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Claudia Rankine Wishes More Writers Thought About Whiteness

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.

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