They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
Reviewed by LAUREN STRETAR
For a collection centered around the anger, violence, and death in America, each essay in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is profoundly focused on life. In this poignant and timely work, Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens to view the chaotic landscape of the country. With essays ranging from Carly Rae Jepson and the spectacle of emotion to the way kindness is ascribed to black culture, each subject is a gateway into exploring themes that have long divided this country: race, religion, and what it truly means to be an American.
Structured around the night Marvin Gaye sang the National Anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983 and the July 3rd fireworks in Columbus, Ohio, each section of essays is astute, provocative and emotional. His writing ranges from rants to personal anecdotes about being a black Muslim in a country that celebrates whiteness, a powerful combination that has the potential to shake the nation to its core. In simple terms, it will break readers’ hearts before building them back up with the knowledge they are still living.
With a tone that is both conversational and critical, Abdurraqib’s essays invite each reader into his world. Readers are with him as he shoots baskets to a crowd of none, with him as he enjoys a concert, with him as he later learns that while he was living, Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hood. His background in poetry aids him in crafting strong, effective prose that weaves together lyrics, history, and cultural significance that is impossible to ignore.
“By the time Marvin gets to ‘…bombs bursting in air…,’ you can see his hands finally stop shaking. A rhythmic clap begins from the audience. I watch fireworks in July 2013. Two weeks later, George Zimmerman walks free and Trayvon Martin is still dead.” (120)
The very nature of Abdurraqib’s prose is soothing and provocative. His mastery over first and last lines makes them hard to be forgotten. They demand attention and thought, and the time spent reflecting on them is not undeserved. The middle, while occasionally falling flat for those who don’t intimately know the subject of the essay, is tied together with each cutting final line.
While readers who don’t know Lil Boosie from Webbie, or can’t distinguish the members of Fleetwood Mac may be disoriented during parts of the collection, Abdurraqib’s specificity arms him with an exquisite command that demands trust. It’s hard not to trust his recollections when he always treats his subjects as human first and uses intimate details of their life. The readers might not know who they are, but he does, and that feels like enough.
As a whole, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a journey through 2016. It’s about the deaths that shattered the country. It’s about the communities that rose up against the violence. It’s about learning how to once again be uncomfortable.
It is about learning to see the fireworks in a landscape buried in bullets.
Meet the blogger:
Lauren Stretar is a current BFA student at Hamline University. She is primarily a fiction writer, and currently drafting her first novel. When not writing, you’ll find her in the kitchen baking.
As young lovers of books, we are well familiar with the wonderful and intriguing world of fiction. We fondly remember when we first fell in love with reading— whether it be inside the magical worlds of Harry Potter, Narnia, or Lord of the Rings and imagining ourselves as Harry seeing Hogwarts for the first time or as Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into an icy magical forest. We all have our favorite books, series, movie, or tv show that bring us into these made-up realities. For many of us, that’s all we know.
Perhaps your first introduction to nonfiction wasn’t that great. For me, I remember being forced to read a lot of biographies of dead people in school. I didn’t mind, but they weren’t as mentally or emotionally stimulating as fiction. They didn’t bring me into their world like fiction did.
In the past couple of years, I have noticed that I have been struggling to read. Gone were the days I could read a full, 300 page novel in a day. I had a harder time getting into books or keeping my short-attention-span brain interested. I had blamed it on the Internet. The constant scrolling and quick clicks of information. I had also spent a lot of time on Wattpad (a platform for young writers to share their work) before this period of literary deprivation, which I believe led to my hypercriticism of YA fiction and my boredom of the genre.
So what did I do? I tried getting off social media, tried reading more experienced writers such as Stephen King, George R. R. Martin or Anthony Doerr. While I did like many of the works by King or Martin, it still didn’t get me over the feeling of being in a reading rut.
It wasn’t until I discovered a world of other genres outside of fiction did I feel excited about reading again.
