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The Comfort of Not Knowing: Hanif Abduraqib and Morgan Parker in Conversation

Two award-winning polymath writers talk publication, virtual and IRL communities, and the “comforts of not knowing.”
Cover of Hanif Abduraqib's book A Little Devil in America
Hanif Abdruaqib Megan Leigh Bernard

Editor's Note: Hanif Abdurraqib and Morgan Parker are two of the best young poets working today. Abdrurraqib’s second collection, A Fortune for Your Disaster, won the 2020 Lenore Marshall Prize while Parker’s third collection, Magical Negro, won the 2019 National Book Critics Award. Their work captures the complicated whiplashing between joy and rage that is inherent in the current Black experience. And they both are equally adept at prose. Parker recently published the YA novel Who Put This Record On, and Abdurraqib has made a name for himself as one of the most astute cultural critics with his wide-ranging essays on music. His book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on a Tribe Called Quest was a New York Times bestseller. Now, on the occasion of Abdurraqib’s new book, A Little Devil in America: Notes on Black Performance, the two got together to talk about publication, virtual and IRL communities, and the “comforts of not knowing.”

Morgan Parker

This book! How do you feel about the release?

Hanif Abdurraquib

It’s exciting, but I’m also a little sad that it won’t just be mine anymore. I actually had a lot of fun working on it, so it’s sort of like mourning a loss.

MP

I don't feel like I have fun writing all of my books, but I understand that feeling of, "Dang, this was a really nice project for me, personally," and then it gets into what happens when the book is in the world, and it's everybody's book.

HA

Right. Yeah. I'm someone who has to let go immediately, like when a book enters the world, I have to let go immediately, because now I can't control how people see it, and I can't even control how people project feelings about me onto the book, or use the book to project feelings. So, I have to fully detach from it, which I think is what I'm mourning, is the reality of severing that. I feel it's like a complete thing. It's like going through a breakup, where you're like, "Well, I can't talk to you anymore."

MP

Right. Yeah.

HA

We can be friends once things cool down, but for the next year or so, we maybe don't need to talk.

MP

It is hard. It's exciting, though, and I think it's so different than writing and reading poems and sharing those. It's so different to have essays and wider conversations. I also think that people feel more, unreasonably, that they can make comments about essays, because they're like, "Oh, I get a sentence," versus, "I understand a line of poetry." So, I do find that people have a lot more to say and argue with. I don't know. It's something that I struggle with when writing essays. Do you feel afraid of that?

HA

Kind of. Honestly, I think I feel most afraid when I feel compelled to convict my language. So, I feel more afraid in the poem generally, because I'm leaving so much up for interpretation, and I think I'm relying more on generosity of readers. But an essay, I think I can use more guide posts and make more attempts at clarifying my own self and positioning myself as an underlying narrator, which I believe I am in both poems and essays. But I think in the essay, I can figure that out easier. I can come to that easier.

MP

I like that. That's a good way to think about it, because really, what that is, is a letting go of ego, in the writing process. For me, I usually think of that more as when the book is over or in the editing, but I admire that ability to be without ego if I'm in charge. And I think there can be a pull in essays to feel in charge and not dig into being unreliable and emotional and all of that stuff, which I think is what makes your essays so fun.

HA

You're very kind. Thank you. They're often not fun to write. So, whenever people can fit into them to be fun, I'm always like, "Oh, that's like the kindest thing anyone can say."

Hanif Abdurraqib book cover for The Little Devil in America
Morgan Parker book cover of There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce
MP

Right. Well, it's about those little moments of excitement, picking up on that. That translates, and that translates in the prose. And I think that it's easy for readers to pick up on that, and it's contagious. So then, I'm invited to find my own excitements and curiosities and all of that, alongside you as the writer. And, it always feels better to go on a journey with instead of being told.

HA

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. What I like about that work is that you do what I think that I try to do and what I think a lot of black writers do—that you get away from explanation. How did you get a comfort in that? It didn't take me super long to get comfortable with that, but I think that other writers, I can feel sometimes there's a tensity in how they approach how much they explain and what they should explain. But I think when you're writing maybe less there's a temptation to explain what cannot be seen.

MP

Yeah. There is. I guess, that's if you are thinking about audience and who's reading this and will they know. I find myself to be not good at deciphering that. I don't know what people know. I don't know the right stuff. My references are always a little bit just unique to whatever I'm interested in. So, I feel like that explanation... I can only do so much. Honestly, I'm less interested in explaining the object than explaining my brain's response to it, if that makes sense.

