The Poetics of Otherness in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

book cover

I am currently doing an in-depth study of four of William Faulkner’s major novels: Sound and the Fury (1929), Absalom Absalom! (1936), As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1930).

Last month, I began with Light in August. All set with stick-ons and pencil. My diary was replete with notes, pages numbers, important portions, striking sentences etc.

When I sat to jot down important aspects of the book that moved me, I realised there was one fundamental thing that I couldn’t get past. I listed race, violence, identity, gender equations, narrative methodology among a long and illustrious list of things to read up on, interpret and understand, towards expanding and (probably) formulating my unique take on the novel.

But the one thing I couldn’t really get past, and kept coming back to, was the treatment of race.

In the novel, the protagonist, or more accurately, the anti-protagonist (to coin a term, and one that is quite similar, and yet not quite, to anti-hero), Joe Christmas, is a person of mixed race. His miscegenation forms the core narrative of the book and most of the novel foregrounds his struggle with his own identity. You may read more about the character, plot devices and narrative hereThe Circular Structure of Light in August. Although it is both unfair and impractical to sketch the complex narrative of the novel in a few sentences, I will try nonetheless. This is what happens: Joe Christmas, who is of mixed race, has been a drifter ever since he escapes from his adopted Puritan father’s house (where his adopted father tries to forcefully initiate him into Christian faith), only to land up at the backhouse of Ms Burden’ house (she is a Black sympathizer). It is later revealed that Joe along with another guy, Brown, had been bootlegging. In the meanwhile Joe Christmas gets involved in a passionate, albeit complex affair with Ms Burden (more on this in the next blog post) . She  tries to initiate him into her faith (reasons follow in the next post); which he violently resists, thereby killing her and setting her house on fire. Subsequently he us hunted by a lynch mob and killed and, shockingly, castrated by a white police officer. There are other subplots, characters and twists and turns of interest. You can read about them hereLight in August: Analysis.

What came to be of heightened interest to me was this: I didn’t want to read the novel as an exploration, and subsequent excoriation of racial politics in the Deep South of the 1800s. Rather what drew my attention, time and again, was the otherness embodied in Joe Christmas’s character.

The violence that his actions embody (more on this in the next blog, wherein I will try to place Rene Gerard’s arguments on violence in context of the novel), the drifting nature of his pursuits, even the misogyny, resistance to definition, and a practiced vehemence against religion (and women) – all of these seemed, not only the derivatives of racial alienation (which indeed they were), but also a manifestation of an individual’s deep, spiritual struggle against the sort of otherness imposed on him since birth due to his mixed racial origins.

It was mere coincidence that one evening, while I was browsing the internet; I came across Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014). I ordered it. It arrived three days back. Ever since, I have been pouring into the pages of a book, which is not quite like any other that I have read.

The book derives part of its power from resisting to be put under any single umbrella (It was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and Criticism. It won for Poetry). But part of its power comes from the narrative methodology of the book that compliments, heightens and vociferously sharpens its edge.

Divided into twelve chapters, each of the pages tells a different story. These could be prose poems, stream of consciousness reflections, fictionalised accounts of real life events, real life accounts of real life events, and even at times, furious jottings at the back of tissue papers at airports.

Irrespective of what they are (and they are very, very good indeed), they dwell on territory similar to Joe Christmas’s. The form differs, the content remains the similar. Or vice versa.

These pieces (yes, that I what I would choose to call them), are emotionally charged, sensitive, racially conscious universes. At most times, each page consists of a single passage, leaving half or even three-fourths of the page blank. Almost like lose strings. Only, these are charged with a mountain of hurt, pain, and angst accumulated through prolonged exposure to the most banal and ordinary kind of alienation.  Here, for instance, read this:

In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then, it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.

Oh my God, I didn’t see you.

You must be in a hurry, you offer.

No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

These lines explore the poetics of otherness from various angles and perspectives. Otherness, that is as racial, as it is contextual. Here, for instance, 

Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect – context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you ould probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then you realise you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends”. (P 48)

Two other very striking aspects of the book stand apart. Firstly, it beautifully and at times, terrifyingly foregrounds bitter, painful  emotional residue accruing from damaging banal experiences, and tries to place it in an alternative narrative. Just as we saw in the above poem, how context drastically alters meaning, the next piece foregrounds how experience is linked to language, which in turn is linked to identity.

Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. You can feel everyone lean in. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates us.

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and as insane as it is, saying please. (p 49)

In a way, she pushes us to interrogate the function and politics of language. And indeed,  not simply language, but language that manifests as spoken words – it is the most banal manifestation, and yet, Rankine raises it to a pitch, otherwise inconceivable. Here, she writes,

When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.

Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to “our mistake”. Apparently, your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion. This is how the apparatus she propels you into begins to multiply in meaning.

What did you say?(P 43)

She not only dissects how even little words like our/your, us/them are reflective of, and laden with, preconditioned notions layered over generations, but also highlights their power as ‘apparatuses that multiply in meaning’; meaning, which NOT of the subject‘s making.

I feel this is the most dangerous premise of otherness. Not only is the ‘other’ propelled into and assigned an arbitrary meaning, often nothing more than a few casual words act as power apparatus for such assignations.

Therefore, her work is much about meaning and language, as it is about racially conscious conduct, either through language, or through other non verbal cues, that ultimately accrue pain, humiliation and anger. About anger, she writes,

On the bridge between this sellable anger and “the artist” resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this type of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanisation every brown and black person lives simply because of skin colour. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.

You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived. (p 24)

These pieces are as much about visibility and invisibility, as they are about absorption and the resistance from such absorption, they are about making oneself be seen, heard and perceived in a manner that is fair.

Yes, I know, it may not be very wise of me to be using the word fair, but yes, I felt, to a large extent, that a lot of the pieces in the book bring forth the need to be treated with fairness (and decency, and rationally while looking beyond the colour of one’s skin), not justice (that has legal connotations), but with fairness, and all those things that run through one’s mind when such fairness becomes dependent on one’s skin colour.

Coming back to the poetics of otherness, I’d say, and I will explore this idea in some of my later blogs, that the poetics of otherness is deeply linked to the extent of fairness with which one treats the other, black – brown, yellow, whoever that might be.

For now, please do pick up this book. It is available here. It is highly readable, provocative and enriching, for many reasons than one.


Claudia Rankine: Image Courtesy Google

A review of the book is available hereCitizen by Claudia Rankine: The Ugly Truth about Racism

The book is available hereCitizen by Claudia Rankine Amazon


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