In memory of Binyavanga Wainaina, Randall Kenan, and Greg Tate
Jeffery Renard Allen: I’d like to hear your thoughts about the COVID pandemic, if you have any; and there have been so many things happening in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, so my first question has to do with your thoughts about the moment, COVID, Black Lives Matter, and such. But I guess it’s also a question about your thoughts about how writers address the moment, or is it—I remember this was an issue that came up, for example, after 9/11 where, if you remember, The New Yorker did that issue where they published a number of writers responses to the event. And I remember Susan Sontag saying how it was sort of too soon to talk about it, and how we didn’t have a language. So I’ll just put all of that out there as a question.
John Keene: I think it’s a great question and I’m of many minds about this. It’s interesting that you mention Susan Sontag because I remember when she described the 9/11 attacks as a kind of payback for American imperialism and interference all over the globe. She received considerable blowback for that. She was harshly criticized, if I remember correctly. As it turns out, I think she was prescient. I recall how a few years later, she wrote about the Abu Ghraib torture site and photos with incredible sensitivity and nuance. What she was underscoring is the principle that the things that happen within the borders of this country, that happen to the American people, often reflect and parallel actions that this country is doing outside its borders. They’re happening at the U. S. borders but get erased as part of this larger project of creating a sense of American innocence. And, I don’t want to use the concept of blindness because that trope is insensitive, but there is an erasure and epistemic closure concerning what’s right in front of us, so that we willfully don’t see, so that we’re kind of brainwashed not to see, or inculcated not to see. This summer’s Black Lives Matter movement right now feels like a continuation—culmination in some ways—of the initial Black Lives Matter push of a few years ago, in the wake of the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, but especially the protests in Ferguson, and yet it also has a new energy and force. There’s a renewed desire and demand for justice, for equality, for freedom, right? For real redress to the systemic and structural racism that is baked into this country’s DNA, and of course has underpinned all of American history. I always want to be mindful of not being ahistorical. Black people again and again have been pushing for a transformation of this society from very early on. The pioneering poet Lucy Terry Prince, I think, successfully argued against false land claims against her sons in 1803 before the Vermont Supreme Court, and addressed Williams College’s trustees in 1806 to admit one of her sons, but was denied because they were black. At a time where most African Americans were not free, you have a woman basically utilizing the system to gain freedom and equality. I say this to note that I see what’s happening is both a new front and a culmination, but also something that feels qualitatively and quantitatively different. One of the things that has been so heartening to me has been that despite the inevitable, violent fascist pushback from the previous administration and from sectors in the media and people on the right, as well as some liberals, that people aren’t stopping, they’re not giving up. These newest generations are saying enough is enough. What happens, what comes of this, I don’t know. But I feel hopeful. This is happening at the very time that we can see how horribly this country, and particularly the previous administration, has mismanaged the crisis unfolding around Covid-19. A lot of it really has to be laid at the doorstep of this president and administration. But what also is clear is that we’re seeing a complete and total failure of American exceptionalism, of all of these systems that we have been told repeatedly are superior to everything else the world. At the core of it lies a failure of market capitalism. Particularly racialized capitalism, our racial capitalist system. Neoliberalism and libertarianism as well in all of their forms are proving to be utterly inadequate to the crisis that we’re facing. The fact that we’re in August—though the warnings were coming in late 2019, and subsequently the administration in particular was repeatedly warned in January and February, with the first positive cases publicly announced in March—and still, in August, we do not have adequate testing and certainly not tracing. Even when tests are available, it’s taking people sometimes two or three days or a week or more to get results. But this is the direct effect of the very problematic system that we have in place. This virus, for all of its physiological horrors—I mean, I think I saw today that 165,000 people are dead—also has revealed the hollowness of our capitalist system. All the inequalities and inequities, how jerry-rigged everything is, and it’s horrifying. To me one question is, where do we go from here? It’s been telling to see how this all connects with systemic and structural racism. Even early on it became clear that the majority of people who were dying of COVID-19 were black and brown people, working class, poor people, and the vulnerably elderly. All of this society’s failures have just been basically cast into relief, so I just hope that as we move forward, there is a way to truly transform the society.
Related to this is the question of art-making. What is it that artists do? What is it that artists can do? It’s a complex question. I think one of the things that Susan Sontag, and other people have said that is very true is that sometimes it is too soon to know what we can do, beyond doing it. People should write or create whatever they can, whenever they feel so motivated. If it is a response that seems adequate at the moment but later seems inadequate, I think that’s fine. You respond as best you can. But I think what artists also can do, particularly fiction writers—and poets, who work primarily with language, you know, they work with all of the tools of language—is depict a world, narrate it into being. And so what I think we might really think about as people working in fictional prose, are the kinds of possibilities we imagine. How we think of the future, depict the present, and of course, imagine and reimagine the past. Because the past often provides us with guides for how to move forward in the world. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot because how we make art in relation to this moment, thinking with it and imagining what art can do as a way of being in dialogue with it, and helping in the positive transformation of society, is crucial.
Renard Allen: I would say I’m fortunate to have known you for many years and I want this to be a record for people who don’t know the kind of person you are. You know, you’re very catholic in your taste, your reading, your interest in art. You read everything, and you’re an activist. I mean, the way I would characterize you for anyone who doesn’t know, I think you’re among one or two people I know that I can always go to and find out what’s new to read and what’s interesting and exciting to read. For example, I think you were the first person who told me about Bolaño, Mónica de la Torre, and many other writers. So I guess my first question has to do really—we’ll get to your work—but my first question has to do with your reading habits. Again, from what I know about you, you read not only fiction and poetry and other literature, but are also well-versed in critical theory and things of that sort. I always just say you read anything. That might be a slight exaggeration but could you talk a little bit about your reading habits and how that relates to you as a writer and particularly as a fiction writer?
Keene: Well, I will say that I’ve changed of course since I have become an academic—I’ve also taken on administrative roles. I find that I spend a lot more time reading emails and proposals and CVs than the kind of reading I once did. [Laughter.] But I think I’ve always been open to everything. So on the one hand, I’m just sort of thinking about all the things I was reading in school and the parallel education I was getting growing up. I came of age in the seventies and my younger brother’s godparents had this amazing library. My mother read extensively too. She had a wonderful little library and read everything. It was through her I was first introduced to Toni Morrison, for example. She had Sula on her bookshelf. And The Bluest Eye. She had many of James Baldwin’s books; and a few years ago, I attended a James Baldwin conference in France to give a talk on Just Above My Head, and reread my mother’s copy. I also realized that that was a book that I probably shouldn’t have been reading as child; it came out in 1979, so I would have been in 8th grade, and it is a pretty explicit book. Someone trying to publish that novel now might provoke an uproar, but it was important to me. To return to the point, in part it was writers like Baldwin, Alice Walker, Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, and books like the Black Fire!: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, of Black Arts writing that were key.
At the beginning of this summer’s protests, when people were posting poetry on social media in conversation with the Black Lives Matter protests, one of the poems that people were quoting was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Boy Breaking Glass,” her take on protests, riots, and looting, and I recalled that I’d quoted that very poem on my high school yearbook page, as well as a part of Baraka’s introduction to Black Fire. Of course, this was not the kind of literature I was reading in high school or junior high or anywhere else, especially being in a predominantly white, suburban environment from fifth grade on through college. But that parallel reading really nourished me tremendously.
The other thing, too, is I’ve always been very interested in languages. So as a child I would do things like teach myself languages. We had moved from the city of St. Louis to the suburb of Webster Groves before my fifth-grade year, because of how dangerous our neighborhood in the city was becoming. This would have been 1975. Webster Groves was actually racially divided by train tracks and a creek, and black people lived in one part and most of the white people lived in the other part. But the public library was still walking and biking distance from my house and I used to go there all the time to explore and read everything. One of the books I fell in love with at the time was Michael Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit. So I began teaching myself Sanskrit. I would do things like that as a child. I felt at the time that this was probably really weird, because people around me weren’t saying this was a great thing to do. On the other hand, I felt I had the freedom to do that. So that kind of approach has always characterized my reading. This has changed because I haven’t had time in recent years to read as much as I like. But I went through a period after I had graduated from college where I was in a state of self-tutorial, reading a lot of European continental philosophy and U. S. literary theory and stuff—material that I had had some immersion in in college but really was not emotionally and psychologically ready to deal with. Then, after temping, when I got a series of jobs at MIT in the early nineties, I would go to the MIT Press Bookstore and I had a friend who worked there, Victor Blois, who would always help me with discounts on the books. So I was reading everything they had on the shelves, things that I would not otherwise be reading. He would alert me that new books had come in, and I remember one time I bought Jürgen Habermas’s Philosophical-Political Profiles. [Laughs.] I couldn’t afford them but I was reading them. I didn’t know who half of these authors were because I didn’t formally study political science, philosophy, etc., but it became another kind of education.
And the last thing I’ll say is that, around the same time I was doing that, I was in the Dark Room Collective. And that was another kind of education, a remarkable one, because through the Dark Room, I was introduced to all of these other writers who were not the writers who were being talked about in most mainstream literary publications. Writers like Clarence Major, for example, and Jay Wright. Sherley Anne Williams and Gayl Jones. And so, so many more. And then of course there were the writers who were coming through, who were very early in their careers at that time. Elizabeth Alexander, Randall Kenan, Paul Beatty—who are major figures now. It was just a kind of banquet of literature that I’m actually incredibly grateful for, to have had the opportunity to encounter.
Renard Allen: It’s good you mention the Dark Room because I actually want to talk a little bit about that, but you do read several languages. How many languages, which languages do you read and speak? Because the questions of multiple tongues seem to figure in all of your work.
Keene: Well, that’s a good question. I think, again, probably I think maybe ten years ago, I would say, oh I think I’m pretty competent in several different languages. Of course, since I rarely now have much time to read in other languages the way I used, I worry that my competency has plummeted. In junior and high school, I studied French, so I can still read and speak and write in French. I studied Latin, and used some Latin in Counternarratives, but my reading fluency is nil. I also studied Ancient Greek, and I haven’t really any contact with it since I took Greek classes in college. I also had a year of German in high school. And then I taught myself Spanish and Portuguese—hold on a second, Jeff. I think the food is here. [Leaves and returns]
Renard Allen: You were talking about reading, teaching yourself Spanish and Portuguese.
Keene: I taught myself Spanish and Portuguese.
Renard Allen: You’ve translated Portuguese texts as well.
Keene: Yes, so I’ve actually translated primarily Portuguese but also Spanish. I’ve translated some Spanish-language writers. And French, I’ve translated some Francophone writers. And on my blog, Jstheater—I haven’t blogged since January—I have a few translations in those languages, as well as from German and from Dutch. I also tried to learn the basics of other languages, like Japanese, Arabic and Yoruba. A few years ago, my partner and I were going to visit a few countries in Europe, including the Netherlands. So I said I’m going to teach myself a little Dutch because I know a little German and the languages are very close, and they’re also close to English. There’s a great poetry bookstore in Amsterdam, right on one of the canals—
Renard Allen: I know the one you mean, yeah.
Keene: You know which one I mean, yeah, it’s amazing. One of the books I got there was a book of poems by a then still young Dutch-Morroccan poet, Mustafa Stitou. I had this book for years, and would browse it, and so I said, rather than using an online translation service, I’m going to try to translate some of these poems. So I did and published one on my blog. And then I think someone wrote me to say, “Oh I know Mustafa,” which is kind of wild. I was like, wow, this is the power of the internet.
Renard Allen: Then maybe one other question—actually, sort of two questions—but sort of related to this question of reading, is this question of research. It seems to me that research, in one way or another, figures in your work. Your fiction is informed by it. Again, you’re a person I often come to for information because you know a lot about a lot of different things. And I remember running across an email you had sent me twenty years ago. I’ve been working on this, been wanting to write a novel about Jean Baptiste DuSable and you had sent me a reading list, which was kind of amazing. So, you know, I mean how does the research work? Do you get ideas from research that leads to writing? Or does the project come first? Or how does that inform your work?
Keene: That’s a great question. I think it varies. Sometimes I will be reading something and be motivated to dig deeper. Sometimes I have an idea and I feel like I need to do research on it, and then in the process of doing research, other ideas come to me. So interestingly enough, for example with Counternarratives, I had the idea for a book like Counternarratives, but I also wanted to write a novel set in the early post-colonial period. The 1790s, 1800s.
Renard Allen: You’re still working on that novel, aren’t you?
Keene: Exactly. I have been looking through it again. And every time I see it, I start to get excited, you know. We lost power last week because of the tropical storm Isaias and I was like, oh no—that halted my work on it. But you know, in the process of doing that book, the novel, I came across really interesting material that led me to at least one of the stories in Counternarratives. So sometimes I think it’s an interesting intellectually dialectical and complementary relationship. I have an idea and I go to various archives, historical texts, etcetera, and that informs the work. And then, of course, out of that come sparks of new ideas and they make me want to try to write about things I hadn’t been thinking about. And then sometimes, just to give one example, in one of the stories in Counternarratives, “Acrobatique,” I went to the Morgan Library in New York and came across the exhibit on Edgar Degas’ famous painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. I’m always convinced that everybody has written about everything already, so in my mind, I’ll be the fiftieth person to do it. But it turned out, fascinatingly enough, no one had really written imaginatively, at least in recent years, about her, though poet Kathleen Fraser does have a poem or series of poems about Miss La La. But she doesn’t deal at all with the particularities of Miss La La’s life as a black woman in late 19th Century France. So I asked myself, what if I try in part to imagine her from the perspective of today, while also not engaging in presentism and imposing our understanding of the world on someone of that moment? It was like I was in that world—you know how it is as a writer; you enter that other world, spellbound. You’re in this other place and want to explore it as fully and richly as possible. It takes you on a journey as much as you are taking the reader on a journey.
Renard Allen: That’s great. Would talk a bit more about the Dark Room Collective? Here I’m particularly interested in questions of genre end experimentation, so let me put it like this, what was the Dark Room Collective? And from your perspective, what was it like to be involved in that? What kinds of things did it give you as a writer?
Keene: One of the things, I will say, that the Dark Room gave me was a sense of permission. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever been involved with in my entire life. The people who were part of it were incredible. We didn’t always get along. We had our arguments, we had our beefs at times, our drama. But they were just…it’s even hard to put in words, it was so exciting. And part of it had to do with the fact that this was not part of any institution. This was a collective, born out of that preceding moment of the sixties and seventies, so everybody who was part of it was part of it.
Renard Allen: Can I interrupt you—when you say you were not part of any institution, so there were members of the Dark Room who were not students at Harvard necessarily?
Keene: Oh yes. It initially was not affiliated with any institution. It was a completely free-standing, black-focused organization and there were people who came from a range of backgrounds. The core of the Dark Room was the writers, but there were also visual artists who were involved, and musicians who would come through. There was also a documentary filmmaker of note who was then basically starting out. We had academics, scholars who would come through, we had people who were established poets who would come to the readings and so on. And then of course there were everyday people, who were not directly involved in the arts at all, who would just show up to the readings. I mean, I learned about it at my barber shop in Central Square in Cambridge, which to me says everything. That’s where I saw the little card for the Dark Room. It was an organic organization. The other thing about it was we had no money and it was created by eager, enthusiastic young people. There were older people who were involved with it, who helped us out tremendously and who would come to the events and things like this, some famous writers would kind of pop in, but the core founders of the Dark Room, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, and Janice Lowe, had this idea and ran with it. Writers were coming through Boston, so why not have them read to people in a living room, as opposed to being on stage at one of these major institutions? The force behind this was their attendance at James Baldwin’s funeral, which led to them think about having the opportunity to break bread with, hear from, talk to, and ask questions of someone like Baldwin, so that there was not this wall between this famous black writer and people who weren’t famous, who loved his work. There was a different ethos then, even though we were moving into the moment that we’re in now, the very neoliberal moment, where everybody is an individual brand…you know what I mean. Not to say that didn’t affect our thinking as well, but it was an exhilarating time.
