The genre-bending writer on queering history and restoring lost voices to American fiction.
In recent years, a new generation of activists has reshaped America’s racial discourse, both by training public attention on the police killings of black people, and by refusing to let the names and stories of the slain be lost to time. Counternarratives, John Keene’s newest collection of stories, reminds us that the exploitation and erasure of black bodies is not a recent phenomenon, but was, in fact, central to the rise of modernity. Its thirteen vignettes chart a nearly 500-year course through political and literary history, recuperating along the way the fragmented voices of the disenfranchised. The stories are often unflinching in their depictions of slavery, violence, and greed, but as America sluggishly tries to shake off its colonial roots, and as young black men and women continue to die at the hands of police, Keene’s world feels particularly resonant.
Counternarratives is a demanding book, in both content and style; it deftly appropriates genre conventions only to fracture and undermine them. “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” begins as a monograph about a convent in Kentucky, but is quickly interrupted by a footnote that tells the story of Carmel, a mute house slave who draws elaborate murals under the spell of supernatural trances. Throughout the story, Keene uses point-of-view shifts and collage techniques to offer a trajectory for black agency; Carmel transitions from object to subject to speaker. As Keene explains, the experimental strain in his work, this impulse to “explore those open meshes of possibilities, those gaps and overlaps, those dissonances and resonances present in historical and cultural archives and narratives,” belongs to a larger project of ‘queering’ traditional modes of storytelling.
Other stories are delivered in first-person by people of color previously marginalized by the literary canon. In “Rivers,” Jim from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gives an account of his life after his trip down the Mississippi. Subsequent narrators include the vaudeville composer Bob Cole, the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the nineteenth-century acrobat Miss La La, a mixed-race trapeze artist known for being lifted into the air by her teeth. One might call Counternarratives a work of revisionist history, but the term, with its connotations of political fiction, feels reductive in this case. Yes, Keene’s work is political, but his collection is primarily a highly accomplished piece of experimental literature. It deserves mention alongside the work of authors like E.L. Doctorow—with whom Keene studied while completing his MFA at NYU—and Toni Morrison. Like them, he does not so much revise history as transform it into art.
Keene is not only a fiction writer, but also a poet, a conceptual artist, a translator, an activist, and a professor at Rutgers–Newark, where he teaches in the MFA program and is chair of African American and African Studies. Over email, we discussed the political responsibilities of artists, experimentation in American fiction, and how best to create an open environment for people of color and LGBTIQ people in writing workshops.
—Alex McElroy for Guernica
Guernica: Counternarratives is wide-ranging in scope, geography, time, and character. The sentences are long and melodic, sometimes stretching over pages, and they spurn the simplicity and brevity so popular in American fiction. Where do you see Counternarratives fitting within the current landscape of American literature?
John Keene: Counternarratives is in conversation with some currents in mainstream contemporary American fiction, but it also swims against the prevailing conventions. Whether it registers within the larger system remains to be seen, but I hope it offers readers and writers another approach to experiencing what fiction as a genre and the short story as a form can do. As the scholar Howard Rambsy noted recently on his blog site Cultural Front, the collection certainly sits within the larger frame of African American and African diasporic fiction. I do wonder whether Horace Engdahl, the Swedish Academy member who made the comment about American literature being too insular, was really considering the broad array of what constitutes our literary field, though. There’s certainly much more going on than a glimpse at the major mainstream papers and publications would have you believe.
I appreciate what you say about the prose in Counternarratives, and one thing I was thinking about recently is where these contemporary American fiction standards come from, given the variety of US literary fiction up through the 1980s, and I would argue, without any evaluative judgment, that it’s a product of MFA programs. There’s the recent book by Eric Bennett, titled Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, which suggests that one source of this contemporary style, which emphasizes “craft and style over intellectual content,” as Maggie Doherty put it in her 2015 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, derives from US geopolitical and ideological considerations funded by the CIA. Ominous, I know, but how often does this get discussed in MFA fiction workshops? Another factor is the increasing simplicity, brevity, and casualness of social media, whose aesthetic effects cannot be underestimated. I’d add that, despite political efforts in the past and today, the US has never been a closed society, and the black Atlantic and African diaspora is anything but limited to one particular national, inward-looking perspective, so these stories mirror those larger historical and cultural realities.
The guiding theme of counternarration binds all the stories—all can be read as examples of this concept.
Guernica: The stories in the collection are written in markedly different styles and tones. “On Brazil, Or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” is written with a clinical omniscience, “Cold” uses second-person stream-of-consciousness, and the collection ends with “The Lions,” a story delivered completely through dialogue. Did the thematic concerns of the book drive you to write certain stories, or did the shared theme become apparent later on?
