‘Notes to a Tribe Called Quest’ Author Speaks about Childhood and Love at Prairie Lights


Adalie Burton

Hanif Abdurraqib is visiting the University of Iowa non-fiction writing program and plans on coming to City High School.

Adalie Burton, Reporter

The persistent din of the crowd chattering amongst themselves falls to silence as a voice echoes through the tightly packed space, introducing Hanif Abdurraqib. Taking the makeshift stage at Prairie Lights on Thursday, January 30th, Abdurraqib filled the night with poetry and creative nonfiction.

“On the radio, a singer born in a place where children watch the sky for bombs is trying to sell me on love as something akin to war,” Abdurraqib said, reading a poem from his latest book, ‘A Fortune for Your Disaster’.

He began the night by reading a poem of his own called ‘The Prestige’. His work trampled over the audience in a wave of emotion, stunning people into a brief silence as he finished. The moment ended quickly, though, and he was applauded with fervor.

Hanif Abdurraqib is in Iowa City for a month, working with the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. He has plans to visit Iowa City High School in the near future. Born in Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib spent some of his life in New Haven, Connecticut. However, he stated that he did not enjoy that particular experience. His time in New Haven was defined by the particularly unique brand of racism he encountered there, as well as the deeply average pizza place he lived above.

One Friday night, while living in Connecticut, that pizza place ran out of cheese. Being already below average, the establishment suffered deeply from this shortage of mozzarella. However, Abdurraqib took the opportunity to write a piece about the incident.

“This is about the night in New Haven when pizza places ran out of cheese, but it’s also about my marriage falling apart,” Abdurraqib said. “The cheese is a metaphor.”

He spoke of his childhood and the early death of his mother quite often throughout the event, but the topic he talked on the most was love.

“…And there, in the final moments of the song, on Raekwon’s final line, Ghostface throws his arm around his boy, and kisses him on the side of his head… Ghostface pulls Raekwon close and holds his lips to his friend’s head for a few seconds longer than I’d ever been kissed by anyone… So I tell myself ‘this must be love,’ and then they, and everyone else in the room, all become bees,” Abdurraqib read near the end of the night.

Now, the love he spoke about wasn’t the kind that children dream of experiencing. The love he described was the kind that he was taught to show. He spoke of showing love through violence, the method he experienced and learned to embrace growing up.

“March, 1998. Upon my hands is the blood of a boy I wanted to like me, once. Probably mere hours ago. I’m guessing the blood came from his nose, but it could be from anywhere, and it is certainly mixed with my own… I have no language of affection but I do know how to throw a fist, the way my father taught me some years ago…” Abdurraqib read.

Abdurraqib has written four books, and a fifth is expected in February of 2021. He has written in many genres, including poetry, autobiography, and music criticism.

“This is another type of romance, I suppose… I was told to fight only when I had to, but who is to determine when one ‘has to,’ really? I have to fight because I do not have the language for anything else but violence. And so, when the boy I wanted to like me took my basketball and kicked it into the fields behind the school, I want to tell him ‘how could you do this to me?’ or ‘I want for us to play video games in silence’ but instead, I wrestle him to the ground… Even though I have not spoken a word out loud about love, I throw my fist back and swing it down on the face of someone I can imagine myself loving, not yet knowing if I was capable of that.”