Cover Photo: Hanif Abdurraqib; Rachel Khong (author photo by Andria Lo)
Hanif Abdurraqib; Rachel Khong (author photo by Andria Lo)

"Writing that book was traumatic": Hanif Abdurraqib and Rachel Khong on Writing

Last month on WMFA, a podcast where writers talk writing

I started WMFA to talk with other writers about writing: to hear, in the middle of what can be such a lonely endeavor, what someone else is thinking about their work. Every conversation has left me energized in different ways: ideas, inspirations, perspectives. Sometimes these gifts are new, fresh approaches that blow dust off an old problem or tired pattern of thought; sometimes they’re familiar, and then the familiarity itself is a salve, a reminder that the worries, fears and doubts that plague one writer usually plague the rest of us, too.

Here’s a sneak peek at what you’ll hear from July’s guests. Visit WMFA

I think there’s a historical aspect to gentrification that doesn’t exactly get talked about, or a generational aspect. It is geographical and physical, but it’s also about the erasure of memory. and it’s also about the erasure of touchable artifacts for people who grow up in a place or loved a place. In part that’s why I write about where I’m from a lot, as an archive. But also because I loved growing up in Columbus.

I had been listening to good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the Kendrick Lamar album, incessantly, and I started to think about how we have all these great coastal narratives—we have the great Compton narrative and the great New York narrative, even Jersey narrative—I’m a big Springsteen nerd. It dawned on me that, Chicago aside, the middle of the country narrative, particularly for young black people, was not very existent.

Writing that book was traumatic for me, because I had to dive into experience and memory with the knowing that when I climbed out of the poem, that memory might be all I have left of a place or a person or a time. And so the distance was good because I didn’t have to immediately emotionally answer for all those things I was creating. I was speaking into the world and building the world and I didn’t have to answer for the world responding to me. I was building the city as I loved it most and I didn’t have to be in the city as it no longer was.

Part of it is that I have a really terrible memory, and it’s just so interesting to me that it’s different for every person. I once dated this guy in college who could tell me down to the color of my tights what I was wearing on certain days when we saw each other, and that has always been really fascinating to me. What is also concerning to me is that memories make up your life essentially; what you remember is what happened. The selectiveness of it and how your memory can tend toward the happy or the disappointing has always been really interesting me, and something that is very worrying to me.

There’s just something operating subconsciously that you’re not even fully aware of, and you can really surprise yourself. I’m a morning writer for sure. I try to write as close to waking up as possible.

Courtney Balestier's writing has appeared in The New Yorker online, Lucky Peach, the New York Times, Oxford American, New York, and Wired. She has been anthologized in Cornbread Nation 7: The Best of Southern Food Writing and nominated for a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. She is a writing editorial board member of Looking at Appalachia. A native West Virginian, she is at work on a novel about identity, class and the Appalachian "Hillbilly Highway" migration to Detroit, where she is currently based. She also hosts the writing podcast WMFA.