The Books We Love

January 27, 2016 § 10 Comments

1464de82d0a6c60f15f447ba9f9021ecA guest post from Claire Amy:

Tenth of December

The man I am in love with and can never have is, of course, a reader. If he were not, probably my heart would have been in less danger when I sat opposite him at the lunch for which I had paid with a considerable donation to charity. He wanted to know if I’d read George Saunders. I’d walked past Tenth of December in my nearest bookstore, picked it up and put it down again, thinking, someday. I had done this countless times. After The Lunch – after the phone calls to the two or three friends who had wanted immediate updates– I walked to the big independent bookstore in his town and bought the Saunders book. In the email I sent my lunch partner the next day, I told him I would start it on the plane back to DC. But there was a late night and a rush to the airport. (There was also a missed plane, which in the romantic comedy based on my life would surely be when he caught up to me.) I wasn’t awake enough to do the book justice.

In any case, he didn’t email me back immediately to begin the dialogue I had hoped would start with extensive discussions of books and end in a marriage proposal. (Though hopefully not over email. Hopefully on a beach at sunset, or at a rooftop bar overlooking the White House. I am a conventional girl.) So it didn’t matter, from that perspective, that I didn’t read the book on the long journey home. I spent the ride instead with my eyes closed, my head leaning against the side of the plane, trying to remember every sentence we had spoken, every facial expression of his, and damn it, was it a soy latté or a soy cappuccino he ordered? And why, when he asked me what the novel I was writing was about, did I simply say “doomed love” instead of coming clean that it was about a girl with a crush on an actor? Would the conversation have taken a different turn if I had said that? Would I even be flying home at all?

Desperate for any connection with him, I read the book he had so loved. I savoured it over a few months. It blew me away. When I finish some books, truly exceptional books, all I can do – all I want to do – is sit with my emotions. This was one of those books. And it was one of those books not only because of its brilliance, but also because it drew me closer to him. Because it made me fall in love a little more with the man who had fallen in love with this prose.

Freedom

Way back in 2010, long before The Lunch, he and I had communicated for the first time, albeit indirectly. He was being featured on an interview show, and questions had been invited from us humble folks out there on the Internet. I had just seen in a magazine piece that he read a book a week. So because I wanted my question to be original enough to get chosen, and because the books people love are, I think, key to their soul, I asked: what is the best book you have read this year? He didn’t hesitate on this one. Freedom, he said. I bought it, of course, though not immediately. I had not long finished The Corrections; I’d very much enjoyed it, but I wasn’t ready for another Franzen just yet. I finally ordered Freedom in early 2012; it sat on my shelf in Belgium for a while and then moved with me to America, where it sat on my shelf for much longer. But soon after I finished Tenth of December, I spent a few days in bed with a cold and Freedom. There’s no denying that Franzen is a master of prose and deeply insightful about the human condition; there were moments, however, when I thought if I read the words cerulean warbler one more time I might throw this book at the wall. When I was done, I wanted to take the book that the man I love so much had loved so much and whack him over the head with it repeatedly. In play, of course. In jest. In flirtation. There would be a kind of shared experience in that too.

The Cranes Dance

Around the time I finished Freedom, a book by Meg Howrey called The Cranes Dance popped up on my Goodreads feed. Great look into ballet, mental illness, and sisterhood, my friend had written. Ballet! Another connection. He had talked at The Lunch about his teenage daughter’s love of dance, the potential future steps he and her mother were exploring for her, his pride in her another nail in the coffin of my ability to ever think about any other man. (He talked about his other children, too, almost as if careful to make sure they got a fair and equal amount of time with me.) Maybe this book would captivate me; maybe I could email him after I had read it and recommend it to him for her. Maybe this would be the thing leading to the long email exchanges I had been daydreaming about since I read about his one-book-a-week aspiration in the magazine article. I loved the novel, but that was in part because of the cynical, jaded voice of the narrator. Not appropriate for his daughter, I decided. I wanted to shield her from cynicism, from jadedness. I feel very protective of his kids. A therapist would, no doubt, have a lot to say about that, and even more to say about the ballet lessons I started taking after reading the book. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, I would tell her: after it, therefore because of it. I read a book and it inspired me. Nothing to see here. Certainly nothing to question. But we would both know that isn’t true.

