Q&A: Abdurraqib Edits for Tin House

Julian Randall
From the November/December 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Hanif Abdurraqib trusts writers to be abundant—in our ideas, in our talents, and in the communities we build with them. In July, Tin House announced that the New York Times best-selling author of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021) will join the publisher as an editor-at-large acquiring nonfiction work. He recently sat down to talk about his exciting new role, the rewards of collaboration, and his faith in marginalized writers.

How did you come to this position, and what are your responsibilities going to be?
I am mostly always looking for an opportunity to add to what I believe is the real abundance and wealth of writers. Certainly Black writers, and writers of color, who are writing things that I am excited by, and that they are excited by, but that presses might not be as eager to give a chance. We agreed that I would bring in three books a year, one every season, and then help bring them to life. So many of my opportunities exist because somebody took a chance on some work that I didn’t fully believe in myself, but someone saw it and believed in it. I feel like through that I’ve really learned to get excited about work I believe in, from folks who are maybe sitting on a first book that they don’t even know is a first book. I’m not saying everything I acquire will be a first book, but that is one of our main focuses.

You’ve worked with every kind of shape and size of press, from Big Lucks to Random House. How will these experiences inform your work in this position?
I am someone who hopes and believes myself to be a really hands-on person. With A Little Devil in America, I worked with an editor named Maya Millett, who is the greatest editor I’ve ever worked with. Through that process I think I learned how to edit. I learned how to be a person who first subscribes to the needs of the writer before imposing my own desires onto their writing. I think there’s a part of any editing practice that requires an engagement with the personal and the person who has created the work. And there’s a part of the editing practice that is something I believe to be collaborative, steeped in curiosity and wonder and pleasure.

I don’t ever want to make a writer dread something they’ve created in the process of editing, which I think so often happens. I think the best way to do that is to approach it with generosity and curiosity; to say, “I’m here and invested in this work because I care about you as a writer, and I care about you as a person outside of what you produce. And with that in mind, we’re going to work on something great.”

How long have you been curating your music website, 68to05? How has that experience been
I dreamed it up in January of 2020, but I’ve been working on it for about a year and a few months. I brought in an assistant who now helps because I wanted to honor [the project], and honor people who were submitting to it, so I brought in someone to help. But I get to say what that space looks like, which is exciting. That is something I’ve never had before. I never had the freedom to self-determine what a space that I was curating fully looked like, from start to finish. And that’s thrilling.

68to05 will always be unlike anything else that I do because I am really taking the time to build it the way I dreamed it, and the way I continue dreaming it. It’s an ongoing process, right? The dreaming hasn’t ended. The dreaming only continues. It’s like, the more time I spend with it, the more I see. And because of that, it teaches me what I love. I’m bringing that teaching everywhere. I’m going to undoubtedly bring that learning to Tin House.

You’ve talked about Toni Morrison as an editor and her commitment to moving away from the model of a singular Black genius. I’m wondering how you would like to see publishing move away from these kinds of scarcity-based models.
Well, I think I don’t trust publishing to do it because publishing relies on it as a type of propulsion. But I trust us to do it. I say “us” and I mean writers, particularly marginalized writers. I believe, personally, that I owe people, writers, an understanding of abundance. They deserve that. No book that I’ve put out is something that has happened on my own. I just haven’t done anything alone. And because I haven’t done anything alone, I rely on a great many things, living folks and ancestors.

The fact that I could reach back to ancestors tells me that scarcity is flawed, right? That these ideas around scarcity exist to trip us up. If I have an abundance of ancestors—and I have an abundance—it strikes me as evident that I would have an abundance of living people to whom I can also reach toward and say, “Okay, what can we make together? What can we do together?” And that feels only right and only fair.  


Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. He is the author of Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018) and Pilar Ramirez and the Escape From Zafa, forthcoming from Henry Holt in March 2022.