Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

Talking Presents, Past and Future: A Conversation with John Keene

In March 2018, John Keene came here to Washington and Lee University to read from his book Counternarratives and to visit my class, the Nineteenth Century and Its Shadow. During his stay, on March 26, two exceptional students sat with him to think through his work. Keene is a writer who finds space within the narratives we inherit, and so it was perhaps appropriate that this conversation took place in the then-named Lee-Jackson House in a room that had at one point been Robert E. Lee’s bedroom. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

—Ricardo Wilson, Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies

Lilly Wimberly: So, I had the pleasure of taking a class with Professor Ricardo Wilson that used Afro-futurism as a theoretical framework. A lot of the writers we read informed my reading of Counternarratives. For instance, I thought of the term necromancy from Ishmael Reed, and how he uses it to describe the phenomenon of using a metaphor from the past to explain something in the present or the future. He says necromancers “used to lie in the guts of the dead…to receive visions of the future,” and he relates that to how black writers often lie in the guts of old America and make readings about the future. A lot of these stories I saw as sort of the reverse of that, because you’re sitting in the present and you’re making these readings about the past. I wanted to know how you thought about not only that idea of lying in those guts, but also about going back and anchoring your stories in the historical record. In other words, why is it important to go back and unearth these things from the past in order to reimagine or reinvent the future?

John Keene: That’s an excellent question and a tough one. There are so many possible things to say. Well, first of all, Ishmael Reed is a writer who’s incredibly important to me. He was one of my undergraduate teachers. He helped set me on the path that I’m on. I hold his work in deepest respect, and a number of his books are touchstones. “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” was one of my favorite poems as a child. But back to your question, I think he touches upon something really important underway in Counternarratives.

To just give one example: over the last, I’d say, twenty years, probably even a little bit longer, but especially I’m thinking of the last twenty to twenty-five years, scholars of American history have deeply and profoundly studied and worked through the history of U.S. capitalism. One of the things they have established—it’s now pretty incontrovertible—is the relationship between capitalism and slavery, the slave system, not just in the United States, but as a kind of transnational, global economic system that involved the transportation of bodies, the commodification of bodies, the movement of money in conjunction with the movement of other kinds of commodities: sugar cane, and of course later, cotton, indigo, the rum trade, etc. And this is something that’s been known for a while, but I think there’s always been a kind of pushback to say that capitalism originates elsewhere, or that this was a kind of sidepiece to it all. So I wanted to think through that past because I think it is foundational for where we are now, and how certain bodies are commodified: who gets to be free, who’s not free. One of the first stories in Counternarratives is titled “An Outtake From the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” and there I engage in a kind of necromancy about the American Revolution itself, and what does it mean to have this unfree person seeking a kind of radical freedom. So, not just breaking away from bondage, but also a kind of emotional, psychological, affective, and physical freedom, right? To not be bound by any law imposed upon him by anyone else, even at the risk of his own life and the lives of others. What does that mean, and why can we not contextualize that within this larger system? That’s one of the questions I’m trying to ask. What I also realized was, after writing that story, that actually it’s the idea of policing the black body, the policing of the black male body. This kind of freedom that actually really isn’t true, isn’t truly freedom, and that is applicable today and carries on into the future. I wrote the story well before Trayvon Martin’s death or Michael Brown’s death, but I see Zion’s story being deeply linked to these contemporary events because this brutality is still happening.

What’s also fascinating to me is that in the title of that story, and sort of as the background of the story, you have a very profound work by the historian Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, where Bailyn is talking about the intellectual debates that are occurring in the early American colonies that lead into the early American Republic, to think about what led these colonial leaders to break from Britain. What was it that they felt? What were the real sources of contestation around their process of liberation, around becoming this republic and breaking away from the crown? And what I find fascinating is—I think Bailyn is a brilliant historian, he’s won two Pulitzer prizes, and he’s aware of the complexities of what becomes the early United States—race doesn’t fully enter into it at all, which I find so fascinating because the cradle of liberty, Massachusetts, was also the first state to legalize slavery. I mean, most people don’t even realize that Massachusetts had Virginia, South Carolina, all these other states, Connecticut, New York, etc. beat in that regard. I just find that so fascinating. So what I’m also trying to do is to provide a counternarrative to restore depth to this conversation, to suggest that this outtake is much more important than we think. Because it exists as a kind of outtake, it points to where we are today. And if we don’t really think it through and address it, where will we be, you know, twenty-five, thirty years down the road?

