by Gina Elbert and Gaby Flores
“John Keene is a writer’s writer,” Professor Phillip Brian Harper told a standing-room-
only audience on the evening of Tuesday, March 21st, 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,
which was published in 2015 by New Directions. Defying questions of genre, Counternarratives not a work that can be confined by a single term: it’s not a novel, like the book Keene is working on now, 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 characterized as “analytical fiction.” These stories flow between structural conventions and carry us along, sometimes against our will, to the point where we surrender ourselves to them.
Co-sponsored by the Contemporary Literature Series and the Postcolonial, Race and
Diaspora Studies Colloquium in the Department of English, the event began with a welcome by Professor Nicholas Boggs, who introduced the audience to panelists John Keene, Phillip Brian Harper, and Professor Sonya Posmentier. Keene’s first move was to read from his novella, Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows. A section he’s never read at an event before, this part of the book told 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 melt into the background as he read, giving the story top priority.
Discussion then blossomed around the recurring themes of water and geography in the
pieces featured in Counternarratives. The Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows 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 themselves 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 tended to reflect his own narrative structure and its insistence on denying boundaries. It was not in vain that Harper and Posmentier said repeatedly that Keene “diverts the river of language” in his work.
The importance of geography to Counternarratives also emphasized 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 that has not had their tale 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 the traditional elements of fiction writing (pacing, drama, etc.) combined with a critical historical lens.
Speaking of craft and writing opened up the discussion to 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 these people and others in many places, but especially in the Dark Room Collective. Founded in the late 1980s, the collective is a community for black writers that sought to create a safe space for writing and meeting great authors regardless of who they are. 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 Boggs ceremoniously gifted Keene with a Contemporary Literature Series 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.