Space/Time by Ziba Rajabi

To Ooze
Acrylic on Canvas, Thread, Nail

As an Iranian female artist based in Arkansas, Rajabi’s work revolves around the desire to reconcile her relationship with two distinctive spaces: Tehran (her native land) and Arkansas (where she resides now). In her paintings and installations, she re-creates intimate moments torn from her home and neighborhood in Iran. Because she is far away from her homeland and not allowed to return without being trapped in  Iran, Rajabi can feel her memories of home fading away. She uses memories and images that have been rendered unrecognizable by the passage of time and turns them into shapes that allude to her homeland. Consequently, aspects of everyday life such as architecture, furniture, gardens, or a specific time of a day become the basis for her work. Her desire is to create a situation where the viewer looks at abstract paintings or installations and feels a familiarity, but can’t quite place what it is or why they sense a kinship. By creating this kind of scenario, she can show that regardless of nationality, religion, or gender there are commonalities for all individuals – that in a way, the masks of identities we wear may look different but are made of the same things.

Blue Petals from Green Arkansas 
Acrylic on Canvas, Mixed Media
First-Person Narrative
Acrylic on Canvas, Mixed Media
Bleeding to space 
Acrylic on Canvas, Thread
Untitled
Acrylic on Canvas, Mixed Media
About Being
Acrylic on Canvas, Thread

Ziba Rajabi (b.1988, Tehran, Iran) received her MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and her BFA from Sooreh University, Tehran. She is the recipient of the student artist grant for the Artist 360 Grant, a program sponsored by Mid-America Arts Alliance. Her work has been included in a number of exhibitions, nationally and internationally, such as Masur Museum, LA; CICA Museum, South Korea; Aran Gallery, Iran; Art Fileds, SC; Pensacola Museum, Florida; Site:Brooklyn, NY; Amos Eno Gallery,NY; Millersville University, Indiana University, and Mim Gallery, Los Angeles. Find more of her work here.

Imagined Worlds Turned Inside Out: The Power of Helen Levitt’s Child Co-Creators

“New York c. 1945” by Helen Levitt

A group of young girls are strolling down the sidewalk on a hot summer day in New York; all at once, their four heads turn, and they gaze with equal interest at a series of shiny spherical objects that seem to be floating along the wall. Nobody has initiated the gaze; nobody is gesturing towards the objects or checking to see if her friends noticed them too. It’s as though the objects themselves demanded all four girls’ attention at once. The viewer of this photograph will therefore become curious as well, and pay greater attention to the bubbles than she would have if the children weren’t in the frame. Each bubble has part of its edge resting against the border between two or more bricks. If these objects are soap bubbles that are simply floating along, then Levitt has captured them while they are all in a state of in-between; none of them float in the centre of a single brick. If they are not soap bubbles, they could also be glass spheres embedded in the brick, like underwater windows on a ship, which offer a glimpse into the underground world beneath the road. The photograph allows for both possibilities, and each creates a mystery. If the objects are glass spheres, then who put them there, and what is their function? If they are soap bubbles, then where is the soap bubble blower, and how have they survived for so long without popping?

The girls’ synchronization is what causes our interest, not the objects themselves. If Helen Levitt had chosen to photograph the wall and the glass spheres without the children, the image wouldn’t be interesting because we wouldn’t stop to see them as anything other than bubbles against brick. But when we notice what the children are noticing, we start to see things the way they do. Levitt’s child subjects become a conduit for the adult viewer’s own imagination, we ask ourselves: do they see everlasting soap bubbles, a coded message, or tiny portals into other worlds? Since we are unable to ask them what they see, and wouldn’t want to break the spell of their imagination anyways, we return to our own imaginations for answers.

Implicit in the taking and viewing of this photograph is the creation of three different imaginary worlds layered on top of one another. The first is the children’s imaginary world that has been activated by the bubbles; this creation occurred during the actual moment when the photograph was taken. The second is Helen Levitt’s imaginary world, which was born when she chose to remove this moment from its temporal context by capturing it in a photograph; a photograph can tell a narrative that is entirely separate from the reality it was captured in, and in doing so it becomes its own fictional world. Finally, there is a new imaginary world built into the mind of the viewer as she thinks about what the children might be imagining. Whether she is aware of her imagination being activated or not, the viewer will unconsciously become a creator too. This collaboration between child-subject, photographer, and viewer recurs in Levitt’s work, and keeps the viewer oscillating between the three imagined worlds as an unknowing participant in the artistic act.

