Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Slow-cooked chicken and ginger congee
Book: They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Hanif Abdurraqib)

"Punk rock saved my life," the old adage goes. I don't disagree, but it changed my life irrevocably just the same. Growing up a neuro-atypical loner; a latchkey kid for most of my childhood, finding a home within sub-cultural spaces was inevitable. Everything I ever believed or felt in the recesses of my own mind became validated within a crew of misfits. The theory that came after that was like gospel, placed in my hands while they helped my life make sense in the church of the fallen.

I wouldn't still be alive writing this if not for the DIY-punk underground. But this same underground also built in me a bitter cynicism the sooner I grew disillusioned with it—a steep learning curve that gradually descended into empty sloganeering and a glorification of self-destruction that fed a narcissistic nihilism. Witnessing the same tribalism that seemed welcoming at first, to eventually give in to favour the approved. It was like a performative inertia that was discovered a little bit too late; by that time I'd spent nearly a third of my lifetime knee-deep in punk, and the outside world grew even more incomprehensible.

But who knows. Weirdo is as weirdo goes. You can't rewrite history. And when the idea of weirdness is flaunted as cultural currency in the individualistically aggressive '10s all you can do is try and shake it off like a second skin while holding on to the important bits. As a result, coming across Hanif Abdurraqib's essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us was like re-visiting an old home. Reading it felt like reading letters left behind by an old friend which would speak to the cognitive dissonances that lay behind the ambivalence of someone who used to be submerged in love, but now carefully watches from a distance, their keen eye only taking in what is useful.

Hanif writes reflective odes to the music and bands that he feels a kinship for: Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Carly Rae Jepsen, Defiance Ohio, My Chemical Romance, Nina Simone, Fall Out Boy, and more. It's not all emo and punk, and within these essays is a deep reverence for music which either used to or still continue to rouse in him introspection and unadulterated feeling. Sometimes race is profoundly interweaved in his narratives, but they are also equally not, and I think about the gentle tightrope that racialised people walk on: having to constantly negotiate with something that simultaneously doesn't always define you. 

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us contains so many lines that speak with tenderness and understanding, such as "the mission of honesty becomes a bit cloudy when we decide to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own." Or like how a band Hanif used to love years ago is "standing on a stage and weaponising decade-old bitterness that doesn't exactly echo to the corner of nostalgia that I thought it would." He writes in a sad, retrospective way—a style which borders on emo, an obvious nod to his musical influences—that feels so familiar to me from so many years of zines and Livejournals. 

But the collection is also steered from the vantage point of someone who consumes markers of whiteness while inhabiting a racialised body. It's a strange double consciousness to reckon with, and for a long time I myself struggled to understand my place in these tastes while resisting the urge to reject my very being.

My relationship to Chinese food feels similar. Having spent years rejecting Chinese culture, borne from a complicated relationship with my family and a deep yearning for the proximity to whiteness, made me also reject the food. The conversion to veganism further sealed in that disdain. It's a sense of ambivalence that feels similar to the one I feel for punk now: if you stand too close the cracks will destroy you. Slowly boiling down congee in chicken broth feels like nourishing the cracks. Eating it feels like a hug afterwards.

It's a constant work in progress. I'm pulling all the fragments of myself together to form a patchwork that will eventually become a comfortable, inauthentic quilt.