University of Minnesota Alumni Association

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Examining Whiteness

Poet Éireann Lorsung meditates on “white privilege” in her latest book.

Photo Courtesy of Éireann Lorsung


ireann Lorsung took 10 years to write her third collection of poetry, The Century, in part an examination of how being white organized her education and obscured other perspectives. Over the past decade, she’s made a lot of discoveries, which she shares with her readers. However, Lorsung (B.A. ’03, M.F.A ’06) cautions against calling her ideas “new.”

“When we call something new, we need to ask, ‘new to whom?’” she says. “The Columbus rhetoric is: ‘I discovered something because I saw it.’ It erases all the people who have seen it before.”

To counteract that sentiment, Lorsung scatters mentions of the writers, activists, and artists—mostly women of color—she studied while composing The Century.

“Citation is an ethical practice,” Lorsung explains. “It’s a way of indicating community, as well giving credit.”

Community is foundational to her writing practice; one of her biggest joys is “being in rooms with other people working out ideas.”

This may come from growing up in Minneapolis with three younger brothers. The siblings did homework at the kitchen table while her parents cooked or did chores. An avid reader even as a child, Lorsung was also excused from class to explore the library. “The library was one of the first places where I experienced freedom and self-determination,” she recalls. “I could make my own decisions there.”

While majoring in Japanese and English as an undergraduate at the U of M, she started to think about the political and social context of writing. She remembers her literature professor, Qadri Ismail, asking his British literature class, “Why can William Wordsworth walk around in daffodils and write poems? Who’s doing his laundry?”

After finishing her master’s in creative writing with a minor in studio arts in 2006, Lorsung spent 12 years living in Europe, teaching in France, and receiving a doctorate in Critical Theory from the University of Nottingham in 2013. She eventually settled in East Flanders, Belgium. She says her own experience of migration taught her a stark lesson about “white privilege” as she witnessed immigrants of color treated very differently from her while going through the same processes. “Benefiting from being white means you support other people’s suffering,” she reflects. “My poetry had to think about that.”

To help with that thinking, she launched projects like Dickinson House, a residency for disadvantaged writers and artists in East Flanders. Most recently she completed a three-year stint as a visiting professor at the University of Maine-Farmington. There she and her partner, a musician, ran a music series and hosted visiting poets in their living room.

Her first book of poetry, Music for Landing Planes By, was published in 2007, followed by Her book in 2013. In 2016, she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a novel that is still in progress. Despite these achievements, Lorsung shies away from the title of “writer.”

“I don’t like nouns,” she says. “I am more comfortable with verbs!” She adds, “I make things—paintings, houses, gardens, poems.” She challenges herself to consider how the making—both the finished product and the process itself—is ethical. “You have to be aware of your politics,” she insists. “It’s important for me to understand my own responsibility.”

The Century, to be published in October by Milkweed Editions, is in part a record of her grappling with her responsibility as a white person within a system she believes is rigged in favor of whiteness. Throughout the book, she returns to images—of thread, fog, and scrims—to track how her upbringing trained her not see certain aspects of race. “Whiteness operates as an invisible barrier,” she says. “It appears that you can see through it, but you can’t see through it.”

The Century begins with a meditation on the hollowness of public monuments and includes poems about racial violence. It feels remarkably prescient after a summer of nationwide protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. “White people haven’t thought about what it means to have your racial identity constructed as the dominant one,” she says. “Every white writer should try to trace the origin of their whiteness and write about how they understand themselves as a white writer, but that needs time and space. It’s very important to quietly and humbly do the work of reading and thinking,” she suggests. “One of the ways to disavow power is quietude, but not [if that quiet is] cowardice.”

Elizabeth Hoover is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.

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