In her article, “Helen Levitt and the camera,” critic Elizabeth Gand argues that Levitt uses children to explore the ways in which art gets made. “If she engaged so deeply with children, it was because of what they allowed her to say… Her pictures conceive children’s play as the foundation of artistic production; they are portraits of the artist as a young child.” Levitt reveals the creative process by representing children who are at play: transforming the ordinary world into something fantastical. By capturing the four girls in a synchronized moment of wonder, she shows us the moment when a detail from the real world can tip the artist-as-child into her imagination. She also reveals what might be missing from regular adult observation. The four girls are naturally drawn to the bubbles, which an adult or non-artist might pass without taking a second glance. By seeing what the children are looking at, we might also see the absence of the curiosity we once had as children. Fredrick Wiseman’s statement about his reaction to one of Levitt’s photographs is applicable to many of her works. “I like this photograph because it makes me ask myself these silly questions when I, of course, have no idea what either these children or Helen Levitt were thinking and can only project my fantasies onto this photograph.” The activation of the adult imagination is a major part of Levitt’s intention. As a statement about art-making, “New York c 1945” advocates for the careful observation of the subtle oddities that are present in the regular world. Inside a bubble, the artist might find a universe, the way a child does.

“New York, 1940.” By Helen Levitt

The child’s imagination could be considered a universal theme or topic of interest, but Levitt chooses to situate her work in specific communities. Her subjects often come from the margins, but she escapes the trap of using them to make overt sociopolitical commentaries; instead, her photography allows for ambiguity. For example, in the photograph “New York, 1940,” Levitt depicts two black children absorbed in their own internal worlds. The girl’s hair has not been combed, her clothes are rumpled and she has her arms crossed in a self-comforting or protective gesture. The boy is sitting on the ground at the threshold between inside and outside space. Both children seem to be waiting for something. But if they seem vulnerable it is because of our assumptions about their circumstances, not because they are performing vulnerability to us or because the photograph has captured them in a moment of weakness. I would argue that both children exude a kind of power. Both of them are gazing out, but don’t seem to be looking at anything in particular; they have left their circumstances behind for a moment. They have the power to leave the real world while they wait.

Walker Evans once called Levitt’s photography anti-journalism. Her photos cannot be read with one single narrative and they are not a call to action or a cry for social justice. Her subjects are often unconcerned with the photographer’s presence, and the photographs themselves seem unconcerned with what the viewer might take from them. However, while Levitt’s work maintains ambiguity and resists simple political readings, it is also not a-political. Scholar Lorraine Sim argues, “her photography undoubtedly assumes a politics in the sense that it focuses on poor neighbourhoods, the working classes, women and children, and often African-American and immigrant subjects—and in ways that depart from stereotypical representations of these groups.” Levitt is making a choice to photograph the marginalized, but she does not use the individuals she is photographing to tell a story of marginalization. When we look at the photographs today, they can become documentary in the sense that they portray groups that were not part of the mainstream narrative at the time. Scholar Alison Dean argues that today, “we can begin to re-frame her practice in terms of questions of visibility and invisibility that are central not only to the way we see Levitt, but also the way (and the fact that) we can also see her subjects.” Visibility is not a-political; at the same time, we should not over-use it in our readings of specific photographs.

In “New York c. 1945,” three black children and one white child walk together and notice bubbles at exactly the same moment. This group could surprise a contemporary viewer, who might not have expected black children and white children to play together on the street in the 1940s. In his article, critic Alan Trachtenberg points out Levitt’s ability to reject stereotype by portraying marginalized people as, “neither victims nor impossible heroes, her subjects appear as themselves. It’s a breathtaking achievement, an artist taking poor people entirely on their own terms.” The friendship between the four girls is not made heroic or sentimental, it simply exists. Levitt’s choice to photograph this moment normalizes the girls’ relationship rather than twisting it to fit an agenda. Yet our imagination of that time period could cause us to see this group as an oddity, and construct a racially-motivated message in the photograph that isn’t really there. It would be easy to misread the children’s grouping and synchronized head-turning as Levitt’s way of suggesting that racial harmony exists in the children’s world in opposition to a racially divided adult world. But she is never saccharine in her depiction of childhood, and this photograph does not suggest that the children are free from their sociopolitical reality: instead, it allows the real world to exist in the frame. The girls are penned in by a high wall and we cannot see the sidewalk ahead of them, so we have no way of knowing what things will be like when they pass through this moment. If there is a story about race that is being told through this image, it is not as simple or sweet as: look at the magic of interracial friendships.

The composition of the photograph draws a parallel between the girls and the bubbles, which are both captured during a time of transition. The bubbles are all crossing from one brick to the next while the girls walk on the transitory space of a sidewalk, which acts as a fault line between a road and a row of buildings. The bubbles also seem to be floating along and the girls are all captured mid-stride. The parallel between the children and the bubbles suggests that the children are fragile too. They exist in a world where it seems to be a small miracle that they have not popped yet. While the children are mobile, the photograph slices through mobility by splitting the distant car in half, cropping out their future walking space, and showing a horizon with no openness. It seems that eventually the children will reach a dead-end, and will need to turn around. Even if they reach the wider world that is shown in the top right corner, it is a place with no sky: only buildings layered on buildings. This crowdedness creates a kind of simmering anxiety, even in the magic of the moment. Race, class and gender all play a part in Levitt’s photographs because they are a part of the real world, which children inhabit too. Despite their harsh realities, she captures children from all socioeconomic groups when they are at their most powerful. She sees when they are engrossed in the small mysteries of the real world, which they are uniquely equipped to see, and she captures them at the precipice between reality and imagination. When we start to wonder what they are seeing, we slip down the cracks of our own imaginations too.