For me, I believe the Human of New York’s Facebook page was the first nonfiction thing I subscribed to. I love reading the short stories about people’s lives around the world every week, and like me, you might have not realized that HONY is a form of nonfiction. You might have already been reading nonfiction without even realizing it.
This leads me to my next point. Start small. For those of us readers with short attention spans, trying out short pieces is crucial. There’s nothing worse than buying an entire book and having to put it down half-way because you hate it.
Next, came The Sun Magazine. Like HONY, it focuses on stories that focus on the human experience. It has fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, with shorter and longer pieces. I remember stumbling into the nonfiction section and feeling like I never wanted to leave. I hadn’t felt that feeling in a long time.
I recently discovered another online journal called Brevity, which has super short nonfiction pieces of under 750 words. My short-attention-span brain really liked that one, plus much of the writing was phenomenal.
The point is, the world is big and so much out there to discover. Especially with reading. Creative non-fiction is being constantly reinvented as we speak. People all over the world are experimenting with the form to share pieces of themselves, and it’s exciting seeing how they are expanding the genre.
Reading is about discovery. It is about being introduced to thoughts, ideas or realities outside our own that makes it amazing which is why trying out other genres is so important. I still love fiction, and will always be looking for fiction to read; however, I think it’s time for me to move on and find other things I like.
P.S. The Runestone Journal has great pieces of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry! If you generally are a reader of only one of the genres, seriously consider reading the others. This will be a great opportunity for experimentation.
Meet the blogger:
Alyxandra Sego is a student at Hamline University studying creative writing. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband Taylor and her dying plants.
With Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday come and gone, we are invited to wonder at the longevity of Disney’s vast kingdom—and I’m not just talking about Disneyland. Disney has built a vast amount of its empire upon bringing adaptations of fairy tales to the big screen, which in itself isn’t anything new.
What perhaps is most intriguing about the Disney company isn’t their adaptations of fairy tales into musicals but rather their live-action remakes of their own animated films. These live-action films exists in an entirely new plane of adaptation that says something about how our current society seems okay with consuming remixed media, for it is important to note that, unlike remakes of shows like “She-Ra” and “Voltron” that adapt much older work of different creators and companies, Disney is remixing and remaking their own work.
In a way, Disney is “updating” their movies with new musical numbers, plot points that have been revised/muddled, and witty ideologies only found in this generation. By doing this, Disney is enabling a strange meta conversation between their movies, the old and the new films. While the reactions of consumers to these movies range from groans to sheer delight, we are still absolutely eating them up.
Surprise, surprise, humans have always had a strong desire to remix what we know with what we love. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We love incorporating our own twists into old media, giving different scenarios our own unique perspectives and growing to love those old medias even more in turn. Italian painters of the renaissances painted scenes from greek myths translated by a Roman poet. Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula are pop icons that arguably have lives outside of their respective novels they call home. Artists like Fall Out Boy and Beyoncé will produce covers of other, often older songs they grew up with and adore.
Disney’s producers are simply recognizing this desire and are taking safe production bets by re-making their old films in attempts to cash in on their audience’s nostalgia, the latter of which has been well explored in Lindsay Ellis’s video essay “That Time Disney Remade Beauty and the Beast”.
Despite this, there is still love put into the production, into the writing, into the acting, into nearly every part of these movies. Whether the driving factor for creating these films is money, love, or a mix of both, it cannot be denied that Disney is inviting us to take a step into the castle of nostalgia where the walls crumble with age and revisit what we grew up loving with a different perspective in mind.
Nor are they the only ones with keys to the castle. As an exercise, try revisiting your own work from either your early childhood, from last year, or a time in between. Take a look at work you thought you’d never look at again. Find what inspires you about it, shape that inspiration with what you know and think now, and see if you can’t cast the work into something entirely new; all the while still capturing the pride and joy you know that piece gave you when you first wrote it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find.
Meet the blogger:
KIERNN ELLIOTT lives and works in the Twin Cities. Her work has been published in The Fulcrum.