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Claire Amy lives in Washington, DC. She graduated with her MFA in May 2015, and currently interns for a magazine and for an organization which promotes reading. She is a regular contributor to a popular books website, and her essays, poems, and journalism have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from writing and lifestyle magazines to a national newspaper.

To Quit or Not to Quit, That is the Question

January 26, 2016 § 7 Comments

Angshuman Das

Angshuman Das

A guest post from Angshuman Das

 

I remember a book reading several years ago by best-selling British author Jeffrey Archer at a major bookstore chain in Mumbai, India. A new book by him was being released. While speaking of writing, he answered many questions from the audience with charm, authority and wit.

At one point, in answer to a question, he pointed to journalists seated in the front. “If you want to write stories, you should quit your job.” Archer said writers can’t do their best job on producing creative literature if most of their energy has been spent on their day job.

Archer, it seemed to me, could say that with conviction because he was speaking from his position of eminence – and confidence that comes from success. But he is not the only guru who says this. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee tells aspirants, in his famous book, Story: “You must find a way to earn your living from your writing.” He gives pretty much the same reason as Archer.

To quit one’s job or not – that is the question. Quitting one’s day job is a life-altering decision, like getting married or divorced.

The question begets a whole lot of other questions and issues. To be able to live without a job, writers need to publish their writing and earn enough money from it. But many published writers would say a writer is, well, a writer because she writes. Publishing doesn’t make you a writer, says Robin Black in a recent article in The Review Review magazine. But how does a creative fiction or nonfiction writer earn a livelihood if he is not published? Is quitting a job, then, an option? Yes, if one’s father is in business and he says, “Son, go ahead and chuck that job. You’ve got $50,000 for a couple of years from my kitty to complete that novel.”

For the rest of us, though, such generosity and luck would be a dream. And, yet, it makes sense to devote most of your best energies to your passion, not to your day job.

One the other hand, if you ask other established writers, some of them might say – and you would tend to believe them – that a day job can be an asset to an emerging author. A job teaches you many things; say, for instance, how to conduct yourself in a business or professional setting, or about certain professions and industries or human behaviour in the corporate world. Some writers, like John Grisham, have used this kind of real-world experience to weave fictional stories. Furthermore, some writing advisors say, “See your day job as funding your writing aspiration.”

What, then, is a struggling creative writer keen to pursue his passion supposed to make of this morass of conflicting advice? I have been a communications professional and a business and technology writer for years, and I have been grappling with this question for as long.

Writing itself is difficult – memorable writing, in any case – and being a full-time creative writer is more so. Getting published in even a literary journal is more challenging than getting accepted into Harvard or winning a lottery. Lit mag publishing experts, like editors, would tell you that the acceptance rate for submissions is indeed low. The Antioch Review receives about 4,000 of them a year and publishes less than 1 percent. In 2014, Colorado Review accepted less than 1 percent of a total of 4,809 submissions. For most aspirants, therefore, so much easier would be to get a job at a corporation, which, for instance, would pay $40,000 a year.

Yet, thousands of wannabes keep flooding lit mags, literary agents and book publishers with submissions. The resilience of the literary dream is remarkable.

I have thought about quitting my day job many times. Then, looking at my young daughter’s face, I have demurred. Would I have the luxury to afford mushroom and broccoli? Can I continue to send her to school?

If one has true passion, quitting one’s job is possible as a leap of faith. There have been great writers, like Margaret Atwood, who have decided that creative writing is the only vocation they can pursue. “It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do,” Atwood says in her writing memoir, Negotiating with the Dead.