Many critics have suggested that Levitt’s photography is “artless,” and “style-less.” They see it as emblematic of the “white style,” meaning she has a “fully automatic, active collaboration with chance.” While her photography must be spontaneous, since it is not posed or artificially constructed, I would argue that it is also not captured at random. Greater emphasis should be placed on the subtle complexity of her composition and the choices that she is making rather than her spontaneity and seeming invisibility. Critic Sandra Phillips uses “New York 1940,” to point out the subtle effect of Levitt’s different cropping. In an earlier print of the photo, the two children exist in a “wide sea of space surrounding the central figure,” but later editions crop that space down, “usually the effect is one of more mystery and psychological content.” Levitt also uses recurring motifs in the creation of an aesthetic. For example, her child subjects are almost always occupying liminal space. Three boys crouch on a front stoop: a space that is both public and private because it is owned by whoever owns the building but is also visible to the outside world. A boy hangs onto a doorframe: half in one room and half in another. Another boy squats in a corner, nestled between the sculpture of a lion and a window into a restaurant or café. This recurrence of a type of space is not a stroke of luck, but an aesthetic choice. Levitt also chooses to allow the children’s surroundings into the frame, to give context without allowing the surroundings to dominate the subjects. The way her subjects choose to behave: their postures, movements and facial expressions may be up to chance, but everything else about her work is artfully constructed.

Levitt is making choices to create an aesthetic experience, yet she also resists the creation of a single narrative or journalistic message. Her often impoverished subjects appear as powerful creators; there is no condescension or sentimentality or judgement being passed about them or their circumstances, which is impressive when so many well-meaning pieces of work about marginalized groups fall into those traps. But the absence of her opinion about her subjects does not mean that Levitt is absent from the photographs. Through her aesthetics, she allows her subjects to teach her viewers a new way of seeing. There is power in leaving the real world behind for an imagined one, and it’s a power that the viewer discovers when she wonders what the children are making out of the world around them.

Works Cited
Dean, Alison. “The Invisible Helen Levitt.” Performance Matters 2.2 (2016).
Gand, Elizabeth “Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and the Camera.” American Art Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 98-102. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Handy, Ellen. “Helen Levitt: Childhood as Performance, City as Theatre.” The Lion and the Unicorn (2001).
Philipps, Sandra S. “Helen Levitt’s Cropping.” History of Photography (1993).
Sante, Sue; Kleinzahler, August; Eggers, Dave; Malamud-Smith, Janna; Wiseman, Frederick; Pemberton, Gayle; Weschler, Lawrence, “Symposium on Helen Levitt” The Threepenny Review (2001).
Sim, Lorraine. Ordinary Matters Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography. Bloomsbury Academic (2016).
Trachtenberg, Alan, “Seeing What You See: Photographs by Helen Levitt.” Raritan.

References
Hellman, Roberta; Hoshino, Marvin. “The Photographs of Helen Levitt.” The Massachusetts Review (1978).
Levitt, Helen; Agee, James. A Way of Seeing. Horizon Press (1981).

Everyone Wants a Working Class Origin Story Without having a Working Class Origin Story

A handful of years ago, I graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where I eschewed a traditional liberal arts major and designed my own plan of study. I concentrated in the American Dream, a concept that has technically existed since the 1930s, but has roots in 1776’s American Declaration of Independence. Through generations, this dream concept has gone through various costume changes. It has even been exported worldwide while remaining central to the American conception of self. For example, about ten years ago, State Chairman Xi Jinping began boasting about 中国梦 (China Dream) and today it is not unusual for H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, to evoke the idea of a Dubai Dream. While there are many facets of the omnipresent American Dream, I want to focus on the problematic upward mobility component, which Lawrence R. Samuel argues is “the heart and soul of the American Dream” (2012). My contention with the contemporary American Dream’s component of upward mobility is threefold: its over-reliance on the rags-to-riches motif and the logical error of survivorship bias, its basis on an unsustainable capitalistic model of wealth accumulation (ignorant of humanity’s other manners of mobility), and what I’ll call its upward-outward perpetuation of the white-Christian-male-first mobility of Manifest Destiny. This essay will mainly explore the first and second points.

