23 Jun / The Carnegie Medal Interview: Hanif Abdurraqib [in Booklist]
Terry Hong, Booklist Contributing Reviewer and chair of the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence selection committee, had questions for Hanif Abdurraqib, author of A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Here is their exchange:
A Little Devil in America is a phenomenal distillation of history, politics, culture, biography, music, memoir – and more. How did you gather the extensive critical elements and compose this marvelous book?
I’m a very eager researcher and compiler of notes, of half-ideas, of stumbles towards the hope that everything I’m dreaming is somehow interconnected (even if it isn’t!). This is something, I should add, that I picked up through my earliest days of library-wandering, having the ability to just grab anything that seemed remotely interesting, make a pile, and go through it. And so, I think the origins of this book were a kind of going back to my roots, compiling the broader ideas, excitements, and obsessions that were populating the cloud hovering over what the book could become, and then deconstructing that cloud, down to an essay level, a paragraph level, a sentence level. If I knew, for example, that I desperately needed the Soul Train Line and the Dance Marathon to be in harmony by the fourth act of an essay, how could I use research, use imagery, use metaphor to help nudge them closer together in the first act? This was a significantly more patient book than my previous books. I didn’t wait for revelations, and so the work was to slowly construct the potential for the revelation.
Reading A Little Devil feels like being called into a conversation. For readers discovering your work for the first time, what are some of your hopes for reactions?
Well, I suppose that I do hope that people feel like they are being called into a space of conversation, yes. But also I hope that there’s an untold or undertold story in the book that sends people twirling into an obsession, or a seeking out of more, more, more. I always wanted this to be a book of abundance, even understanding the limits of text, of page count, and so on.
After the Andrew Carnegie Medals shortlist was announced last December, and Booklist invited you to name some books you’d like readers to read, you created a list of poetry collections by Ohio-born poets. Why poetry? What place does writing and reading poetry hold in our life?
I’m at this point of working on my new book where I pause every eight-to-ten-thousand words, and take a moment, a week or so, to write the poems that kind of spring to life organically through the process of pursuing language through large ideas. It’s kind of like putting the massive idea in a sifter, shaking it out, and making something of the remains. I think that’s where poems work best for me. Making sense of what I leave behind through my other, more haphazard pursuits. In a poem, I can make the world into anything I want, and I take advantage of that. Through that dreaming, a kind of clarity emerges.
Clearly you’re quite the storyteller as proven in your award-winning essays and poetry collections. Have you considered writing short stories or novels?
I have to leave that to those already doing it, I think; it’s character development that would be a massive, massive struggle for me. So many writers I love are so tender with characters! They build entire lives for them and tend to them so carefully! Among my many failures, one of them is that I am maybe too self-involved in my own obsessions to tend to an imagined life, even a life I’ve dreamed up for the page. I admire fiction writers. I grew up reading only fiction and nothing else. Over the past two years, I’ve tried to return to a fiction-reading practice. I’m so fulfilled by the reading of fiction, but I think a part of that fulfillment is that I have become settled with the reality that I am incapable of doing it.
Your eager readers would love to know: When might we see your next book and what might it be?
The next book is called There’s Always This Year. I’ve actually been wrestling with what it is “about,” and in general I’ve been wrestling with “aboutness” as a starting point for discussing a book, a film, anything like that. There is a container that this book is resting inside of, but the container has to be malleable. The container is basketball, and it’s Ohio. But what is being poured into it is a lot of other things: mortality, impermanence, fear, films, love and lovelessness. I am still figuring out what this book is becoming, and I’m enjoying my own growth/becoming alongside it.
Author interview: “Feature,” Booklist, June 1, 2022