Until an emerging creative writer gathers the faith and courage to chuck the security of a regular job, there may be other options. A sabbatical, perhaps? Writing fellowships or residencies? I wish there were more generous foundations and endowments in the world supporting the International Fraternity of Emerging and Prone-to-quitting-day-job Authors and Artists.

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Angshuman Das is a writer and blogger based in Kolkata, India. He also works at a day job as a marketing communications professional at an IT company. He is currently a 2016 blogger for Ploughshares journal. In an earlier avatar, he worked as a journalist at newspapers in the United States and India. His writing has appeared on the Ploughshares blog, and in The Hindustan Times, InMamasKitchen.com, and other online publications, including Prairie Wolf Press.

 

On “the Terrible Efficiency of Gaslighting”

January 22, 2016 § 14 Comments

e.v. de cleyre

e.v. de cleyre

By e.v. de cleyre

On Saturdays, my mother brought me to the fabric store where she worked and taught me to measure yards. At home, the sewing machine whirred us to sleep, as my mother stole moments of creativity for herself. Slivers and scraps of fabric became something else entirely when stitched together—somehow more whole. As the work grew, stretching across the dining room table, we ate in the kitchen, displaced by quilts. Batting done, borders hand-sewn, the quilts disappeared, re-appearing with blue ribbon awards at the local quilt fair.

My mother stopped quilting after the divorce. She resigned from her position as a teacher and sales associate at the local fabric store, and returned to nursing. The connection was not made explicit, but as a child I inferred that creative pursuits were a luxury, not a livelihood; a hobby, not a career. Toiling at a fabric store, though creatively fulfilling, was not viable. At a certain point, we must make compromises in order to live, and oftentimes the first to be cut from the cloth is our creativity.

**

When asked about the reading, male-writer-friend replies that the visiting author was “a babe.” When pressed for more information, male-writer-friend adds that what doesn’t get conveyed in the recording is the author’s bubbly personality, the way she smiles, says “yeah,” and plays with her hair. He makes little mention of the content of her talk, or the quality of her work, only that one answer to an audience member’s question was “interesting.” Nevermind that the author topped the New York Times best-seller list, and landed a two-book, seven-figure deal.

The temptation is there to divorce writing from publishing, to delineate and distinguish the two as separate. The VIDA Count exists because there is still a discrepancy. One could argue that it is harder for some—women, transgender individuals, people of color—to publish than others, and that this obstacle makes it harder to write. If no one is publishing your work, at a certain point, the writing—if its intention is to be read—feels futile. If no one is compensating you for your work, the writing—which needs little to be done—may be pushed aside in favor of more practical matters, like paying the rent.

In the essay “On Pandering,” published recently on the Tin House blog, Claire Vaye Watkins relays her experience of being dismissed by a male writer as not a writer, not even a human, treated instead as a piece of property. Dubbing an author “a babe” is a similar dismissal—the refusal to acknowledge her as a writer, instead a direct infantilization.

Claire Vaye Watkins continues: “I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. […] I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.”

When the author bemoans to a friend that she has “nothing to write about,” the friend reminds her of motherhood, a newborn child, the “struggle to make your marriage work.” Vaye Watkins writes, “when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women.”

**

When I introduce one of my favorite authors to people who have not heard of her, I mention that she was once married to a male novelist, as if the mention of his name validates her own genius, a kind of genius by association. Her work is brilliant. Staggering. It does not need to be associated with anyone or anything, no man nor marriage, and yet I find myself engaging in the same sort of gaslighting mentioned in “On Pandering,” unintentionally diminishing this woman’s work—and my own in the process. In order to be taken seriously as a writer, I buy into the (false) notion that I have to write serious things.

Again: No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.

**

I am twenty-seven and married in the same way my mother was twenty-seven and married. After my MFA, in between revisions of a nonfiction manuscript, I returned to sewing, joking that it was a creative pursuit that didn’t involve rejection.

