Encountering John Keene
“To speak of culture is to foreshadow a battle.”
John Keene’s first two books of fiction take completely different paths toward the same goal: making sure that the Black experience is no longer buried in white shadows. Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is a brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times. Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) is a series of lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. Counternarratives is a punch straight to the gut of the traditional narration of history, reinserting black perspectives, voices, and lives that have been so consistently missing from white history and white literature.
Annotations opens with a grainy family snapshot of a seated young Black boy that might be Keene. He is holding his hands slightly apart in worried care, while something tall and slender—a toy rocket, perhaps—stands delicately poised between his open palms as if his own future lies in the balance. Then the book begins with the narrator’s birth: “It was a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal. A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery. Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.” In other words, it’s 1965, the year Keene was born.
As the title suggests, Annotations is made up of telegraphically short memories, brief mentions of key historical and cultural markers, and place names from the narrator’s childhood—the marginalia that might pencil in the outline for an eventual biography. There is an accounting of his family history: “vibrant miscegenation,” “Southern blood,” and “Osage whom we mistook for Cherokees.” And the usual topics of upbringing: family, school, friends, and sex (“that sublime sum of bodily attraction”). And of his exposure to the arts: the “Negro” poets, Scott Joplin, John Coltrane, Eldredge Cleaver, and so on. “Thus his musings, when written down, gradually melded, gathered shape, solidified like a well-mixed mâché, and thus, upon rereading them he realized what he had accomplished was the construction of an actual voice.”
Perhaps more importantly, Annotations is about the narrator’s slow, but eventual realization that biography is also geography, that place and history are integral to the person. “But oh, Saint Louis, such a colored town, a minefield of myth and memory.” During Keene’s years there, St. Louis experienced massive white-flight to the suburbs, hollowing out the city’s economic core, partly a result of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of inner-city schools. As a young man, the narrator haunts the public library and reads late into the night. Dotted throughout the book are references, sometimes name-dropped with no explanation whatsoever, that allude to the history of Black life in St. Louis, like Douglass School, “the only accredited public high school for African-American students in St. Louis County until the end of segregation in 1957” (Wikipedia) and Meachum Park, (where “the line between what is blight and what is black becomes blurred“), to name two such occurrences.
Both poetry and fiction, however, find their roots in the act of making, a supposition grown gradually clearer as he explored the possibilities of reading. Upon your five-speed, across the asphalt, whirring as the blackbird flies. Dreams consequently assumed the contours, colors of the interior of the town’s modest main library, where months seemingly elapsed as he maundered among the stacks, yet these reverie-journeys sometimes transmogrified into horrifying, recurrent nightmares in which, after each withdrawal of a careful selection of books, he arrived home to find himself either blind or illiterate. Such fears, though they initially seemed to possess an immobilizing permanence, disappeared amid the evanescence of each day’s flux, a fact that displayed for him the shifting character of being, or phrased more prosaically, the process of the unreeling of the real. An alphabet, analphabet. All information will be kept confidential.
For someone like me, who lived as a young child in St. Louis in the 1950s (including a few years in then-mostly-white Ferguson), Annotations rewrites everything I thought I knew about the place where I lived for a decade. Every few pages, something that Keene has written detonated a little time bomb in my memory that rejiggered the past.
At one point in the book, the narrator says: “our generation lacks more than a cursory sense of the world that our ancestors faced, which surprises no one cognizant of the contempt in which the nuances of history are currently held. . . And so, in an effort to make so many shorter stories richer, these overtures ought to be read as a series of extended annotations.” This attempt to make the stories of what “our ancestors” faced “richer” is an apt description of what Keene’s second book, Counternarratives, aims to do.
If Keene found his voice in Annotations, he turned to mimicry in Counternarratives. If Annotations was deliberately modest, Counternarratives was wildly ambitious, nothing less than an attempt to reshape our understanding of the history of the New World, through stories that tell of the hubris and cruelty of slavers, the misery and death of slaves, the treachery and betrayal of the Church, and the untold bravery and creativity of ordinary Black men and women, as well as stories involving better known individuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. The book’s thirteen stories span the years 1613, when Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese-African man became the first person known to live on Manhattan Island (read the story here), to sometime near the present, when we overhear a conversation apparently taking place between two African dictators.
Keene’s writing in Counternarratives is confident. It feels like he can write fluidly in any style he chooses. The voices in these stories are expansive; they delight in detail and in being time-specific. Take the long story with the long title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” in which the narration shifts between the forced stiffness of a formal report written by a nineteenth-century Catholic Reverend on the status of “the ancient Faith. . . on the eastern shores of the Mississippi and its southerly tributaries” and the crabbed, hastily scribbled style of a diary of a nun involved in a scandal in one of the Kentucky convents covered by that report.
Perhaps the story most likely to stand out (at least for white readers) is “Rivers,” narrated by Mr. James Alton Rivers, aka Jim, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It takes place in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, after Jim has signed up with the Union’s First Missouri Colored Troops, which is fighting the Confederacy in Texas.
Anderson urged several of us to crawl out to the far edge of the field, near the river, where there was a stand of Montezuma cypresses, which I did and when I rounded them flat on my stomach, creeping forward like a panther I saw it, that face I could have identified if blind in both eyes, him, in profile, the agate eyes in a squint, that sandy ring of beard collaring the gaunt cheeks, the soiled gray jacket half open and hanging around the sun-reddened throat, him crouching reloading his gun, quickly glancing up and around him so as not to miss anything.
Jim, a soldier for the North, has come face to face with Tom Sawyer, now a soldier for the Confederacy. And he will soon have him in his gunsight, “this elder who had been like a brother, a keeper, a second father.”
The stories in Counternarratives are subversive, restorative stories, aimed at making sure that we see the world and the past more fully.
Through a wonderful coincidence, Gil Roth has just posted a terrific in-depth interview (1’11”) with Keene on his wonderful podcast The Virtual Memories Show (episode 401). The two talk about Keene’s experience as a translator, his life growing up, his literary influences, and much more. They begin to discuss Counternarratives at 42″.