And the other thing was, probably because I was young, I mean, I had set ideas about things but I also was very open. Someone would say, “John have you read this?” Or “Have you read that?” Or “You have to read this novel, Corregidora, by Gayl Jones.” There would be people I had heard about, like Essex Hemphill, and then they said, “Well, we’re going to invite Essex Hemphill,” so they invited Essex Hemphill to read! This was before he died. Another interesting thing was the range of people who were invited and came. Some were just starting out, some were already very famous. I mean, in those early years we got to hear Derek Walcott, Samuel Delany, Dolores Kendrick, Terry McMillan, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange—I could go down the list—David Bradley. I was impressed by the generosity of so many of these writers. Because we didn’t have any money. We couldn’t really pay them. We could feed them, we could sell their books. More than anything, we wanted to hear from them, and they wanted to share their work with us. Pearl Cleage came to read. She’s much better known now, but she gave us all the things we wouldn’t be getting otherwise. So many figures like that came through. It was an invaluable experience, one like nothing I’ve ever done or participated in. Nearly all the education I’ve had, as wonderful as it has been at times, has been comparable, though I must also praise Cave Canem very highly. That was another remarkable gathering. The Dark Room was educative but it was also a powerful social and political and emotional experience, being so young and in conversation with those writers. All of the aspects of what was happening in the moment before and during the Dark Room came into being fed into the Dark Room, from the Black Arts Movement to all the formal experimentation of black writers in American literature to the wave of black nationalism in the late eighties, to the interest and engagement with the global black diaspora.
Renard Allen: Did some of these writers also do workshops? I’m asking because Ishmael Reed says that he read your work back in those days at the Dark Room—that’s one of the reasons I’m asking.
Keene: He said he read my work?
Renard Allen: Yeah, in fact I think it’s in the blurb that he provides for Annotations, where he talks about when he read your work, he knew you were a genius, that’s actually… [Laughter.]
Keene: Here’s the interesting thing. When I was a senior in college, he was a visiting professor in AfAm and he was teaching both a fiction and a poetry class. I submitted a horrible story and horrible poems, and then went to African American Studies department, which was then in this old house in Cambridge. Ishmael was there, and I asked him if I was in the fiction, and he says, “Oh no, you’re in the poetry class because you’re a poet.” So I was like, “Oh yay, Ishmael Reed says I’m a poet!” So that’s where I had my first encounter with him. Then, the uncanny: at the very end of that year, my senior year, there was a poetry festival in Boston and he picked several of us from the class to go to the poetry festival, and I was one of the ones that he selected. I think I read one of the little poems I wrote in the class (other classmates include Elizabeth Wurtzel and Joseph Lease). What I did not realize was that Dark Room founders Sharan Strange—and perhaps Janice Lowe—was there, at that same poetry festival. So we were in the same place at the same time but we did not know each other, yet. And after that, I went and worked at a commercial bank to pay off my student loans, and I would see Sharan or Thomas walking down the street, and I wanted to know these extremely cool black people with their outfits and their locs. Later on, Ishmael came to read at the Dark Room. But yes, some of the writers did hold workshops for us. We also did workshops ourselves and they were very different from any kind of workshops that you would get at an MFA program…I’ll just leave it at that. But we had a combo of both.
Renard Allen: I think the Dark Room has a reputation for being primarily a poet’s group or a group for poets because so many famous poets now emerged from that group. But if I’m not mistaken, you and Tisa Bryant were the first persons who actually published books from the Dark Room, people who were in the Dark Room, I think that’s right. And I think, well what’s interesting to me is that these are both prose books, prose books that play with form. Your book Annotations, and hers, Unexplained Presence, I believe is the title, if memory serves me. So I guess this is one of the questions I have in terms of like—I wasn’t actually aware that you wrote poems until you published your first collection of poetry a number of years ago. But I remember how I found out about it is that I was talking to Kevin Young, who was also a part of the Dark Room, and he said, “John’s a great poet,” but I didn’t know that you were actually a poet. And I think Tisa was a poet as well. So was there…I guess this whole question of how poetry or verse versus prose figured in the workshop in your writing at the time. Since it seems you were doing both.
Keene: Well, a number of us were. The interesting thing I’ll say about the Dark Room was that everybody at some level was interested in poetry. And I think a lot of that had to do, again, with the influence of the Black Arts movement and the centrality of poets in it. Clearly, there were very major fiction writers who were part of it or in conversation with it, but there was a sense of—and also think about the number of people who do both, right? I mentioned Gayl Jones and Alice Walker, who were incredibly important to me, and of course Baldwin wrote poetry. Melvin Dixon. But there was a way in which I think for many of the prose writers—I’m thinking Tisa Bryant, Artress Bethany White, Trasi Johnson, Muhonjia Khaminwa, and I know I’m leaving out others—working in multiple genres, but also in that place where poetry and prose intersect, was very interesting to us, we were avidly reading writers who troubled that line. I was reading and writing a lot of poetry at the time I was in the Dark Room but I was also writing fiction. I always felt like there was a special kinship among the prose writers because we were a little subset of the Dark Room and we would have our conversations with each other. And I mean there’s still a kind of closeness that we feel with each other in terms of what’s possible with prose. One of the things I really learned in the Dark Room was that you have so many fascinating, extraordinary experiments that are happening in black writing—in the United States, across the hemisphere, and then of course writing in general outside Europe, of course all these amazing, fascinating things are happening. I had bogarted my way into a course with Joel Porte on American Modernist Writing when I was freshman, and we didn’t read a single black writer, though now you’d be remiss if you didn’t discuss the important Afro-Modernists. The Dark Room expanded our sense of possibility, and it was an amazing thing.
Renard Allen: That’s terrific. So I want to go towards Annotations, and again I want to start with the question of the moment. According to the book, you began writing it in 1992, and when I think about that year, or that particular era, one of the things that stands out most in my mind was that this was sort of the end of the AIDS era, in the sense that there were still many people dying. So for example, I’m not sure if I ever told you this, but you know I moved to New York to take a job at Queens College, my first job teaching. And I was actually replacing Melvin Dixon because he was dying at the time of AIDS, and in fact died the next year in 93. And he’s actually someone you’ve written and talked about. There is a reference in Annotations to what you call “the plague,” which is obviously AIDS. And my question has to do with as a gay man, a gay writer, what was that moment like as you began writing. I don’t know if that question makes sense but in terms of just this major thing that was killing so many people.
Keene: It was overwhelming, horrifying, deeply traumatizing; and I think I live with that trauma every day. It’s hard to express now, let alone back then what it was like to see so many people your age dying, older people dying, right before your eyes. It was akin to what we’re witnessing now in a different kind of way: a pandemic, a state of emergency. Yet again, we’re also seeing the government’s indifference, a sector of society’s hostility. The AIDS pandemic brought out the worst of the worst aspects of people in terms of homophobia, racism, classism, and so on. Our capitalist system also failed, as did traditional politics. Relentless, courageous grass-roots activism ended up saving people’s lives. I remember the extreme AIDS-phobia, how people’s families rejected them, or condemned them after their deaths; it was a very, very difficult time. I’m preparing a poetry manuscript for a publisher now—Kevin Young saw portions of this manuscript years ago so that might have been one of the things he was being very kind in referring to. But a number of the poems I was writing at that moment dealt with AIDS. I could not write about it in prose, I found myself almost mute in prose by the trauma and horror. In fact I was working on a novel around the time I began Annotations, and I couldn’t finish it because the totality of it was so great. I didn’t have the language for it. I met so many of the black gay writers who AIDS took from us. I think of Essex Hemphill, Roy Gonsalves, Craig Harris, Assotto Saint, of course Melvin, and so many more. Just seeing these incredibly talented people, people with incalculable promise—it was a kind of florescence or renaissance of black gay writing in the early to mid-eighties—it’s hard to even describe. I think of groups like Other Countries, and publications like the Pyramid Periodical. These writers were so talented and so many were just stricken, taken from us. I was trying to find a language for my vision but I couldn’t. I was writing these poems and I remember at one point I shared a bunch with Elizabeth Alexander, most were awful, elegiac sonnets, and she asked, “Are they all about Melvin Dixon?” And I told her, “No, but they all deal with AIDS.” She has important poems about AIDS and its aftermath as well. So to recapture the thread, Annotations was not something I was expecting to write, but in a moment of failure to achieve what I had wanted, a kind of force rose up in me that said this is the book that you’re meant to write.
Renard Allen: I think we were last talking about the way the whole AIDS crisis informed your work around the time that you were writing Annotations—I think you were saying that you started Annotations because … an inability to write about this larger question in other ways. Wherever you want to pick up with that …
Keene: So yes, I was writing a lot of elegies, about the moment of being a young black queer person with this pandemic all around. The terror of it, and the effects it was having on me—you’d see people one day and then you’d never see them again; you’d learn they’d died a week or a month later. Just the terror that it wrought on people—the fear. But then also, I would say another part of what I was trying to express in the poetry—and that I wanted to frame into a narrative was the extraordinary courage of people. Alongside groups like ACT UP and similar efforts that pushed for AIDS activism, education, prevention, that protested the hostile and neglectful response from the federal government, state governments, that directly challenged people’s often vocal repulsion at people who were living with AIDS but also LGBTQ people in general. I witnessed the extraordinary courage of people who were very ill and dying. I saw it. I should add that before Annotations, I had published a few stories I saw as leading to something—but they were apprentice works. And then what I realized was—and I’ll ask you about this, too—I don’t know if you ever have this feeling when you were starting out that you didn’t want to write an autobiographical book—I wanted to challenge that. But what ended up happening was, out of that struggle to find a language, a form and a language found me. I realized I had to write my story—my queer story—my story in a way that was not the sort of straightforward narrative, and there were writers like Lyn Hejinian, Ntozake Shange, Clarence Major, Ishmael, Samuel Delany, Amiri Baraka, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, William Faulkner, Eduardo Galeano—they were my guides into that story. So my first book ended up being about my own story. It’s very queer and unstable in terms of genre because it is an autofictional novel, a long prose poem or series of prose poems, a collection of lyric essays, a memoir, in a sense. It’s all those things at once, and also very much of its time, but it still actually speaks to where we are today because—I was just thinking about this the other day—the very opening page mentions the Selma to Montgomery march, I believe. You know? And the Watts uprising—so those things are sort of fundamental to how I think about my being in the world and what my work can do. But also in a sense how…they’re part of my formation and they’re there as signposts as you move forward in stories that in some ways is both very personal and then—as Phillip Brian Harper, I think, has argued elsewhere—very abstract.
Renard Allen: How would you define the book in terms of form? One of the interesting moves in the book is that the—I guess I can call him the center, the protagonist of the book—one of the interesting things is that you use these various pronouns, “he,” “they,” “we”; the gender changes from “she” and then sometimes the person is called “the poet.” Would you speak to that? And I find this interesting phrase you use in the book at one point—you say “a decentered notion of the ‘subject’ works”—so is this somehow about that idea? Could you speak a little bit to the use of pronouns: what you’re trying with that?
Keene: Well, you probably remember that, you know, that the moment—because the eighties and nineties were the moment of high theory, of French and European continental theory, as well as LGBT studies, feminist studies, critical race studies, semiotics and semiology, Marxist theory, Freudian and psychoanalytic theory, and so much more, in academia, right? One of the people I had been reading was Foucault. I was working at the Glad Day Bookstore when Foucault’s History of Sexuality came out, posthumously, and so many key texts by Lacan, who actually appears in Annotations in various ways. [Laughs.] The whole idea of the mirror subject, le petit objet a, and the suture, etc.; all this stuff is in there. So that idea of the decentered subjectivity, which was so much in the air at that time, was very important to me, in particular as a young black queer person. I also knew a little bit about the wider array of LGBTQ writers, those pioneering figures like Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Adrienne Rich, Cheryl Clarke, and so on. But one of the things I did not know yet, because it really hadn’t disseminated yet, was the idea of queer theory. It was burgeoning at that point. Eve Sedgwick among others talks about queerness and how it operates, right? And queerness in relation to selfhood…if you were to ask me theoretically then what that looked like, I couldn’t tell you. But I was working through it in Annotations. So in a sense, that’s a kind of practice or praxis of trying to understand the conversations that are happening at that particular moment around queer subjectivity—subjectivities. It fascinates me to go back and look at it because it still has a resonance today even though we’re in a different moment in terms of how people understand psychology, queer theory, all these things.
Renard Allen: There’s a range of reference—you mentioned a number of people—a range of reference in the book; one could even say there’s a range of styles, of voices, like the passages that read like a Romantic poet or something. So there’s this range of languages and voices—things taken from other languages; Latin and Greek and so on. How does this work in terms of this decentering? Whereas essentially you’re using all of these different forms to tell your story, for lack of a better word, since in some ways this is a kind of riff on your life, right? And then, you know, the sort of the question of place and person, and how that’s mixing—because so much of the book also honors the history of St. Louis and in a larger sense the history of Missouri, and, in an even larger sense, the history of America, and your place as the poet in that, quoting the poet and how these things converge. It just seems that often in the book every sentence is a move into something else. This really quick fluidity…I don’t know what I’m asking. [Laughs.] But maybe just speak to that.
Keene: Well, you broached so many fascinating things, so let me see if I can be concise about this. One of the deeper metaphors of the book is the river, particularly the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, which both come together at St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri. Two of the major and longest rivers in the United States, I believe. And you think about all the worlds that spread out from them, so I was trying to think about—and this is came up organically—how these rivers serve as a means into understanding a selfhood, a past that is not simply personal but is also a larger social and societal past. A historical past. Toward the end of the book, I mentioned mosaics. And I felt I was putting the pieces together, with each individual piece of a mosaic—I mean, it’s just colored pieces of tile—signifying, and then when they all come together you see the larger picture, the larger portrait. You can zoom in and zoom out, right? You see the way structurally that the individual pieces together constitute this whole, but each of them has their own resonance. These were some ideas that were in my head. In terms of decentering selfhood, it’s still interesting because I haven’t really thought about it in a while but one of the writers that really fascinated me when I was writing Annotations was John Edgar Wideman.
Renard Allen: He’s been a big influence on my work as well.
Keene: I know, I know…and he was, you know, formally experimental and very aesthetically daring, right? And he also of course dealt with his own personal story; he deals with Pittsburgh, Homewood, etc. One of the things I liked about his work was the methods by which he narrates, because I had a question about a certain kind of authority in prose. You know, I’m telling you the reader this and this is how things in this fiction world work. I was questioning the standard understanding of prose fiction that you get with someone like James Wood, where this is how prose fiction writing operates, how you tell a story. I remember John Gardner’s book on fiction writing was still a big deal at the time. But I wanted to push back against that and all the writers writing in a certain kind of way. I was looking very much to woman writers, like Lyn Hejinian, but particularly black woman writers and their approach, and in particular some of the black woman writers like Shange, Jones, and Morrison, who were more experimental. The theoretical grounding in an understanding of decentered subjectivity and an attempt to write against the kind of powerful, predominant currents of prose fiction, all provided the groundwork for Annotations. The self or a self—a fixed, set, dominant cishet self is absent in that book. Instead, it is a construction of snatches of experience, snippets of phrases and thoughts, and a lot of folk wisdom—all these things feeding into this larger narrative. These mosaic pieces are the currents of a river that together constitute a story. But even the title itself suggests a kind of displacement. These are annotations to something larger, something else. What is that other thing? What is that self? Who is that other? And how do we understand getting notes to that story as opposed to that story directly.
Renard Allen: In a way, the book is a kind of traditional story—traditional in the sense that it’s about a young person’s development, a poet’s development. Starting in childhood and then going to Harvard—actually, Harvard isn’t named in the book, I think —or maybe it is. But in other words, it’s a young hero’s quest, for lack of a better way of putting it. Another interesting thing about the book is the subheadings or the chapter titles, whatever you want to call them…they also work in terms of this sort of fragmentation and decentering—but in some ways they also work a lot like the kind of chapter summaries you would get in a nineteenth century novel like Huckleberry Finn, if you know what I mean. Those little synopses—was this an intentional gesture to suggest that?
Keene: This goes back to the idea of a kind of extended prose poem. There’s a recursive quality to those titles because each appears at some other point or place in the book. They’re a stitching mechanism to sew things together. Alongside that, they are very lyrical. Life itself is so prosaic but these titles announce something so much more elaborate, more heightened, and I was fascinated by that as I was writing it, so that it became a kind of exercise in a sense. A form of play to see what I could come up with. They kind of stand out and charge the text that follows, because I’ve threaded throughout these really banal little statements, you know? Instructions from a potato chip bag or something, or the sleeve coating a loaf of bread. Could the quotidian sit alongside these very sort of charged moments, moments that become even more charged because they’re highlighted, juxtaposed against something utterly different as opposed to being presented in the usual narrative sense.
