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Author Claudia Rankine answers your questions about 'Citizen'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, our Now Read This book club conversation.

Our July pick is a book that remains as relevant and powerful as when it was first written.

Jeffrey Brown talks with author and poet Claudia Rankine about "Citizen: An American Lyric," for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2014, American cities were convulsed in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two of the killings that helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement.

That year, the book "Citizen: An American Lyric" was published, with prose poems, monologues, and imagery capturing the moment, but through a different lens: the inner lives and thoughts of individuals, the almost casual racism that permeates daily life for so many.

Author Claudia Rankine:

Claudia Rankine: An American Lyric": Racism is institutional, we know, but institutions are made up of people. So, what are those thousand cuts that lead to the big institutional fails around racism?

I asked people who I knew, friends, other colleagues, to just tell me moments where they were going along in their day. And, suddenly, somebody said or did something that reduced them to their race.

And so I collected these stories, rewrote them, got to the heart of what I was trying to portray.

Jeffrey Brown: One of them that stuck with me, it's from a story called "Stop and Frisk."

A man is narrating his own experience as he's being pulled over by the police and keeps repeating this line to himself: "You are not the guy, and, still, you fit the description, because there is only one guy, who is always the guy fitting the description."

Claudia Rankine: And that line actually came from the person I was interviewing.

He said -- "And, of course, I wasn't the guy, but I was the guy who fit the description again."

And so that became a refrain as I sort of crafted that poem.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, several of our readers asked about the form of the book, because you have prose poems, monologues, you have photographs and images. What was the -- what was your thinking about how to structure the book?

Claudia Rankine: Well, I -- you know, I have always felt that visual artists have been able to portray these kinds of ways in which racism hits the body in ways that were so succinct. You just saw it, you understood it.

And so I embarked on this collaboration with these -- the works of these visual artists without even them knowing, because I was just requesting the use of an image in the book.

But I really wanted people to engage all of their senses in the book, from their sight, to their reading skills, to their body, so that it really -- these moments really sat inside them.

Jeffrey Brown: The book came out in 2014. It was incredibly timely at that moment. How do you look at what's going on now, in light of what you wrote then?

Claudia Rankine: Well, you know, Henry Louis Gates a long time ago wrote a book called "The Signifying Monkey."

And he said that African American writers were always in conversation with the time and with each other.

And I feel like "Citizen" was just the next book that looked at the same dynamic that Toni Morrison was looking at or Frederick Douglass was looking at or James Baldwin, obviously.

And so if I had published "Citizen" in 2007 or 2012 or 2015 or yesterday, it would have the same mirroring, relay effect, because those events have been going on and continue to go on.

Jeffrey Brown: A number of our readers, of course, wondered if you if you see signs of hope now.

Claudia Rankine: The protests are incredible.

We saw in Portland mothers of all races putting themselves in front of the military and protecting justice in this country, in a sense. And so that -- that is new. The intergenerational, cross-race gatherings that we have seen during the quarantine is unprecedented in this country.

Jeffrey Brown: When all of this is going on, when people are in the streets demonstrating, and so much happening in the country, what does poetry or literature do? What can -- what does it offer?

Claudia Rankine: I think writers, as culture makers, are in that special place where they are able to say what is, and that's it. They're not asking for something to happen or needing to create a transaction.

They're just saying what is. In a sense, their work becomes a kind of record, but not the record of values, the record of experience.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, "Citizen: An American Lyric."

Claudia Rankine, nice to talk to you. Thank you for being part of the book club.

Claudia Rankine: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Great conversation.

And Claudia Rankine's new book, "Just Us: An American Conversation," will be published in September.

And for our August selection, something very different, "Beijing Payback," a geopolitical thriller and crime novel. Author Daniel Nieh will join us here at the end of the month.

And we hope you will join us and other readers on our Web site and Facebook page for Now Read This. It's our book club partnership with The New York Times.

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