Hanif Abdurraqib continues to seek wonder

The author, poet and cultural critic on the anniversary edition of his breakthrough essay collection, ‘They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,’ and the importance of remaining open to miracles.
Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif AbdurraqibMaddie McGarvey

When Hanif Abdurraqib released his breakout essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio), in November 2017, his life looked markedly different than it does now. 

At the time, the East Side native had only recently quit his 9-to-5 job, and he assumed he’d spend the rest of his life contentedly scraping by as a full-time writer. And for a couple of months, at least, that’s how things unfolded.

“I think what people may not remember about They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is that it did not immediately hit,” said Abdurraqib, who will speak at the Columbus Museum of Art tonight (Tuesday, Nov. 1) as part of Thurber House’s “Evenings with Authors” series. “It wasn’t a disappointment, by any means. … It was decently received, and the reviews were fine. But in terms of commercial success, it took two and a half months for it to really hit, which is unique, because a book, it’s like an album, it’s like any other piece of media, and the initial response is usually a signifier of the life it’ll have.”

But things unfolded differently both for Abdurraqib and They Can't Kill Us.

Spurred in part by a mention on a nationally televised morning show, a larger audience gradually discovered the book, and has continued to do so with staggering regularity in the five years since, with Abdurraqib noting They Can't Kill Us has now sold "well over 100,000" copies. The collection has displayed such ongoing resonance that Columbus publisher Two Dollar Radio will release a hardcover five-year anniversary edition of the book later this month, complete with new content from Abdurraqib, an introduction by Eve L. Ewing and an afterword by Jason Reynolds. 

The book’s rise has been mirrored by that of its author, who has zipped from “happily scraping by” to the forefront of the literary world. Just last year, Abdurraqib was named a 2021 National Book Awards finalist for A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance and received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He also joined Tin House Press as an editor-at-large last summer, acquiring the debut memoir from Ohio writer Prince Shakur, When They Tell You to Be Good, released in October. Oh, and Abdurraqib was immortalized locally in a mural by Columbus artist Bryan Christopher Moss, viewable on Main Street on the city’s East Side, not far from where the writer grew up.

But for Abdurraqib, revisiting the They Can’t Kill Us meant spending time with a version of himself with which he no longer identifies, offering that he wrote the essays that comprise the collection during a time of intense personal and emotional upheaval, having just gone through a painful divorce. “In a way, writing the book was something I rushed into eagerly, because it was all I had left as a grounding principle,” he said.

The prose often mirrors this sense of breathlessness, Abdurraqib filtering his worldview through a running cast of songs and musicians: Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen, Prince. Detailing the latter’s famously drenched Super Bowl halftime performance, Abdurraqib adopted a touch of magical realism, recalling how the musician appeared to bend the elements to his will. “The rain never touches those who it knows were sent into it for a higher purpose,” he wrote.

While Abdurraqib said the book’s enduring popularity remains in part a mystery, he allowed that there’s an openness to his approach that might have served as needed balm for some readers. “My hope with the book was that it could be music writing that was seeking and curious and not condescending or smug,” he said. “Mostly I wanted to present myself as someone who was just as confused as the next person, and looking to music not even for answers, but for understanding.”

As with much of Abdurraqib’s work, there’s also a sense of joy threaded throughout – hard won depictions of hope and grace and beauty in a world that often works actively to squelch such moments. Witness the closing essay “Surviving on Small Joys,” in which Abdurraqib writes: “Let the children have their world. Their miraculous impossible world where nothing hurts long enough to stop time. Let them have it for as long as it will hold them.”

“I think as I get older, and, really, as I become more disappointed and disaffected, in some ways I am less outwardly cynical in my work,” Abdurraqib said. “I don’t want my cynicism to obstruct my pleasure, or my ability to seek pleasure, which is another reason I don’t totally identify with They Can’t Kill Us, because I do see moments where I’m allowing my cynicism to obstruct a path to potential pleasure.”

Abdurraqib said the act of moving beyond this cynicism – a cancer that could have easily metastasized over these last five years of political and social turmoil, further magnified by a pandemic that has yet to fully loosen its grip – has required active, ongoing effort.  “And I get more exhausted doing that sometimes than I do physically exerting myself,” he said.

As a result of these efforts, though, Abdurraqib has been able to maintain a consistent sense of wonder in his writing, which revealed itself most recently in an ecstatic passage from a summer basketball essay he penned for ESPN.

In the midst of the intensely detailed portrait, which found the writer crisscrossing the country, logging time in stifling gymnasiums from Columbus to Seattle, Abdurraqib found himself taking in game action on the West Coast, forgetting for a moment that he was on assignment, that the humidity in the room was so stifling that the walls themselves appear “weighed down by condensation.” Indeed, lost in that feeling of rapture, any world that exists outside of that building appears to slip away altogether.

“It was here where I found myself, too, almost unknowingly, with my phone out, grinning widely,” writes Abdurraqib, who recently completed the initial manuscript for his next book, There’s Always This Year, which will center on his formative years growing up with professional basketball in the late 1990s. “Archiving not for the sake of reporting, or documenting the moment for a later and greater purpose. But doing it, at the moment, like everyone else in the building, like the kids pushing their way beyond the sideline. Documenting, merely to say, Isn't this something? And nothing else.”

For Abdurraqib, these brief moments of magic have become an essential motivator, continuing to drive him forward even in those times when outside forces attempt to draw him back.

“I am interested in the pursuit of projects that will unlock a greater sense of wonder for me,” Abdurraqib said. “And by that, I mean anything that will allow me to see the world through the eyes of my younger self, where I was more susceptible to being swept away by wonder and whimsy, where I was more open to a miracle, to say it plainly. So, much of what I take on now is in pursuit of the potential of that miracle, to see something I otherwise might not get to see.”

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