Best of Columbus 2022: Hanif Abdurraqib’s Capacity to Love is a Hallmark of His Writing

“A lot of people can write. Nobody can write what Hanif writes.”

Scott Woods
Hanif Abdurraqib at his home in Columbus

Critics have lauded Hanif Abdurraqib for his ability to capture in words the myriad of emotions born from the intersection of long-bred passions, fleeting and powerful sports moments, and other collectible things. For me, however, the appeal is a little different. The word I most often use to describe Hanif is “love.” You’d think that would be covered under “long-bred passion,” but the two as practiced by Hanif aren’t remotely the same.

The award-winning author of numerous books, Hanif is passionate about literature, but his work springs from his love of other things: music, basketball, shoes, community. Perhaps his greatest love is reserved for the city in which we live, as Hanif has made a side-career out of making Columbus seem cool.

As someone with several years on Hanif and carrying several more chips on my shoulders, there are times when I don’t recognize the city he describes. It is an odd thing to say, considering he spent some of that time growing up in the neighborhood where I currently live. His Barnett Recreation Center is a little different than mine. His carryout hangs are the same, but not. Our barbershops are different. It is a lens that would normally draw generational ire, but when he applies it, I am reminded that Columbus is not always the windmill I am tilting at. When people ask me why I still live in a city I criticize so much, my response is that you don’t get to complain about it the way I do unless you love it. I don’t always mean it, but Hanif—his writing, his quiet philanthropy, his presence—reminds me that it’s more mantra than feint. Sometimes it is a thing to celebrate, to revel in, to appreciate.

“Capture” is perhaps not the best word for what Hanif does. Capture implies that what he writes was already there, waiting to be discovered by any writer crafty enough to put in the work, and that’s not true. Hanif possesses a poet’s eye in all things, and I would know. I booked Hanif for his first poetry reading at Kafe Kerouac many years ago. His ascension has been, by the measure of most writers, extremely quick. Any time spent with his poetry or essays proves why: It is earnest, real work that comes from a place that only he occupies. There is a clarity of self that deepens the heart-well of the reader, not fills it. A lot of people can write. Nobody can write what Hanif writes.

What makes Hanif a hometown hero isn’t that he is famous—though a MacArthur genius grant, awarded to him in September 2021, is some next-level action. It is that he loves living here. And in his inimitable way of embracing difficult things, he makes you want to love being here, too.

This is exactly the kind of display that embarrasses Hanif, but it is also the kind of recognition he deserves. I don’t know if Hanif is the best writer in Columbus. I do know that he is the best at being from Columbus, of writing things that represent what it can be on the days it believes in empathy and stewardship. He is the best example of what it means to love through the thick and thin, and I love him for that. Hanif’s writing makes us better at loving things. And he is the best at that.

Scott Woods is a poet, essayist and the founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.

This story is from the July 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.