Renard Allen: I was looking for the statement the father makes about Harvard in terms of one of those banal statements but…I’m also curious about how sound works in the book. That seems to be a big thing—the beauty of the language—there’s a lot of the prosaic that you mentioned but there’s also just the beauty of the language that you really craft. One of these phrases really stood out to me and I’m just curious—this is on page thirteen. It reads, “Our ears hammer impressions into audible jewels.” [Laughs.] I don’t know what that exactly means but I’m curious … I’d like to speak to how sound works in the book. I mean do you have like—there’s another phrase … page thirty-one [“Innocence, no sense, a nuisance/new sense”] where you’re playing on the sounds of the words and those kinds of things. So would you speak about sound but also about music, which figures a lot in the book. Sometimes the titles of songs are dropped in—primarily jazz songs. So sound and music—how is all that working?
Keene: Well, I love this question. I grew up in a household where music was always playing. My father had had several thousand records, you know? And then CDs when he got older—when CDs came; mentioning them makes me like a hundred years old. [Laughs.] But you remember this era? You ran with 45s and LPs and stuff…but he would be playing music all the time. Mostly jazz and R&B—a lot of R&B. Some pop music he didn’t like—the pop music I liked as a kid and as a teenager. And of course when I was coming along, that was the very beginning of hip hop as we know it, though with folks like the Last Poets, etc., hip hop probably began a little before me, and my father loved them. The very late seventies and early eighties—remember “Rapper’s Delight” and stuff like that? Kurtis Blow? This music was in the air. The song titles try to capture the materiality and resonance of those names, these radiant nodes of a particular moment. At the time I was thinking, “How do you do that?” I was really interested in naming, the idea of naming and what names index or don’t, how naming functions. What’s missed and what’s lost when you’re talking about pop cultural references and so forth, and what we get and what we don’t. I think we’re probably around the same age—our generation or maybe five or even ten years younger—Gen X. They’ll say, “I read Annotations,” and I remember shows like Jonny Quest or I remember Bomb Pops, you know? Or people say, how do you know this; they grew up in Cleveland or in Chicago. They remember these things, and then of course there’s the music. But I also was interested in language itself, the materiality of language and its possibilities. In Annotations, I really wanted to think about what can words themselves do. How, reduced to their simplest elements, can they tell a story? That’s what poetry does. So in a sense, the entire book is a dialogue with poetry or a dialogue between prose and its relationship to poetry, how poetry functions, and what it can do when it’s brought into prose or functions as prose, right? That is a key into understanding the music of the text. Some readers look at it and they’re like, “Oh, you know, this is just like bad poetry or too complex.” As if to say, “What the hell are you doing? Why couldn’t you just tell us a straightforward story?” Because it would be a very different story, you know, if it were told in a very straightforward way.
Renard Allen: Rereading the book, I found it funny when—[Laughs.] actually, I saw the Jonny Quest reference in there because I’ve been working on this memoir so I was trying to remember toys and cartoons and stuff. We are roughly the same age. I think I’m two years older than you, maybe. So anyway, I sent my son a clip of Jonny Quest and said, “Do you want to see the worst cartoon ever?” [Laughs.] And he said, “Ah yeah, that’s pretty bad.” But to get back to the book, the thing you were saying about the materiality of language—it made me think a lot about Proust and particularly Swann’s Way and—I don’t know if you had read Proust—
Renard Allen: Okay, because I was thinking a lot about how in—for example, the narrator of Swann’s Way talks about how words carry impressions and expectations like the narrator here is the name of some town by the sea. He has this whole notion of what that place—or the word Venice connotates all of these things even though he’s never been there, you know? There seems to be something about the questions of naming and words in your book and…signs, which recalls the kind of poststructuralist conversation that was so big when we were in college back in the eighties, you know? And it made me think a lot about that. But I wonder—I do have sort of a question about this notion of language, the materiality of language, and how it plays in the novel—because it seems to me one of the differences in terms of experimental fiction and … let’s say the black postmodern writer versus the mainstream white postmodern writer, or versus the sort of conversation around poststructuralism in the eighties—it seems like in your work or let’s say John Wideman’s or Ishmael Reed’s or Clarence Major’s or whoever else you want to mention, there never seems to be this notion that language is simply arbitrary—like that was a big sort of poststructuralist idea…well, not even just that but that stories are arbitrary and kind of irrelevant. For example, Beloved really engages with that very question of this sort of arbitrariness of stories and this question that as people of color we have to tell our stories. It’s not just some kind of exercise in language, you know?
Keene: Right, right. So I think about some of the structuralists and…I should say, talking about theory, the deconstructionist critics and postmodernist figures were big in the eighties but also in the air were people like the semioticians, especially structuralists like Roman Jakobson. He has that famous essay about the two poles of poetry and prose. I’ve tried to share versions of this with students, in that poetry works primarily along the pole of metaphor, though not always, because some poetry traditions involve metonymy. While fiction is profoundly metonymic because one life or the lives depicted in a novel or short story can be read as a stand-in for an entire community, or society. One stands in for multiple ones because of the principle of contiguity, though there can be problems with this, when you consider stereotypes and so forth. But I was interested in Jakobson and the intellectual circles he participated in, as well as his and other structuralists’ ideas about deeper structures of language and sound and resonance. And then of course some years later there was James Geary’s marvelous book on metaphor, in which he talks about how in fact language is not arbitrary. Certain sounds have certain psychoacoustic and cognitive effects, emotional effects. Metaphors themselves aren’t just random. They’re very profoundly related to our being in the world—like spirits in the world. So I was trying to work through some of this, being mindful that these critiques are how we’ve been taught or how mainstream discussion/discourse understands how things work. Pick any black postmodern writer. In their work there is often a critique of the mainstream perspective. Sometimes it can be very overt. Sometimes it can be very subtle. Take Beloved. One of the things she’s doing is saying I can’t redeem Margaret Garner’s story. But at the same time, I want to bring you close to it, I want you to see it, to feel it. But also I want to take you beyond where the historical record could take you. So I have a faith in what language can do that is essential to how art works. It is the most essential thing. And I want you to see it and feel it and be with it. It is a constructed world but she figures out a way to bring us nevertheless fully into it.
Renard Allen: This passage from the book—speaking again to this question of language—this is on page forty: “The function and effect of titles, as in most cases of naming, depends on one’s ability to differentiate signs. Ornithology. And so in an effort to make so many shorter stories richer, these overtures ought to be read as a series of extended annotations.” So ornithology—which of course was a famous Charlie Parker song—what’s happening there?
Keene: [Laughs.] It’s all there, what we’ve been talking about, because it’s a tour of the late seventies and eighties in terms of critical theory. Speaking of semiotics brings up the concept of signs. How signs work—signifier and signified. Part of what I was playing on was this idea of signifiers, but also of course the signifiers in the vernacular sense of signifying. You know, names, playing the Dozens, joning—I think in the book I mention joning, right?
Renard Allen: That’s even in Gates’s important book The Signifying Monkey.
Keene: Exactly. As well as the concept of the signifier, the sign system as it’s understood in semiotic theory but also of course in a richer sense. How do signs work?
Renard Allen: Another thing I see happening in the book is you’re taking these experimental questions and these questions of structuralism and poststructuralism, and you’re still reading them through black culture and music being one of the functions—importing idioms. And so even in the final lines of the book you write, “The final dances of youth dim incandescent. Willow weep for me,” that second line from another famous song, of course. “And so, patient readers, these remarks should be duly noted as a series of mirror lifenotes that spiral into the condition of annotations.” And I think the word “lifenotes” is interesting there because it brings both music and narrative together, if that makes any sense.
Keene: It’s probably a good thing I published this before I started reading Anthony Appiah because there was this one point where he was using the term “lifescripts” and I became so fascinated by that. [Laughs.] That probably would have ended up in the book as opposed to “lifenotes,” thus losing the multiplicity embedded in “notes.” But yeah, that’s a beautiful reading, Jeff. I appreciate that.
Renard Allen: I remember when this book first came out and I didn’t get it. [Laughs.] You know? But I wonder—what I find fascinating is I know so many people who teach the book now and…who come at it in different ways. I remember many years ago when John Wideman was working on some book and he was telling me a bit about it, and I asked him, “Is it a novel? Or is it nonfiction?” And he said, “I no longer make a distinction between the two,” which has become a thing in our culture, but I don’t think it was a thing when you were writing this. I could be wrong. In the nineties that hadn’t become a thing yet.
Keene: Well, it’s interesting you say that because, on the one hand, there were precedents. Formally, there’s somebody like Serge Doubrovsky, who coins and defines the term “autofiction”—in 1977 or so. But I also think about the vast number of works that straddle this line between the autobiographical nonfictional and the fictional, and how influential they were. In the Dark Room, I was first introduced to Tales by Amiri Baraka, as well as his novel The System of Dante’s Hell. Around that same time—maybe a little later—I first read Dutchman. A group of us from the Dark Room came to New York to see a version of it at the Kitchen, and Greg Tate directed it. At first, I didn’t put two and two together—but later when I read it and taught it, I realized Clay is a stand-in for the pre-Amiri LeRoi Jones. The aspiring bohemian from black working-class New Jersey, resituated in a mythical version of New York, in a kind of ghost ship, the subway, and he’s basically going to have to be killed off by this liberal white woman, Lula. Jones’s/Baraka’s life and artistic struggles are in there. Another example is Adrienne Kennedy, a figure I’ve grown to love so much in terms of her work and her daring. Her work entails fusions of the autobiographical nonfictional and the highly speculative fictional. At any rate, I think of Annotations as early autofiction, though I don’t think it’s ever discussed in terms of autofiction as we know it. It arrived too early to be part of that conversation.
Renard Allen: That term didn’t cross really over into the English language until much later, you know, despite that essay and we were of course talking mostly about metafiction like when I read Jones’s System of Dante’s Hell and some of the stuff in Tales as well. And I was trying to remember—I forgot the guy’s name now. The guy who wrote The Wig, you remember that book?
Keene: Oh, Charles…I have it right here, too…Charles Wright!
Renard Allen: Charles Wright, that’s it. He has the name of the famous poet. [Laughs.] Those were really radical—in terms of that play on the self. But, you know, Annotations strikes me a lot like what we think of now—what people now are calling autofiction in terms of…it’s not the flâneur who’s walking around that becomes the typical trope in that sort of work, but just the range of reference and the way you’re often moving by connection as opposed to plot and all those kinds of things. I think it’s ahead of its time in that way.
Keene: Thank you for that. Someone who’s back in vogue now but whom I was always fascinated by around that same time was Kathy Acker. I was just transfixed by the fact that she made a practice of plagiarism, of collage—of course we have William S. Burroughs who was playing with autobiography via the collage/cut-up method—I mean we can go down the list of the people who have done these kinds of experiments but at the time I felt how urgent that work was. Acker’s work often is saying, “I have to tell this story, it might be outrageous, and part of it is very real and part of it is not very real,” you know? I didn’t know anything about her personal life, but I just found so many of those books of hers galvanizing. In a very different way, there’s also Ntozake Shange—I’m thinking of her novel Liliane, for example. Or, for example, those beautiful, strange, experimental stories by Gayl Jones in White Rat. Those are some of the works and writers that had such a profound effect on me and to this day I always wonder why aren’t these people more highly honored. This stuff is really groundbreaking. But what can you do, right? What can you do?
Renard Allen: There’s a writer named Xam Wilson Cartier—
Keene: Oh yeah!
Renard Allen: And she did kind of extended jazz riffs in her books. Let’s move on to Counternarratives. I have some larger questions about the book but I wanted to just ask you about the opening story “Mannahatta,” about what you’re getting at in the story. Here on what essentially becomes Manhattan, you have this young black man from a ship exploring: “Jan knew for his own sake, his survival, he must remember it, enter it.”—he’s talking about this portal he sees in the bush—“He had already begun to answer to the wind, the streams, the bluffs. As he now sat in the grass, observing the light playing through the canopies, the shadows sliding across themselves along the sedge in distinct shades, all still darker than his own dark hands, cheeks, a mantis drudging along the half-bridge of a gerardia stalk, he could see another window inside that earlier one, beckoning. He would study it as he had been studying each tree, each bush, each bank of flowers here and wherever on this island he had set foot. He would understand that window, climb through it.”—which essentially he does. He leaves the ship—as I understand the story, he later escapes from the ship. But it seemed to me in some way this is a passage about the writer, about seeing in the world and finding a portal into it as a type of escape. And particularly in terms of people of color who are trying to escape oppression—I just thought I’d throw that out there and see if I’m off base in terms of what you were thinking about with the story.
Keene: I think you’re right on target, I mean that’s a beautiful reading. My friend J. Eric Hamel basically said he thought of all these stories as about artists. Some of them are actually about artists as we understand it, practicing artists. But many of them are artists of life. I was thinking of another kind of creativity, a deeper vision, a sensitivity to the world. How am I going to be free? And how can art make that possible? I’m not suggesting viewing art solely as instrumental but also I don’t want to negate the power of artistry in the broadest sense of that term. So you’re really onto something in the sense that Juan Rodríguez/Rodrigues is a proto-revolutionary. He is a settler but he’s not a colonialist. His idea, in short, is, I am going to live among the First Nations people but I’m not going to dominate them. I’m going to learn their language. I’m going to become—to the extent that they allow me—part of what their society. And I’m going to make a conscious break with the colonialists on whose ship I have been sailing. Who have my people in bondage in other parts of the world, including what will soon become New York. I’m going to find a new way to live, which is in a sense what art can do. And so I think you really on to something very powerful there, that capacity of being able to see beyond the surface of things into something deeper. The portal within the portal or beyond the portal. It’s something that I was trying to get at while also telling a historical story that sadly is too little known. What happens if we reorient our understanding of the origins of this country away from the fixation on the Founding Fathers to a different history of encounter and how the country—what’s now the United States—comes into being?
Renard Allen: So we have this character penetrating the new land, which suggests, for me, this idea of an artist seeking out a new vision of the world, new ways of thinking about the world. Thinking further, it functions as a metaphor for how the book works, in that there’s a kind of initial story to the book, particularly in the first section. There’s a kind of narrative distance that closes and gets closer to the main character in the stories as we go deeper into the stories. There’s a lot in the book about vision and the way the artist sees and all these kinds of things—so it seems to me, just wondering if maybe you have some thoughts about that. You know, I often think, again, in the best novels, in the works of best fiction, there’s often an early moment in the book that kind of defines how you read the book. So I was wondering if any of those thoughts were in your own mind as you were creating this set of stories.
Keene: That’s an excellent question and point that you’ve raised. I’m thinking of “art” in the very old sense of the term as a kind of practice or a fact that’s established through skill or knowledge. As in art of medicine or the concept of a “term of art.” The artist possesses powerful ways of seeing, thinking, reading, and creating that produce forms of knowledge distinct from other kinds of knowledge. This also suggests the idea of how texts themselves think and theorize. I’ve long been fascinated by this. A few years ago, after a reading at Princeton, I met these amazing doctoral students in English and African American studies, and we had what I found to be an invigorating conversation about texts’ thinking and theorizing. How do they do this? How do they help us as readers and writers do this? I mention all of this in relation to “Mannahatta” in order to suggest that, in that early story—as I think you have beautifully discerned—is there is a way into knowledge, for which the story itself is a key. The idea of the key as metaphor for unlocking something hidden, because if you only look at the surface of things, you kind of miss what’s really there. But it is also a way of thinking about black—in particular—creative practice, black art, which always functions, and has to function, on these multiple, including subterranean registers. I say this positively as opposed to stressing that this might be a burden, and to argue that there is a complexity there that I wanted to foreground, with this counter-originary figure being the metonym for this New World self-fashioning and artmaking coming into being. The story itself opens in a way that foregrounds this. I think of its opening sentences, which, if you read them aloud, sound like poetry but also proceed like building blocks, towards something larger. They’re language in its most elemental form, very rhythmic, but also consonant, simple but also complex; and these building blocks for the story also mirror the story as a building block for the collection and the collection as a kind of map or guide for our society and larger hemispheric and global history. So many of the things that appear in the book set centuries ago are still with us. As I’ve said before in interviews, black life, the policing of black bodies, the ways that we negotiate black social death, etc.—black personhood.
