Review: 'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us' by Hanif Abdurraqib


I picked up this book on recommendation from a friend whose craft I've admired for years, and for years before that, whose perception I'd respected from a digital distance.

It spans nearly 300 pages of essays from poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. The Village Voice's Greil Marcus says, "Not a day has sounded the same since I read him." And I must echo his sentiments, for Abdurraqib's perspective, at times both nuanced and familiar, adds electricity to ink. Power to prose. The sting lingers long after his final word.

I think of Carly Rae Jepson and want to fall in love, yet I can't name you any of her songs. I spin my only Nina Simone record and ache for American blackness. I pridefully smirk at the sound of Fleetwood Mac and the currency of heartbreak. I play "Hurt Me Soul" by Lupe Fiasco and breathe a burden of religion without feeling rightfully religious. I revel in the dominance of Serena Williams, "the woman who buried a sister with the same hands she uses to bury opponents." I commiserate with Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump and scream #FallOutBoyForever as I battle my own war with depression, examining myself from the inside, from the outside and from the inside again. I know what it means when "a place to belong" only fits on a sliding scale and how ingenuine public mourning can feel. I see that some are taught to run toward guns for survival, yet you and I have been taught to run from them. I think of the Paris attacks and feel a dagger through my chest, and trace over that permanent stamp on my forehead. My activism, too, is at its best when it takes time to laugh over FaceTime with a beloved friend the morning after a massacre, "because it allows me, even briefly, to imagine a world where that happiness can still freely and comfortably exist."

Some of the pages where Abdurraqib's "Fear in Two Winters" and "On Paris" are printed are now slightly crisped with teardrops. I had been waiting some hundred pages for the mention of Islam.

"There are few things like being feared simply due to having a body. There is no way to easily come to terms with this."

Excerpts from "Fear in Two Winters," "On Paris" and "They Will Speak Loudest of You After You've Gone":

"The distance between curiosity and fear is tragically short. They are, like sleep and death, within the same family, a quick nudge pushing one directly into the other. Because it has been so long, what people maybe don't remember about Muslims before September 11 is that there was always curiosity that felt like it could take a sharp turn into fear at any time."

"By the time I got to college, I had largely stopped practicing Islam...I was making the curious parts of myself invisible in the hopes that curiosity never turned to fear. When I look back now, I find it amazing that I didn't imagine the path that the September 11 attacks would set us down, and how that path would open up the door to global violences against Muslims. The greatest emotional impact on Americans toward American Muslims is that it took curiosity out of the timeline. There was now only fear, turning rapidly to anger."

"The U.S. ignored the Geneva Convention, raping, sodomizing, and torturing prisoners of war at their black site bases around the world. The military bombed wedding parties consisting mostly of women and children in Iraq at Mukaradeeb, and in Afghanistan at Wech Baghtu and Deh Bala. Here, we are saying that we will tear your country apart, we will give birth to the terror within, and then we will leave you to drown in it."

"I glimpsed, for a small moment, what it might be like to consider someone I didn't know as less valuable living. And the impossible weight of it all."

Four stars.

Unapologetically yours,