True Americans, and Other News

‘The Water Garden’ (1909) by Childe Hassam (1859–1935 ), The Metropolitan Museum.

Novel Ideas: Houses by Nikki Wallschlaeger


TEXT: Snigdha Koirala

The white gaze — looking at the world through white privilege — is something writers of colour have battled through and through. Toni Morrison refused it, said ‘there was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to…somebody else’s gaze’; Claudia Rankine stares back at it, uses her poetry to dismantle the delusion that comes with the gaze. Nikki Wallschlaeger, author of Houses (Horseless Press) – a collection of prose poetry exploring race — sits somewhere in the middle. She looks it in the eye, but looks beyond it as well; she is unafraid to acknowledge it, but careful not to give it the centre stage.

‘White House’, one of the poems in Houses and perhaps the boldest in the collection, stares back at the gaze. In it, Wallschlaeger writes ‘Our people sure have strong arms…Those Ionic columns forced to hold up that cotton pickin house. That’s why the white house gets repainted every year, they’re afraid the cracks will show. Black cracks.’ She takes the most iconic building in American history – one that, up until recently, has been entirely operated by whiteness – and frames it in the context of her own people’s experiences. The White House, she shows the readers, isn’t just a symbol of democracy, but also one of white privilege gained through black oppression.

Not all the poems in the collection, however, are as bold. In ‘Bronze House’, for instance, the speaker explores her relationship with her mother. The poem, in and of itself, exists outside the concepts of white power and the white gaze, but looking at the collection as a whole, the reader understands where the speaker falls in the enforced racial hierarchy. In doing this, Wallschlaeger shows the reader that the speaker is affected by and lives with the white gaze, but is far from being defined by it.

Houses captures the complexities of living in a society dominated by white supremacy: where whiteness is the norm. We find mostly white authors in bookstores, we learn mostly about white men in history class, we watch films with mostly white actors (sometimes even portraying characters of colour), and as such, we have come to think of white as default. But Wallschlaeger, like many writers of colour before and alongside her, goes against this grain: she redefines the norm, and in doing so, creates a collection empowering to read.