The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, through the lobby, up the famous winding staircase to the second floor. Graywolf Press folks hustled past the line, privileged, no need to wait--they were the publishers, after all, of the evening's poet, and they had a lot to do.
"I feel like I'm at a rock concert," one young woman said as the crowd inched up the stairs.
And she wasn't far wrong; poet Claudia Rankine is a literary rock star. Her newest collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories (poetry, and criticism) for a National Book Critics Circle award.
Rankine, who teaches at Pomona College, was in Minneapolis on Friday night after spending most of the week at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, doing readings and talking to students.
The performance hall at the Loft was at capacity (about 200 people); three overflow rooms held a couple hundred more, hooked up by video and not always reliable audio. Macalester College professor Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," introduced Rankine.
"I can't tell you how quickly I responded to that e-mail that said did I want to introduce Claudia Rankine," James said, chuckling, calling himself one of her biggest fanboys. "Even at its most boldly confrontational, 'Citizen' grabs us with its big heart. It's the pre-Ferguson book that feels post."
Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the beginnings of her book. "I went to friends and asked them, 'Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?'" she said. They did, and she listened. These stories found their way into the first section of "Citizen," story after story, written in the second person the more to involve the reader, written plainly and nearly without emotion, but story after story, one building on another to devastating effect.
A friend ("you" in the piece) went to her first therapy appointment at the therapist's house, and the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.
Rankine ("you" in the piece) asked a friend to babysit while she went to the movies. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a "menacing black guy" in front of her house, casing the joint. Don't worry, the neighbor says; he's already called the police.
And when the menacing black guy turned out to be Rankine's friend who had stepped outside to make a phone call while babysitting her children, she suggests to the man that in future, he stay in the back yard. "He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."
The crowd at the Loft was perfectly silent as she read this piece, and then Rankine looked up and said, "That's the tortuorous and complicated and sick thing about racism. I want to protect you from my neighbor, and my way of protecting you is to curtail your rights. It's insidious."
For another part of "Citizen," Rankine asked her friend Rupert, an attorney in Los Angeles, to tell her about the times he had been pulled over by the cops. Rupert and his wife came over to Rankine's house, and "one of the things that surprised me was that she had never heard any of his stories," she said. "And as he told them I could see him getting angrier and angrier."
She read some of Rupert's stories in her quiet, strong voice: "Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren't speeding. I wasn't speeding? You didn't do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up."
After the reading, the audience questions came slowly at first, as though everyone needed some time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man had no question but merely wanted to thank her for reminding him that he is not alone.
A woman asked about Rankine's emotions as she was writing the book. "There were things that distressed me," Rankine said. "The piece about the therapist really shocked me." But when she was writing, she was concentrating more on the language than the feelings behind them. "Sometimes it takes weeks to figure out the right order of the words, or the words themselves," she said.
A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read "Citizen" and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way a person can respond, and that the teacher might consider asking her students to look for other ways, too.
"We are all struggling around this," she said. "The only chance we have is engagement."
But before we get to the finalists, here are a couple of winners:
Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for "Redeployment," his story collection about war, was named the winner of the NBCC John Leonard First Book Prize.
Toni Morrison was honored with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, well-deserved for her lifetime of writing and teaching and mentoring.
Minnesota represents in the finalists, with Macalester College professor Marlon James in the running for a fiction award for "A Brief History of Seven Killings," and Graywolf Press poet Claudia Rankine (a finalist for a National Book Award two months ago) a finalist in two categories--unprecedented in the NBCC awards. (She is a finalist in both poetry and criticism.) Rankine will be in Minnesota next week, speaking at 7:30 p.m. at The College of St. Benedict on Jan. 29 and at the Loft Literary Center at 7 p.m. on Jan. 30.
Graywolf writers Eula Biss and Vikram Chandra are also on the list. The University of Minnesota Press is represented by "The Essential Ellen Willis." And Coffee House Press makes the list with Saeed Jones, “Prelude to Bruise."
Here's the list, with links to Star Tribune reviews when available. Winners will be announced March 12.
Blake Bailey, “The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Roz Chast, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury)
Lacy M. Johnson, “The Other Side” (Tin House)
Gary Shteyngart, “Little Failure” (Random House)
Meline Toumani, “There Was and There Was Not” (Metropolitan Books)
Ezra Greenspan, “William Wells Brown” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
S.C. Gwynne, “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” (Scribner)
John Lahr, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Miriam Pawel, “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” (Bloomsbury)
Eula Biss, “On Immunity: An Inoculation” (Graywolf Press)
Vikram Chandra, “Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty” (Graywolf Press)
Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf Press)
Lynne Tillman, “What Would Lynne Tillman Do?” (Red Lemonade)
Ellen Willis, “The Essential Ellen Willis,” edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)
Rabih Alameddine, “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press)
Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Riverhead Books)
Lily King, “Euphoria” (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Chang-rae Lee, “On Such a Full Sea” (Riverhead Books)
Marilynne Robinson, “Lila” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Brion Davis, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” (Alfred A. Knopf)
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book” (Pantheon)
Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt & Co.)
Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)
Hector Tobar, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Saeed Jones, “Prelude to Bruise” (Coffee House Press)
Willie Perdomo, “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon” (Penguin Books)
Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf Press)
Christian Wiman, “Once in the West” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Jake Adam York, “Abide” (Southern Illinois University Press)
NONA BALAKIAN CITATION FOR EXCELLENCE IN REVIEWING
The folks at Minneapolis' Graywolf Press are finding themselves in a strange position these days--defending their commitment to diversity. Publisher Fiona McCrae recently announced the 2015 lineup for fiction--a strong list by any measure, including two books by perennial favorite Per Petterson, a new book by IMPAC Dublin award-winner Kevin Barry, and a title by Jeffery Renard Allen (whose previous book for Graywolf, "Song of the Shank," was highly praised). Half of the books are in translation -- from Serbian, from Russian, from Norwegian, from Spanish.
But there are no women. No women on the fiction list. Graywolf has four women on its 2015 poetry list, and four of the seven titles on the 2015 nonfiction list are by women. But readers on Facebook responded to the fiction list with surprise and anger.
"Whoa. So many dudes. Disappointing," wrote one person.
"I can't believe you even had the balls to publish the photo of these writers," said someone else. "And you're not doing them any favors, making us notice them for their gender and not their work. Time to start boycotting Graywolf Press. What a pity."
Many posters seemed to want very much to give Graywolf the benefit of the doubt, but they were having trouble. "This REALLY bums me out, especially as a huge fan of Graywolf, my hometown press!" wrote another. "ALL men? Really? Absolutely not acceptable in 2014 or ever. This picture makes me want to cry."
All of which seems almost ironic, as Graywolf has steadily built a reputation for publishing cutting-edge, serious work by men, women, people of color, and writers in translation. Its top four titles for 2014 were all written by women--the spectacular best-selling essay collection "The Empathy Exams," by Leslie Jamison; "On Immunity," by Eula Biss, a past winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Award (who will have another nonfiction book published by Graywolf in 2015), and collections of poetry by Claudia Rankine (also a best-seller) and Fanny Howe, which were both finalists for this year's National Book Award.
McCrae said in an interview today that the men on the fiction list are, mostly, not the mainstream: two African-American writers, a gay writer, several writers in translation. "I was very conscious of how international the list was," she said. "Under two percent of literary titles published in America are in translation. There are all kinds of balances."
Looking at the books seasonally rather than genre by genre shows much better gender balance, she noted. "When we are going through the exercise of balancing the list, we’re looking at the spring list or the fall list," not just the fiction list or the poetry list. "We don’t come out with all-male or all-female lists.
"We’re always balancing, and we’ve got grant considerations, translation grants, other grants. Books don’t show up in Noah’s Ark formation." Still, she said, it won't happen again.
McCrae also responded in a Facebook post yesterday. She wrote:
Graywolf Press is committed to publishing a wide spectrum of work by a diverse group of writers. In putting together our seasonal lists we are balancing many factors, and think about diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation, geography, cultural background, and race. We also try to make room for new writers alongside ones who are further along in their careers. Our forthcoming fiction lists have failed to balance male with female writers, and our editors will be working hard to correct this imbalance for 2016 and beyond.
Two books published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press are on the longlist for the National Book Award for poetry. The short list will be announced Oct. 15 and the winner announced in November.
Last year's winner, "Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist, was published by Graywolf.
Here's the list:
Louise Glück, ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night,’ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Edward Hirsch, ‘Gabriel: A Poem,’ Alfred A. Knopf
Fanny Howe, ‘Second Childhood,’ Graywolf Press
Maureen N. McLane, ‘This Blue,’ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Brian Blanchfield, ‘A Several World,’ Nightboat Books
Fred Moten, ‘The Feel Trio,’ Letter Machine Editions
Claudia Rankine, ‘Citizen: An American Lyric,’ Graywolf Press
Spencer Reece, ‘The Road to Emmaus,’ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Mark Strand, ‘Collected Poems,’ Alfred A. Knopf
Heivoll's book won Norway's Brage Prize, an annual prize that is considered to be the country's most significant literary award.
Participants in the July discussion are asked to read the book in advance. Coffee and treats will be provided. Register before July 13 online or by calling 612-871-4907. Cost is $20. The discussion will take place from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday July 20 at the Institute, 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis.
|Books (36)||Movies (1)|
|Theater (1)||People (1)|
|Books and resources (5)||Awards (10)|
|Behind the scenes (3)||Book news (263)|
|Galleries (1)||Minnesota authors (12)|
|Museums (1)||St. Paul Como Park (1)|
|Television (1)||Author events (181)|
|Best sellers (7)||Book reviews (8)|
|Book stores (51)||Local authors (158)|
|Readings (69)||Book awards (117)|
|Illustrators (8)||Workshops and conferences (30)|
|Libraries (33)||Local publishers (36)|
|Minnesota Book Awards (11)||World Book Night (6)|
|Club Book (7)||Pen Pals (3)|
|Talk of the Stacks (9)||Talking Volumes (2)|
|E-books (2)||Coffee House Press (6)|
|Competitions (3)||Garrison Keillor (4)|
|Graywolf Press (19)||Louise Erdrich (10)|
|Milkweed Editions (2)||Poetry (21)|
|Robert Bly (5)|