It’s confirmed. Claudia Rankine and Marilynne Robinson are amazing people! It was marvelous to be sitting in their thoughtful presence last night while Hillary and Donald went at it in their debate. Such a contrast! The event was held at the University of Minnesota campus in the Ted Mann Concert Hall. Several hundred people turned up and while the place didn’t fill up to the third floor balcony, it did fill up to the second.
The evening began with each of them giving a short, five minutes each reading. Rankine read a poem from Citizen and told us the story behind it. She also read a new poem that she explained came out of a conversation she had with a white friend who she asked “tell me something you only do because you are white.” Her friend replied, “I sit in the empty seat on the train next to the black man.”
Robinson read from the end of Gilead.
Then they sat down and the moderator began asking questions. Is it strange that perhaps the most memorable thing about the evening for me was not what they said but the character of their conversation? When the moderator asked a question neither of them jumped in to immediately begin talking and it wasn’t because of “I don’t want to be first.” Nor was it politeness or deference. Both would sit, comfortably silent, thinking. And when they were done thinking they would begin to speak. But even while speaking they would stop, especially Rankine, to search for the right words. And while one was speaking, the other was clearly listening. And more often than not, there would be a pause of thinking before the one who had been listening responded. This is what an intelligent conversation between two people who are comfortable in themselves and have nothing to prove looks like. It was a beautiful thing. And I left full of desire for conversations like that.
The first question was about optimism and anger. Rankine said she is not an optimist because that would mean things would be able to take care of themselves. But things don’t take care of themselves and if you want things to be better you have to poke at them and compel them to change.
Robinson is an optimist and she says it comes from watching other people because she finds people, for the most part, do good things. However, she worries about the U.S. and how easily we forget history, how our memory becomes selective, winnowing out the postive and forgetting the negative. She says this makes life too simple, that is leads to people demanding less complicated lives because it is easier than dealing with complexity.
As for anger, both agreed that it is a surface emotion that doesn’t, as Rankine put it, “touch the depths of ethical loneliness.” In other words, anger keeps us from looking past it and finding root causes that would then allow us to create solutions.
The next question was about the individual and community, real and imaginary. Rankine revealed that John Stuart Mill is one of her favorite authors. She believes that the individual and community are irreconcilable, that the individual always navigates her place in a community internally and emotionally, it is not something that happens outside the self.
They were asked about whether in this day of digital media and short attention spans whether they are concerned about readers’ attentiveness and if they thought about that while writing and did it affect how or what they wrote. Both said they don’t worry about it. Robinson said she has always written the way she wants to write because our capacity for attention has not changed but our willingness to allow ourselves to be distracted has.
Rankine said when Citizen was published her mother called her and asked her why there was so much white space on the pages as if, Rankine said, she were unable to write enough words to fill the page. The white space is deliberate because it allows the reader room to think and wonder.
The moderator asked what books or authors were early influences that they later outgrew or rebelled against. Rankine used to be in love with Yeats. She even went to Ireland specifically to study him. She loved the soound of his words. But then she learned his politics were questionable and the way he describes Maud Gonne is terrible and she has never been able to read him with the same fervor.
Robinson felt similarly. She also cited Garland, Faulkner and Hemingway and how she felt no one could ever write another book because of them. But she got over it, she said.
Both teach and agreed that when dealing with texts by writers who say questionable things or have questionable politics, that context is everything. Robinson beleives that problematic ideas in a text must be dealt with and not ignored because to ignore them allows them to be acculturated and then they cease to be scrutinized.
Someone from the audience asked about the idea of revolutionary love. Robinson said that if we loved our society it could revolutionize it. Rankine responded that she didn’t know how to understand the term love. She said, “you don’t have to love me, you just need to see me as another human being who deserves everything a human being deserves.” Robinson replied that to love society doesn’t require one to love individuals.
Another audience member asked about religion and its role in healing the nation. Robinson believes organized religion has a “potentially vast capacity” to enhance life. She is annoyed by people saying they are spiritual but not religious. One should be part of a specific religious beleif system whether or not you completely agree with it. She said to say you are spiritual refuses the burden and the lesson of fallibilty that identifying with a specific religion provides.
It was, as you can tell, a thoughtful and thought-provoking evening. I didn’t manage to capture half of what they talked about. I am grateful I got to attend the event and came away with even more respect and admiration for these two women than I had before.