John Keene Visits the NYU Center for the Humanities

By Gina Elbert and Gaby Flores

“John Keene is a writer’s writer,” Prof. Phillip Brian Harper told a standing-room-only audience on the eveningof March 21 at the NYU Center for the Humanities. “His work constitutes a profound reckoning with language.”

The particular work in question that night was Keene’s second book, Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015). Defying questions of genre, Counternarratives is not a work that can be described easily: it’s not a novel, like the book Keene is working on at the moment, though it seems to be one. It’s more a gathering of short stories, novellas, and other works inspired by historical events and people that Keene characterizes as “analytical fiction.” These stories move between generic conventions, carrying us along, sometimes against our will, to the point where we surrender ourselves to them.

Co-sponsored by the Contemporary Literature Series (CLS) and the Postcolonial, Race and Diaspora Studies Colloquium in the Department of English, the event began with a welcome by Prof. Nicholas Boggs, who introduced the audience to panelists John Keene, Prof. Harper, and Prof. Sonya Posmentier. Keene’s first move was to read from one of the novellas included within Counternarrative, a work titled Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows. A section he has never before read publicly, this part of the book tells the story of a slave girl who may or may not be involved in witchcraft and who foils her mistress’ escape from an abbey in Tennessee. Keene was careful to establish himself as the facilitator of the girl’s storytelling, rather than as the author from whose mind her story had sprung, the god of her universe. He allowed himself to fade into the background as he read, giving the story top priority.

The discussion of Gloss then developed around the recurring themes of water and geography in the pieces featured in Counternarratives. The novella begins with a mention of the Mississippi River in its first sentence and later shows the two main characters, Carmel (the slave) and Eugénie (her mistress) crossing the Caribbean. Other stories in the collection, like “Mannahatta” and “Rivers,” center around water as well. When asked to speak on this topic, Keene connected it to his fascination with place and setting. The image of water in his pieces also tends to reflect his own narrative structure and its insistence on denying boundaries. It was not a coincidence that Prof. Harper and Prof. Posmentier said repeatedly that Keene “diverts the river of language” in his work.

The centrality of geography to Counternarratives also emphasizes the sense of place and historicity of Keene’s work. Each of the pieces in the book focuses on a marginalized story, often one inspired by a newspaper article or historical document discovered by Keene while doing research. Our Lady of Sorrows, for example, is written as one very long footnote to a short description of a convent in Tennessee written by historians in the 1890s. One of Keene’s personal favorites, “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” pulled from multiple newspaper articles and accounts to tell the story of a runaway slave in the 1770s. Like the other stories, “Outtake” shines a spotlight on a character whose story has never been told before. Keene explained that fiction is what allows us to do this, that historians like to stick to fact, but it’s fiction that permits us to enter the lives and stories of the past. He described his work as combining the traditional elements of fiction writing (pacing, drama, character development) with a critical historical lens.

The discussion of craft and writing opened up on a broader conversation about Keene’s inspirations, habits, and other work. He cited some of his inspirations as The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy, In the Wake by Christina Sharpe, and Clarence Major’s body of work. These are authors who, like him, uphold the tradition of black writers pushing boundaries. They tell stories that Keene rarely saw at school growing up, where the only representation of blackness he encountered was Jim in Huckleberry Finn (one of the pieces in Counternarratives tells what happens to Jim after Twain’s book is over). Keene has encountered and worked with many contemporary black writers, especially in the Dark Room Collective. Founded in the late 1980s, the collective is a community for black writers seeking a safe space for writing and a place that brings together great authors regardless of where they are in their careers. Keene strongly emphasized the importance of such a setting: “You need a community, not an institution, to sustain you.”

On this solemn but inspirational note, the event ended and Prof. Boggs ceremoniously gifted Keene with a CLS sweatshirt. Carried away by the flow of Keene’s words – his in-person diversion of the river of language, if you will – the audience walked away with newfound knowledge about just how far writers can push the boundaries of history, language, and genre.