Newsmaker: Hanif Abdurraqib

Award-winning author pays homage to hometown in new book

March 1, 2024

Hanif Abdurraqib

When poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib received a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, the foundation observed that he “is forging a new form of cultural criticism, one that is informed by lived experience and offers incisive social and artistic critiques.” This aptly describes A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021), winner of the 2022 Carnegie Medal, and Abdurraqib’s new book, There’s Always This Year: Basketball and Ascension (Random House, March), which is, in part, a paean to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Abdurraqib spoke with American Libraries about his forthcoming work, the experience of finding a personal history in the library, and how basketball reflects larger issues in the world.

You explore basketball from many perspectives throughout your new book. Can you sum up the game’s meaning to you?

Growing up, we had a basketball hoop on our garage, and people I loved, thought about, and cared for would gather around. As a kid, obviously, I was not thinking about basketball as a fully encapsulating world to use as a vessel to discuss what it is to love a city, and then be let down by that city. I used the shape of the book to trick people into thinking they’re reading about basketball, when they were really reading about all these other things. But I think I did that to trick myself into thinking I was writing about basketball. It was a lot harder for me to come to the reality that I was confronting a lot of larger, personal things.

Was this new book a work of discovery for you? Were you surprised at the turns and twists it took?

Ultimately, I think that I write to provide answers to my own interior condition. I thought of this process, in this book specifically, like feeling around in a dark room for a light switch, finding it, turning the light on, and realizing that I have to go into another dark room. It was a real pursuit of how to get to the bottom of this obsession.

You use motifs and refrains throughout the book as you cover multiple themes—friends and enemies, belief and home, witness and heartbreak. Did poetry help shape the narrative?

Absolutely. Particularly because so much of what I was trying to do is what I love in poems, which is to encapsulate a large thing in a small space without diminishing the idea. And then moving along to the next thing. A lot of these sections are like mini-poems. I really love Mary Oliver; Susan Nguyen, whose Dear Diaspora I just read and adored; and Marianne Chan, whose book All Heathens is literally next to me right now. These are poets I read a lot. I knew going into this book that there was no one place I could stay in all that long because I had a lot that I wanted to get people to understand. One big anxiety I always have due to my style of writing is, “Am I losing focus? Am I losing clarity?”

The word ascension is so powerful. Can you talk about the different ways you use it throughout the book?

One central question in the book is, “Who gets to make it out of the place, and why?” And the question underneath that is, “What does ‘making it’ even look like?” I came up in a neighborhood, a very Black neighborhood on the east side of Columbus, that was neglected by the city at large. For someone from there, making it doesn’t always mean making it out. To ascend is to simply rise to a place above the place that is deemed to be your station in life. And I was weighing and kicking around the question of, “What does it mean to ascend beyond a place?” Or, “What does it mean to watch someone ascend for so long?”

LeBron James and I are about the same age and grew up around the same time in Ohio. I’ve watched him from the time he was in 9th grade. To then witness his ascension meant something different to me. It allowed me to parallel parts of our lives when he was ascending and, I would say, I was descending. For me, ascension simply meant having a place to sleep, knowing for sure that I can eat a meal that day. For people I grew up with, ascension means having enough money to provide for the kid you weren’t expecting to have, or having enough money for a new pair of basketball shoes before the season starts. I’m considering these small modes of ascension and trying to honor them.

Your love for your hometown is the foundation of the book, and the way you write about your city enlarges it to become every city every city dweller calls home and identifies with.

That’s been the goal of my writing from the beginning, when I really didn’t know what I was doing. In my first poems, I really was stumbling toward what it is to articulate a place, to try and make it feel like it could be someone else’s place, even if they’ve never been there. This is a book that I wanted to write for a very long time, but I didn’t know how.

Now I wonder if I’ve reached a crescendo in my fascination with Columbus as a very specific kind of muse in my work, which doesn’t mean that it’s over. It doesn’t mean that me writing about place has run its course. I think what it means is that the ways that I write about place will probably have to shift, because this was it. This was—at least in my brain—the magnum opus of the ode to place. I’m excited to see what else I can wring out of living in a place I love.

What role have libraries played in your life?

I went back to the library that I grew up in to do a lot of the research for this book. Columbus Metropolitan Library is not where I learned to read, but it’s where I learned to be a reader. I grew up in a house where my parents really valued reading, but we didn’t have a lot of money, and my parents worked a lot. I could just spend all day at the library during the summer and winter and spring breaks, and no one would kick me out. I wanted to return to this place where I was my most focused self, when I was young and eager and curious.

There was something different about research this time around, because I wasn’t researching a past during which I wasn’t alive. I was looking at newspapers and seeing the faces of old high school teammates, which was jarring in a beautiful way. The library played a mighty role, not just from an emotional standpoint as a pilgrimage to this place where I became a reader, but in a very practical material sense because it gave me access to years of local newspapers.

We’re in a time of increasing book challenges, especially targeting books by BIPOC and LBGTQ writers. What are your thoughts about book bans?

I was always in the library. Librarians would clock what I was reading, and then I’d come in the next day, and they’d say, “I think you’d like this.” A librarian saw that I was reading Toni Morrison, and so they put Gloria Naylor in my hands.

To not only crack down on books but to put a sense of fear or guilt into someone—a teacher or an elder or a librarian—who is simply being intuitive and thoughtful in seeing what young people are reading and saying, “I’ve got something else for you,” is to create an anxiety around the exchange of information. And that anxiety is going to create a real gap in empathy and education, in language and care.

I’m confident in young people and I’m confident that folks will find ways to continue to have a relationship to text, but that kind of anxiety and fear is really alarming and upsetting to me, in part because I was a kid who grew up with very little resources. I would hate to see that not afforded to a young person now who might otherwise be written off. Having books and people who love books in young people’s lives is vital. To have that taken away has grave consequences.


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