Recently, a poet friend and I were talking about our undergraduate experiences at elite private universities. She comes from a rural white middle class background, but one where she mixed with a lot of working class people. I come from a white urban working poor background (my dad was a local bartender); in both of our experiences, we witnessed our middle-class, upper middle-class, and wealthy classmates playing “poor” or reinventing working-class origin stories for themselves. Often, they hijacked narratives of downtrodden and/or marginalized people. In truth, I was an accomplice in this game, because as a first-generation scholarship student, I quickly realized my acquiescence was a requirement in maintaining and building relationships with these people. Pretending to believe their lack-of-capital origin stories and becoming friends (or at least friendly) with my privileged classmates, employers, and professors (and eventually, colleagues) opened doors for me. Thus, I pretend(ed) for them and prioritized their comfort. Eventually, I was invited to their parties, clubs, beach houses, after-internship drinks, and received recommendation letters and scholarships. I ignored when we went out for dinner and the rest of the party threw credit cards on the table with their mom or dad’s names embossed on them while I scrimmaged in my purse for a combination of my babysitting and work-study money. I pretended it was working-class normal for them to move off-campus and have their own apartments in Manhattan, or memories of annual family trips abroad or to summerhouses. Things haven’t changed much now that I am part of the white-collar workforce, but this type of relationship is exhausting and frustrating; it requires extensive emotional labor, especially for minorities, who must also deal with white fragility.

Once, I was in a taxi heading uptown for an eye doctor’s appointment with a West Village girl I babysat (I girl I love very much to this day) and she was lamenting about the snobbish and mean attitude of some of the other kids and their parents in her elementary school. She said, “They’re so rich, their parents were doctors.” Now, actually, both her parents were lawyers with advanced degrees; she lived in a beautiful West Village apartment, and had already traveled internationally several times. I see now that she wanted me to understand her pain and register the difference between her and them. She wanted to be empathic and kind, which maybe she saw in me and not in them. She also wanted to be like her mom who was kind and had a working-class origin story. How did someone so young already know that in American hearts the upward mobility story trumps all other narratives of success? The problem in America then and now is that we muddle morality and social class. The bigger problem is that our country’s only worthy narrative is the rags to riches motif. As a society, we celebrate the person who rises through their merits or defeats unspeakable odds over the story of a person of inherited wealth who does well with what they were granted. Even now, in an era of checking your privilege, our country’s anti-aristocracy history makes people uncomfortable with their own inherited wealth and status. They are uncomfortable enough that they create these working class origin stories, but they are not uncomfortable enough, in most cases, to fight the system of inequality.

Lawrence R. Samuel wrote, “…the key concepts we associate with who we are as a people (such as opportunistic, self-reliant, pragmatic, resourceful, aspirational, optimistic, entrepreneurial, inventive) are all present in the orbit of the American Dream” (2012). Thus, if the American Dream scaffold is upward mobility, how can someone from the upper classes be self-reliant, aspirational, inventive, et cetera? Of course, they can, but we don’t tell their stories often enough. We don’t tell riches-to-riches stories unless we want to disparage someone or their career (especially in politics), but we can and ought to tell these stories too. We can ask folks: what have you done with your privilege? What are the other ways (besides financial) that humans can be upwardly mobile? Once we stop pretending about working class origin stories or rags to riches narratives, we can talk about other real hurdles and moments of reinvention. Three examples of riches to riches stories are: American Astronomer Marie Mitchell, American author Annie Dillard, and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I chose these three women, because I think they have all exhibited Samuel’s key concepts and have been “upwardly mobile” despite being from relative wealth.

To parse one of these examples, Mitchell, the first professional American astronomer, went from riches to riches, but her latter riches were not economic. Over her lifetime, she developed her intellect. She grew critical of religious institutions and slavery. She ultimately left her Quaker religion even though her ability to go to achieve higher learning during that era was due to her family’s Quaker faith. To protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothing produced by slaves in the American south. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1873, she co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Mitchell didn’t need a story of financial upward mobility to achieve acclaim. In fact, by acknowledging her privilege, she was able to contribute to an alternative riches-to-riches narrative and show how proper education, health care, and freedom could make us all better citizens. Today’s middle class and upper middle class people could do the same with their own from riches to riches stories.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West…It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering…The words were: The lower classes smell.” In the United States, we don’t use the terms “lower class” and “upper class” as liberally as the British do, but make no mistake, these bodily class distinctions exist, and the American rich do disdain the poor for their bodies and habits. In the US, it might not always be smell that indicates class, but “in contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity” (Levine, 2011). As the gaps in childhood obesity continue to rise along economic lines in the US, it has become much easier to target poor people’s bodies. When upper class doctors try to create their own false class narratives (not necessarily origin stories), it is also damaging says Michael Hobbes:

“Kenneth Resnicow, a consultant who trains physicians to build rapport with their patients, says white, wealthy, skinny doctors will often try to bond with their low-income patients by telling them, ‘I know what it’s like not to have time to cook.’ Their patients, who might be single mothers with three kids and two jobs, immediately think “No, you don’t,” and the relationship is irretrievably soured.”

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be targeted by tobacco companies, grew up around secondhand smoke, and smoke themselves. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, which uses research and analysis to advance policies and practices that improve the economic and social opportunities of all Oregonians, has published reports indicating that most Oregon families living in poverty have one parent who works. There is an increasing overlap in our ideas of working poor and lower middle-class, not just in Oregon but across the United States. Furthermore, among the poor, many are suffering food insecurity. “Common physical conditions associated with food insecurity among children include asthma, birth defects, anemia, low birth weight, lower bone density, lower physical functioning, colds, stomachaches, and tooth decay” (Bauer 2018). I bring these physical aspects of poverty up to emphasize the title of this piece: everyone wants a working class origin story without having a working class origin story. Nobody wants the physical challenges of the working poor, yet they still want the societal rewards of the rags to riches narrative.

