How Hanif Abdurraqib Cuts Through the Noise

He is a National Book Award finalist for “A Little Devil in America,” but he has more books to write, more projects to take on and more s’mores to research.

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By Elizabeth A. Harris

COLUMBUS, Ohio — He received a MacArthur “genius” grant in September. A week later, he was named a finalist for the National Book Award for his essay collection “A Little Devil in America.” But even though he is grateful for the accolades, Hanif Abdurraqib prefers to stay a bit removed from it all.

He lives in this city where he grew up, not far from his old neighborhood and the people who knew him before he had written a word. “I have a really small window of what I can let into my world, because my world is already so crowded with my own whimsical interests,” he said, wrapped in a blanket in front of his house on a chilly afternoon last month.

“I’m not trying to be aloof. My superpower is that I mind my own business,” Abdurraqib added, a smile creeping into the center of his beard. “And I actually think that helps my productivity more than anything.”

Abdurraqib, 38, is a music guy who came up in the punk scene, a sneakerhead with 132 pairs and an athlete who played soccer in high school and college — he taught his dog, Wendy, to kick the ball back and forth with him during the pandemic. He buys himself a bouquet of flowers every Saturday to put on his dining room table.

What he is not is someone who always dreamed of being a writer. He came to it in his early 20s, writing for punk zines, he said, and it became something of a balm around the time he dropped out of Capital University.

That period was a struggle, Abdurraqib said. He stole, skipped out on a warrant and landed in jail a few times. At one point, he was evicted, and for two months, he slept in a storage unit, showering at a YMCA during the day. At night, as quietly as possible to avoid detection, he would write.

“I did it to kind of take my mind off of survival,” he said. “I had this little portable light that I would use, but it wasn’t because I was pursuing some grand career writing. It was to take my mind off the fact that this was the place I had to sleep.”

Abdurraqib has been open about some of his other struggles, as well. In “A Little Devil in America,” which Random House published in March, he weaves memoir through studies of Black performers, including the singer Merry Clayton, whose voice ripped through the song “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. Toward the end of the book, in an essay called “On Times I Have Forced Myself Not to Dance,” he describes moments of deep depression. “I remember, most of all, how my brother — larger than me in every way — held me while I cried in his arms and did not speak at all,” he wrote, “not even to reassure me that things were going to be fine. Rather, in silence, to help me understand that things were not fine, but this was him, dragging me back from the brink. Holding me until the ledge became solid ground again.”

A few years later, with his life a bit more settled, Abdurraqib found poetry. Columbus has a vibrant literary scene, and pre-pandemic, Abdurraqib said, you could find a poetry open mic just about every night.

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    He describes himself as an isolationist by nature, so slam poetry — a competition that takes place on a stage in front of a chatty audience — was not necessarily built for him. “What I came to love about poetry slam,” he said, “was the real-time editing that can happen in the room where you’re performing, because you hear an audience response in real time. You know, these affirmative ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and snaps and delightful ‘mmms.’ And you get this feel for what’s working, and get a sense for when you’re holding an audience in your hands.”

    His first book of poems, “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much,” was published by Button Poetry in 2016, not long after he started writing essays for MTV News like “The Night Prince Walked on Water” and “Nina Simone Was Very Black.” (“It is easy to be black and non-confrontational if nothing is on fire, and so it has never been easy to be black and non-confrontational,” he wrote in the Nina Simone essay.)

    That work for MTV became the basis for a book of essays on music, culture and race in America, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” published in 2017 by a small independent publisher in Columbus called Two Dollar Radio. Eric Obenauf, its editorial director, said the book has been its biggest hit, and that Abdurraqib has been instrumental in boosting the literary community in his hometown.

    “Everyone rallies behind him here,” he said. “It’s such an occasion when he has a book out. All the bookstores are swamped with people. He really is this hero in town.”

    That status was on display at a local coffee shop when a man, wearing a baseball hat with the state of Ohio stamped above the brim, approached Abdurraqib to offer a fist pound and some congratulations. (“Mark Sweeney, we went to Capital together,” he said. “I’ve been seeing you everywhere. Nice job.”) Abdurraqib swore he hadn’t set the interaction up.

    Abdurraqib has also earned praise from organizers in local activist groups, like the Juvenile Justice Coalition and Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, who say the social consciousness in his work is something that shows up in his life, as well. He has been a regular at protests against police brutality, they said, and is happy to speak at rallies or to help fund-raise for groups he supports, sometimes cutting his own checks.

    Also, his face is on a building now. There’s a brightly colored mural on East Main Street, not far from his house, that looks like it glows in the twilight.

    “I’m visible enough for three lifetimes at this point,” Abdurraqib said. “At least for my own good, for what I can emotionally handle.”

    When he says he likes to mind his own business, he explained, he’s describing an effort to preserve his mental and emotional energy, keeping his focus tight because he has trouble just dipping a toe into something. Recently, for example, he realized he had never had s’mores, and since he has a fire pit in front of his house (he had the grass taken out because he didn’t want to mow it), he decided it was time to try them. So he Googled the best way to make to make s’mores. Three hours later, he looked up and it was dark, he said, and he was still learning about the history of the graham cracker.

    “The best parts of my work hone that impulse and thread it through some, hopefully, nuanced and clear articulation of narrative,” Abdurraqib said. “But the part that people don’t see is the s’mores situation.”

    His criticism and essays are infused with this, but also with social commentary, memoir, pop culture, and always with poetry. Even the structure of his books sometimes take a poetic slant, like a chapter in “A Little Devil In America” called “Fear: A Crown,” where the last line of each stanza echoes the first line of the next.

    “Little Devil” is a book of celebration, but it began as one about the cultural appropriation of Black performance. Roughly halfway through writing it, Abdurraqib said, he realized he needed to focus instead on lifting up the work he found so thrilling.

    “I’m a really big Toni Morrison disciple,” he said. “One thing Ms. Morrison always implored us to do as writers, as Black writers particularly, is to just see what happens if you don’t center whiteness. Just see what happens, you know?”

    But even the idea of decentering whiteness, Abdurraqib added later, gives whiteness too much credit. “The better question I was asking myself is, how can I celebrate the under-celebrated, or the uncelebrated, in new ways?”

    Today, his varied interests are reflected in his many projects. He’s working on a book about basketball. He’s teaching at Butler University in Indianapolis. He has a website called 68to05, where he commissions essays about music for $300 a pop, and writes regularly for The New York Times Magazine. And last summer, he became an editor-at-large at Tin House, an independent publisher, where he’ll acquire and edit about three nonfiction books a year. His first book, “When They Tell You to Be Good” by Prince Shakur, was announced this month.

    “Writing is just something that I’m so fortunate to be able to do,” Abdurraqib said. “But it’s kind of a thing where, well, I’m not in a band. I didn’t get to be the pro athlete. In the end, I stumbled upon something that I didn’t know was a dream.”

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