Claudia Rankine, 2016.
The two Writers at Work interviews from our Winter 2016 issue are now online, in full, free to read for subscribers and nonsubscribers alike. In the Art of Poetry No. 102, Claudia Rankine talks to David L. Ulin about finding the lyric in nontraditional spaces, reaching as wide an American audience as possible, and having a breakthrough with her collection Citizen:
It felt like the first time I could actively be involved in a public discussion about race, in a discussion that, to me, is essential to our well-being as a country. It wasn’t simply about publicizing the book, it was about having a conversation. It was also an opportunity for me to learn what others really thought and felt. The responses were various. One man said he was moved by a reading I gave and wanted to do something to help me. I said I personally had a privileged life, which I do, and that I didn’t need his help. What I needed was for him—this was a white gentleman—to understand the urgency of the situation for him and to help himself in an America that was so racially divided. It wasn’t about him coming from his own position of privilege—of white privilege—to take black people on as a burden, but rather to understand that we are all part of the same broken structures. He said, I can take what you’re saying, but you’re going to shut down everybody else in this audience. And all of a sudden I was like, What? I thought you wanted to help me! To remove him from the role of “white savior” was to attack him in his own imagination. A white woman, a professor, told me that what I was calling racism was really bias against overweight black women. You might think they were just a defensive man and a crazy professor, but again and again I was coming up against what was being framed as understanding and realizing that it was not that.
Gray, left, with his sister, Mora, in Auchterarder, Scotland, ca. 1939.
And in the Art of Fiction No. 232, the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray, now in his eighties, speaks with Valerie Stivers about his landmark work Lanark: A Life in Four Books, published in 1981, which was thirty years in the writing and came in at nearly six hundred pages, including a false prologue, a false epilogue, footnotes, and a partially fictional “index of plagiarisms”:
I read a book called The English Epic and Its Background by a Cambridge don called Tillyard. In a chapter dealing with a Portuguese epic, Tillyard mentions how the author, writing an account of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India on behalf of the expanding Portuguese commercial empire, has mixed up with it episodes which involve Neptune, Venus, and nymphs. After da Gama successfully got to India, after a stretch of immense trouble and hardship, there’s a period in which the Portuguese crew are allowed an erotic indulgence with nymphs, et cetera, et cetera. Things straight out of classical Greek mythology! Tillyard was explaining that a true epic could blend all literary forms into one. It was that which decided my Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and my Kafkaesque afterdeath parody of our society were going to be one book instead of two.
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