Like my mother, I am afforded the luxury of time for creative pursuits through the support of a spouse. Writing should be easy, and is made easier, because I do not have to choose between creative pursuit and material comfort. But what if this connection is severed, along with this illusion of permanence and security?

As I feed fabric under the needle, hyper-aware of the limitations of my skills and the re-emergence of some dormant knowledge, I feel quaint—strung between wanting to create garments and quilts with fabric, and feeling hemmed in by the inherent femininity of the pursuit. It feels trivial to even speak of it; when I explain my new pursuit to a male-photographer-friend, before he jets off on an assignment to South Sudan, I find myself trying to justify it with facts and figures gleaned from a documentary—placing my creativity in a larger context, assigning it more importance than necessary. Really, all I need to say is, I like to sew. Yet beneath that, Vaye Watkins’s words echo in my mind: Domestic. For Women.

**

Writing does not leave me with pinpricks along fingertips. Writing does not scald like a hot iron. Writing is not a body ravaged by cancer. Writing is not a garment factory in Bangladesh, or a cannery in Alaska.

In this way, writing is easy. But it is still an internal struggle to carve out time each day to devote to the craft, to actively ignore or refute the terrible efficiency of gaslighting. It is a struggle to honor stories and experiences often dubbed trivial, quaint, and to consider them valid enough to voice—stories about struggling newlyweds, divorce, a novice seamstress, a woman trying to marry creative fulfillment and fair compensation. It is a struggle to do justice to someone’s life and work, to not reduce them to simplistic narratives: mother, quilter, divorcee, newlywed, nurse, daughter, sister, woman. It is a struggle to remain open, to be fully human, and to render others as such in prose—but you must remember, must believe, that it will be so worthwhile.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

 

A Review of Amy Ferris’s Shades of Blue

January 21, 2016 § 4 Comments

zz shades-of-blue-coverBy Nancy Jainchill

Shades of Blue is a book about depression, the blues, and suicide, yet it manages not to be depressing because of its humor, hope, and courage. This anthology of thirty-four personal stories, edited by Amy Ferris, concerns what’s locked up inside us. Ferris is open about her own struggles, her young girl attempt to kill herself, and how Robin Williams’ suicide prompted her to take on this project. “I live in a community where most folks don’t talk about suicide, or depression or feeling blue. It’s just not that kinda town. It’s gorgeous & quaint & oh, so beautiful. Filled with the most eclectic group of humans…. A couple of years ago we lost one of our favorite business owners—from a self-inflicted gun shot….”

That kinda town isn’t unusual, highlighting how lonely depression can be—how dangerous that is—and how important it is people are beginning to go public about it. I’m a psychologist and some of my patients travel distances to see me, to keep their visits confidential.  Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue is a courageous publication.

Because of my work, I’ve a singular interest in depression. I’m hyper-alert to suicidal thoughts, to signs of hopelessness and despair, to a person losing sight of the future. Yet, even with my experience, I remember reading William Styron’s memoir, Darkness Invisible, years ago and suddenly having a different understanding of that tunnel devoid of light. His book had a quiet presence—but it was Styron’s story. Shades of Blue isn’t one person’s story, and that’s why it’s significant.

The essays include accounts of personal experiences with depression, more than half which I’d describe as organic—depression that seems to be in a person’s bones, in the blood running through their veins—while others I’d consider more or less situational or reactive, as when the vicissitudes of life become overwhelming. There are also “witness” essays, in which the writer recounts the struggle of someone close, often a suicide. The impact on the person left behind is described as “a long memory—a complicated grief….” Another writer reflects on the shock of the unexpected; three friends laugh their way through college, and the one who was larger than life, who wore the tiara, becomes the revolving door patient of psychiatric hospitals until she can’t take it anymore.

Several authors are especially adept at engaging the reader in conversation. I could easily be sitting across the table from them, listening to their stories. Differing in their intensity, I sometimes needed to step away, especially if the narrator is still grieving; yet others are hopeful, and a number of essays offer unique voices and welcome humor.

