an interview with john keene
An artist of teeming vision and exacting command, John Keene is a writer, poet, and translator from St Louis, Missouri. A graduate of Harvard and NYU and a longtime member of Boston's influential Dark Room collective, John is the recipient of many honors, including a 2005 Whiting award and, this year, Yale’s prestigious Windham Campbell prize.
Keene’s first book of fiction, 1995’s Annotations, is a rich experiment in literary autobiography that grapples with racial, sexual, and class identities against a tattered backdrop of St. Louis’s urban history.
In his latest collection of stories and novellas, 2015’s Counternarratives, Mr. Keene works to dismantle and challenge the narratives, myths, and histories that undergird those American monoliths of white supremacy, patriarchy, capital, and empire. The book not only deconstructs and lays bare, but invites the reader, through formal play and invention, to follow along as he styles queer pathways of and through the shadows of America’s histories and its literatures.
Breakwater: To start, you’ve talked about how you were struggling to write adequately about the AIDS crisis in its urgent political situation, and I think right now it seems as if poetry can contend with current moments much better than fiction. And I’m curious what you think fiction’s role is in relation to contemporary issues and urgencies; as opposed to the ‘bigger’ questions traditionally reserved for novels.
John Keene: I see them as being directly related. I think one of the challenges is always that fiction, longer fiction, takes a while to write. Some people can write very quickly, but for most people it takes a while to get a text out. Whereas with poetry, and I also feel this way with drama, there is a kind of immediacy. And there have been movements at various times (I think about Agitprop and the Black Arts movement) where there was an emphasis on poetry and drama because you can write it quickly, perform it anywhere, read it anywhere. It’s portable in a way that fiction cannot be.
The other thing I sometimes think is this: This book [Counternarratives] comes out in 2015. It was the 150th anniversary to the end of the Civil War. There were, shockingly to me, almost no major public commemorations of this war. A war whose effects and reverberations we are still grappling with today. And it wasn’t intentional, but I realized the book deals with the Civil War, it deals with history and race, with slavery, with segregation. All of these things are still part of our present. We are living in the aftershock, the sort of wake of them. Christina Sharpe, a brilliant writer, has this brilliant book called In the Wake. It is amazing how she thinks through this idea about the multiple metaphors of the wake: the funeral, the waves, the ship. So this book is about the past, but it is also about the present. You have the policing of black bodies in a number of these stories. So, even though it’s not Michael Brown, or Trayvon Martin, or Sean Bell, while none of them are mentioned in here, you can see the kind of forelife to the world they are living in in a book like this. So that is often what fiction can do. Fiction can present a picture that may not seem to be directly responding to what’s happening, but once you look back, you can see that it is doing exactly that. Even then we think about all of the futurist texts that imagine a utopia or dystopia, and you think “Oh my god, we couldn’t possibly get to that place.” But we are there! Or we are there very soon! Right?
But then you’re also dealing with larger ideas: consciousness, what it means to be human, what it means to live, right? What it means to love, to struggle in daily life. Those are the powers fiction has. But then again, it takes 3 years, 5 years to write and you think, “Oh my god, I missed my time.” For example, one of the projects I started was when George W. Bush was president. And as he left, I thought “Oh you know, we’ll never see someone as bad as that again.” You know? Little did I know… I think little most of us knew... well some of us knew....
BR: So I am also curious, in Counternarratives, how you navigate the tension between the book as art and as a political project and how you manage to avoid making it a purely political thing. How difficult is that for you? And what methods, if any, do you use to avoid it?
JK: Well, first of all, all art is political! Whether it states its politics or not. But I did not think about the politics of the work. I wrote stories I was compelled to write, stories I was interested in. And I wanted to be playful—to think of multiple ways to give the reader pleasure. Of course there are many kinds of pleasure a reader can get from the book. It can be a character you cannot get out of your head. It can be language itself: you repeat something, you read it aloud. It can be all kinds of things, something that makes you laugh! I know some have picked up the reference to Fresh Prince of Bel Air in one of the stories. There are all kinds of things to make people say “Wow I love that!”
