Hanif Abdurraqib is one of my favorite authors currently writing. The way he writes about music in his first two works of prose, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest will change the way you listen and hear music blasting from your speakers, or even a speeding car whizzing by. Hanif is back with a new book, called A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, a collection of essays surrounding performances big and small. Each essay is lyrical, brings the reader closer to the performance than ever before (even if they’ve never seen it or heard it before) and is all ultimately celebratory, even among its darker passages.
A Little Devil in America
So it’s only fitting then, that when Hanif and I chatted, he wanted to recommend books that were celebratory in nature. Hanif told me that he “likes a book that praises a person, as much as [he] likes a book that praises sadness, fear, or allegiance.” He added, “Mostly what I’m getting at is history in some way—whether it’s real, conceptual, or emotional—all of these things are riding under these books and what’s really being celebrated is the histories we’re trudging through.”
We Want It All
“I like anthologies, but sometimes, I feel like what I really want are capital “A” anthologies,” Hanif said. We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics is 450 pages, and it's all poems. There are just tons of writers spanning styles, generations, and concerns— for me to see a multi-voice collection that is so experimental in places, was really cool. And besides it’s rare to have an anthology be this big and read this well all the way through.”
Looking for Lorraine
“Lorraine Hansberry is one of my favorite authors, and this book, Looking for Lorraine is really deeply researched and beautiful,” Hanif said. In this bio that examines the author of A Raisin in the Sun, Hanif says the biographer managed to “hone in on a life,” while also remaining “generous in how it presents her full life in full to the reader.” This, he said, “held me accountable to continue to ask myself that question as I was writing—am I celebrating the people in these narratives I’m presenting?” Hanif added that “Especially if you’re black in America, your legacy is going to get cherry picked when you’re no longer around to defend it. It’s important for Black folks to correct the record.”
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
“I love Ross Gay’s work, and this book is all about praising really small things, or things that might seem small initially,” Hanif said. “There’s a poem called ‘Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes’ where he draws a path to a greater heartbreak or greater realization that makes the small thing he’s talking about not so small after all.” Most importantly, Hanif said this book reminds him, especially this year that “If we live life with an understanding that we are not infinite then what else can there be for gratitude for these moments we have together?”
“This is one of my favorite books of poetry,” Hanif said. The book really infuses the idea of horror and fear, in a really fulfilling way.” “Grief is not the only thing going on here,” he added. “There is something up against those things that make them softer or more approachable. I always need those kinds of reminders.” In his work, Hanif said he’s “not just writing about grief to write about grief. Instead, there’s something else [he’s] trying to unearth in [his] favor.”
The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart
This is the first book of poetry I ever bought for myself. I bought it from a used bookstore, I keep it near me whenever I’m writing a book. It’s a concept book, about watching Amelia Earhart getting into a plane for the last time.” Hanif said through reading and re-reading these poems, he was ultimately pushed towards “the idea that there are countless ways to enter a moment.”
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