Renard Allen: Another thing I was thinking in terms of this question of scene and perspective. As I was reading the second and third and fourth stories, I had this sort of strange effect. They’re all, of course, set in the historical past, beginning as early as the sixteenth century. “On Brazil,” “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” and “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” all of those stories in some ways seem to me to mimic the traditional historical chronicle where there is a person who is essentially doing a type of, I guess in some ways what we today would call, a bit of a reportage. Let me start with that question and I’ll come to the other one. Just about a sort of chronicle that maintains a sort of distance from the story at hand. Unlike, let’s say what we traditionally think of as fiction, in John Gardner’s idea of fiction as a dream, if that makes sense.
Keene: These stories each partially entail my playing with various historical and historiographical forms. I went all the way back to chronicles and early accounts of encounter between Africans and Europeans, and between Indigenous people and the Europeans. But part of my aim was also to think about standard historical accounts. I was thinking about history written before our current moment, which often has this very strong bias. I was also thinking about the voice and tone of authority in older historical accounts. How do you, on the one hand, present that authority, but, on the other hand, find ways to show it deconstructing itself? I’m a product of that era of post-structuralism and post-modernism in the university—
Renard Allen: As am I, a product of that era.
Keene: Exactly. Like deconstruction. Or in addition to post-structuralism, structuralism itself, considering superstructures and how they create and produce meaning. I was also thinking about the New Historicism in relation to fiction—how do you get a richer, fuller and more complex picture of a society but through the presentation of what appears to be fiction or nonfiction that destabilizes certainties, because I was very interested in the idea of the text being unstable, of challenging the historical voice being univocal. The first story in the collection, which I wrote at the tail end of my time in graduate school, was “An Outtake,” for a workshop led by E. L. Doctorow. The title specifically refers to the famous study by Bernard Bailyn about the American Revolution. I was fascinated, as I think I’ve said in other interviews, when I read Lorenzo Johnston Greene’s The Negro in Colonial New England and similar books by others about blacks in the North. So it was slavery in the North, or rather enslaved and free blacks in the North, that I wanted to write about, as well as the erasure of these narratives, and how that erasure factored into the stories this country tells itself. We see this even in Hamilton. One of my colleagues at Rutgers-Newark, Lyra Monteiro, wrote an American Book Award-winning essay, about this, the “Founders Chic,” and how Hamilton, which as a musical theater event I admit I enjoyed, extols these slaveowners, and so on. Ishmael Reed’s been writing about this—
Renard Allen: Right, Ishmael Reed has had much to say about Hamilton. [Laughter.] How Alexander Hamilton was a racist and slave owner.
Keene: Yes. This Founders Chic valorizes these figures, many of whom were slave owners and white supremacists, etcetera. If we just sort of step back and think about how, at the moment that this country is coming into being, moving from a colonial to a post-colonial state, from essentially British colonies to an independent country, it is also a place where slavery is fundamental to how the country operates. The 1619 Project offered an important intervention in this regard, as have many historians over the years. But I wanted to think creatively about Bailyn’s argument in his monograph and find another means of engaging in critique, using fiction to do that. I think of these stories in certain ways as Brechtian, defamiliarizing aspects of the texts that also at the same time don’t let you become too comfortable in your immersion in them. They are trying to wake the reader up. I feel like it does still happen, but I think we really have moved into a moment where some of those effective techniques of the past, from Modernism and post-modernism, have fallen by the wayside. Certainly everything has been assimilated, yet certain approaches have been tossed out so we can slumber in that Gardnerian dreamworld. Sometimes we need to be shaken awake.
Renard Allen: Well, you were mentioning Brecht and I think here is this distanciation—a term that Brecht uses—to pick up; so these stories are immersing us in this historical past but at the same time there seems to be this awareness that the stories are speaking to their own moment. And one of the problems with historical fiction, at least for me sometimes, is the fact that there is a lot of emphasis on the detail and the sense of that moment—as if that moment has nothing to do with the present moment. Whereas in Counternarratives, there is a kind of double effect. And you know again, this sort of idea that we often start at this remove from the characters and then we start to zoom in. Then, also the question of the historical present informing our looking. I thought about this, that it reminded me most of—I had to look this up, they call it the “dolly zoom.”
Keene: Oh yeah, yeah.
Renard Allen: It’s the thing that Hitchcock developed in—what was the movie?—in Vertigo, you see it in everything now. I guess the camera is moving forward and you begin to see the background shrink, and then it has this effect that somehow you’re in a moment that’s both moving and still at the same time—if that makes any sense. And interestingly enough, as I was reading on, I came across this passage in the book which actually describes that effect. This is on 154 where it says—this is in the story, about the woman who becomes the saint, I believe: “Lamp and candlelight from the room seared through the dark. It was as if I were painting and in the painting at the same time, as if the inside and outside were fusing into one rich, polysensory perspective, and I almost had to stop for a second to steady myself.” So she, in this act of painting and seeing, she actually experiences vertigo. Which strikes me as the effect that I often felt as a reader in some of the early stories of the book.
Keene: It’s fascinating to hear you say that. I was thinking about some of my models, which I cite directly and indirectly here. There’s Beloved; I love the way that Morrison plays with the historical account, rewrites and reshapes in terms of time, mode, perspective, and voice with her representation of Margaret Garner. There’s Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which was very important to me, because on one level it’s so jokey, so outrageous, but on another level what he’s saying is not totally implausible. It fuses real history with all kinds of arcana, lore, myth, you name it, and blurs genres and modes. Another book that is so important to me, which I have taught a number of times to my students, is Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá’s—the great Puerto Rican writer—The Renunciation, about an enslaved man and rebel, Baltasar. These books, and so many others, offered ways to think about the multiplicity, including a doubledness, of experience. It’s interesting that you cite that particular story because there, the main character, Carmel, is overtly an artist in multiple ways—she’s an artist and she’s also a sorcerer. I suggest that she gets those skills from each side of her family, and they meld. But because she’s orphaned so young as a result of state violence, she has to teach herself even as she’s being mistaught in a European—and not even a fully formal one in her case, but a secondhand or bootleg one—education system. It’s a religious, social, and political educational system that excludes her, so she has to teach herself. That moment where you mention is a very strange one in the story, a kind of mise-en-abyme. She is moving through this convent and no one can see her. She is so hypervisible all the time, because she is so different, but she is also invisible. This moment is a way of thinking about the kind of vertigo of visibility, hypervisibility, particularly in her case as a young black woman, and invisibility, because even though she’s there, no one can see her or fully grasp what it is she is doing, including her mistress who realizes she no longer has any control or power over her at all. I wanted to narrativize that idea with as much complexity as possible so that you don’t lose any of the strangeness as you read and try to make sense of it.
Renard Allen: That’s also an interesting story about writing. While even as much as it is a historical chronicle, there are these breaks in the story where other things happen. In fact, that’s the story where we get closest to the character, there are sections that are told in third person limited, with her as the point of view character so we really get to be inside her head, then there are sections that are narrated in first person, including this really one remarkable section where she is—essentially a kind of stream of consciousness—where she is speaking in several different languages.
Keene: Yes. Part of what I was trying to do with this story was to figure out how to chart the shift from voicelessness to voice. From objecthood—as Ronaldo Wilson explores in his marvelous book of poetry, Poems of the Black Object—which is how the society sees her and us—I think about how Kenosha, Wisconsin cops recently shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. I wanted to figure out a way to depict—with subtlety and complexity—this shift from objecthood to subjectivity, and from voicelessness to the voice controlling the narrative. What shifts when that happens for the reader? What happens when we go from a story in which we are so distanced from this character and she is viewed almost as a kind of minor character, a footnote to history in a literal sense in terms of the story’s form, to becoming the story itself? The story ultimately is both Carmel’s story and a story about an entire society, an entire world, and an entire system that we’re still living in. The after-effects of settler and extractive colonialism, and racial capitalism, are the foundation of this society. Slavery and segregation are integral parts of the racial capitalist system. Let me add that I wanted to imagine what a pidgin language would look like here, how could I show her transformation, not only from narration in the vocal sense, but in the written sense. Carmel is combining all the languages at her disposal—French, Latin, Kreyòl, and of course English, because her mistress is also American—
Renard Allen: I think it’s important to mention of course that she’s mute; she doesn’t speak, and she’s also a polymath in a certain way—self-taught, she’d learned to read, by picking up these certain languages.
Keene: Exactly. You’re right she’s believed to be mute. We never know. She receives various questions about why she seemingly cannot speak. Was a spell cast on her? Was her tongue cut out? Who would have done that, etc.? But what I want to suggest is that within and beyond that muteness, that silence, that quiet, is this very powerful voice. Carmel is wielding all of the tools at hand—her visual art skills, her skills as a sorcerer, a conjurer, and her ability to write. What does it mean to be able to write? What a powerful tool and weapon writing is. We think about the violence of law as written and recorded speech, oaths, testimonies, a body of texts enforced by custom and the state. We can see the violence of things now written on social media, which reminds us of all of the traumas that are created through and by language, especially written language. I wanted to explore all of that but also to show Carmel’s negotiation of it, her formation and habitus, in a sense metonymically, to think about how this occurs for all black writers, and to extend that, all BIPOC writers and artists. Women, LGBTQ people, and people in general. But especially black people, and it in this light that it was very important for the character to be a black woman.
Renard Allen: It also seems to me that—I mean you did say previously that all the stories are about writers in one way or another and I think that this is a story that meditates in some ways on what writing is, which is to say it’s a meditation on form. And so her form of writing consists of not just the literal writing of letters and words, but also she draws, she sketches, she paints, she works in charcoal, and that seems to be an extension of her language.
Keene: They’re all in a sense about artists. The story is predictive, too. She’s writing for her own survival and pleasure, but at first, it’s a tool and power she cannot fully harness. She possesses it but she doesn’t fully control it. By the end, she understands it and is able to control and wield it as one of many forms not only of self-protection, but in order to imagine a different world. What happens when the world that you are in literally blows up, or you blow it up? How are you going to survive? I mean, I think about how when the year the book was first published, in 2015, it was one hundred fifty years after the official end of the U. S. Civil War, and one of the questions I ask myself all the time—and I was saying this to you once when we were talking about Jean Baptiste Point du Sable—is how did people live in the past, particularly black people? Thinking about 1865 and after, what happens when the world around you is shattered, and you now have to create a new life but every impediment is placed in your way? Every possible limit and impediment that is legally and illegally possible is facing you, so how do you go forward? We have accounts which are forms of counternarratives, you know, the narratives of formerly enslaved people right up to the Civil War and then well into the 20th Century. I’m always fascinated by those, however mediated they are. They often bring me back to the fundamental questions: how did black people live, how did they survive, how did they thrive? To able to tell these stories felt like a very powerful and political act.
Renard Allen: I think also there’s something to be said about the situation of the black writer, specifically the black fiction writer or poet, who’s trying to go back and write about the historical past, write about something informed by history. Like in some of my own work in this area, one of the things I find—and I’d be curious to know what you think about this—Let’s say you wanted to write about New York City in the 19th Century, it’s really hard to know what average black New Yorkers talked like. Because in terms of the narratives we have, the slave narratives and other kinds of things, were written with this sort of distorted sense of, like, I have to show how intelligent I am to impress the white reader with my intelligence. So you know the slave narratives are in a way kind of stylized. They don’t really necessarily capture how people spoke or chronicle, let’s say, a black life in various cities in the 19th Century. And then of course really there wasn’t that much fiction being created by black people at that time. So how do you write dialogue for the historical past when really there’s no existing record, if that makes any sense?
Keene: That’s a great question. Part of it involves reverse imaginative engineering. You think about figures who were writing for and trying to reach the widest possible audience and make a particular impression, like Frederick Douglass. You think about the narratives of enslaved people which were written down by white people. I was really impressed with Honorée Jeffers’s recent book of poetry, The Age of Phillis, which reminded me of my initial encounter with the letters of Phillis Wheatley to her friend Obour and others. They show an intimacy and unguardedness, yet on the other hand, Wheatley is a gifted writer. The helped me answer the question of how working backwards, you might imagine how people spoke. We do have the accounts by white chroniclers of black speech and so often it’s distorted and it’s meant to kind of mock black speech and life. But even from that you can work with a creative and critical distortion filter, if you will, and reverse engineer, and perhaps devise something that is, if not exactly how people spoke, probably closer than what we might imagine. I’m intrigued by the experience of reading fiction and nonfiction works from the past and coming across how people spoke, and seeing the emotions that come through the speech, how present they feel. I don’t want to engage in presentism and say that our understanding of the world, particularly in terms of contemporary psychology, could be easily imposed on the past—but, for example, reading newspapers from the early and late 19th Century—I find these gossip section accounts of events that were happening in Washington, salacious things, and the accounts are anonymous so people could not be easily discovered, but some feel so current and I find myself shocked. A historian might not but I was surprised. In one of the Boston newspapers, I found a contemporary account of Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Haiti telling the French white people in Haiti that if they didn’t stop what they were up to, he would take brutal and swift action against them. Anyone reading this Boston newspaper would have seen his proclamation so I tried to imagine how my characters in a project I’m working on would respond to reading or hearing about this, and how they might talk about it. John Blassingame notes how knowledge of the Haitian Revolution travelled all over the Americas despite there being no telephones, no TVs, no Internet, but people would learn about these things actually more quickly than we think by talking about and sharing them orally. Even before Lincoln was elected, some enslaved people in the South were readying themselves, saying, I’m not going to be a slave any more when Lincoln is elected—they knew! There was an oral grapevine of people coming and going and this circulation of knowledge. It also fascinates me how resistance itself travels through these networks and circulates. That doesn’t address your question of imagining past speech per se; it’s always going to be imperfect is what I’d say.
Renard Allen: Yeah, I agree. Let’s go back to the question of history. Well, it’s a really relevant question—well, it’s always been relevant—given the conversations that we’re having around Confederate flags. I saw the news and there was some guy, just some average guy, I don’t know where he was, South Carolina somewhere, who was saying how the Confederacy had nothing to do with slavery and how the Civil War had nothing to do with slaves, and so on. So you know this kind of absence of history that we live in in America, any kind of understanding of it, and I just wondered about that. You know as Faulkner says, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” And it seemed to me like, particularly in the way that some of the stories focus on rebels, well in a way many of the stories in Counternarratives focus on rebels, it seems to me that one of the things you’re trying to do is show this continuity of how the past isn’t past, and how it lives in the present in terms of both the resistance but also in terms of the legacies of oppression, these things that continue with us.
Keene: Well, exactly. One of the things I would say that I tried to suggest in this collection was that not every person is heroic, that they’re not—we’re not—all carbon copies of each other, even during moments of tremendous crisis, when resistance and activism might be necessary. In the story “Cold,” about Bob Cole, whom my friend the scholar Dorothy Wang brought to my attention when she found the sheet music in Baylor University’s online archives for a musical piece that would be considered extremely offensive now, you have a brilliant black composer and performer who made what we would consider today very problematic artistic choices and accommodations to have a successful career. As all African-American blackface minstrel performers did. Caryl Phillips has also written about this phenomenon with Bert Williams, as have others, and I also think about Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which brought this critique and concept into the 21st century. You turn on TV and you see accounts of blackface representations and various forms of minstrelsy today. Bob Cole, on the one hand, could be viewed as someone who contributed to negative stereotypes and a collaborator, and yet, on the other hand, he did decide at a certain point, with J. Rosamond Johnson, that he wanted to write pieces that celebrated black people. I could be wrong here, but I don’t think they were as successful as the minstrel pieces. What happens when you, at a certain point, take stock of your life and you realize that you have, intentionally or inadvertently contributed to the oppression of your people? The half-life of blackface minstrelsy, as Eric Lott and others have pointed out, is ongoing, so there’s a reason why that kind of minstrel substrate is still with us. With Cole, I imagined that he’s suffering a breakdown because music, in which he was genius, was no longer a space of play and salvation for him, but also, he’s coming to terms with his actions, who he is, and he’s become almost paranoid. I recalled the tradition of paranoid types in black fiction and in the larger society. My character Cole starts to wonder, are black people all critiquing and criticizing me, are they all blaming me for being part of this system, even though the black people around him are seemingly treating him with respect, care, and concern. Nevertheless, this sense of having done something irrevocable is closing in on him, the music won’t cease churning in his head, and he has his breakdown. Yet I also think of this in terms of resistance. I’m not the first person to argue this but some of what we think of as misbehavior, bad behavior, rule breaking, breakdowns, etc., might be forms of resistance and rebellion. For enslaved people, you know, burning down buildings or poisoning their masters were extraordinary steps, and some took them, but fleeing, or stopping or slowing down work, going on what were essentially strikes and slowdowns, or doing less or problematic jobs, were practical ways of pushing back in the face of overwhelming brutality, cruelty, and dehumanization. Often this was turned outward, but sometimes it turned inward. Can a psychic collapse be a rebellion? Additionally, I didn’t want everyone to be a heroine. I mean, we have this fixation in this society today about superheroes and I think, what is a superhero? What and who is a hero or a heroine? What does this say about our society—furthered by Hollywood films and TV movies—that we invent these supernatural cartoon creatures with these superpowers, and so often they’re white people, yet we are not really looking at the multiple kinds of heroism happening all around us. What might be cloaked or hidden. What does it mean to say, I’m not going to put up with this BS, especially when you have no real power at all, but you’re going to use the non-power that you have as a form of pushing back against brutality and dehumanization—not just in a personal sense, a neoliberal sense, but in the sense where your actions ripple out across your community and the larger society. Think of all the unnamed and undersung activists out there. With figures more in the public eye, I think of Stacey Abrams, or Colin Kaepernick, but there are many whom we’ll never know much about unless we search.