John Keene: I’m very glad you mentioned this aspect of the book, as it’s one I am very proud of. The guiding theme of counternarration binds all the stories—all can be read as examples of this concept. There are other elements that link the stories: all explore ideas of freedom or the lack thereof; all seek to understand how identity and identification operate within given social and political economies; all are also concerned with how language itself works and constitutes narrative. The book is also deeply about blackness and Americanness.
I imagined the collection before I was ready to write it, and then after I had written “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” I knew it was possible to do it. But it wasn’t until I had written and published “On Brazil, Or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” that I realized I had allowed myself to go to a very unexpected place, that I had taken up the challenge I set for myself. That story in particular is a favorite, in part because it is so strange, and looks unlike the vast majority of what we imagine when we think of contemporary American fiction. It’s unsettling in a productive way; it was for me, and I hope it is for readers.
Guernica: Speaking of readers, did you have any specific audience in mind as you were writing Counternarratives? And, since its publication, how have different audiences responded to the work?
John Keene: The audience I have in mind as I write is usually an ideal one. It probably does not exist as a coherent entity in the world, which is probably one reason I’m not on the best-seller lists, though Counternarratives, fortunately, has sold well. Since its publication, the book has sparked favorable responses from a wide array of critics and readers. Most major US papers beyond the Wall Street Journal, however, completely ignored it, but what can you do? Readers of all backgrounds appear to appreciate the storytelling and playfulness that accompanies the seriousness of the book’s themes. One reader posted on Twitter that he’d found a very subtle pop-cultural reference hidden in it. (That’s a close reader!) Another of my favorite reader responses consisted of a longish take on Amazon that included the perfectly concise assessment that “this book is dope.” A third review that charmed me appears on YouTube: a young black woman who reviews books there really sits with it and shares her responses to it with such care and attention that it really moved me. Several black students in a colleague’s class were very taken with the character Zion, and saw in him a mode of resistance that carries through a long tradition of similar figures. Certain aspects of the book, such as its exploration of religion and spirituality or ideas in general, have gotten less attention than its examination of history, race and racism, and sexualities, but that’s fine. I mean, there’s a reason that Roman Catholicism and Vodou and other African spiritual traditions, or Du Bois and Santayana, or later Wittgenstein juxtaposed with Amílcar Cabral, are in there, or that they’re all in there together. But it’s not necessary to pick all this up to enjoy the book. There’s a great deal woven into the fabric of Counternarratives, so I hope readers return to it and find something of interest every time they do.
Guernica: You recently translated Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer into English. You’ve also translated work from the French and Spanish. How has working as a translator influenced your writing, both generally, working between multiple languages, and specifically working on the translations of Hilst, who has such a distinct style?
John Keene: Two things immediately come to mind. First, translating from any other language into English returns me to English’s complexities, nuances, and richnesses. Reading texts from outside the American orbit also suggests other ways of thinking about and approaching literature. Ours is not the only way of going about things, and translation often lays bare another perspective on our own literary traditions. To translate is to engage in a profoundly ethical activity, because you strive to be true both to the original and to cultures into which you are bringing the translated work. Hilst was especially exciting to enter into conversation with, because of her intellectual rigor, her linguistic difficulty, her humor and imaginative playfulness, and her aesthetic daring. Letters from a Seducer in particular is a work that risks everything, and manages to succeed despite multiple opportunities for failure. If she can take such a huge leap to present what is clearly a new and striking view of our world, why shouldn’t I—or more of us—at least try to do so as well?
My goal isn’t soft multiculturalism, but rather to convey a richer and fuller sense of what literature is.
Guernica: I wonder if you could say a bit about your approach to teaching writing. MFA workshops, in particular, have taken heat for emphasizing traditionally white narratives while trivializing narratives from queer people and people of color. Is this something that you’re thinking about when you’re designing and leading workshops and literature classes?
John Keene: I teach in Rutgers–Newark’s MFA program, and have taught undergraduate creative writing for over a decade at other institutions, and in both cases, I have striven to share with my students a culturally and aesthetically diverse array of writing, central to which, for obvious reasons in my case, are literary works by women, writers of color, and LGBTIQ writers. My goal isn’t soft multiculturalism, but rather to convey a richer and fuller sense of what literature is, what the possibilities are, and to share the voices that often get excluded or silenced when we speak of ‘literature’ and ‘writing.’ Otherwise, of course, you’re only receiving a partial education. This isn’t happening everywhere though, as the widespread public and private critiques of MFA programs make clear.