HA

Right. Yeah.

MP

And I think in that way, that's why poems are easy, because I don't have to explain, and for me, the connections are really quick. And so, to, in prose, connect the dots with sentences sometimes can feel tedious to me, even though I know it's a necessary part of unfolding the argument. It's like, yeah, yeah, but obviously slave ships, Big Pimpin', and all these things. Like, duh. Why do I have to explain that? But that's about how our writer brains work, what we see and interpret. So, I guess I think of it more as interpretation than explanation, which I think takes a little bit of the pressure off.

HA

Right. That makes sense. Yeah.

MP

And I think that's something that I find that we can do in a way that is, I think, a little bit new, just in terms of I don't necessarily need to explain what I'm looking at, and it's more about what the exchange is, like what is the response to this thing, rather than let me tell you about this other thing, if that makes sense.

HA

Right. No, that makes perfect sense. Yeah.

Morgan Parker Rachel Eliza Griffiths
MP

And I find that really fun. And it is harder, because people want to be told stuff.

HA

I know. Yeah, that's the whole thing. For me, divesting from other people's desire to be informed has been the best thing I could do for myself, I think. But, not just in my writing, but also as a reader. Divesting from my own desire to have things explained to me or to take an easy route to understanding has made it more exciting for me to be a seeking, curious person. And to play with the comforts or revel in the comforts of not knowing. And that feels, to me, like the most comfortable way I know how to be now. As someone who is sinking into my lack of knowing, and doing what I can with it.

MP

That's a particular maturity, and it's also... that's what art is. I think sometimes we're encouraged to lean in journalistically, but really, the art making is about not knowing and being honest about that.

HA

Right.

MP

Versus, I'm the expert, and I'm going to break it down for you.

HA

Yeah. It's been really good, I think, for me personally, because I've removed myself from any idea of expertise, and to detach myself from anyone who might have a desire for me to be the expert. And to make it immensely clear, not only am I not an expert, but if you're coming here seeking expertise, I think you're going to be disappointed. Because, it feels most important for me to say, what do we collectively know, instead of what do I know that I can then "teach" you. It's been more useful, I think, for me to consider these things by what can I bring to a collective discussion of community unknowings, and we can work together, we can build some knowledge points.

MP

Yeah. And I think it's also in your work, it's also about using the images that we've created to explain what we're thinking and feeling. So, it's more about, yeah, that kind of translation, and what are in the remnants of media and history and all of that, that can tell us about ourselves, rather than what can I say.

HA

Right, right.

MP

I think that's really what is exciting about putting a book like that in the world, is it is more of a record of, yes, it's your reflections, but it's a record of what's all happening. And I think it's a matter of giving different perspectives. But I agree, that I think readers aren't always looking for that, and I know the way publishing is and the way black writers are relied upon, it's hard.

HA

Yeah, it is.

MP

Because they want to learn. It never ceases to amaze me how all these white people will come to events and be like, "Tell us what to do." You know?

HA

Right.

MP

And I think it takes a lot of courage to move away from that, and just refuse to offer that.

HA

To me, at least, to say I don't have answers, and if I did, they wouldn't be for you.

MP

Yeah, yeah, right. And also, why are you asking me? What are your answers? You know what I mean? Shouldn't we all be looking for answers? Why is it on me and the writing? I'm just trying to write about stuff.

HA

Yeah, yeah.

MP

It's a lot to put on a person. And I like thinking about it that way, because I feel for me, I find myself just getting frustrated and mad, and annoyed that everyone wants me to write an essay about the first time someone touched my hair, you know what I mean? I don't want to write that, but I know that that is what is wanted and expected, and I'm supposed to explain what it is that hurt my feelings and all of that stuff. It's hard to resist that, or to know that you're resisting it, and knowing that you're doing something other than what the audience is expecting or wanting or whatever. Even though the thing you're writing is better.

HA

Right. That's the thing, is knowing that the thing you're writing is the better thing. Also, too, what is asked for is so fickle. I just think if I got caught up in the hamster wheel of the needs of an "audience," imaginary or real, it would render me kind of immovable, because I think that the needs of people, especially imaginary people, are as frivolous as the wind blows. It puts you in a tough spot.

MP

It does. And if you're always trying to match what the whatever, what the zeitgeist wants, then you're never going to be making anything new.