Renard Allen: I was just thinking again about these figures of resistance. You know one of my heroes, for lack of a better term, is Mohammad Ali and there were real consequences for his stance fifty years ago on the war. But going back to Cole, one of the things I was thinking about in that story is it’s certainly a story about mental illness and a breakdown, but he is definitely plagued by guilt. His participation in the whole minstrelsy tradition and having profited from that, and where to go from that. I kept thinking that one way to think about this story is that all of this is the result of the overwhelming guilt about that part of his life that he can’t let go.
Keene: Right—the balance, the homeostasis, the negative capability all fail. He can’t hold those opposing things in his head: I’ve become successful but the sources of this success have brought me guilt and shame as well, so the balance is thrown off and now of course that leads to the breakdown.
Renard Allen: And the form of the story is interesting in the sense that the way you describe his mental agony, basically he’s hearing music continually, I think in fact he even says at one point, “as if I have a piano playing in my head and its stuck and then the keys of the piano are knocking against my forehead” or something like that, some really terrific image. I wondered in that story, so there’s that—essentially music is kind of a drone, mental illness is described as a drone, this constant sound that you can’t stop hearing. And I’m wondering in that story how your use of the second text is working. I believe it’s lyrics from “The 400.”
Renard Allen: So what’s happening with the lyrics from “The 400,” then in service as a side text.
Keene: Well, when I was originally drafting this story, one of the things I was thinking about was even putting snippets of that musical score in the text. As it turns out you can only do so much of it because the score might be under copyright. When it comes to text, with fair use rules, you can be more playful. But I also was thinking about how in formal and structural ways, what happens when you as the reader are visually forced to make sense of, to read, those competing texts? In the case of another of the stories, “Persons and Places”—
Renard Allen: Du Bois and Santayana—
Keene: Exactly, the glimpse of Du Bois and Santayana—the visual parallel of the columns aims to suggest the movement—on the one hand, in parallel and in concert, and, on the other hand, with some antagonism, with difference, with distance—between these two figures, on the street in Cambridge, but also psychically, intellectually, right? They never fully reach or connect with each other—in the story. It happens off screen, in real life, but it doesn’t happen in the story. So with “Cold,” those snippets of competing texts are like the sounds and bars of music that keep droning in his head, that keep popping up like a demonic player piano or something, that he can’t turn off. For the reader, mirroring Cole’s experience, they keep extruding themselves into the text. They almost force you to stop the main text—Cole’s life and story—if you’re paying attention to them, and reorient how you read the story, so you devise a way of thinking about the impossibility of reading what can’t be read in a normal sense. Does that make sense?
Renard Allen: Yeah, it does, yeah. To make us think, to make us read differently I suppose.
Keene: Right, right.
Renard Allen: Going back to this question of how the past is not dead and also how the acts of resistance contain the present, “On Brazil”—which chronicles this Brazilian family who were slave owners and so on, and essentially killed this one rebellious slave—ends with this favela in Sao Paulo being made after this Quilombo, Quilombo Cesarão, I would guess. Is that how you—
Keene: Cesarão, yeah exactly.
Renard Allen: Quilombo Cesarão, right, Quilombo being of course a place where basically escaped slaves, established by escaped slaves, and the favela of course a slum, and how the favela bears the name of the territory that is named after the rebellious slave. So was that a way of showing the continuation of this idea of oppression and resistance in a place like Brazil?
Keene: Exactly. I was thinking of that continuity, of the cyclicity of history—that history is not linear, and might be more cyclical and rhizomatic—but I also wanted to suggest that the specificities of Brazil inform that story but also to suggest connections to the United States and what our ancestors experienced. There’s continuity here too, even when it is rendered invisible. Sometimes it’s been erased, because as in “On Brazil,” people are forcibly driven out or massacred. It’s interesting to think about the TV show Lovecraft Country and how it is depicting sundown towns, which is probably something many people didn’t know about. You might ask the question, why aren’t there any black people in city or town X, and then you look at history and realize, there were black people there, but they were violently driven out, and this violence, juridical, psychic, physical, etc., carries into the present. There’s a long history of this. Black non-native Bostonians were driven out of that city in the 1790s, I believe. And so on.
Renard Allen: I will just interject that a lot of people don’t know that the civil war draft riots in New York are the worst race riots in American history, that all the black peoples were driven out of Manhattan into Brooklyn.
Keene: Exactly. What’s interesting for me to think about is how power and economic, political and social control are passed on from generation to generation. So on the one hand, this white European Brazilian family that I write about arrive at a particular moment and are able to consolidate power through various means. Being clients and servants of people in power, but not servants as in being enslaved, marrying well, seizing land from the Indigenous people, allying with the church, allows them to consolidate wealth and power. That does not diminish generationally. In fact, it accrues to the point where at the end of the story the family is still extremely wealthy and powerful. But the karmic irony is that one of the heirs experiences an almost mirror inverse of the violence they’ve wrought in the past, that past violence that carries well into the current moment. This goes back to the point you were making earlier about the Civil War, and particularly people saying that it wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights, that sort of thing. We are still living in the aftermath and with the aftereffects of the chattel slave system. You would not have the kind of society we have today had that system not existed in the United States. It would be a different country. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a racist or a white supremacist country, but that system of domination and oppression is in the country’s DNA. It’s there from the very beginning. The same is true, in different ways, for Brazil, and so many societies across this hemisphere and the globe, where colonialism and imperialism existed. So “On Brazil” attempts to portray that with cosmic irony and humor in it, because who gets the last word? It is Cesarão. The person whose only desire was to be free and to free his people.
Renard Allen: I thought that was interesting, too, because I’ve only been to Brazil once, back in ’93. The thing I remember is how black people there would say that racism was as bad here as it was in South Africa. Say, “We have apartheid here, too, but no one talks about it.” I remember just like, when you were in Rio, when you went to a bank you wouldn’t see any black people working there except sweeping the floor. Black people performed all the menial jobs. And the other odd thing about it is that Brazil is the country that has the most black people in the world outside of Nigeria, but there has been this invisibility around race, strangely enough. You know the music and everything else is in some ways kind of disconnected from race, and there was the situation with Miss Brazil a few years ago, if you remember, the woman who won because she was dark-skinned; they took the award from her and all these kinds of things. I thought it was an interesting way of just kind of thinking about how race plays in Brazil in terms of this effort to erase blackness, if that makes any sense.
Keene: Yes. Brazil imported and enslaved far more Africans than the United States did. More black people were forcibly brought to Brazil, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean than came to the U. S. I was thinking about, on the one hand, the specificities of Brazil but also the parallels to the United States because they exist and are profound, despite the differences. With these two of major slave societies in the Americas, two of the most long lasting, the U. S. had a violent war that ended chattel slavery, in name at least, in 1865, yet Brazil didn’t end slavery until 1888, without a war, but via the Lei Áurea, the Golden Law, whereby the Imperial princess—Brazil had an emperor—proclaimed the end of slavery, since her father was overseas. What does it mean to be and maintain chattel slave societies so deep into the 19th Century? What were the parallels then? They explain some of the parallels that exist between Brazil and the United States today.
Renard Allen: I wanted to ask you about the narrator or the narrators in some of the early stories in the first section of Counternarratives. Or, you know, who is narrating, how does the narration work. Because, for example in “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” you insert a quote from Audre Lorde. Obviously, the chronicler could not have known about Audre Lorde. And then in “Gloss, Or the Strange History of Our Lady of The Sorrows,” you quote Frantz Fanon, so again another anachronism essentially from the 20th century being asserted into this historical past from the previous century. So I was wondering about how that’s operating, these moments that come from somebody who couldn’t be—well, it comes from some other than the narrator of the past.
Keene: That’s a great question. Earlier, I was talking about defamiliarizing techniques and my desire to, on the one hand, lull you into the story through the power of narration, through all of the tools that we have as fiction writers, but also, at certain other points, to jar you, to remind you that you can of course enjoy this narrative, but at the same time I want to spur a kind of counter-enlightenment, to use Alexander Kluge’s and Oskar Negt’s formulation. To enchant and disenchant. So for example with the story “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” one of the key aspects of that quote appearing is that I wanted to let Lorde speak twice. It wasn’t enough to just quote her between the sections; I wanted the character, a queer prophet and conjurer, to be aware that a visionary of another kind was coming, this very powerful critic and theorist and figure, poet, nonfiction writer. That character, as I state, is what’s called a jinbada or a person who occupies both genders as a kind of seer, and as such, Burunbana is actually able to see into the future and that is how they are able to cite Lorde. It is kind of jarring. But what I’m trying to suggest is that it’s fundamental to understanding what kinds of acts of resistance Burunbana is engaging in to understand that it is very much of its time, and connects with someone who is to appear well into the future, who again offers us a guide for how to live and be, and think and dream, and act.
Renard Allen: The Audre Lorde quote is taken from one of her most famous poems. The lines are: “it’s better to speak. Remembering. We were never meant to survive.”
Keene: “Never meant to survive,” exactly. That is at the core of every one of these stories: how do we who were never meant to survive, not just do that, but live and thrive? And we must tell our stories, which explore the question of how we function, how we make new worlds that we and others can live in, in conversation with others, without domination and oppression, where we’re not replicating the very structures and systems that oppress us. So that was something I was trying to think about through, while also trying to imagine what that world would be like. And, as with “Gloss,” i.e., “Our Lady of the Sorrows,” I wanted to explore the representation of magic, of magic as knowledge. Let me just say this about the Fanon quote. What do we think of in terms of this question of authority? In that section on duty, I was thinking about potential definitions. There are a number of poets who have done amazing things with encyclopedia or dictionary definitions, like A. Van Jordan with MACNOLIA, to name but one. Here what kind of definition undercuts Chaucer and Tyndale’s Bible? What might refine this idea of duty? For me, thinking about a voice from the future that would speak to and be in conversation with a character like Carmel, Fanon becomes a central figure, so that’s why that quote appears. But again, there’s this essential question of whom do we cite, whom do we turn to, who provides the kind of foundation and basis for our knowledge, and what happens when that is shifted from Europe to these other ways of thinking, seeing, and being.
Renard Allen: It’s interesting also in the story “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” that the main black character in the story, Zion, if I’m remembering correctly, story finds—
Keene: Yes. I think it’s Burunbana. João Baptista Burunbana.
Renard Allen: That’s right. What’s interesting is that he essentially befriends a man who is Jewish and who has had to hide his Jewish faith and the two of them leave this place together to make a new life; they essentially escape and go to make a new life. And you’re drawing the parallels between the two groups of oppressed people; that was interesting.
Keene: I was fascinated by that. What happens there is we learn that Burunbana stays in the Quilombo, while D’Azevedo, the converso who’s had to hide his Jewish faith, is able to head to what becomes New York. So in a sense this ties this story to the opening one, “Mannahatta.” What comes to mind are these connections and what kinds of knowledge are hidden. There’s a quote at the beginning of that story where the great art historian Aby Warburg says, “What is the nature of the recurring irrationality of culture which precludes a victory of modernizing rationality?” This question about rationality and the irrationality of culture is fundamental, and I was also thinking about his study of iconography, his system of tracking out images that recur throughout history, and how we often don’t see how they’re resonating across time, across space, across cultures, and how they’re inflected by each moment they appear. So, to return to an earlier point, I was interested in the concept of cyclicity but also thinking about oppression with complexity. D’Azevedo is a figure in and of power but, on the other hand, he has to keep this other very powerful system of faith and knowledge completely secret for obvious reasons.
Renard Allen: You were saying a moment ago something about spirituality, and I thought—I’m going to come back to this again—but I thought in the story “Gloss, Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” there’s this passage on 146 where Carmel is talking about her drawing and she says, “it struck me that spells and the drawings themselves might be a language.” So this goes to the question of iconography that you were just mentioning with the art critic Warburg—“it struck me that the spells and drawings themselves might be a language.”
Keene: Right, so the question is: what is a language, what constitutes a language, and how do we communicate? One of the things that occurs in a number of stories is the relationship between knowledge and queerness. So for example with Burunbana, he’s the one who is able to unlock these doors; no one else can. And this is true for Carmel in a different kind of way. Carmel falls in love when she is in the convent and the young woman that she falls in love with is sold away. This spurs a response, though it’s easy to miss this. So I wanted to think about this question of the spirit and the relationship—because there is a long tradition in indigenous cultures and African cultures—between queerness and the access to the spiritual. But without thinking about language as we usually understand it, how does this knowledge that is constructed that people come to understand itself as a kind of language that need not be spoken, but that is understood and communicated and passed on? And from a personal standpoint, what does it mean to be a fiction writer trying to represent what is in certain ways ineffable, illegible, trying to make it legible and understandable, to communicate hidden forms of knowledge, feeling, experience, all of these things.
Renard Allen: And I might say that, thinking again about language, that in “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of American Revolution,” the rebellious Zion’s language is music.
Keene: Right. He isn’t taught to read, and cannot read or write well, if at all. Music is the first language that he learns from his mother, one of the first that he learns from his caretakers who are of African descent, and it also is also a kind of vessel and vehicle to access the spiritual. This links to a long tradition of the links between music and the spirit, particularly in black culture. Music contains tremendous power, and in that story, his singing, which brings him pleasure and solace and creates in his space of freedom, is frequently viewed as offensive to the society. So he’s constantly punished for that.
Renard Allen: I couldn’t help but think of the Lauryn Hill song “To Zion”—I wonder if you had that in mind. [Laughs.]
Keene: [Laughs.] Actually, no one has pointed that out! You’re the first person to point that out, so that’s brilliant.
Renard Allen: Also, the whole tradition of Bob Marley and the Rastas. But I want to go back to something you said earlier about the idea of queering and queering a text. In previous interviews, you talked about this matter and I’d like to hear you say more about how that works in this book.
Keene: Well, part of it entailed trying to think through the erasure of queerness and black queer people in the past. For a variety of reasons, respectability, the limits of the archive, homophobia and transphobia, etc., black queer/LGBTQ people often have been erased, even though it doesn’t require much imagination to surmise that black queer people were as integral to our being and survival as anyone. So this is part of what I was interested in, but I also wanted to do it in a way that was distinctive. There are openly queer figures in the book, but then I also queer relationships. What happens when you remap, reformulate things. The relationships among some of the cis-hetero characters are interesting. When I think about history, I wanted to think both on a very local level but also at a more hemispheric way about this relationship between history, spirituality, and queerness in this collection.
Renard Allen: You know, it’s interesting you say that about the erasure…there’s the one story that is about Mark Twain’s Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There was an essay by Leslie Fiedler called “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” that examines the phenomenon of latent homoeroticism in classic American novels. Do you know it?
Keene: Yes, uh huh!
Renard Allen: Right! So in your story I was kind of expecting for there to be a gay encounter between Jim and Huck but of course it has a much more violent direction. But going back to this idea of queering, there’s “Blues,” where Langston Hughes figures—in that story you imagine the queerness of Langston Hughes, which is something he never wrote about and which there’s been a lot of speculation about but…we don’t have texts, as it were.