In all my creative writing courses I stress craft, but not to the exclusion of intellectual content; instead, I see them both as integral to the aesthetics of any work of art. Would we have the work of the greatest writers throughout history without them having considered both? I want to underline that my own experience, which has included encouraging, invigorating nonacademic literary communities like the Dark Room Writers Collective and Cave Canem, and rigorous, welcoming programs as a student and professor, has shown me that other inclusive approaches are possible. But the problem lies not only with academe, but also, as Marlon James recently noted, with the publishing industry, and, as Tim Parks has written, with our increasingly globalized literary culture. Pare off the particularized political, cultural edges, simplify the language and content, and you’ve got something that flows more easily across global channels, like capital. Is this what we want out of literature?
Guernica: You’ve talked elsewhere about how Counternarratives ‘queers’ historical narratives. Could you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? What sort of resistance does the queering of history offer against normative depictions of history?
John Keene: One way of thinking about the idea of queering narrative, and history, is to cite Eve Sedgwick’s famous description of queerness in “Queer and Now,” in her 1993 book Tendencies, where she defines queerness as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality are made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” Sedgwick goes on to disarticulate ‘queerness’ to some extent from sexuality by viewing it as “the experimental linguistic, epistemological, representational, political adventures attaching to the very many of us who may at times be moved to describe ourselves.”
My stories, in a variety of ways, explore those open meshes of possibilities, those gaps and overlaps, those dissonances and resonances present in historical and cultural archives and narratives, as well as fictional narratives in general. Following on the ideas of historians like Natalie Zemon Davis, in Counternarratives I place history as a linear, factually-based practice under pressure; the monovocality of a master narrative must yield not just to those voices that leap into the breach but to the very idea that such a thing is possible at all. In addition, queerness as an antiheteronormative approach to depicting the reality of people’s lives runs throughout the collection.
Guernica: Many of the stories in Counternarratives experiment with form and collage. You incorporate maps, newspaper clippings, passages from philosophy texts, and even the Declaration of Independence into the stories. How do these formal experiments further counter master narratives?
John Keene: I hope that the evident presence of so many different types of texts and discourses, even within a given story, honors their fundamental role in the construction of both imaginative and historical writing, while also turning that principle on its head. It is up to the historian to make sense of the archive, but who and what institutions and structures give the historian authority to do so? We usually ask the same questions of fiction writers, even if intuitively. Let me add that one thing I realized after finishing the book was how much it embodies and enacts the concept of discourse. Isn’t the welter of all those competing texts in some ways truer to the reality of history, and our world, especially nowadays with the omnipresence of social media, than a carefully controlled, univocal fictional or historical narrative voice? The idea of the master narrative is less possible when we realize how narratives themselves are constructed and mediated entities. Of course many other writers have blazed this path before me, so Counternarratives is also a conversation across literary historical boundaries and traditions.
Guernica: In the second section of the book, “Encounternarratives,” you move away from the omniscient perspective of the first section and toward first-person narration. Jim Rivers, from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the nineteenth-century acrobat Miss La La, for instance, both tell their own stories. I was particularly struck by the energy and movement of Miss La La’s voice in “Acrobatique,” which offers a contrast to Edgar Degas’s painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. What drew you to write about these kinds of figures?
John Keene: With each story there was a different spur, but in general, I was curious to see what might happen if I allowed some of these real and fictional figures to tell their own stories. I also was surprised, for example, that there were not already many narratives about Miss La La—Anna Olga Albertina Brown—who was widely acclaimed in the late nineteenth century. Kathleen Fraser, it turns out, wrote a poem about her, but there’s no mention of race in it, even though contemporaneous commentary about Brown did circle in on this. It was one reason why she was so fascinating to her European audiences, and perhaps one reason why Edgar Degas, who had black relatives in Louisiana but never painted another black person in any of his paintings, selected her for this portrait.
With Jim in “Rivers,” I was yet again struck that no one else had really explored his story. Every time I have read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my main concern has been for and with Jim, whose precarity sears the pages! Moreover, his era would have been that of my great-great- and great-grandparents, so it allowed me to imagine their world. That entire second section aimed to bring some of these figures to life, and to see where their voices might take me—and readers.
Guernica: There are competing sources of authority in the collection. While several of the stories focus on the conflict between Christianity and pagan systems of belief, the final story, “The Lions,” pits the broadly drawn spirituality of The Prophet against the bald malevolence of a demagogue empowered by neoliberal greed. Could you say a little bit about what made you want to investigate these kinds of conflicts and how they function in the book?
