Fresh from landing a MacArthur “genius grant”, the poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib has won the Gordon Burn prize for his “extraordinary” collection of essays A Little Devil in America.
Abdurraqib’s book is a meditation on Black performance in the modern age, moving from Beyoncé’s Super Bowl half-time show to Aretha Franklin’s funeral. It is inspired by Josephine Baker’s words: “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too.” It topped a six-strong shortlist featuring titles including Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth and Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death, to win the prize, which celebrates “literature that is fearless in both ambition and execution”, in honour of the late writer Gordon Burn.
Denise Mina, the chair of judges, said A Little Devil in America was “written with verve and style, taking unexpected turns and focus to illuminate the artistic experience of Black culture in America”.
“As a history of creators and the many contexts they navigate, it is simultaneously a joyous celebration and a crushing reproach. Extraordinary,” said Mina. Her fellow judge Irenosen Okojie said it was a “buoyant, galvanising celebration of Black artistry”, while for journalist Sian Cain, it was “as uplifting, devastating, informative and profound a work of nonfiction as I can remember reading”.
Abdurraqib said it was an “honour” to be on the shortlist with the five other writers, who also included Sam Byers for Come Join Our Disease, Doireann Ní Ghríofa for A Ghost in the Throat, and Tabitha Lasley for Sea State.
“It’s a joy to get to be in their company,” he said. “And it’s especially a joy to get to have work that has reached an audience far beyond my home. That means a lot. A Little Devil in America focuses largely on American culture, but there’s also an eye towards global storytelling. The issues raised in the book, the concerns and celebrations raised in the book, are not uniquely American, these aren’t American issues or American excitement, and I feel like this is some confirmation of that.”
Abdurraqib said he set out to write a book “focused primarily on celebration, not grief or not tragedy; I wanted to become a bit of an evangelist and to say, simply, here are some miracles I’ve witnessed and I’d like to share them with you”.
Last month, the American writer was named as one of 25 new MacArthur Foundation fellows. The no-strings-attached MacArthur award, known as the “genius grant”, is worth $625,000 (£456,000). Abdurraqib was cited by the foundation for his “intimate and welcoming writing style that establishes an immediate connection with readers”, and for “forging a new form of cultural criticism, one that is informed by lived experience and offers incisive social and artistic critiques”.
Previous winners of the Gordon Burn prize – which is run in partnership by the Gordon Burn Trust, New Writing North, Faber & Faber and Durham book festival – include Mina, for her crime novel The Long Drop, and Peter Pomerantsev for This Is Not Propaganda, an investigation into the war against reality. Burn, who died in 2009, was known for nonfiction including Happy Like Murderers, which told the story of Fred and Rosemary West, and the novels Fullalove and Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel.
“To be a part of this award and its growing legacy means the world to me, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Abdurraqib, who lives in Ohio.