Many people tend to look at poetry as this big, terrifying entity with hidden meaning waiting to kick you across the face as it taunts you just out of reach. I’m here to tell you to stop doubting yourself. Read a poem; think about how it makes you feel. Read it again, pick some images or words that stand out to you and roll them around your tongue. Or simply read it for the sake of reading.
When a poet puts pen to paper, sometimes there is a clear direction they wish to pursue and other times it’s just a flow of consciousness and emotion throwing itself up on paper.
Think about something—a situation, concept or emotion and what you associate with it. How does it make you feel? What images does it evoke? Dive deeper and expand, then play with the structure.
The poet has a reason for why they write but if the meaning the reader pulls from it differs from the original intent, that does not make it wrong. Poetry is for everyone and if you pull a meaning from a poem about loss of innocence or a family member and it helps you come to terms with losing your job or a beloved animal, and then the poem served its purpose.
For example, the poem “Design” by Robert Frost shows us a spider and moth on a flower mingling with images of life and death with the ever present question: does everything happen by design, simply random or does fate only bother with big picture problems?
Excerpt lines 1 and 2:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Excerpt lines 13 and 14:
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
This poem is filled with images of innocence contradicted by darkness; even the spider seems to be free on blame after taking the life of the moth. The image of death on something innocent is a sharp contrast.
Another example of this is the poem “A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living” by contemporary poet Donika Kelly. She ponders the “anatomy of the egg” as a mechanism through which to analyze the effect the termination of a relationship has as she moves towards acceptance.
Now, I am by no means an expert in analyzing poetry but the stigma that encapsulates it must be shattered. I’ve heard countless people, including myself, say “I just don’t understand poetry.” That’s a copout and we all know it. Poetry provides perspective. Some people see a spider ending the life of a moth and they continue with their day, but Frost saw so much more. He saw and an opportunity to ask a question that we all wonder about. Does the world care about things as ordinary as this? If not, at what point does it begin to?
Poetry can be about absolutely anything. Pen to paper to published; whether it flowed freely or each word was painstakingly inscribed, it was carefully crafted with deliberate decisions. It was created to be felt not picked apart and that is why no matter what meaning you take from it; catharsis or beauty, the important part is that you feel it.
A common misconception me and my fellow writing friends thought in high school was that we could only write well when we were inspired. We would go weeks without talking about a new piece of writing we started simply because we weren’t writing. Since beginning college, I have learned that that is just not true. Writing takes time and effort, and sifting through a lot of work you think is garbage, to find the perfect pieces of your writing that are worth combining and expanding upon. With everything from social media, to other classes, to the economy failing, we are losing more and more time for opportunistic writing than we had in the past. The best way to get around this is to set aside time to write. “But Alexa, we can’t write unless we are feeling inspired!” I hear you. So you have to make yourself be inspired. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Set Yourself a Goal.
Do you want to have a certain amount of words typed before your hour or so is up? A certain amount of ideas? A character list? Start small and work your way up to a draft being your goal. Make them attainable and undaunting just to get yourself used to writing during a set time.
- Set the Mood.
From experience, the best place to write is a place where all you do is write. For example, it is not a good idea to write while sitting on your bed, because you associate your bed with sleeping, watching TV, reading, and other activities that are not working on your writing. Find a quiet spot that you can dedicate just to writing and getting work done. Sitting in this spot will condition yourself to become inspired more often than others because your brain will associate it with writing.
- Write Down Anything, Even If it is Actual Trash.
Have an idea about plants with faces eating soup? Write it down. Giraffes with short necks and long hair? Write it down. Writing anything is better than writing nothing. Some of these ideas that you think are horrible sometimes just need a little tweaking to be great. Or if not, they could at least lead you to an idea that is.
- Go for a Walk.
If you STILL can’t think of anything to write down, take a break. Go for a walk. Notice the houses you pass, the wildlife you encounter, the people you meet. Just be present and observant. When you return to your writing space, you will have something to write about, whether it’s a new fiction piece a jogger reminded you of, or just writing down what you saw, you will be writing.
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” —William Faulkner