Historically, American literature and films have elevated the desirability of the upward mobility/rags-to-riches narrative. More often than not, our beloved protagonists are the poor and/or those striving for education and financial stability. The antagonists are the rich (no one wants to be the antagonist). Overall, these narratives are not harmful. I don’t know where I would be without Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jimmy Gatz. The issue is that without more from riches to riches narratives, wherein the latter riches are not economical necessarily, we will continue to cling to our rags to riches narrative which is too individualist and oftentimes harms our environment and social communities. Look at reality television today, specifically Keeping up with the Kardashians. The Kardashian family is a good high-profile example of promoting their own false class origin stories. In 2018, Kylie Jenner was featured in Forbes as a “self-made billionaire” along with the hashtag #SelfMadeWomen. This extreme example garnered a lot of criticism, but much of the criticism centered on the irresponsibility of the magazine; yet, it is more than irresponsible, it is unimaginative. Kylie Jenner, you will never be Francie Nolan, but that’s okay.

In her new book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison critiques the traditional linear narrative in fiction. Quoting critic Robert Scholes who connected fiction with sex’s “rhythm of tumescence and detumescence…of intensification to the point of climax and consummation”, Alison pointed out that this is not how most women experience sex. She goes on to argue for alternative narrative structures away from the Aristotelian sequence of beginning, middle, and end. In truth, there are many alternatives already out there; even in translation, writers like Murakami or Calvino challenge this pattern, or look at Margaret Atwood’s story “Happy Endings” or Clarice Lispector’s “The Fifth Story.” Nevertheless, the linear narrative still dominates in American fiction the same way the rags to riches narrative dominates American hearts. Yet, like Robert Scholes’ hetero-liner theory of fiction, must Americans do not experience life like a rags to riches story. There is more social mobility in places in Europe today than in the United States, and to continue to extol the individualist virtues of the rags to riches story, we commit a type of survivorship bias, which is concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Many things cause this lack of visibility, but one fixable cause is the tendency for people in positions of power and privilege to tell false working class origin stories.

What can be done? So much! Like Mitchell, we can strive to expand ourselves in alternative ways that are not based on economics. We can make our mind mobile, and we can share those narratives of reinvention and expansion. We can enrich ourselves by becoming less racist, less sexist, or less environmentally unsustainable. These kinds of riches to riches stories will only be possible if American society becomes more forgiving, if we allow people to change their minds and grow. To have a change of heart is to be human. Any kind of change of heart it is a mobile action; and if this change of heart means you have become a more loving, a more tolerant, and more empathetic person, you have achieved, in my opinion as someone who studied it, a new better kind of American Dream, you have experienced upward mobility. If we are free and have disposable income, we ought to spend our time, as Toni Morrison would say, freeing others, by giving everyone access to the rights of the riches like healthcare and education. This is more worthy of our time than trying to be some old character inside a Horatio Alger Jr. novel of the Gilded Age.

Works Consulted:

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston, MA,1931.
Bauer, Janet. Oregonians in Every County and Congressional District Suffer Food Insecurity.
Accessed From:
https://www.ocpp.org/2018/06/20/oregonians-every-county-and-congressionaldistrict/ 9 June 2019.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. New York,
NY, 2003.
Hobbes, Michael. Everything you know about obesity is wrong.
https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/
Lawrence, R. Samuel. The American Dream: A Cultural History. 2012.
Levine, James A. Poverty and Obesity in the U.S. Accessed from:
http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/11/2667. 9 June 2019.
U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016external icon.
Last updated 2018 April 10 [accessed 2018 Jun 13].

Image: Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” next to the ailanthus tree outside her old house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: Depicting Abstract Emotions in Writing

The vague, open broadness of abstract emotions — love, envy, loneliness — makes them slippery subjects to encapsulate in writing. How can one distil or display, accurately, the complexity of something like love in a single text? Claudia Rankine’s book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric tackles just that, attempting, through its hybrid, multi-genre format, to situate and depict the intricacies of loneliness in the 21st century, an age of rising technological and media presence, and cultures that are still too often busy to explore or understand the self.* To achieve this, Rankine uses a mosaic of forms, ranging from lyric poetry, lists, visuals, photographs and prose, in her text. The result is an exploration of loneliness through various angles, zooming in on it through the detailing of personal experiences and then examining it more widely within the contexts of modern American culture at large. Judging from readers’ and critics’ overwhelmingly positive responses, the book is a powerful and strikingly effective work. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely exemplifies the notion that using hybrid-form, multi-genre writing is the most impactful method of depicting abstract emotions such as loneliness, and how they are specifically felt within modern American culture/society.