HA

You know what's funny? I hate to be cliché, but I'm fucked up trying to figure out what time is what, and what time it is. The book was largely finished when the pandemic started, we were all pushed inside, and so when the book comes out, I'll be inside, everything I'm doing is inside, and so there's something I'm missing going into this about the very full contact, bringing a book into the world thing. There was something about the book release where you can pick your homies to come through for you because you know they'll come through for you. I remember when Safia [Elhillo] dropped her first book, she was like, "Listen, if you all want to come meet at my book release, if you can come to DC, come do it," and we just all kind of went.

MP

Right. Yeah

HA

And there's something about that. I'm not mourning much. I know I said I was mourning the release of the book into the world, but I had perspective, so I appreciate the fact that I am pretty privileged to be in a position where I can work from home, where I'm not missing out on too many things that will set me back in the world, but I do think I'm mourning the very specific physicality of pleasure and joy that comes with bringing a book into the world.

MP

Yeah. Yeah. Because that's one of the few things we get, you know what I mean? It's such a lonely process, and then it's so alienating because you're just like a performer with book and product, that that's the moment where before you're touring, before you're only the product, and after you've done the hell of exhaling the book out, that little moment where you just celebrate.

HA

Yeah.

MP

That's important, psychologically, I think. Otherwise, how do you mark that moment? It feels like that was kind of a special way of just acknowledging that it was hard and you made it.

HA

Right, right, right.

MP

We're definitely having to try new things.

HA

Yeah. And I also think that my life generally... I've come to terms with the fact that I think there are ways that my life was that it will never be again, probably happily. I can't travel as much as I did. It was not healthy or sustainable or whatever. And all that. I also think I've redefined what taking care of myself means, or the understanding of what taking care of myself means, and that's been an interesting journey.

MP

Yeah. What is something that you thought was part of taking care of yourself that isn't, and what's something that surprised you that you learned?

HA

I meditate all the time now.

MP

Wow.

Hanif:

I'm a big meditating person. That was one of the things that people pre-pandemic people were like, "You're the perfect candidate for someone who should be meditating all the fucking time." You know what I mean? "You are someone who absolutely needs to find some space on your own."

MP

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HA

And I was like, no, it's not my thing, it's not my thing. I was kind of always like, "I've got crystals. You all told me I need to get crystals. I've got crystals. [laughter]." I have enough crystals in my house to power almost anything. Why meditate? But, yeah, early in the pandemic, it was this thing where I think because so much of my life for 2019 and 2020 was wrapped up in hectic travel, which means getting up early, getting to the airport, waking up in a hotel room and stumbling to find your shit to pack up, I didn't appreciate the slowness of a morning. Kind of like waking up at 8:00 and hanging in bed till 8:30 and getting up to meditate and making yourself comfortable, to nourish yourself. All that shit was unfamiliar, entirely foreign to me, and it was wild to be like, "Oh, shit, I'll wake up alone in my house, and I could eat something that's not grabbed in an airport terminal."

MP

I know. I know. I cooked so much this past year, because I thought about it and was like, "Wow, I ate mostly in airports and hotels," and 2019 was so... 2019, for me, I did two book tours, so it was worse than ever. It already was like, "This is absurd." So, 2020 was like whiplash, and yeah, I'm not good with quiet. My brain doesn't go quiet. So, then to just be in the house with myself all day long, it's tough. I've done better stretching my body and sitting down, but I'm still not good at meditating. But my dad took up meditation, which is crazy. That's really a stretch. But I feel like there's something about this time where people are really learning to find their center or whatever it may be.

HA

Yeah. In a way, I don't want to seek. I'm a little bit horrified to do much seeking beyond where I am now and come to my internal landscape. I think I have crossed the border that I want to cross, and I can see what's on the horizon, and I don't want to go any closer to the horizon, at least not right now.

MP

Right, right. In due time.

HA

My therapist would probably like me to, but it is wild to be alone and only be beholden to yourself every time. So, for me, at least, I have an understanding of the fact that I've done all the self-excavation and self-searching that I can withstand, at the moment. Without spiraling. I'm not very aware of what skills I do and don't have, but I will say that I think self-control is something that I've almost mastered, and it has been a real generosity for me in this time. And I don't mean in terms of like, "Well, I'm not eating a bag of chips a day." I don't care about that type of shit. But mostly like, I'm not running up against these walls of I am so curious about how far I can push myself emotionally to seek for answers that I maybe don't want in the first place.

MP

Yeah. That's really important. That sounds like a nirvana of a kind. That's the lesson, right?

HA

Yeah.

