Citizen's success as a bestseller is being hailed as timely following the protests that swept the country following Mike Brown's murder last year at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Prior to that came the shooting of Trayvon Martin - a jury reached consensus that the threat he presented as a young person of color in a hooded sweatshirt warranted use of deadly force.  A hood sits stark at the center of Citizen's otherwise white cover, illustrating a Zora Neale Hurston quote that Rankine reiterates in her text: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white background."

The book's apt timing does not overshadow its ongoing importance. Citizen is a testament to Rankine's life-long trial. Her encounters may or may not surprise and/or resonate with people of color, but her experiences are by definition inaccesable (but not unreadable!) to a white audience. That audience may sympathize, but cannot ever truly understand the myriad wounds of marginalization. Nevertheless it is one of the most essential and eye-opening books published in the past year and vastly illuminating to the white audience to which mainstream publishing caters almost exclusively. Rankine is innovative in both content and form, melding poetry with personal essay and incorporating artwork and photography throughout.

I recommend Citizen to anyone and everyone. You are also, as always, invited to join our Small Press Book Club at the Brookline Booksmith on Thursday, February 19th at 7pm. I am, on a personal note, super excited about this book and thrilled I have the opportunity to share it.

You can reach me for any questions at [email protected]

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About the Author

Brookline Booksmith opened its doors in 1961 as Paperback Booksmith with the slogan "Dedicated to the fine art of browsing." Constantly changing with the neighborhood around it, Brookline Booksmith has served the people of Brookline and Boston with its eclectic mix of titles, literate and helpful staff, and seemingly neverending schedule of book signings, talks and poetry readings

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Books & Reading

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Poetry

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