Rankine’s book begins with a visual: a blank television screen as the page’s lone occupant. This immediately introduces us to one of the most important motifs in the text — the television, and the media. Not only does it foreshadow its appearance later on — the television screen image recurs over 25 times throughout the text — but also instantly establishes the book as an assemblage of genres, akin to a multimedia work. Other images aside from the television screen, such as medicine labels, low-resolution shots of politicians, victims and tragedy, billboards and diagrams, will appear as part of the stream of information and vignettes Rankine presents to us.

Additionally, the repeated image of a static television breaks up the sections and thus unsettles the reader. The television occurs on a page of its own many times, taking the reader out of the text for a moment in a jarring and discomforting manner, as if switching channels to a different concern whilst hearing the static in their head. The constant switching between topics — from a tired friend surrendering to cancer, safekeeping her death with a do-not-resuscitate sign, to another staring listlessly at the TV while asking for “the woman who deals in death,” (a reference to the show Murder, She Wrote), to the speaker’s psychiatrist sister, unable to help herself after her husband and children are killed — builds on the piling up feelings of discombobulation and anxiety.*

Essentially, Rankine turns the traditional form of prose into an imagistic stream of consciousness, to reflect the narrator’s dissolving sense of self throughout.* The recurrence of the television in particular, places the media as a prime factor behind an increasingly numb and isolated American society. Rankine’s speaker, who serves as a subtle spokesperson for modern American culture’s suffering, is made to seem lost in the flood of data. Thus, Rankine’s deliberate assortment of textual-visual clippings, in a sense, challenges both the speaker and perhaps the modern American reader to stay focused, despite various cultural distractions, on the crucial topics at hand: our loneliness, our spiritual vacancy and our fear.*

Apart from very brief emergences of lyric poetry, the majority of the book is written in prose paragraphs. The incorporation of images and graphics, however, lends Don’t Let Me Be Lonely the feel of a scrapbook, partly composed of images from and of television. The book itself becomes television. It is a flipping of channels, where the images and texts surge in an endless flow of pointless commercials and programming, reminding us that we are alone, depressed, alienated. Thus, the hybrid, multi-genre structure of the text combines to create a unique form that displays loneliness, both within the speaker and American society at large, as a product of media-induced anxiety. At the same time, its often jarring, leaping, pasted-together format reflects an inability to process, ground and take care of oneself amid overwhelming amounts of information, often tragic or traumatic, which results in feelings of isolation and deep loneliness.

The actual text of the book begins with a bleak yet powerful anecdote, where the speaker, as a child, is unable to comprehend the personal tragedies occurring around her. When her mother returns home after experiencing a stillbirth, the speaker says: “Where’s the baby? we asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug”. The use of multiple questioning and the mention of a shrug creates a strong atmosphere of uncertainty, both within the speaker and her mother. The speaker’s mother, in the wake of personal trauma, is unable to handle her grief and loneliness; thus, she does not communicate or express these emotions and cannot even find the words to articulate them, settling for a mere “shrug” instead. This sets the tone and acts as a larger metaphor for upcoming issues in the text, mainly concerning the modern American culture’s inability to process and understand grief and trauma, resulting in a society entrenched in loneliness that remains unarticulated.

This notion is reinforced through the speaker watching her father experience his mother’s death, within the same anecdote. She states: “He had a look that was unfamiliar: it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as possible…he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane or funeral”. Again, although the speaker is only a child and has likely had little exposure to such deep levels of tragedy within her personal sphere, Rankine’s words here are carefully chosen to hint at greater societal maladies. The “unfamiliarity” with such profound weeping again links back to a culture that does not allow itself to truly cry or mourn and de-familiarizes itself from feeling pain by refusing to acknowledge it or take it seriously, even distracting itself from it — how and why it does this will be explained later on in this paper. This idea is reinforced by “understanding his aloneness” and the father’s silence after returning from his trip, again suggesting an inability or lack of knowledge in a society as to how to process and articulate one’s grief, resulting in feelings of isolation. It is almost as if modern American society itself is “flooded, leaking”, unable to hold in its pooling desolation. Furthermore, the speaker’s desire to “climb the steps as far away from [her father] as possible” hints at an instinct of modern American society to immediately distance itself from trauma as much as it can, preventing it from ever fully dealing with or resolving it.

In the same anecdote, the speaker states: “The years went by and people only died on television — if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill”. Through this single line, Rankine subtly establishes two key factors for the loneliness in American culture, that recur later on in the book: the media, and the oppression of marginalized groups, particularly black people and the working class.