The use of medications is discussed. Antidepressants may be a lifeline, particularly when depression starts early in life and becomes as much a part of the person as eye color. Others find alternative ways to cope—a protocol of meditation, right eating, yoga or alternative exercise, even skydiving—strategies more common when the unhappiness appears to be reactive or transitory.

Occasionally I get deep down depressed, although I’m not prone to the blues, and I remind myself it will pass, that I probably won’t feel like this a week from now. The contributors to this collection emerge offering a similar message learned through their personal experiences: Tomorrow will be better. Hang on; hang in.

When I was sixteen years old and seriously miserable, I swallowed six aspirin—and took several swipes across my right wrist with a razor blade (I was left-handed). Fortunately, I wasn’t seriously interested in dying. The teens and early twenties were the unhappiest times for me. I’m not alone. Adolescence is fraught with agony, especially for young people who are more vulnerable whether it’s because of brain chemistry or exogenous circumstances or a diabolical interaction of the two. Reference to unhappy childhoods is a common theme in this anthology. The “youngest” contributor is a woman still in college, who offers as much insight as anyone into her battle with the deep down blues and the solitude of the experience. Our culture continues to stigmatize mental illness, silencing the public acknowledgement of depression and its impact on those who suffer. Shades of Blue is insightful, compassionate, and heartening. It speaks to those who grapple with mental illness, those who love them, and those who want to better understand their experiences.

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Nancy Jainchill is a practicing psychologist who, in pursuit of a long-delayed writing life, received an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars Program in 2013. She has an essay included in the anthology Every Father’s Daughter, and her work has appeared The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Calyx, Free State Review, Entropy, and The Woodstock Times.

 

What Do I Tell My Teens about My Memoir?

January 20, 2016 § 13 Comments

Jennifer Lang

Jennifer Lang

by Jennifer Lang

Sitting at the table smearing hummus on oven-warmed pita last Saturday, I was caught off guard by my daughter’s question. “So, Mommy, what are you going to do after you graduate in July?” she asked. I had been home in Raanana less than twenty-four hours after my fourth residency at a MFA program in America when the subject of my creative thesis and the future came up in conversation. My body still felt cold from snowy Vermont despite the bright Israeli sun streaming in every window.

“Continue writing a book,” I said with conviction.

“About what?” she asked, testing me. Perhaps my daughter, the youngest and most innocent of my three kids, has heard enough of our marital spats to gauge the up-and-down temperature in our house. She knows I write creative nonfiction and have a tell-all tendency, fearing every teenager’s worst dream: will Mom expose us?

“Not sure yet,” I said, although I was. For the past six months, I have been traveling down memory lane, scouring old photo albums from our wedding and writing about the major crossroads in our marriage. But how could I tell my baby I’m writing about our union in order to explore what makes me—my husband, us, you, him, her, anybody—stay when things get tough? That I am on this journey thanks to my fellow writers’ probing questions about why I returned to a country that riles me, even frightens me? During my most recent workshop, I shared the first twenty pages of my manuscript with my cohorts and faculty leaders, eager to know if the material engaged them. Yes, everyone said, using words like riveting, compelling, hooked.

For years, I had been writing about my ambivalent relationship with the country of Israel, a place where I had never intended to live but visited often until, in my early twenties, I unexpectedly met and fell in love with a French immigrant and stayed. Israel, to me, has always been halfway around the world from my California-girl reference point. At the start of graduate school, I told my first mentor my intention to write a collection of linked essays about these feelings; he encouraged me to let go and write new material instead.

Then, early in my second semester, I submitted a segmented essay titled “Sealed” about running to our sealed room in Israel, as newlyweds, during the First Gulf War, and over two decades later during the Israel-Hamas War, with our kids. In the intervening years, we moved—from Israel to France to California to New York to Israel. Each move involved compromises and negotiations, deals we sealed, often with a kiss, sometimes with anger and resentment and always with great sacrifice. One of us chose country, the other religious lifestyle.