Keene: Let me just say two things about what you just said. With Twain, I immediately think about Leslie Fiedler’s famous essay exploring the homoerotics of Huck and Jim’s relationship, but I was not interested in pursuing that. What I did, though, drawing upon The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was to bring Jim’s family more to the foreground, imagining the complexity of families in the past and today, which includes reevaluating lives and relationships in new ways. I’m thinking about the superb book Saidiya Hartman published in 2019, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, and how she thinks about the complexity of women’s lives, families, and sexualities, and ultimately how people make a way in the world. In this story, Jim’s own family and his relationships with women have that complexity, which is to say, I queer those. He’s not in a relationship with Huck; his relationship with the woman who marries him and waits for him when he goes off to fight in the Civil War is not the usual depiction that we see. In terms of Hughes, it’s interesting because he does, I believe—in some of the nonfiction—briefly reference same sex sexual encounters. I also decided to read carefully through his collected poems. He’s one of my favorite poets. You see all of these poems in which the beloved is genderless. Some of them are more overt than others. There is a queer record there. Even if you read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial biography, you pick up all these clues so that the truth is staring you in the face. I’ll add that the late scholar Thomas Wirth, who was close to Richard Bruce Nugent—one of the out queer figures of the Harlem Renaissance—told me point-blank that Langston Hughes was gay, and said he was told this by his assistant, etc., but more recent scholarship has identified men he had relationships with. These days we can say decisively that Countee Cullen was queer, Claude McKay was, Eric Walrond was; all of these important Harlem Renaissance figures were, and I’m leaving out people for whom this has long been known, like Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, etc. It shouldn’t be controversial but with Hughes it still is for some people. That was part of the motivation for writing that story, but I also wanted to imagine another perspective into Modernism, because Hughes is one of the paradigmatic American and African American Modernist poets; and Xavier Villaurrutia, is one of the great Mexican Modernists. I saw a connection in terms of each’s recognition of the other’s work. Villaurrutia dedicates a poem to Hughes, and it is one of his overtly queer and in interesting ways political lyrics. It deals with race, racism, and lynching, but has this overtly queer moment, so I wanted to think about what if their connection were not just through poetry but also a direct connection? I wanted to imagine a moment like that, within the framework of the global South; why hasn’t it happened more in fiction?
Renard Allen: I’m going to ask a few questions about the conception of the book and then I want to go a little more into some of the stories. You were saying earlier that you started writing those stories in grad school. I’m just curious about the process of the stories, the many years, and when you started to conceive of them as a book.
Keene: I actually had forgotten that I had the idea for the book years before. It’s actually in one of my notebooks; I wrote it down, Counternarratives—even using that word. But then in the course of life and writing forgot that. When I was at the very end of what was then an M.A. degree program but became in my final semester an M.F.A. program before I was set to start the Ph.D. program at NYU, I had E. L. Doctorow as my workshop professor and thesis adviser, and he was very encouraging about an early version of “An Outtake.” In essence, he told me to keep going. At that point, I aimed to write more stories in this vein but then I experienced a block because I was trying to force them. I spent a good portion in the late 1990s and early 2000s writing a lot of poetry. Then the brilliant writer Tisa Bryant, who’s a fellow Dark Room member and very good friend, let me know she was co-editing a journal, Encyclopedia, and invited me to submit a story. The way the submission worked is that you received two words. My two words were “Brazil” and “dénouement.” I wrote the story “On Brazil” as a result, and that was a powerful spark for the rest. I was able to write a number of stories in the year or couple of years after that. And then right around late 2004 to 2005, I suffered a severe computer crash and lost the drafts of those stories. I had not printed them out. I did have notes that I was able to use to reconstruct and rewrite them. Losing all these stories was devastating. So it ended up shutting me down for a while with fiction, and in the interim I worked on Seismosis with Chris Stackhouse, and wrote and published other things. I eventually had the motivation to return to Counternarratives because I was working on a big novel, and I developed the conviction that I could finish these stories. I got the job at Rutgers-Newark, started writing the rest of the stories, and the process continued right up through the publication of the book.
Renard Allen: Okay, great. What are counternarratives? [Laughs.] I think I know what they are but I’d be curious to hear you—you’ve certainly talked about it in interviews but can you maybe say something now about that?
Keene: Well, in the most basic sense I think of them as stories that challenge master narratives. The guiding social, political, economic, and cultural narratives that so much of how we view the world depends upon. That provide a foundation for how society itself operates. With the American Revolution we have been taught and have internalized a series of narratives about what it was, what it represents, why it happened, who participated, who didn’t participate, etc. And these narratives are deeply assimilated by everyone and they underpin the discourse for how we think about ourselves, how we perceive our daily social reality. So when you challenge these narratives—and counternarratives are not intrinsically good or positive, let’s be clear—there’s often pushback or you get ignored. But it’s important to present them because once certain kinds of discursive formations sediment, certain ideas and views take root and it is very, very hard to dislodge them. So for example, to go back to what you were saying about people claiming the Civil War was not being fought on behalf of slavery, it’s very clear from the statements of the President and the Vice-President of the Confederacy, and from statements by any number of the figures leading the various state governments that became Confederate states that maintaining chattel slavery and the domination and dehumanization of black people was central to their ethos. Overt white supremacy is written into what the Confederacy is! It’s in the U. S. Constitution, too, but it’s overt with the Confederacy. Yet, you can also think about the very powerful narrative of the Lost Cause and of fighting for states’ rights, and so on—even the concept of states’ rights has embedded in it the idea that one of the rights reserved to the states is to enslave black people—but the master narratives took hold, through intensive ideological efforts, and then were fostered and furthered by Hollywood, countless writers, U. S. popular culture, and so on. Think of Gone with the Wind, which is still a popular movie in this country and all over the globe! The myth of the happy enslaved person is a master narrative—but then all you have to do is look at the innumerable ads for escaped enslaved people, read enough of them, and you see there were quite a few people who detested the brutal system to the point that they were willing to risk everything to get the hell out of it. They underscore that this is a society whose stability is being maintained by violence, by force, by domination. It’s right there before our eyes but it might take a counternarrative to get more people to see it.
Renard Allen: I also am very interested in the question of political writing because I think particularly here in America we have a very limited view of what that means—a political novel or a political story or poem or whatever. Just to throw this out there I’m very interested in the connection between formal experimentation and the political…so I perceive certain books, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a very political novel that doesn’t use established forms, and W. G. Sebald’s work. What are your thoughts about how experimentation figures in terms politics and writing and particularly how does that figure in a book like Counternarratives?
Keene: That’s a great question, and I immediately thinking about you and your work. You’re an experimental writer in very compelling ways, both in fiction and poetry. The first thing I would say is that there’s an assumption—and part of it comes from the very nature of the terms avant-garde, innovative, experimental—that experimental writing is going to be politically progressive or on the Left. But the history of literature has shown us that there are extremely socially and politically conservative and reactionary writers who experiment in literature. Experimentation can be put to service in any way possible. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is—
Renard Allen: Futurism for example.
Keene: Exactly, futurism. D’Annunzio, as well as Céline, Pound, Stevens, Dos Passos, Wyndham Lewis, even Gertrude Stein, and so on in in terms of style and content. So that’s the first thing I want to say. The second thing is that at the same time, whatever the political orientation, aesthetic experimentation that pushes against what is considered normative and conventional is in a way foregrounding a critique by its very nature. That doesn’t mean that the critique is coherent or even has an immediate political orientation. But there is some reason why the writer is experimenting as opposed to falling in line, beyond individual aesthetic impulses, with whatever the current conventions are, because if you do follow the conventions, you are more likely to be rewarded by the publishing industry and readers. The third thing I would say is that I think all writing—and this is a truism and banality—as political. Whether you express a political position or not, your work is a political. Every artwork is an aesthetic artifact and, I think it was Adorno who noted this, a social fact. That combination suggests that just putting some creative artifact into the world is political. So you can think about political art in the traditional sense—something that overtly foregrounds politics—and then we can think about all art as political given its presence in the world and the various kinds of work it does. I think it does very important work in the world, which is why we have to defend it and continue to create it.
Renard Allen: Reading part two of Counternarratives, which is called “Encounter Narratives,” it occurred to me that all of the figures in the stories are in many ways types of travelers but they also are people who push beyond boundaries. These are people pushed beyond the boundaries and expectations for black people in the Americas in particular. Anyway, these are all different types of individuals—some of them based on real historical figures—but I think that they all push beyond the boundaries and expectations for black people and that pushing beyond boundaries comes with certain possibilities, but it comes also with certain dangers. Perhaps in many ways all of these figures in the second part of book are examples of avant-garde traditions. For example, in “The Aeronauts,” which is set in Philadelphia at the start of the Civil War, the main character is a waiter who works at this scientific club but he’s a kind of polymath, a self-taught teenager who has a really massive memory in the same way that you yourself have, in fact. [Laughs.] And so this is a guy who’s a scientist, but who isn’t allowed to be that because the society he lives in doesn’t allow that for black people. So he has to put up with all these expectations that he’s stupid and people think that his capacity to remember is some kind of negro trick or something. He sails off in this aerial balloon and, ironically, he ends up in Confederate territory at the end of the story. It’s the most conventional story in the book in the sense that it’s fairly linear, and you have some foreshadowing in the story: his father warns him not to stay with him, and his mother also makes similar comments that really point to how the story ends.
Keene: You got it. I wanted to write a story that was a very straightforward linear narrative. So that is what that is, with various moments of rising and falling action, etc. [Laughs.] Rising and falling in a story about hot air balloons, right? There are details that appear at the beginning and then recur later on. One thing I’d add, though, is that in a more conventional story, a writer might have begun when the balloon takes off over Confederate territory and give the entire story of what happens once the character, Theodore, is adrift over and perhaps lands in the Confederacy. I was interested, however—because this is the kind of question we don’t ask—in how this black teenager might even end up doing the kind of work that he’s doing, who he would have had to be to get himself down to the theater of war and put himself in extraordinary danger based in part on a vocation that he cannot fully understand, skills that he cannot fully articulate, but that are so evident that a trained scientist, progressive white liberal one is willing to hire him and has no problem doing so, but also has no real appreciation for the tremendous danger that the black person is in. The scientist absolutely depends upon Theodore to do these experiments, making him an integral cog in this larger wheel that is the U. S. Balloon Corps, which was a real entity in the Union Army. This very smart and in certain ways self-educated black teenager is both aware and unaware of the social, legal, and economic limits to what he can do. He has this vocation, this desire to be a scientist! And he has a love of flying, so he puts himself in this tremendous danger to be able to live out that dream. What does that look like? I love that you mentioned that story—it’s one of my favorite stories in the book and part of it is because, on the one hand, it is so straightforward and so simple in certain ways but in other ways there are elements of social comedy and critique, as well as aspects of black experience that we understand but that people who are not black might not fully get. For example, colorism, the complexities of class, etc.
Renard Allen: It strikes me that the story “The Aeronauts” serves as an interesting play on the flight trope in African American culture. Was that an intentional choice on your part?
Keene: Well, yes. When I was writing Counternarratives I was trying to think about it unfolding in a series of contiguous, parallel planes. So there was the historical plane, a folkloric and mythological plane, and then the plane of the each specific narrative itself, among others. I’m not going to say that each story has a mythos that governs it, but I in this and other stories (“Gloss,” “Acrobatique,” etc.) was really interested in the famous folktale about enslaved and escaped people who are able to fly back. In the story, there’s the trope of water but also that of air. They both appear in the story in the sense that you actually have the Delaware and Schuyllkill Rivers in Philadelphia, and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in D. C., and there’s figurative flight (the trip to D. C.) and literal flight (the balloon, which because of sabotage breaks free, though it isn’t exactly taking Theodore home). Theodore can see these demarcated territories of the North and the South, the Union and the Confederacy. I also wanted to see, how can I write a different kind of story, a story about institutions, the development of science, and racism? I feel like I talk about this book a lot and may have mentioned it already, but I also was inspired by Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy. It was like a counter-The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand, though I admire that book, too.
Renard Allen: No, you haven’t mentioned that.
Keene: That book opened up this marvelous trove for me, because it’s ostensibly about the history of American colleges and universities and their relationship with slavery, race “science,” and so on, but it also a very important intellectual history. And what it underscores is the relationship between all these fields of knowledge in the United States, and slavery, racism, white supremacy, the black body, black being and nonbeing. And so I wanted to write stories, including this one, that brought all of these threads together. The folkloric, the historical, the intellectual, the historical, the philosophical, are here in various ways, or so I hope. The protagonist is someone who, on the one hand, is a free person, legally at least, but, on the other hand, his freedom is precarious and is made even more so once he’s in the theater of war, and has no protection at all in certain sense. Then there is this idea of flight; it’s manufactured, using a hot air balloon, and underscores an important moment in aeronautical science. Thaddeus Lowe and some of the other aviators I mention were all real historical figures. This budding science, the Philadelphia Academy of Science, and other sciences, like medicine, biology, etc., are also all linked to the long and deep history of chattel enslavement, in both the North and South. I was trying to work through those threads and see what I might do with them. For me, one of the fascinating components in that story is, once again, the circularity of history and myth, but also the narrative circularity that mirrors both. On the one hand, Theodore is flying back home over the Confederate states, but, on the other hand, because he has really learned everything, because he’s been a scientist without portfolio or degree, he’ll be able to save himself.
Renard Allen: It’s interesting you say that, because I saw the ending as being kind of ironic, in that he was in danger. Yet you intended something different, obviously.
Keene: I do want you to feel that he’s in tremendous danger. Earlier on in the story, I mention—because this actually did happen, that Thaddeus Lowe, the lead aeronautical scientist, actually was in a hot air balloon in Cincinnati and ended up drifting all the way to South Carolina. This occurred not long after Fort Sumpter, so the war had started, and the country was cleaved in two. But because he was a white man and a known authority in the field, he was to get passage back to Union territory. With Theodore no similar circumstance would be possible; his flight is an ironic mirroring of that, and thus parallels the kinds of dangers we face today. What are the stakes then or now for sixteen-year-old black child? Yet things that are going to save his life are his intellect and his courage and intellect, the very things that he might be thought not to have.
Renard Allen: It strikes me also that “The Aeronauts” is in many ways an “adventure” story—an adventure tale along the lines of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer stories. In other words, it’s a kind of black Tom Sawyer story. I’d be curious to know if that’s something you also had in mind.
Keene: So I will say this: “The Aeronauts” sits somewhere between a long short story and a novella, and it could be expanded into a full novel, but it has a picaresque component, like adventure stories. One of the things I wanted to do with this collection was consider different modes and styles, including the picaresque, which feels out of fashion today. Each of these stories speaks to differing influences. I may have mentioned her before, but I can see connections with Paule Marshall and her novellas in Soul Clap Hands; the range and richness of Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead; Alexander Kluge and his Case Histories and New Histories: Notebooks 1–18: “The Uncanniness of Time”; John Edgar Wideman’s stories, which were so important to me early on; Samuel Delany’s enchanting Atlantis: Model 1924; Cane, which we’ve mentioned already; and Guy Davenport, whose strange, dense, but also in certain ways light, highly ironical, queer historical tales. And these are only a few of many inspirations. But I also wanted this to be a story with real movement, that conveyed the passage of time and the physical passage of these characters across geographies. So my question was, how do I do that in a constrained space?
Renard Allen: Yes, yes. “The Aeronauts” concerns African American teenagers, and your story also has certain queer elements, if I can say that. As such, the story reveals certain absences in 19th Century fiction in English, namely the absence of people of color and queer people, not to mention the absence of scientists of color. So I would offer that the counter narrative in part involves an artistic practice to create narratives that address canonical and historical absences. That’s almost a statement more than a question. [Laughter.]
Keene: [Laughter.] I love it though, it’s great. You said it. There you go.
Renard Allen: Okay. It also strikes me that “The Aeronauts” feels quite modern even in the dialogue that in ways seem to suggest African American vernacular of today.