There are some people who want to write something that is insistently political and are less concerned about the aesthetics. They want to reach people in a direct kind of way, and they do it well or not so well. My goal is more complex. I want to actually create a work of art here. To the extent to which it succeeds or fails, that is up to the reader.
On the other hand, I think there is a consonance in terms of the politics in here and what is going on right now. And one thing that I think is fascinating is this: People will tell me, “Oh, the book has done so well!” And it has! But I did not get a single US newspaper review for this book. Not a single one save for the Wall Street Journal. And when the British paper appeared, not a single one save the Times of London. And they wrote about the book three times. I don’t know what that’s about! Someone said to me that it’s because the book critiques liberalism. It is not conservative, it’s progressive! But when you write about the American Revolution in Massachusetts, and you put slavery at the center of that story, that is deeply discomforting to some people. But I wasn’t thinking about that! I was thinking, “Who is this character Zion?” What would it be like to be somebody who is a true embodiment of one kind of freedom, but also of a true unfreedom, at a moment when the discourse all around this person, his body, is about freedom. Right? But he cannot be free. There is no space for him to truly be free. Even as he is determined to live out a particular life.
BR: I’d like to talk about the Annotations to Counternarratives. You mentioned the differences in tone, and I noticed while reading Counternarratives a ton of places that were wry and funny where I was not necessarily expecting it. I am interested in hearing how if Annotations was what you were writing against in the early 90’s, where you’ve found the freedom to play and change tones in your evolving body of work.
JK: Well I will always say this in a group of writers: back up your work! Because I lost six complete drafts of these stories while writing and some of them were published, but I had lost four of them. And when they were able to salvage my hard drive, all of my stories and many poems were gone. Email them to yourself. Google will read them, but they don’t care about short stories anyway.
And I was devastated. But in that time, I published a second book with an artist named Christopher Stackhouse called Seismosis. And it was an extremely difficult book, Annotations pales in comparison, but the thing about that book was that, as Chris and I were going back and forth, he kept saying to me ‘push yourself.’ So that is the origin of a lot of the formal play in the new book. I pushed myself in poetry and did things I had never done before.
And so what happens if you have a poem that is basically a mathematical formula, a poem you can break down into words? This is something else I am interested in: the organizing of the text. But in poetry you can get away with it! And there were beautiful images as well. So even if people reach a point where they say, “Oh I can’t take this anymore,” they can’t look away. But there is the language of math and language of topology in there, so that opened up a space for me to do Counternarratives. Having engaged in that kind of experimentation, I said “You know what, if you can do this with really something so abstract, what happens if you bring something more concrete, more material, to your fiction?”
Another thing I’ll say, and this is one last thing, the second story I wrote for this book is that very strange story, “On Brazil.” Tisa Bryant, who was in the Dark Room Collective and is the co-editor of a journal called Encyclopedia, she invited me to participate in their first volume. They gave everybody two words, and I was one of the few people who could not understand the directions, and instead of choosing one word, I just went with both words. One word was “Brazil” and the other was “denouement.” During the time I was writing that story, I had been teaching creative writing. One of the things I struggled with was explaining to students “What is denouement, this French word, this unknotting of the story?” So I thought, “What if I demonstrate to myself what denouement was by making it the story?” This turned out to be a story about Brazil... but also about George W Bush. So. All of those things are woven into that story. When I finished it, revised it, and gave it to Tisa, she said, “Oh my god, where did you come up with this?” It’s kind of like a work of historiography, and it does all these weird things with language and tone. And then the discourse changes, right? There are shifts in discourse: dry historical voices, voices of authority. And at one point, I realized what was fascinating about publications like The Daily Mirror or Hello in which they are writing about the royal family, and obsessing over Prince Harry and Megan Markle. I don’t care about these people, but some people are really into it! But if you ever read that language, it is so fascinating! The story is told to draw you in to identify with these very rich and powerful people. I have nothing in common with them, but by the time I’m done reading this I’m actually kind of fascinated. It’s like, Oh gee, what is Prince Harry going to do tomorrow?
So all of that is in my story! And what it creates is a text that I think is, in some ways, very queer. And ‘On Brazil’ is one of the stories that I sent out to magazines and journals, and again and again the response was “I don’t know what this is. Is this history? Is it fiction? Does he not know what he’s doing? This is unsettling.” But! That was a nice spurt for me to keep going. It allowed me to keep going.