For several pages in the book, Rankine languishes on American tragedies and social injustices, instances of what should be mass cultural mourning and grief that need appropriate national addressing and care. In one section, the speaker says: “After the initial presidential election results come in, I stop watching the news…Bush…can’t remember if two or three people were convicted of dragging a black man to his death in the home state of Texas…Mostly I resist the flooding, but in Bush’s case I find myself talking to the television screen: You don’t know because you don’t care.” Again, we see an instance of how a few simple sentences unfurl into several larger connotations and commentaries on modern American society. Firstly, we are made well aware of the abysmal reality of racism, still very much deep-rooted in modern America, through the gruesome description of the black man’s murder and then the country’s white president’s ignorance of its details. There is a subtle suggestion here that if America’s own president perpetuates racism, an ignorance and dismissal of black Americans and their tragedies, then the country can never recognize it as a national, collective trauma, and thus never be able to process, understand and heal it. Instead, it lies like a quiet tumor of loneliness and alienation within the American psyche, of which thousands of black people, including Rankine herself, are part of and are suffering, simply because they cannot come together to collectively address their trauma and try to resolve it. Rankine reinforces this later, writing: “Cornel West says this is what is wrong with black people today — too nihilistic. Too scarred by hope to hope, too experienced to experience, too close to dead is what I think,” suggesting the aggressive, dismissive nature of American optimism, coupled with the hardening effects of continuous oppression and tragedy, has made black Americans numb and incapable of feeling their way out of their anguish. And interestingly, what is left is a forlorn society where a book like Rankine’s, its cover graced by an empty billboard spelling “DON’T LET ME BE LONELY”, can be a powerful and moving success. Moreover, the structure of the sentence, with the repetition of ‘too’, creates a quickening pace in its rhythm, which shows just how fevered and frenzied the speaker feels about the issue.

The italicization of “You don’t know because you don’t care”, a blunt, monosyllabic phrase that is repeated twice and thus deliberately emphasized, and directed perhaps both at the television (media) and Bush himself, also evokes a strong undercurrent feeling of anger at the current social reality, one that is still unjust, uncaring and racist. And perhaps the cleverest phrase in this section is “Mostly I resist the flooding”, which not only harkens back to the “flooding” of the speaker’s father in the book’s first anecdote, but also hints at a greater assertion that the speaker, as a typical modern American does, “resists” and does not usually allow herself to feel indignant or furious or heartbroken in the face of such traumas, thus preventing herself from coping with it. As a result, she, like her society, becomes increasingly desolate. The mention of the television here is additionally masterful as it links back to the book’s media motif, reminding us how media is both a distraction from trauma and a perpetuator of the resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Interestingly, in another instance in the book, Rankine points out a rhyme between Osama bin “Laden” and the word “sadden”, linking bin Laden’s 9/11 terror attack, one of the greatest national tragedies to have hit America, with the emotions of sadness, depression and loneliness, again highlighting how the failure to engage in thorough collective mourning when faced with trauma can lead to greater feelings of long-term despair. This is reinforced later when Rankine writes: “It strikes me that what the attack on the World Trade Center stole from us is our willingness to be complex” where “complex” is a stand-in word for the ability and time given to being aware of one’s self and trying to understand whatever we are feeling and going through.

In many ways, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely can read like an autobiography, laced as it is with such personal, vulnerable anecdotes, but if anything, it’s the autobiography of American culture and not just the speaker – who is not necessarily established as Rankine – herself.  We see the speaker’s, and by inference America’s, self-dissolution results from a constant barrage of tragic news, racism, and misleading rhetoric by uncaring, elitist politicians, combined with a growing sense of isolation, particularly afflicting urban poor/working-class, often black, single persons*.

“Some nights I count the commercials for antidepressants” begins a new paragraph, fluidly introducing a new element into Rankine’s emotional montage: mental illness. Amid grainy images of medicine labels, instructions for taking pills and the ubiquitous television screen, Rankine writes about personal experiences with depression and self-medication. The tone here, more so than in other parts of the book, is staccato, monosyllabic and terse, evoking feelings of numbness, inertia and a deep resignation towards one’s condition. In one anecdote, the speaker describes an evening watching the movie Fitzcarraldo with a close friend who suffered from depression. She states: “Apart from their use in expressing emotion, tears have two other functions: they lubricate the eyes so that the lids can move over them smoothly as you blink; they wash away foreign bodies…it is difficult to feel much tear-worthy emotion about anything in Fitzcarraldo…but since [his] tears kept coming long after smooth blinking would have been restored and foreign bodies washed away, I decided that apparently my friend was expressing emotion and was not fine, not okay, no”. The speaker’s evident inability to quickly or easily recognize the depth of her friend’s pain, and her progression from the most clinical, utilitarian use of tears before finally arriving at their emotional meaning, reflects modern American culture’s inability to efficiently understand and recognize mental illness as both a serious individual and societal malady. There is a subtle hint that one’s first instinct is to look for more practical reasons for symptoms, before admitting that they point to the existence of a mental illness. The overarching message behind this anecdote is that modern American culture has been unable to fully comprehend the realities of mental illness and depression, a lot of which have arisen due to the society’s inability to articulate and process its trauma and grief.