My mentor suggested I divide it into two essays: one on my marriage and one on the psychological effects of war. A list essay on the latter poured onto the page. But my marriage? Why, I wondered, would that interest anybody? I opened a Word document, introduced us and our core issues, saved it as “Saying I Do,” and closed it, blocked.

A few months later, I renamed it “Scenes from My Mixed Marriage” and approached our twenty-seven year history in bite-sized acts. I wrote about the first time we met; our linguistic flirtation in Hebrish, Franglais, and Frebrew; our intense chemistry; and my husband’s proposal to move in together after one month. I described my inner struggles about giving up graduate school, career and country—for him. I revisited heart-wrenching conversations, sometimes between the two of us and others with a therapist, about where to live and how to raise our kids Jewishly. I realized that my ambivalence about where I live is intimately tied to my complex, tri-cultural marriage.

Throughout the years, I have heard Mary Karr, William Zinsser, Kathryn Harrison, Anne Lamott and others discuss the importance of writing our emotional truth even about people who are still alive and in our lives. I received my husband’s blessing to write. But I never considered how, what or when to tell my sixteen, eighteen and twenty-two year old children that I would be writing about their father and me, which includes them too.

Even if the process of writing, revising and perhaps publishing a book takes years, they will always be my children. My drafts now include scenes about sex, escalating marital tension, our discussions on staying together or calling it quits. I don’t think kids should be privy to all that about their parents. Or am I acting prude and protective, a literary hover-mother?

I pledge to revisit the topic in six months, after I graduate, after the structure of the story becomes clearer, after I gain more confidence with the manuscript, after I unseal myself from all the places and parts I have played for so many years as wife, mom, woman and wanderer.

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An MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Jennifer Lang resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Her essays have been published in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, the South Loop Review, The Indian River Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first memoir about staying in a complex marriage.

No Little Person

January 19, 2016 § 13 Comments

Our editor-in-chief

Our editor-in-chief

In graduate school, my biological clock went off. I had never previously considered children–in fact, I actively disliked them–but the imperative to have them suddenly surfaced. I welled up at the sight of babies in strollers, cooed over fragrant little beings in onesies.

Fortunately, it passed.

I’m still slightly conflicted, although now at the age where childlessness is nearly inevitable. Every now and then my husband pats my tummy in a meaningful way, and I focus hard on the words that finally swung me, my life coach saying, “Of all the dreams you’ve ever expressed to me, none of them had a little person running around in there.”

I do wonder what might have been. During the MFA, I’d asked a guest writer and mother, “Doesn’t parenting take away all your time to write?”

She said, “Well, I used to wake up, read the paper, get to writing around eleven, drift through a few pages. Now, it’s like a mission, ‘He’s down for his nap I have twenty minutes GO!’ So I’m actually more productive.”

(I’ll pause for a moment while half the parents now reading laugh hysterically and the other half nod grimly.)

Christina Lupton writes about the to-parent-or-not-to-parent-while-making-art dilemma, in a brief and beautiful essay at Avidly.

What I’d like to write about, instead, are all the ways of tending to the world that are less easily validated than parenting, but which are just as fundamentally necessary for children to flourish.  I mean here the writing and inventing and the politics and the activism; the reading and the public speaking and the protesting and the teaching and the filmmaking.  These things are done by definition either by those don’t have kids at home, or by those whose kids are being looked after by other people – by states, grand-parents, friends…

Such communal caretaking, though we don’t acknowledge it very openly, is necessary:  there are a few things you can do with a kid in tow, but not many.  Most of the things I value most, and from which I trust any improvements in the human condition will come, are violently incompatible with the actual and imaginative work of childcare.