BR: The advantages of rejection!
JK: Exactly, exactly! Rejection! And of losing things! But I’d rather not lose stuff.
BR: Yeah, as you just mentioned. I really wanted to talk about the queering of history and the queer bodies in the book. Because I was struck by, even in the beginning of the book, the fairly oblique queer bodies. In almost every story there seems to be a queer presence in the book. I wanted to know how much you planned on that happening, or how organic it was?
JK: I think in certain cases it was intentional, and in others it wasn’t. I am fascinated by othered bodies, how people and bodies are othered, and how that links to our understanding of queerness. So for example with Zion [from the story “An Outtake”], a character who is on one hand the emblem for toxic masculinity, he’s constantly fighting and attacking woman, demanding and taking things he wants. But the thing that I am interested in—that I was conscious of—was that everything that he is doing was mirroring what his master does. Except that when his master does it, it is legitimated by society, by his class status. So why can one person get away with all this stuff, and another person can’t? Not that anyone should be getting away with it, but I wanted to think about that—that juxtaposition. So in a sense, Zion queers [his master] Isaac Wantone, destabilizes his position, the idealization of this one person who, in standard histories, would be presented as a patriot, founding figure, and citizen.
In other cases, I wanted to overtly write queer stories. So for example, in the Langston Hughes story [“Blues”], I was, of all places, at a James Baldwin conference in Montpelier, France. I was at dinner and, out of the blue, a female scholar across the table just started saying, “Oh it’s just terrible. Langston Hughes, the gays have just totally taken him over. The gays! A person teaching!” And so I said, “What?!” And she responded that it was the only thing people talked about, and that there was no proof he was gay. So first of all I said, “That is a really outlandish thing to say, ‘the gays.’ But second of all, there was no proof he wasn’t gay! And if you read his stories more carefully, you see again and again, queer desire threaded through.” And so I said to myself, and to her, “I am going to write a story to show you Langston Hughes was gay.” And she kind of shrugged and said “I don’t care, I don’t believe it!” But I knew someone who knew Richard Bruce Nugent, the artist spoken about in “Blues.” This person told me that Langston Hughes’s assistant—and this was well known—told people that Langston Hughes was gay. And that many of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance were gay or bisexual or queer. Claude McKay, Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond. This is not some fantastical thing! But she was so dismissive. So it was so homophobic, but I also thought that most of where this is coming from is the long standing contestation around Hughes from that Arnold Rampersad biography where he actually says Langston Hughes was asexual. But then, Rampersad tells the story of this incredibly extraordinary African American woman, who had gone to University of Michigan at a time when black woman were rarely admitted to colleges, let alone great ones. She goes to UM, she has her degree, and she is in love with Langston Hughes. So Hughes keeps stringing her along and stringing her along. And Rampersad quotes her saying “If you can’t do what a man is supposed to do. Then, please, just leave me alone! Just be clear about it!” And then I read his writing, and he is talking about standing at a gay man’s home in Los Angeles, and how beautiful the actor, Ramon Navarro, is. And it’s like, it’s all there! Right in front of your eyes! And Rampersad is like....well, we don’t know...we don’t have access to the letters. So I wanted to write against that.
One last thing I’ll say about that story is that I also wanted to queer modernism, because the first American writer that the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges translated into Spanish was Langston Hughes. Then Xavier Villaurrutia, one of the great Mexican modernists who was gay, also translated Langston Hughes. There are scholars who have written about how the poets whose works were circulating in Mexico among sort of the gay coterie (and the senior poets called it like pansy literature, I mean they hated it!) were Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, and Langston Hughes. So I’m thinking, how do these Mexican writers pick it up? I mean their attenae were attuned! They knew what they were reading. But you have these senior figures saying “No, this is not literature, this is illegible to us.” So I wanted to put all of that into a story and have it be somewhat combustible. But then the story itself now effloresces, like I imagine these two writers might. So the last page of that story is very musical.
BR: Great, thank you so much John!
JK: Thank you!
Drew Bevis is a writer out of Nashville and a fiction editor for Breakwater Review.