For the first time in the 40-year history of the National Book Critics Circle Awards, one book is competing in two categories: poetry and criticism.
That ambidextrous paperback book is “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by the Jamaican American writer Claudia Rankine. Rankine, a professor at Pomona College, also was a contender for the National Book Award in Poetry in November.
With more than 40,000 copies in print, “Citizen” has been a runaway bestseller for Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publisher in Minneapolis.
Graywolf Executive Editor Jeffrey Shotts takes no credit for Rankine’s success, but he has long been a supporter of her work — he edited her “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” in 2004 — and he has an intimate understanding of its power.
“ ‘Citizen’ is that very rare book that can focus with precision and honesty about race in a way we haven’t seen before,” Shotts says. “It compels both the wider reader and the critical reader. It is poetry, it is essay, it is autobiography, it is cultural criticism, it is illustrated text.”
Part of the difficulty of describing “Citizen” is that it’s not like anything most of us have read before. And yet thousands of people are responding to it.
Shotts says that the book’s innovative structure — which makes it so hard to categorize — isn’t just an act of artistic experimentation. “The complexity of Rankine’s subjects — racial micro aggressions, John Henryism (a PTSD suffered from the accumulation of daily racial tension), Serena Williams, Zidane, let alone the black and brown body as depicted in art and literature — needs a complex form,” he says.
That form includes prose poems, autobiographical anecdotes, cultural criticism and color photographs all circling around the subject of race in America. Both “Citizen” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” were designed by John Lucas, an artist and filmmaker who also is Rankine’s husband.
Some of the engaging power of “Citizen” stems from Rankine’s effective use of the second person. “‘You’ are the main observer, witness, participant,” Shotts says. “ ‘You’ are implicated. That invests the reader in a remarkable way in this book, and it allows the reader into a kind of empathy inside these racially charged situations. We are trained to hold these situations at arm’s length, but what happens when we are all put inside them and one has to look, to really see, with different eyes?”
All good editors advocate for their writers, but in Shotts’s admiration, you can hear awe: “Yes, she is a genius,” he says. “She’s unique in her brilliance for finding innovative ways to transform social consciousness into great literature.”