MP

Because it's about sustainability.

HA

Yeah. Yeah. Which, I don't know, has anything felt sustainable for you in the past year?

MP

No. No. It's horrifying. For me, I always feel like it's a new game plan every day, so I don't know. But it is really hard to think, okay, how can I make this last longer? Because every day just feels like, yeah, running up against a wall. And, it's hard when you are a curious person, and want to push those things, not to. Especially when it's like, well, what else am I doing? You know what I mean? Might as well go down my own psychological bullshit. But yeah. Definitely taking time. I already knew I wasn't going to travel. After 2019, I was like, that's that. That was fucking terrible. And I really destroyed myself. So, I already knew, be more quiet, sit still longer.

And I do feel like what you're describing about entering the day, easing yourself in, that I really will have to hold on to. I'm not at the same level of wake up, jump up, what time is it, how many minutes do I have to do seven things. I can't do that anymore.

HA

The days are too horrific for me to want to rush into anything.

MP

Right? Yeah. Yeah.

HA

The days are too terrifying for me to want to immediately immerse myself in. I feel like there's a self-protective or an emotional and mental lubricant that I'm trying to conjure up by these slow entrances into the day.

MP

Yeah. That seems important, because it's so weird. Even though I don't see anyone or interact with anyone, you still feel the world pressing in. I'm surprised by that, that I still feel like the world is still needing something from me. So, I do think it's important, especially if you can, in your own space, block that out for as many hours as possible.

HA

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it's wild. Are you a walk taker? Do you take walks, or are you straight up, "I'm not leaving my house at all"? I feel like California is a little bit harder to navigate. You're in LA, right?

MP

Yeah.

HA

Yeah. I feel like LA is a little harder to navigate in terms of just getting out in the open and taking a calming wall.

MP

I mean, I walk the dog, and I've been walking her more in the day. So, that's been nice. And I'm in a pretty residential area, but I haven't been taking long walks or anything. Though, my neighborhood is pretty walkable. But the thing about California is, I have a little patio, it's sunny, I live on a cul-de-sac. I keep saying I'm living a sitcom life, which I love. Who knew? Usually I'm like, I have 100 friends, but it feels like I interact with five people. It's the black girl across the street, my neighbors, there's a white guy named Matt who lives next door. These are my characters that come in and out, and I'm kind of comforted by that smallness, that community-ness. Especially because LA is so spread out, and it's not like I'm in New York and feel like I could throw a stone and reach a homie. The kind of small community-ness of it all has been nice, and just remembering to take time and sit outside and get sun and all of that stuff, I really have depended more heavily on that.

HA

Yeah. Yeah. It was warm in Columbus the past four days, like up in the 60s and sunny, and today it's back at like 35 and cloudy, and I wasn't prepared. And I live in Ohio, so that's just how the weather is here, but I actually wasn't prepared for the emotional devastation of returning to the cold. And I think if there is something that has shaken loose in me, it's my disappointment, the small disappointments, even the expected ones, or the ones I understand, feel so much more monumental, where I think the way they fit in my body feels really unsustainable in a way, so it's just jarring.

MP

Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is jarring. I also find that marking the seasons has been weird, you know what I mean? I feel I guess in the absence of doing the usual things you do when it's warm outside, it's different now—it could be June as far as I'm concerned, it could be November. I don't know. Time is weird.

HA

Yeah, yeah, time has fucked me up, although I feel like because of the book release, I am acutely aware of time in ways that I perhaps don't want to be, but I feel like I am excited for spring whenever it actually arrives.

MP

Yeah. Yeah. I feel that. I'm not a spring person.

HA

Are you not a spring person?

MP

No, I have allergies. I have really bad allergies, and I really am always like, "Dang, everyone seems so happy," but I just have a cold for three months. I'm not about it. Summer is fine to me. I'm like fall. That's my vibe. Blazer time.

HA

Oh, yeah, fall is nice. That's definitely the elite season.

MP

Yes, yes. Yo La Tengo weather, et cetera. That's what's going on.

HA

Yeah, yeah. I'd hate to ask this question, but people ask it to me, and the answer never comes to me, or whatever, but has writing been challenging for you over the past several months?

MP

It has not been good. And I can't tell if it's because of what I'm writing or what. Because yeah, what I'm doing hasn't changed that much. Traveling less, I think, has affected my writing. There's a lot to look at in my house and inside my brain, but it's nice sometimes to people watch, and overhear people, and all of that. That is part of my process, and I kind of didn't realize how important it was, I think, to my process. Yeah. So, it has been hard. It's just been a lot of me fighting with me.