The text’s preoccupation with American prescription culture and the discourse around mental illness contributes to the feeling of anxiety built up by Rankine, as well as the separation between the speaker and the so-called ‘enemy.’ The speaker is presented as an “other” to several ‘enemies’ – doctors, politicians, society, the mind itself –  in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and the reader feels part of this otherness and isolation in turn. The list of medications and mental illnesses throughout the book, like the inclusion of the “Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association of South Africa” list floods the reader with streams of cold, clinical data. The presentation of such a list in such a harsh and unfeeling way is anxiety-inducing in itself; taking an emotional issue and stripping it of that emotion on the page is a conscious choice made to emphasize a larger societal lack of empathy for mental illness.*

The book’s climax of sorts, is found on a page of simple lyric poetry; perhaps Rankine deliberately chooses to use the heightened language of poetry to communicate one of the most important messages of the text:

Life is a form of hope?

If you are hopeful.

Maybe hope is the same as breath – part of what it means to be human and alive.

Or maybe hoping is the same as waiting. It can be futile.

Waiting for what?

For a life to begin.

I am here.

And I am still lonely.

The poem reads as an internal dialogue, where the final conclusion seems to be that despite the existence of hope and optimism, which seem to form the paradigms of truly living and experiencing life to the fullest, the speaker remains steeped in loneliness. She is alive, she has bought into the American dream of hope and optimism, yet she is still lonely and suffering. On the next page, the speaker launches into the prosaic explanation: “Then all life is a form of waiting, but it is the waiting of loneliness. One waits to recognize the other, to see the other as one sees the self”. This complicates and compounds upon the meaning of the poem by suggesting that loneliness is an inevitable condition for living; in this case, however, the idea of living is framed by buying into the American dream, of being hopeful and positive even at the detriment of processing and healing experienced trauma. Thus, the text becomes a modern, slightly cynical take on the American dream, where it suggests that loneliness will always be an imminent result of pursuing this dream, to the point of losing self-awareness and comprehension of one’s, particularly negative, emotions.

This idea is buttressed by one of the most poignant passages in the book: “Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because it once meant something real”. Again, it is highlighted how modern American society feels alienated but does not dwell on or address its own loneliness, instead choosing to distract itself with media, which worsens the issue.

Overall, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely presents a major social problem and delves into the reasons behind it; the problem being loneliness in modern America, induced by the culture’s inability to sufficiently understand or process it. The only component left to explore is a solution and Rankine offers this in the book’s ending, referencing the words of German poet Paul Celan.  

Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here.

Rankine follows this with a picture of a billboard, the same as the one on the cover, spelling “HERE”. This is almost a case of authorial intrusion where Rankine inserts herself in the text as the author of this work, saying “HERE”, this book, a raw, hard, personal meditation on our loneliness, is my offer of a hand. It is the handshake, the exposing of her own self and her own part in American society and her own loneliness. Coupled with the billboard image, Rankine’s text becomes a hopeful, direct response to the plea of modern America: “DON’T LET ME BE LONELY”, stating “HERE”, I am offering my words and myself to you, the reader, so that together we can address and heal what we feel today. “Here both recognizes and demands recognition”; therefore, Rankine suggests it is important that the people of modern America be present, be aware of what they are feeling, take time to process it and understand it, even if it is difficult and painful and even if it means acknowledging that they are ill and need to heal. Rankine also emphasizes the need for collective and cooperative healing: “In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive”. In Rankine’s case, her attempt at achieving this goal is offering this multi-genre poetic text to share with people, in order to evoke empathy and healing through the realm of literature.

At one point, the speaker says: “In a taxi speeding uptown on the West Side Highway, I let my thoughts drift below the surface of the Hudson until it finally occurs to me that feelings fill the gaps created by the indirectness of experience”. The speaker is ultimately struggling with these gaps of indirectness, and the greater the gulf of otherness, the more overwhelming the loneliness and anxieties become. Rankine uses her text to both acknowledge and bridge this widening gulf, using a form that occupies its own middle ground between various genres.* Thus, Rankine deliberately uses a multi-genre, hybrid textual format to portray the multifaceted complexity of such an abstract emotion as loneliness. Her use of both images and graphics, particularly her emphasis on the television screen, makes the text become immediately more accessible to the 21s century reader while simultaneously serving the purpose of creating feelings of alienation and isolation in order to enhance the book’s portrayal of modern loneliness. And it is precisely this hybrid, composite nature of her work that makes it so moving and compelling in its depiction of the emotion within a modern American context.

References

Anderson, Erik. “Image, Anxiety, and the Enemy in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. Pilot Light: A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism. Web.

Barrisi, Dorothy. “Baby Boom Poetry and the New Zeitgeist”. The Prairie Schooner 83.3, Fall 2009. Web.

Johnson, Sarah. “Image, Anxiety, and the Enemy in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. Medium, 29 September 2016. Web.

LeGault, David. “Movie Quotes as Misery: Claudia Rankine’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’”. Essay Daily, 22 August 2013. Web.

Mullaney, S. Donavon. “Poet’s Pen: Review of Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. AuthorsDen. Web.

Nealon, Christopher. The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Web.

Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2004. Print.

Smart, Maya. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. Maya Smart Book Enthusiast. Web.

“The Rhetoric of Loneliness In Claudia Rankine’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Essay’”. The OneTreeLeftBehind Blog, 23 March 2015. Web.

Painting by Edward Hopper, “Automat” 1927.