Lupton eloquently defends both parenting and non-parenting, while avoiding the easy trap of seeing them as rival states. As a non-parent, I breathed a sigh of relief; as a parent, you may well see some things you value reflected in Lupton’s journey.

“After Mother’s Day” is both a brilliant political assessment and a deeply moving personal essay. Go read the whole thing.

________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

A Review of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric

January 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

 

Sandell Morse

Sandell Morse

By Sandell Morse

Sometimes a book comes along and I take it in like breath, filling my lungs, then letting it go, slowly, dispersing and touching every cell in my body. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was one of those books, as was Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. These books transformed my thinking and changed the way I saw my world. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric is one of those life-changing books.

I found the book talking with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, poet and friend, about his work, about my work, each of us stretching our genres in different ways, Gibson moving into prose poems, me turning my hybrid essays about Jews, War and Vichy France into narrative. I like to read as I write, the words of others stirring my mind and filling the well of my creativity. I asked Gibson what he was reading. “Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It’s hybrid, prose/poetry.”

Although the book was a National Book Award finalist, I’d never heard of it. “Good?” I asked.

“Amazing.”

Citizen is about race but so much more. Visibility, invisibility. I thought of the early eighties when I was at Dartmouth, matriculating for a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree, studying with visiting professor Ishmael Reed, novelist and satirist extraordinaire and with Bill Cook, poet, English professor and chair of African-American Studies. Ishmael published my first stories in Quilt, a journal he edited with Al Young. Bill staged a reading of a play I’d written; yet, I understood that neither of my wise, witty and generous Dartmouth professors could hail a cab in New York City, the cabbie seeing only the blackness of their skin. And today? Better, but are we willing to settle for better?

In Citizen, Rankine blurs the line between you and I, between prose and poetry, as she writes eloquently and stingingly of race in America. There is so much white space in the text, as if to underscore the whiteness most of see, blinding us to the everyday slights of what it means to live inside black skin, a seat left empty on a train or a bus because the seat beside it is occupied by a person of color, a white person cutting in front of the narrator in a drug store line and then apologizing because he did not see her. In Citizen, racial slights are everywhere, at the supermarket, in a restaurant, at work, online, on TV, on the tennis court and at center court for Serena Williams. Visual imagery accompanies the text, and taking up a full page, a shocking photo of Caroline Wiozniacki, a former number one player, imitating Serena Williams by stuffing towels in her top and in her shorts, creating bizarre breasts and ass, mocking the black female body, Wiozniacki’s hand touching her own ass, her blond hair pulled back, her red lips smiling coquettishly, as she ridicules the best female tennis player of all time. All in good fun? A joke? Racist?

So many bad calls for Serena, serves and lines, so many bad calls for all black Americans, the cabbie who won’t stop, a neighbor who calls police because she sees a black person pacing in front of the house next door, police, killing unarmed black boys and men, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice…

Rankine’s mind is razor sharp, her prose clean, sparse and beautiful. She is a joy to read, but tough to bear as she holds up a mirror to who we are. We ask ourselves: what does citizenship mean? That we can answer a few basic history questions? Or that we share a commitment to equality? All of us, regardless of race or religion, are connected. The measure of our humanity lies in whether or not we will continue to tolerate injustice the injustice that surrounds us. In Citizen, Rankine is asking us to change the way we see. If we see, we will be able to act—if we choose.

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Sandell Morse’s work has appeared in numerous publications including, Creative NonfictionPloughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Ascent. “Brown Leather Satchel” has won second place in the 2015 Tiferet nonfiction contest, and has also been named a finalist in the Orison Books Anthology 2015, nonfiction contest judged by Ann Hood. “Hiding” is a notable essay of 2013, listed in Best American Essays, 2013. “Houses” has been nominated for Best of the Net, 2014 and also for a Pushcart Prize. “Canning Jars,” has won an honorable mention in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, 2013. “Circling My Father” won the 2010 Michael Steinberg essay award. Morse has won awards for her work from Press 53 and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.
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