HA

Has your pace been disrupted at all?

MP

It's very slow moving. But what can I do if I'm sitting here writing about slavery, and then I get a Times alert that's like, "News flash: people hate black women." What am I supposed to do? Or, "Here's how many people died today.' It's just emotionally, I'm amazed that other folks can maintain any semblance of regularity. I've had to try to be easier on myself about. I've never been good at routines, and yeah, regular-ness, but I have to be really kind to myself about taking breaks and giving up on sitting down for five hours to write if I can't do it.

HA

Yeah.

MP

I just have to keep reminding myself that it's not regular times. And the work that we're doing is so emotionally rich and complex that sometimes I just don't have enough space in my brain. I just don't. And, sometimes I'm like, damn, I wish I was just writing a little novel about some little shit that is not ripping my heart open. But if that's the work I'm going to do, it just sometimes has to be slower.

HA

Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah, I think being generous with myself and adjusting to pace, that type of thing, has allowed myself to shrink the pace of how I work.

MP

Yeah.

HA

And not feel shame about that, has been vital.

MP

It's so hard. And I don't think it makes sense. We have more books than we need right now, you know what I mean? At our ages. We don't need to have all these books. So, it's weird that I'm like, I'm not doing enough, but I think even just acknowledging that and recognizing that about myself has been a lesson. Actually, when I got your galley, I was like, damn, wow, look at this, Hanif really be writing some books. He's just writing. And then I was like, what's this other box? And it was a box full of my own paperbacks. And I was like, well, okay, nevermind. I guess I be writing a little bit too. But that's really hard to get out of that. We hold ourself to such high standards of productivity, it's hard to remember to give yourself a break and acknowledge that you actually have done a ton of stuff.

HA

Yeah.

MP

I'm glad to hear this book was fun to write, because it is so complex, and it's so your alley. It's very exciting. I think about performance all the time, as you know, and comedy and truth and how blackness relies upon those things. For me, it feels like a personal gift to be able to just hear you reflect on that stuff, and from your perspective, which I feel like I understand but is so different from mine, you know?

HA

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I guess as a parting thing, can I ask you what the favorite thing that is that you've watched or listened to in the past year?

MP

That's a good question. I watched Pose this year, and that was really…

HA

Oh, Pose is good. Yeah.

MP

Yeah, that was petty great, because it also made me soft, and I tend to avoid that, like I don't watch rom coms or anything that's smooshy. But I was out here crying and cheering and like, "You better go ahead." I was just in it. So, that was really delightful. And also to just be in a different era was really delightful. And then my parents watched it, and that was more delightful than anything. So, that was really fun.

HA

I love that. I love that.

MP

Yeah, I know. It's nice to... I think I never really consumed TV as comfort very much. Sometimes, but in general, I'm like, everything is corny, and can't relate, and so it's been nice to watch some sweet stuff. And don't tell anyone, but get in touch with that part that's tender. Yeah. That's a scary but fun thing for me. What are you watching?

HA

Nothing good.

MP

Bad is good.

HA

I've been really into authoritative sports documentaries kind of randomly.

MP

Oh my god, Hanif. That is one thing I did this year. I watched every single 30 for 30, I swear to God.

HA

Really?

MP

Yeah, dude. Yeah, so much fun.

HA

That is incredible.

MP

So much fun.

HA

I did not know. For some reason, I did not expect that you would watch every 30 for 30.

MP

Yeah. We'll have to follow up about that, because it really was like, I have to get an education, because I knew nothing about sports, but apparently that's my way in, is just, duh, people are interesting. But yeah, it's been so fascinating, because I don't really watch sports, I never understood it, I got picked last, et cetera. I have all these bad associations. But man.

HA

Right.

MP

How inspiring, and also just comforting. The template of the sport doc is so nice and neat. There's going to be some inspiration. There is going to be some heartbreak. It has been really great.

HA

We're got to find a way to collaborate on a sports documentary.

MP

Yes. 100%.

HA

That's the only answer.

MP

Have you see the one with Reggie Miller?

HA

Oh, of course.

MP

Yo, that is my favorite shit. I watch it when I'm having a bad day. Watching him just happy to be an asshole, the best. But what I want to do is something with him and his sister, Cheryl, because they're from out here.

HA

Yeah. I wish Cheryl would've been in it more. I feel like Cheryl is so cool.

MP

She's so, so cool.

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