So I think that I see there being a profound link in what Ishmael Reed is talking about and what I’m trying to do here, even as it seems, at least on the surface, to be looking backward, but there’s a kind of strange contemporaneity to a lot of these narratives set in the past. It’s not just because I’m writing from the present and looking backward, but in fact I see a sort of a profound connection between that past and our present that sort of challenges the critique by someone like Orlando Patterson, that once slavery ends and we have Reconstruction, etc., we’re in a new world. I mean, if you look very carefully at U.S. history, you see that you might have these major political events and moments of social change, but there are all these continuities that continue even in staggered or rhizomatic form.

Lucas M. Morel: Within “An Outtake of the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” a juxtaposition shows up between the separation anxiety felt by white Americans about their leaving Great Britain and Patterson’s concepts of natal alienation with regard to the black slaves in the story. Because the latter’s African roots are emphasized repeatedly—in the references to Mary’s Akan language and Lacy having spent her early years in the lower Volta—we can see that you’re trying to attach them to their roots while white America was trying to separate from their own, ironically enough. Were you trying to interact with ideas put forth by Patterson or Toni Morrison in this story at all, with respect to the ideas of natal alienation or natal loneliness?

JK: Well, Morrison was much more in the forefront of my consciousness, because she’s been a guiding light for me as a writer and as a thinker, but Orlando Patterson is someone who I find deeply problematic and troubling, but also really provocative. So I would say probably not on a conscious level, but on an unconscious level, because I was also trying to think about his ideas of social death. Zion is a character who does not just escape and flee, but because he continues to break these laws, he is almost operating as a kind of zombie; he refuses with the very fiber of his being to be constrained by any law or any rule. Part of it has to do with a certain feeling of natal detachment or a lack of knowledge or lack of assurance of his paternity, of his connection to this society, this world, the past that his mother and all the other Africa-descended people are linked to, and of course also clearly the British colonists. But at the same time he realizes that this kind of social death also opens up a new space of freedom. It’s almost like he becomes a negative superhero. At the very end, I won’t give it away if people really want to read the story, but there’s that final twist that happens too, and I feel like you know he’s so dead that he becomes almost like an undead person so that he can actually achieve what he does. Those ideas were in the back of my mind, but Morrison’s treatment of slavery and its aftermath is something that I think about a lot, particularly Beloved, but even more recently the book A Mercy. I think she’s done fascinating things in terms of trying to think through slavery, its effects, and how it shapes the world that comes in its wake.

LW: So, I tend to always read for systems of faith and spirituality; it’s one of my interests and I’ve written a lot about it, and I think a lot about it. I loved seeing so many ideas of freedom and spirituality, both Christianity and Catholicism and otherwise, that seem to be through-lines through a lot of the stories. But speaking specifically about spirituality, there are different traditions of faith that you often present together and not in conflict, in one body. I’m thinking specifically of Carmel in “Gloss,” who both is this devout Catholic who records how many times she prays and says her rosary, but also seems to practice this sort of voodoo spirituality. But these don’t seem to be at odds in her, they seem to be integrated quite effectively into her identity and who she is. I’m interested to know why it was important for you to include spirituality in its many forms, and how you saw spirituality or systems of faith as related to the idea of freedom.

JK: Those are great questions. Well, first of all, I realized that it would be almost impossible to write about the history of anything, and particularly of black people in the Americas, and not talk about spirituality and religion, because of course when we’re talking about religion we’re also talking about systems of knowledge and knowledge practices. So I see all of the interacting spiritual systems, and particularly the ways they’re activated, as also being very much about creating a kind of epistemology or counter-epistemology, ways of seeing and knowing the world that have their limits, but are also extraordinarily crucial to the survival of the figures in the book, and to black peoples in the Americas and across the globe. To kind of shift gears, I read this really fascinating piece the other day where the person was talking about the role of myth, and how myth, particularly in various ultra-conservative moments, has been used to provide a counterweight to the complications of history, the complications of democracy. So we think about Nazi Germany, or these various kinds of eternal myths that pop up again and again. And we can always kind of look back to them and basically they become touchstones, they become very powerful and they often work against the possibility of freedom. Again and again, however, in this book, myth and spirituality do the opposite; they don’t cancel out the messiness of reality or cancel out the messiness of democratic contestation, but in fact they provide another source of strength. So that’s one thing I would say.