John Keene: I don’t think the path you map out was one I consciously intended, but I will say that the contestation between faith and organized religion is a recurrent element throughout the text, and as you note, there is a trajectory—one of many—that in the final story, “The Lions,” culminates in the dramatization of a loss of faith—spiritual and imaginative faith—and religion in the face of greed and power, absolute power. In a way it is a cautionary tale about the limits of reason, and of unreason, but also about the power of the writer and storyteller, who can assume a godlike power herself to create and sustain, but also to harm and destroy. (Psychological studies keep confirming the emotional power of narrative, too, so this is not just intellectual provocation.) It goes beyond magic, or Christianity versus African and indigenous spirit traditions, to the very ground of belief’s power—grounded in narrative—to structure and shape reality. But what happens when belief itself is barely or no longer possible, and something beyond cynicism takes root? That’s part of what I was after in that final story, where even narrative form itself has broken down to the barest attempts at conversation.
All art is political and ideological, whether the politics are visible or not.
Guernica: The book demonstrates how literature can, to use your words, convey “the social and political economy in which we live.” And there are clear parallels between the worlds you write about and the political environment we find ourselves in today. At the end of a story like “An Outtake,” which recounts the increasingly violent attempts by slavers in colonial New England to control Zion, a young runaway intent on freedom, I couldn’t help thinking of Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, and other contemporary black Americans murdered by police officers. How do you see your book fitting into our current political climate? Did you intend to write a book with this sort of political resonance?
John Keene: I appreciate this reading of the book. It is a political text, though not politically dogmatic or doctrinaire. All art is political and ideological, whether the politics are visible or not. Sadly—and realistically—the people you name have antecedents going back to the earliest moments of our history, and so in that sense, Counternarratives, though it reimagines the past, is also very much a work that speaks to our present political situation. One of the things I hoped to convey was that the disposability, the ever-shifting contingency and the precarity which have always marked black lives in this society are hardly new, and have a long history—they are baked into our system—yet I also did not want to write from a place of abjection. I also am thinking about how a theorist like Alex Weheliye, in his brilliant study Habeas Viscus, speaks to a way of thinking about experience that is not exactly resistance but also is not abjection either, and how a free zone opens up for people who have never been considered fully human, even amid the ubiquitous rhetoric of human rights. I believe the stories access that zone as well.
Guernica: For all their interest in history and ideas, these stories are deeply grounded in character. I was impressed by the complexity of so many of the book’s protagonists. Zion, from “An Outtake,” for example, stands out as both a fully realized person and as a mirror held up to America’s damning contradictions. How do you go about developing characters, especially those drawn from real life?
John Keene: I always hope each of the protagonists assumes a fullness that is lifelike even if, as with Zion, we have little access to their interiority. How to show complexity without interiority was one of the challenges I set for myself. In terms of the real historical figures, I wanted to be faithful to some extent to their biographies, or what was known of them, while also playing as much as I could. This was clearly the case with “Blues.” Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia both would have been in Mexico City and New York, even if briefly, during the periods in which that story takes place. While it remains unknown whether or not they ever met, the facts of Villaurrutia’s translation of Hughes’s poetry, his dedication of the poem “North Carolina Blues” to Hughes, and the poem’s queer content, are undeniable.
With “An Outtake,” to give a different example, I thought of Zion as a character, but also as the political and administrative fracture lines that were breaking open on the eve of the American Revolution. With “Acrobatique,” I started from the image of Anna Olga Albertina Brown with the tether in her mouth, holding on tight, as she rose into the air, and somewhere below Degas sketching her. With “Cold,” it was the idea, or rather scenario, of Bob Cole walking into Catskill Creek, something tormenting him enough to take those final, lethal steps, and the question of what that torment might have been. So with every character, there was a different point of departure.
Guernica: Do you believe writers have a responsibility to address political and social issues in their work?
John Keene: One of the things I said in a previous interview with Front Porch was that “overtly political art must walk a fine line not to tumble into cant,” and added that “many of the greatest storytellers—and artists in all genres—have created works that are insistently political and offer exemplary aesthetic models.” Having said that, I believe that the storyteller’s—the artist’s—foremost duty—is to her art. The politics and ideology are already baked into whatever she writes. Sometimes, however, at a moment of pressing political or social crises an artist may feel the need, even if she hasn’t figured out the aesthetics yet, to address what is unfolding around her. As I grow older, I think I become ever more willing to cut some slack to artists who do this because we need those snapshots and immediate responses, which can be quite artful in their own right, as much as we need the work that carefully and gracefully distills and transmutes life, fantasies, dreams, hopes, fears, which is to say experience, including such critical moments, into art.
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