Keene: I did think about that and I tried to take my imagination back roughly around a hundred and fifty years before the book was published, which would have been when the story is set, and ask, how would these characters speak? Certainly, there are strong differences in the way people speak now versus then, but I wanted to give a flavor of how language then might reflect our ways of speaking now. Some of the exact nuances of free black working-class people’s speech in 1860s Philadelphia certainly eluded me. [Laughter.] But I also thought, even then they’re going to be playful, they’re going to be proper. All the things we think of today. I also tried to capture the protagonist Theodore’s verbal and intellectual negotiations, his code switching. Even then as now, you would have to code switch no matter where you are. Part of it is to show those outside the culture, “Look, I can speak your language but I can also speak my language.” There’s the version of Pig Latin he speaks with his friend, and then with his little cousin, who’s like a gangsta and a trickster at the same time. For his cousin, there’s no law nor even a civil war, to stop him. He comes and goes and is doing whatever he’s doing, running his games and so on. His ethos is, I’m going to live no matter what, even if beyond the law, like a mythical figure, and that comes through in his speech, too. At any rate, I wanted to capture the richness of their language. I did look at novels and autobiographies written around that time by former enslaved people, but I also wanted to avoid the manufactured dialogue you sometimes see in novels, texts, and articles by white journalists or fiction writers about black people from that era. I was seeking a different point about how these characters might speak and think and talk.
Renard Allen: Great. Just a stylistic question about “The Aeronauts.” At two points in this story, the narrator switches from past tense to present tense, including at the end of the story. Why did you decide to make that choice?
Keene: With that final section, I was aiming for a sense of immediacy, a break with the flow of the narration. The story may start in the present and then shift to the past because basically we’re getting a story about a story: the narrator is recounting what happened in the past. And then at the end, I wanted to rupture that frame to say that now we are in that most terrifying moment when the hot air balloon breaks free because the cables tying it down have been cut or damaged because of sabotage. This has nothing to do with Theodore, but represents intrigue amongst the white scientists. Theodore ends up being, or appears to be, the victim. So it’s like time falls away and we’re in that moment. And the moment is both terrifying and, I wanted to suggest, exhilarating. So that was what was behind that temporal shift.
Renard Allen: I would suggest that your use of parataxis—we talked about this earlier—in the structure of the collection at times. For example, the story that comes after “The Aeronauts”—the story “Rivers” is also a type of adventure story. So there’s a parataxical connection between the two stories as well as in this story, you present your version of Twain’s Jim, Huck, and Tom. Was that a deliberate choice in terms of structuring the collection—this rhetorical device of parataxis?
Keene: Perhaps, but I think more in an unconscious way, more in the sense of how Kamau Brathwaite, who I cite, talks about this. He has this wonderful image of a kind of subterranean river that runs beneath Barbados. I love this idea of a kind of a hidden or underground river, you know? A secret map or key. Something that’s there but where the ligature is invisible unless you know where to look. So the parataxis enables that in a way. I’ve said before that every story in this collection has a twin or linked story in some way, form, or fashion. It’s not always that they’re juxtaposed beside each other because there are often several that can fit in that regard. But yes, I like this concept of narrative contiguity creating a kind of resonance, but then also outside the collection, resonances with other works of literature I’ve read or I admire, or that I haven’t even thought about but which someone else might see a kind of connection with. I mean it’s not only just literary texts but also works of visual art, popular culture, etc.
Renard Allen: I see another structural example of parataxis in a way that “Anthropophagy”—a story concerning the literary movement around “cannibalism” in Brazil comes before “Lions,” the final story in the book which is a piece about another type of cannibalism. Human privation, dictatorship, domination, betrayal, the politics that consumes others. It’s really the same question about deliberate structure and I think you’ve already answered it maybe.
Keene: What you’re pointing out is a beautiful insight. “Anthropophagy” is directly linked to “Blues” because each has as its protagonist a black queer Modernist, one in the U. S. and one in Brazil—Mário de Andrade—but then you also have three queer modernists from the Global South because Xavier Villaurrutia from Mexico plays a key role in “Blues.” So those two stories are speaking to each other. I’m also thinking both the specific idea of anthropophagy in Brazilian modernism, advanced by Oswald de Andrade, whom I mentioned, which involves a pushback against European colonialism and influences; and anthropophagy as a broader of concept, but torqued a bit, because what’s happening in “Lions” represents another kind of political, cultural, and spiritual self-devouring. I lost another story that probably would have resonated with these as well.
Renard Allen: How do you lose a story in the modern day? [Laughs.]
Keene: A computer crash, and it wasn’t backed up or printed. I lost a bunch of them. The story I lost very elaborately so…but the collection worked without it. It might even work as a novella by itself at some point if I ever go back to it.
Renard Allen: Wow, that’s really something. You know, it occurs to me that the person who’s considered the father of Brazilian modernism is a black man, or I guess he’s considered a mulatto in Brazil. But when you see a photograph of him, he’s clearly a black man. And Machado De Assis—is that how you say his name?
John Keene: Oh, you mean—right! Even before Mário de Andrade, you have Machado De Assis and others. Right.
Renard Allen: And I guess Harold Bloom has gone so far as to say he’s the greatest black writer of the Americas—I don’t know what your take would be on that.
Keene: Machado de Assis is a remarkable writer and marvelous ironist. He’s one of Brazil’s greats and he’s one of the Americas’ literary giants. If you think about the broad pantheon of black writing, he’s a luminary. I feel like there’s a lot to say about his work and think about and meditate, because unlike some of the other figures in the late 19th century and early 20th century, like Maria Firmina dos Reis, Luis Gama, and a little later, João da Cruz e Sousa, Machado doesn’t directly address blackness, race, slavery, and so on in Brazilian society. He sets it to the side in an interesting way, so I think there are other reasons beyond sheer literary excellence why someone like Bloom would extol him over some others, but he nevertheless is a marvelous writer. I was very interested in Marío de Andrade because, like Hughes, he’s this polymathic figure, he’s visibly mixed race, he’s queer, and he’s one of the people who inaugurates Brazil’s Week of Modern Art. He performs this long, avant-garde poem, Paulicéia Desvairada (“Hallucinated São Paulo”) that looks back to the fin-de-siècle, like the Pierrot, and yet he also engages in radical play with poetic form and delirious juxtapositions, producing an ironic critique of bourgeois culture. It’s definitely of its moment and looks forward to experiments to come. Andrade’s the one who thrills me but I have to say, yes, Machado is one of the great writers of all time.
Renard Allen: What would you say about someone like Jorge Amado? Because I think he was a white guy—whatever that means in Brazil—but he certainly wrote a lot about Afro-Brazilian culture and Afro-Brazilian people and so on. Do you have any thoughts about him just as a final question about Brazil?
Keene: Amado was a great writer, and while I think there are limitations to his depictions, I also believe he was striving to celebrate the world from which he emerged. He was a Bahian and wrote about Bahia in a way that only someone who’s deeply grounded in the richness of that state could. He’s certainly one of Brazil’s major writers. In fact, Brazil has had some great, highly original writers. Most aren’t as well-known as they should be outside of Brazil, but we’ve talked about three so far. And of course, I’ve translated Hilda Hilst; and I love Clarice Lispector and, of course, Guimarães Rosa—the James Joyce of Brazil—is on there. We could just go down the list.
Renard Allen: In this second part of the book, one of the motifs I see is this emphasis on place, geography, boundaries. In “Rivers”—which again involves Jim from Huckleberry Finn—what you do is imagine Jim after he departs from Huck and has established himself. In my own reading of the story—in our mythology when we were talking about master narratives and actually in Huck’s own mythology in Huckleberry Finn—the mythology is that the territory is this place of freedom, this whole idea of the West as the place of possibility and freedom, as a place of liberation. And interestingly enough for your story Jim doesn’t light out to the territories like Huck does. And then Huck comes back to the South and finds himself fighting for the Confederate cause.
Keene: I was thinking about this point Jane Smiley made so beautifully in an essay. There’s a certain absurdity to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because—you’re from Chicago, Illinois—as you know, on the one hand, if you cross the Mississippi River from Alexandria in the northeast of Missouri to Rumsey Spur in the southeast directly, you reach Illinois, a free state. We do have to keep in mind the precarity of free black people at the time—a fact powerfully expressed by Solomon Northrup’s written account 12 Years a Slave, and then in indelible ways by Gordon Parks’s and Steve McQueen’s films based on the account. You could always be recaptured and re-enslaved even if you were born as a free person on free territory. I was trying to write about this enduring myth of freedom and the West and openness; in the story, Jim actually mentions is what does it mean to go to someplace like Kansas, or perhaps Oregon, which did not want black people to set foot there, or even to Illinois? Jim knows if he heads back to Missouri, he’s got to have his papers and pay a bond in order to ensure his freedom. To the extent that it’s going to be respected in his native Missouri, he’ll have to show papers saying he’s free in the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. He was freed in Missouri yet nearly re-enslaved in Arkansas. I also wanted to show that, like so many black people of that moment, Jim is willing, despite the dangers, to sign up for battle. He’s older, but he’s willing to fight to ensure that his freedom and the freedom of others is secured, which is how he ends up all the way down on the border with Mexico at that final battle of the Civil War that the Union actually loses, even though the Union Army had won the larger war at Appomattox Courthouse before then. There’s a kind double absurdity there. Also, Huck is not the raving racist that Tom Sawyer is, but out of various kinds of loyalties Huck is going to go fight for the Confederacy and of all the people that Jim would come face to face with, ironically, it ends up being Huck. Or maybe it isn’t Huck. We don’t know. And we don’t know how it ends except that Jim lives to tell the story.
Renard Allen: Yes, because in fact there’s a reference in the story to nickelodeons which would suggest that Jim is telling the story from sometime in the early twentieth century.
Keene: Exactly. Or the very end of the nineteenth century.
Renard Allen: In fact, the term “nickelodeon” was used before the invention of cinema. Then the story “Acrobatique” is about the famous nineteenth century aerialist Miss La La who Degas painted. It’s another story that uses height and that plays with form in a sense that it’s one extended sentence, more or less. As you do in some of the other stories in the book, you manage to work in quite a bit of backstory about her life. And she’s a type of artist. In a previous interview, you talk about how the story somehow with an image of the aerial bit in her mouth. Can you could speak more about why you wanted to write about her—is it because this story involves another example of an encounter of the crossing of boundaries cultural, racial, sexual, etcetera?
Keene: Yes! This was not one of the stories I planned to write. As I have said in other interviews, I was working on another story at the time, at the New York Public Library’s Resarch Branch at 42nd Street. I took an end-of-day break and walked over to the Morgan Library just a few blocks away and fortuitously happened upon an exhibit on Degas’ painting of Miss La La. I was spellbound seeing the portraits of her—they had actual photographs from when she was alive in the late nineteenth century—as well as all of the sketches, work-ups, and preparatory paintings Degas had done. I’ve said in past interviews of Degas that this was his only depiction of a black person but as it turns out I think there is another one from when he stayed in Louisiana. Images of black people are quite rare in his oeuvre, even though he had a number of relatives both white and black in Louisiana. But back to the exhibit, I thought, I’ve never heard of Miss La La…though I had seen that picture, and my initial response in any moment like this is, Someone has already written about her, so what can I add? [Laughs.] As it turns out, she had not been written about creatively really at all in English—Kathleen Fraser actually has a poem about her, I believe. So I asked myself, what would it have taken to be this person, to be this woman, at this time? Degas’ painting debuted in 1879. These questions led me into her perspective. Also, too, that striking image of her in the painting. You have to look closely and you can see that she is a black woman. She is hanging by a bit in her mouth from this ceiling that was very, very hard for Degas to depict; and I found it interesting that despite his famed skills as a draftsman he struggled to paint the kind of architecture around her, whereas with her figure, there wasn’t as much difficulty. I wanted to know who this person was. As I was conceiving the story, I thought of the metaphor of the high wire and that provided me with a stylistic guide about how to proceed.
Renard Allen: That’s also another story that explores the intersection of writing, painting, drawing….
Keene: Yes. In her narration, I include her letters to her mother and father—most importantly her mother—as well as conversations she has with people, with her friends, her direct address to the audience, which is to say the reader, her encounters with Degas and other notable figures of that era, the mention of her beloved, who’s a black acrobat—all those things are there and part of the challenge was how do I put them in without breaking the flow of the narration. There are moments of prolepsis and parataxis, too. So there’s complex play with time, and I thought, yes, when you’re on the high wire time slowly unfolds slowly, minute by minute, but at the same time I’m sure everything sort of flashes through your head, you know? [Laughs.] Because it could be your last moment! Yet she never had an accident doing any of her acrobatic stunts. She was just one of the most amazing acrobatic artists of her day.
Renard Allen: I think it’s interesting you mention that technique, parataxis, because it’s often used as a way of making connections in a narrative that are not necessarily related to plot or that are not related to plot but usually an image. For example, a novel I often teach is Pedro Páramo, which is structured essentially as a connection of images. The sun appears in this one section and then the next section you use the sun to connect those so that—I think there’s some of that in the Bob Cole story as well, particularly the moment he gets stuck in his memory and he sort of keeps repeating the same phrase or variations of it.
Keene: Exactly. And you know it’s funny, when I read that story about Bob Cole aloud, it’s taking up the music he would be listening to—spirituals, ragtime, and so on. But I can hear hip-hop rhythms come in, which of course are anachronistic, but I am fascinated by how in my head all these types of music that I would be listening to come through in the prose—but you don’t see it if you read it with your eye. But when I read it aloud, I can hear them come through. There’s an aural parataxis happening. The other thing I would say is that I love Edward P. Jones’s work; he’s an extraordinary writer like you, and he has these moments where he jumps forward and I’m always spazzing out when I come across them. I’m like, I see what you did! But he knows how to pull it off. If you can do it right, you can do almost anything.
Renard Allen: Seeing the lyrics from the song, I did see a hip-hop connection there. I thought about that as a sample: these are like samples that were being inserted in the story. We’re both fans of John Edgar Wideman, and in his The Cattle Killing, he uses the term sampling in the preface to the novel. I also thought about that passage where he keeps repeating variations of the phrase, similar to scratching, a technique not used in hip-hop much anymore. Scratching and sampling, yes, but also like a stuck record. “Anthropophagy”—I always forget how to pronounce that word. [Laughs.] There, Mário de Andrade is the character—an important figure in Brazilian avant-garde; Macunaíma, the novel, etc.—and as I’m understanding the story it just sort of captures the moment where he participates in this reading and he’s booed by the audience but it’s often cited as the most important moment in Brazilian modernism.
Keene: Andrade is another one of these figures, in a different kind of way than Hughes, that I feel deserves more attention. The superlative translator Katrine Dodson has completed a new translation of Macunaíma. One of the things that Katrina discovered in her research—and if I have this wrong, it’s on me—was that the earlier translator missed so many of the African cultural references in that novel. In so many ways, Andrade parallels Hughes, down to the confusion after his death about his sexuality. Oswald de Andrade, no relation but one of his compatriots in the wake of modern art in São Paulo, actually calls him “Our Miss São Paulo!” [Laughs.] I put that in my story, too. But above all, I wanted to explore the life, in concise form, of a mixed-race/black, queer, middle-aged artist who is on a certain level so foundational to the transformations in cultures, particularly Brazilian and Latin American Modernism, that have occurred. He was a musicologist, a poet, a fiction writer, a pianist, an administrator, and a public intellectual. I wanted to give a rich glimpse. Not of a young writer but of a writer in his fifties when he’s living in Rio, before he dies, to ask, as he’s dealing with the body’s challenges, who is he? It is a mini-tribute to him, so I even included snippets of my translations of his poems, to have his literary voice speak in conversation with mine, and then the story sits right next to the Hughes story to place them in conversation, because I think it’s very rare to ever see them talked about side by side even though they played important roles as artistic and cultural figures in the respective societies in which they lived.
Renard Allen: One of the things I remember about him is that when the film was made—many years after he died, of course—when the film version of Macunaíma was made it sort of revived this whole idea of cannibalism in Brazilian culture. Originally, it was sort of this idea of digesting the European to get rid of the influence in Brazil, and then by the time the movie was made, it became this question of class and politics in the film. Then the other story in this second part, “Persons and Places,” deals with two philosophers that you mentioned before in the play with form there. I almost feel like Du Bois is being erased from the culture. I hear these—not just white scholars and the larger culture but also among black academics and other people—I hear all of this kind of revisionist thinking. We were talking about history before and lapses—how people forget—but I hear all this revisionist thinking among many black people now about how we were better during the days of segregation. And you have people praising Booker T. Washington without knowing the whole complexity of who Washington was and how he catered to white power and this sort of fantasy he had of creating a black nation, which obviously was only a fantasy given the kind of violence you talked about earlier. So I just wondered about that. I mean Du Bois is one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century but maybe for that reason—because he was intellectual—he isn’t easily digested in a way that can immediately be used in politics even though he was one of the creators of the NAACP. What are your thoughts about that?