In terms of “Gloss,” another thing I realized is Carmel’s story is a kind of prototypical colonial story. On the one hand, she has these beliefs, practices, knowledge systems that were imperfectly passed on to her by her parents, so they’re corporeal in the sense that they’re inside her from birth forward. On the other hand, she has only brief interactions with her mother before her mother is killed; her father is a painter, he’s an artist, and she also loses him, so she’s on one level cut off. I think of this as Africans in the Americas. Even though these ties do exist and still exist, especially the deeper we look, people still talk about this complete break, which is ridiculous. So she has all those connections, but the education that she undergoes of both self-tutorial and tutorial at the hands of the nuns is a kind of colonial education, and so her story is of colonialization and de-colonialization, so that by the end she has to a certain degree de-colonialized herself. As she finds her voice, she actually takes power of the knowledge she possesses. That’s one way to think about it, and I feel like so often we have these multiple registers going on inside of us, and because society directs us toward thinking one way so often, so many of us just stay at that level. But if we can think about the multiple possibilities inside of us, we might actually have a fuller, richer sense of self. I know that sounds like pop psychology, because I’m trying to connect it to the politics, but you see what I’m saying. I feel like that’s what’s happening with Carmel in terms of what she knows, with what she doesn’t know, what she can control, what she can’t control, her voicelessness at the beginning, and the way that her voice becomes a profound source of power and narration that tells the story at the end.

LM: Along similar lines, among the focuses of Counternarratives there seems to be an active interrogation happening within the stories about the role that homages to the Western literary canon play in establishing narrative legitimacy. For example, in the academy scene in “The Aeronauts,” you appear to reference Edgar Allan Poe four times in the same paragraph, with the Amontillado sherry, “ushering” the guests, “claws of an ancient bird,” and “thrown out into the street.” Would you say that you aim to provoke consideration of how American authors ought to interact with the canon going forward, especially given, as Toni Morrison points out, its absence of an Africanist presence created by black writers, and the filling in of said presence by white authors?

JK: Well, here’s what I’d say. I think what I’m playing with is authority, and how the invocation of prior authoritative figures gives work authority. In that Academy scene, I love that you pick up Poe there. Another figure who makes an appearance is the famous mathematician Benjamin Peirce, who was notorious because even though he taught at Harvard, was a Northerner, and was a major figure in the development of American mathematics, he was rabidly pro-Confederate. It was to the extent where many of his colleagues were appalled because even though they weren’t actually abolitionists, they were at the same time pro-Union. So I wanted to complicate that space because I could’ve just presented Thaddeus Lowe giving his talk and then the protagonist Theodore could respond to it, but I wanted to show the complexity of thought, and not even thought that actually has to be voiced, but the complexity of these ideas about the future of the country embodied in these figures. But I also wanted to think about someone like Poe as a kind of subtle presence. Poe was interesting because on the one hand, Poe moves back and forth between the North and South and he is this extraordinary literary pioneer. American writers who follow Poe, and of course writers all over the globe, owe Poe a huge debt. Particularly if you’re doing anything that’s at all inventive, you have to look back to Poe and say, “You know you were really well ahead of your time as a fiction writer, as a poet, as a theorist.” On the other hand, Poe’s ideas about race, gender, class, were deeply problematic. So I also wanted to have that as a shadowy backdrop, because though this story’s moment is, I believe, after Poe is dead, the figures and the writers of his generation up through people like Emerson and Thoreau also provide a kind of backdrop for the emerging ideas underway about America’s future, about the Civil War, etc. There’s a brilliant book by Louis Menand called The Metaphysical Club, and it had such a profound effect on me. It’s a nonfiction book about this group of thinkers like Oliver Wendell Holmes all the way up through the early twentieth century, people like John Dewey, who would meet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, people who are major figures in American pragmatic philosophy, but also some of the foundational figures in various byways of American thought, particularly American philosophical thought, but legal thought, etc. It’s a nonfiction book but it reads to me like a novel. One of the things that I was thinking about as I was writing the stories in Counternarratives is how can I bring some of that intellectual debate into this collection of stories, but not have these airless, back-and-forth conversations. I don’t want to do it that way. Of course there’s some of that, but I wanted to have these be works of fiction, thrilling with interesting plots and characters, but also to not sacrifice that crucial undercurrent of ideas that is still active. Now they feel like they’ve almost become caricatures in a way, but I think it’s so important to not lose sight of the complexity of any moment of the past, because it’s very easy to reduce it to black and white or to simplify it, to make it palatable, when the reality is always, always more complicated.

LM: One of the elements about the collection I find most impressive is its varied take on historical perspective and how that works with narrative authority. You mentioned in a past interview with Lambda Literary that you had to actually rewrite a good portion of the stories because the original drafts were lost. As a writer, that sounds brutal to have to go back and re-examine all of these things.

JK: It was awful.

LM: Did you find after the rewrite process had occurred that your perspective, or the trajectory you had envisioned for the stories, had changed, or was it relatively systematic?

JK: Well, it was devastating at first, and I ended up publishing my second book with Chris Stackhouse in the absence of the text for this book, so I lost a good eight, nine years of time. But the weird thing is, I had notes for a number of the stories. So “Gloss” was one of the stories I lost. I was telling Professor Wilson that another story that I had been working on I was not able to retrieve, so it didn’t appear in here, but it was another kind of novella. It was about a black character who survives the Second World War in Germany. I wanted to get the book out, you know, but that novella would have actually taken us a little bit farther into the present. Anyway, when it came time to rewrite a number of these stories, I found that in a way the ghostly traces of those earlier drafts were still with me, but I think I was able to push myself much, much further. So I actually think that the stories that came out were much better.

