Claudia Rankine Wishes More Writers Thought About Whiteness

What books are on your night stand?

My night stand functions as a repository for the future in a way. The books that live there tend not yet to be published. They state clearly their status as uncorrected proof not yet for sale. Right now the books I am reading are Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Committed,” Daphne Brooks’s “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” and Sarah Schulman’s “Let the Record Show: A Political History of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP 1987-1993.”

What’s the last great book you read?

Damn. I feel as if I am going public with my Christmas present this year, but Hisham Matar’s “The Return” does the thing I love best in literature. It takes a personal question (or a moment of doubt could be another way of thinking about it) and interrogates lines of inquiry surrounding that question, historically and psychologically. After a while the answer is known but it no longer matters because the expanding life of the question is what keeps us reading. This is the kind of book that demands I slow down the closer I get to its end, preparing myself for the loss of the speaker in my world.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I reread Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a form of fact-check against the Hulu series and it did feel as if I was reading it for the first time. This cast doubt on all the books I read in college that I didn’t actually write papers about. I didn’t remember the book being as diverse as the series so I wanted to understand the gaps in memory.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I love when someone enters the room when I am reading. I see their lips moving but I am now in another country, perhaps even in another century. I am fighting both to stay where I am and to regain composure in the present day, hour, moment. It’s a struggle within myself I can only locate with books I cannot leave behind. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” are two examples of books that made me feel I was for somewhere else, and for something else.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

J. M. Coetzee’s “Life and Times of Michael K” is a book I often refer to in conversation only to receive a wrinkled brow. People tend to know “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “Disgrace.” “Michael K” lives closer to poetry and has little commitment to a linear plotline. It’s difficult to know anything for certain and yet — you feel everything forever. It’s similar to Teju Cole’s “Open City.” It’s all moment and atmosphere. The encounter is both the sidewalk and the mist.

What’s your favorite book to assign and discuss with your students at Yale?

Harryette Mullen’s “Sleeping With the Dictionary” performs how a formally innovative text stays current with the culture despite its publication date. She works with what she calls “ready-mades from the mass-culture dumpster” as one aspect of her compositional strategy. This means the reader encounters, in an improvisatory manner, folk sermons, raps, puns, riddles, political slogans, advertisements, headlines, etc. The work refuses to identify with a single, person, place or thing as it engages race in America. “Muse and Drudge” is another of her books I often teach.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

“Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval,” by Saidiya Hartman, created new pathways for me to think about archival work — what’s left unsaid, what’s documented, what goes undocumented in the making of a life. Hartman, one of our most brilliant contemporary thinkers, introduced the term “critical fabulation” into my world. She’s a theorist and writer who actually changes what’s possible in my thought patterns. It’s exciting.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I wish writers would consider more deeply how whiteness is constructed in their work. The unmarked ways in which our white supremacist orientations get replicated in books and go unquestioned in theory remain one of the most insidious ways racist ideas continue to shape our consciousness.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

When I’m held by the beauty of the language, first and foremost, as opposed to being simply carried along by the plot.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

I don’t know the difference.

How do you organize your books?

By subject: Art books are in the living room because in the before times visitors would page through photographs by Dawoud Bey or Titus Kaphar’s paintings or Jen Bervin’s concrete poems while they waited for their Scotch. Poetry books are in my school office so I can refer to lines and share the books with students. Theory books are in my home office because they take my full attention for long periods of time. Novels, depending how much I love them once I’ve read them, end up either in the guest room or in a bag by the door to be given away.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

P. Carl’s “Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” and Sarah Blake’s “The Guest Book.” These books weren’t given to me as gifts, but I considered it a privilege and a gift to be in conversation with these two writers while they were being written. One a memoir and the other a novel, these books are groundbreaking in their cleareyed scrutiny of the role race and class play in our society and in our lives, whether addressing gender identity or a WASP upbringing.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

James Baldwin, Paul Celan, César Vallejo, Lorraine Hansberry and Gertrude Stein. I know this is five guests, but, given the quarantine, it’s been a while since we had company.

What do you plan to read next?

The two books that I look most forward to reading are the anthology “Black Futures,” edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, and “Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture,” by Anaïs Duplan.

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