Keene: People go in and out of fashion. I understand critiques of “The Talented Tenth” and I also acknowledge Du Bois’s homophobia. At the same time, I think we lose a great deal if we forget what an extraordinary person Du Bois was, and the communities from which he emerged and which he helped shape. He was a scholar, a public intellectual, an activist. He wrote novels, which weren’t the greatest novels but he also wrote nonfiction prose that was accessible really to anyone. And then he also wrote some of the most rigorous scholarly work you can possibly imagine. He’s one of the really important figures in early American sociology. He also—
Renard Allen: —was a figure in the serious study of Africa and African history.
Keene: African American and African history. He studied his fellow black people in the United States. Segregation and patterns of segregation. The Philadelphia Negro is a landmark! We lose so much if we forget this was a man who was a lifelong activist. At the end of his life, he moved to Ghana, I believe. It’s almost impossible to describe the range of what he did and who he was. Counternarratives is also a narration about black knowledge, which is a very abstract thing. Black knowledge, black ideas, blackness as an idea embodied. I had to somehow figure out how to put Du Bois in there. And I wanted to think about—particularly with this question of queerness and homosexuality—his engagement with Santayana, because he talks about how important Santayana was to his thinking. In Santayana’s really beautiful and strange memoir, Persons and Places, as far as I can tell, and I think I checked this several times, he never mentions Du Bois. He offers a condensed history of his life, his time at Harvard, his intellectual engagement there with other philosophers, yet Du Bois doesn’t make an appearance.
Renard Allen: That happens in your story. He sees Du Bois, gives him a passing glance, but doesn’t think much more about it really.
Keene: Right! He has a sense of who Du Bois is; in that liberal way he thinks Du Bois is going to be like the other black and BIPOC students. Santayana in the story actually mentions Chinese students who were at Harvard at the time, and assumes Du Bois is going to be like them, part of his own little “society.” On the other hand, in looking at Du Bois, Santayana can tell that there is a dazzling mind there and notes that he’s heard about him. From his own standpoint, Du Bois is thinking about all the things that a student of his era, background and age—he has already gotten his bachelor’s degree from Fisk—a politically engaged black person at that time at Harvard and in the United States, would be tossing around in his head. Then he sees Santayana, this dark figure in his academic garb and thinks, “This is one of the people I’m going to be working with,” and acknowledges the excitement of that. But at the same time, he realizes, I can’t just go up to him and chat with him. There is a way in which all of this has to unfold.
Renard Allen: I would just say I think an important thing to mention in relation to your book is that Du Bois was also one of the architects of Pan-Africanism.
Keene: Right, exactly! He was such an important figure there. [Laughs.] He was a kind of guiding star.
Renard Allen: I only have a few more questions. This brings us to now the third section of the book—the final counternarrative and the story “The Lions.” As I read the story, it’s set either in the present or sometime in the near future and it involves essentially the relationship between the two lions in the story. One man who was the current dictator of some unnamed country and another man who was essentially his protégé who helped bolster the dictatorship and that kind of thing. The protégé has been imprisoned and will be executed. Importantly, in terms of issues of queering, there had been a sexual relationship between the two men when they were younger…
Keene: Some kind of bond that’s implied. Right.
Renard Allen: I don’t know if we actually ever see any physical intercourse between them. It’s a very grim story in the book, which is fine, as far as I’m concerned. Actually, I think it speaks to the threat of Trump and the Republican Party and this slide toward dictatorship, which is a very possible reality here. But it seems that this was a story about how the dictator controls language, controls religion and belief, essentially controls discourse, really. And these are some of the issues you’ve been dealing with in the book—belief, religion, spirituality, language, writing, and then the question of resistance and rebellion. In so many instances, the people who have overthrown the previous dictators are now themselves dictators. And I just wonder if part of that what happens in the story has something to do with this love and sexuality. The bond that was never really allowed to fully blossom.
Keene: Well, it’s interesting that you say that. I was thinking more, on the one hand, of a kind of bond that is so deep that it cannot even be expressed—that they know and carry within themselves. They’re willing to become one in in service of the revolution. It is personal but it also extends beyond them, almost like the ancient Spartans. You know the famous idea of the Army of Lovers? But at the same time, it also is a kind of cautionary tale or a critique of the revolutionary attitude because it raises the question, revolution in service of what? And so the person who is now in power in that story is basically saying to the other one, “You didn’t just betray me on a personal level, you betrayed this entire country, this society, our vision.” The story includes a powerful critique of Europe and colonialism, noting all the things that Europe did and how they were going to fight back, and then look at what happened. Interestingly I actually read a number of speeches by Robert Mugabe, which informed it.
Renard Allen: Interestingly, I was thinking about Mugabe because I have good friends in Zimbabwe, and all the recent crackdowns there came to mind…
Keene: Yes. So I was thinking about not just Mugabe—of course Idi Amin—there are any number of these people like them. These revolutionary leaders—Bokassa, and so on—
Renard Allen: The dictator who is also kind of a former poet, Amilcar Cabral.
Keene: Exactly! You come in with so much promise but at times—not always, let me be clear—it becomes a cynical ploy for power and money and domination. Then there’s the brutality of these regimes—so what I’m trying to say is that it’s not enough to be revolutionary, you have to engage in critique and speak up to the extent that you can, depending on your position in society. But what comes after that? We see this question raised repeatedly throughout history. I went to Cuba in 2009, and there are so many positive aspects to the revolution in Cuba, like mass literacy and universal health care, but there are many disturbing aspects to the state there. So what I’m suggesting is—and here this brings us to the literal details of the story—when you’ve been reduced to almost nothing except for one or two senses, you’re just basically this brutalized stump, but you’re given the chance to defend yourself, to fight back and recover that lost vision, and save your life, and one of the characters here can’t even do that until it’s too late. He can’t acknowledge the game the person in power is playing. It’s not even about those ideals anymore. They have curdled and what you have now is just sheer power and the ability to say, well, I have the power—as you pointed out—to control everything. Now I want you to give me what I want. And if you can’t give me what I want—which aren’t the obvious things—then it’s over for you.
Renard Allen: I went to Cuba a couple years ago, and I was curious to know what the political—or poetry and literature would look like there. And it was kind of a script, you know? As “The Lions” brought to mind. This story is written in the form of a dialogue and there were a few images that really stood out and worked very effectively in conveying the meaning. So the dictator has a prosthetic hand and foot, and the prosthetic hand—which comes from Americans as I understand it. A kind of metaphor for neocolonialism, yes, but it also points to this idea of false writing. The use of words to tell lies and to control reality as is happening in our country now—if I could just throw that in there. And then the imprisoned friend is gagged by a bandana, which of course suggests censorship and silence. Then the dictator wears a cross, which again suggests a manipulation of belief and religion. And if I remember correctly, he’s going to stab the cross into the guy’s ear to kill him at the end. Then, weirdly enough, the prosthetic foot—it seemed like a nice metaphor to bring the book to a close because the book is so much about paths and directions…and the paths we choose, escaping, and those kinds of things. But it also reminded me a lot of—I wonder if you had this in mind—it reminded me of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, where Welles’s detective’s corruption is symbolized by the wooden leg that he walks on. So you use this image of rotten corruption, while also using the word “cyborg” at times, suggesting a kind of transformation of the person into the inhuman. I thought about that image that Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man has of the mechanical man—he has a dream of a mechanical man which seems to be about these very kinds of questions of dictatorship and totalitarianism.
Keene: I hadn’t thought of Welles but that’s an excellent insight. The same with Ellison. I do think about various kinds of apparatuses of power and the use of technology or technologies to maintain power. On the one hand, we always celebrate these new technologies but then of course we realize how they can be so easily deployed. Drones or cell phones or smart phones—
Renard Allen: —the internet in your story.
Keene: The Internet, exactly right. I was trying to call that value-neutral understanding of these technologies into question and explore how they can be put to very useful and powerful service. I was particularly thinking at the moment of the Arab Spring and considering what followed. You actually had a democratic government and that government ended up being overthrown and the dictator took over, got the tacit approval of Obama and then Trump’s full-throated approval. So I mean, one central question in this story is, what are we doing? What does a better and different and transformed future look like, and what are the dangers of that? I wanted to call the revolutionary attitude in general into some question. Not to say we shouldn’t have it but to say we should also be cautious about it as we proceed. All the stories in this book are leading up to this moment of now, and then what next?
Renard Allen: Yeah, and I like the way it concludes in an open-ended way.
Keene: Well, you know, I read Umberto Eco’s The Open Work—at least parts of it—years ago so you know it’s one of those things that sticks in your head and you don’t even think about them. [Laughs.]
Renard Allen: I think one of the wonderful things this interview reveals is just kind of where I started—your wide range of reading, your interest in languages and various forms of art and theory and so on, poetry—you’re a poet, of course—but I feel like many fiction writers don’t engage enough with the questions of poetry. And it’s not just a question of language. It seems to me that poets are more open to bringing in various forms of knowledge into a text in the way that you are in your own fiction.
Keene: Thank you, and you’re a poet, too! I mean, I think—as you know—it involves raising antennae to the world, to life, to experience, and what you gather is transformed and can take different forms, become different genres, right? But sometimes you know something you feel has to be a poem. Things come to you in other kinds of ways—snippets of language, names, stories you come across or imagine. You’re just walking from one room to the next or in the midst of whatever work it is you’re doing, and you have these ideas, these feelings, these sensations, and you think this is the germ of something that will become a creative work. But as you just said, it all comes back to language. My interest in language, our interest in languages as writers and creative people is so crucial because language is an extraordinarily powerful tool. The older I get, the more I see that and try to be mindful of that fact. Language is not just this entity to be thrown around and taken lightly. It’s a very powerful medium that literary artists should really try to understand and make the best use of.
Renard Allen: My last question—[Laughs.] I think it should be clear that any good writer reads as much as possible and reads across racial boundaries. I’m always peeved by the way that so often critics and reviewers talk about us, black writers, in this kind of enclosed way, this ghettoized space as if our work only speaks to the work of other black writers and so on. I’m hesitant to use the word “tradition”—but I wonder about the tradition of black experimentation, specifically in fiction. You and I are roughly the same age and I think we cut our teeth on many of the same books by black experimental fiction writers. My feeling is a lot of that material has not been recognized, has been lost. I’m thinking of people like we mentioned earlier, LeRoi Jones’s short stories and his first novel, The System of Dante’s Hell, and we mentioned Charles Wright, and I’m also thinking of people like Hal Bennett, Clarence Major, Wesley Brown, William Melvin Kelley, Sherley Anne Williams, and many, many others, including Xam Wilson Cartiér, who is also from St. Louis like yourself.
Keene: Gayl Jones we talked about. And of course Toni Morrison and—I mean of course even going back to the Harlem Renaissance and before you think of figures—
Renard Allen: Jean Toomer’s Cane…
Keene: I think there’s a very powerful and important tradition there, and to me the tragedy is that—yes, so many of these writers don’t get taught or don’t get taught regularly. A few of them do. I think of a work like William Demby’s The Catacombs, for example. I just want say this about experimentation: I try to think about experimentation in the richest sense. When we use the term experimentation or innovation we’re thinking about formal innovation. But then I think about Cyrus Colter’s The Hippodrome, and I think I mentioned this before—that’s a story in which wild things happen—
Renard Allen: Chicago writers… [Laughs.]
Keene: Exactly! [Laughs.] And Leon Forrest, well, he’s big—
Renard Allen: Another Chicago writer…
Keene: Another great Chicago writer, right. With Leon of course it was form and content. With Cyrus Colter you were getting a little bit of both. Or I think about—talking about autofiction— and I think about the book that came out just a few years by Angela Jackson, another Chicago writer who is an amazing poet and fiction writer, in which she’s basically talking about being a black student in the late sixties, early seventies at a moment of revolution. This tradition is incredibly important to me, and I do try to go back and read those writers—I mean, I think about even someone like Ntozake Shange, whom we lost just a few years ago. I’m thinking not just of her plays and her poetry but her fiction, which was so important to me when I was starting out. It’s pushing against conventions. It answers the question of how do you capture those experiences that have not been put onto paper? We have so many people writing today who are doing fascinating things, so I don’t want to leave anybody out. But that past tradition and of course our peers and contemporaries, and all the younger writers who are coming up…we wouldn’t have an American literature, let alone African-American literature, without that tradition.
Renard Allen: What your thoughts are about hip-hop music. Does it inform your writing at all? One of the reasons I’m asking is because I’ve been engaging in a conversation with my son—he’s turned me onto a lot of younger hip-hop artists. I’ve been really listening and really just amazed at some of the stuff that some of these guys are doing.
Keene: Like who? Is there anybody in particular that you—
Renard Allen: Like Future, Young Thug—some of Future’s stuff is even kind of funny. It’s vulgar, you know, “I just fucked your bitch in Gucci flip flops,” or something like that. Some of it’s funny but it’s inventive, it’s imaginative, and it’s just taken in a different direction—I generally knew of this idea of trap music and thought, “Oh wow, this all kinda sounds the same.” But my son, he was able to point me to some people to listen to. A young guy named JID who’s out of Atlanta I also like. So I’ve been checking these guys out and I’ve been onto Drake for a while now, but I find a lot of it—like the way that someone like Young Thug kind of extends to blues and the way that he brought singing into hip-hop in a way that hadn’t been done before. So I’d like to get your thoughts about it and if it informs your writing at all or your listening habits or whatever.
Keene: Yeah, I mean it’s funny because when I was in junior high and high school, The Sugarhill Gang first appeared, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, Kurtis Blow, rappers like that—so I’ve listened to hip-hop from my teenage years to today. I can think of various moments when some of my favorite rappers were jamming, how I became a diehard fan of this group or that group. And I can even remember back to people like Stetsasonic, Fat Boys, Slick Rick, Special Ed, and Schooly G? [Laughs.] The eighties! And of course, Eric B. & Rakim, Real Roxanne, Big Daddy Kane, and—anyway, all the way up through today, with people like Cardi B, etc. So hip-hop has always been in my head. I feel like I have a complex relationship with hip-hop in part because, on the one hand, there were certain moments, like when Public Enemy was big, they were one of my favorite groups.
Renard Allen: I was a huge Public Enemy fan as well.
Keene: I think about Queen Latifah, a lot of the great women rappers, Lil’ Kim when she started, Foxy Brown. I loved those moments of hip-hop and I felt like many of the women rappers opened up this space of possibility that was not the sort of hypermasculine, often misogynistic and sometimes homophobic space that became a kind of baseline for the genre. I’ve felt like there have been moments where a door closed, and it was like, “You can’t be fully part of this.” The misogyny and homophobia and extreme consumerism were turning me away. But then someone like Missy Elliott, who worked with such brio and complexity and joy, brought me right back in! So hip-hop has been very important to me and it pops up in interesting ways in my work. It’s not like I would listen to Nas and then try to write a poem that had his beats. But every so often, I’ll see that hip-hop influence in phrasing or something like that. Like in “Cold.” That wasn’t conscious, but it’s sedimented in there.
Renard Allen: Right, that’s for sure. I noticed that about that story. I think we talked about it earlier.
Keene: Exactly. But there are contemporary rappers that I like a lot. Migos—but then some of the stuff is like—it doesn’t do anything for me. I mean, I like Young Thug; Future, I’m not such a fan of.
Renard Allen: Lastly, I wanted to just congratulate you on having a new book accepted for publication. And I wonder if you have a number of unpublished books, or is this the only one?
Keene: I have projects I’m working on, and I’m glad that this one, collection of poems titled Punks looks like it’s going to come to fruition. Many years ago, I wrote a screenplay, and so on, but I’ve learned over the years not to be pressed. I mean, if it’s not ready to appear or no one’s interested in it, that’s fine. I just say, “Okay, I’m going on about my business and doing what I feel like I need to be doing.” I am excited about this collection of poetry because I think it’s interesting and it should have come out a while ago. It still feels relevant.
Renard Allen: Thank you, John.
Keene: Thanks so much, Jeff, I appreciate it.
Editor’s note: This interview comprises three conversations conducted in 2020, and has since been lightly edited.