One of the interesting things is, two of the stories in here, “Acrobatique” and “Cold,” they would not have been part of it had I finished the manuscript earlier, because “Cold” was a story that came directly from a conversation with my friend, the scholar Dorothy Wang. She found this amazing sheet music by Bob Cole and sent it to me, and that led me to investigate Bob Cole a bit more, and then I was able to make these connections between him and one of my favorite movies, Meet Me In St. Louis by Vincente Minelli, where they actually sing Cole’s “Under the Bamboo Tree;” Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien dance the cakewalk in front of the Christmas tree. And then, with “Acrobatique,” I sort of wandered into it when I was writing another one of the stories. I wandered into the J. P. Morgan Library and saw this amazing exhibit on Degas’s “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” the famous painting, and I was just spellbound by her image, the actual photograph of her, and all these drafts of Degas’s attempts to paint her, and then his struggle with the geometry of the Cirque Fernando; he had to bring in a structural engineer to help him figure out how to draw and then paint this. It was so, so interesting because part of it is designed to capture this woman who really is on one level an extraordinary figure, but also in trying to capture her he cannot fully make out the world behind her, the space behind her. So, those came as a part of rewriting the stories. I feel like it was a kind of happy undertaking, even though there was the initial devastation of losing those earlier drafts.

LW: “Gloss” was my favorite story, so I spent a lot of time sitting with it and thinking about it, and I noticed that in Carmel’s diary-entry section where we get to hear her voice, it read to me very easily. So I’m thinking, why is it that I can read this easily since it’s abbreviated, there’s no punctuation, and then I realized it reads a lot like modern text-message language. It reads kind of like a slang. I floated this idea past few classmates and we agreed, it sounds exactly like the way we communicate with each other via text message every day of our lives.

JK: I love that, that’s great! Can I just say, you’re the first person who’s mentioned that. I love that.

LW: It took reading it aloud to realize that there’s something we could pick up on as twenty-year-old adults in 2018 that somehow made it so easy to read a nineteenth-century figure’s thoughts as we’re reading her diary. So my question was about this synchronizing of a modern technology, text-message slang, back into the nineteenth century, if this was intentional or not intentional, and if it served to trouble the way we think about the linear, and white, progression of technology? Or was it just a happy coincidence?

JK: That’s great. So, part of it is, in my mind as I was writing it, Carmel has to encode these diary entries. She wants to make them legible to herself, but not to everybody. You should usually be able to read them; anybody could read them if they actually found them, but they’re hidden. But they’re written in code, and the code is also kind of a pidgin text because when you think about the development of pidgin languages, and how often they are directly linked to the colonial language and its imposition, and whether it’s an enslaved people or colonized people, people subject to empire, it’s how they adapt the language. All those things are woven in, but the fascinating thing was, as I was writing them, when I’d written about maybe five, I asked myself, What does this mean? Then I realized, as you picked up, this is sort of like texting. And that actually allowed me to write all of them because I kept thinking, be consistent with the abbreviations and things like that. Where the language ends up, there’s some Latin in there, some French, but it is like texting. I love that you picked that up because some people have said to me, “I couldn’t read it all. I just couldn’t get through it.” One of my responses is, well think about what we have today that is very similar. Texting, and also with Twitter we get some of this, like the abbreviations. This is one of these moments, I think, of a sort of Afro-futurist necromancy.

LW: So the final question is just a little one, but can you give us any tidbits, are you working on anything new?

JK: Yes, I am working on two novels. I always think of one as the big one, and one the little one. So we’ll see. And I have some poetry that just needs to be collected, so I hope to have some of that out too.

John Keene’s recent books include the story collection Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) and several books of poetry. He also has translated the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014). His recent honors include an American Book Award and Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction, as well as a 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He chairs the department of African American and African Studies and teaches English and creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark.

Lucas M. Morel graduated from Washington and Lee in 2018 and currently studies in the University of Virginia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, pursuing his Master’s degree in English. He is primarily interested in African American literature: particularly the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Kendrick Lamar.

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Lilly Wimberly graduated with a degree in English and politics from Washington and Lee University in May. Following graduation, she briefly relocated to NYC to attend Columbia University’s publishing institute, and has since settled in DC after accepting a job at Axios Media under fellow W&L grad Mike Allen. When she isn’t stalking politicians like celebrities, Lilly can frequently be found dragging her friends to foodie spots and writing unsolicited Yelp reviews.