John Keene was born in St. Louis in June 1965—the summer, evoked in the opening pages of his first novel, Annotations, “of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal.” There was, he writes, a “crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery.” Annotations is a shape-shifting memoir, novel, and prose poem about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in St. Louis, black and queer. In 2015, in the summer of Freddie Gray and Walter Scott and Baltimore and Charleston, Keene published his first collection of stories, Counternarratives. In this new work, Keene, who is also a poet, translator, and scholar, turns outward and backward across four centuries of the African diaspora to excavate and conjure those who came before. One of the book’s epigraphs, by Puerto Rican writer Edgardo Rodríguez Julía, reads: “I believe that if we have any notion at all of what has generally been called human nature, it is because History, like a mirror, holds up for our contemplation, an image of ourselves.”
Throughout Counternarratives, Keene shows History to be woefully lacking in black subjectivities—more mirrors are needed, new mirrors, and this book offers up a panoply of reflections and refractions, a staggering range of voices, places, and styles: seventeenth-century Brazil, revolutionary Haiti, a nunnery in frontier Kentucky, a Civil War hot-air balloon, nineteenth-century Paris, and Depression-era Harlem, the epistle, the gothic, the monologue, the biographical, and the footnote, not to mention the sentences sharp and poetic like a handmade blade. Though unlinked, these thirteen stories have the sweeping tidal movement of a novel. Structured chronologically, from the arrival of the first immigrant to Mannahatta in 1613 to our abstracted now, the book reads as a shadow history of modernity, of its reasons and unreasons. Paralleling this arc, the struggle for voice—voice qua subjectivity—threads through the collection, through the silences, constrictions, compromises, and revolutions. In one story, a slave named Zion continually escapes from his Northern owners during the lead-up to the American Revolution. Keene’s deadpan historical prose renders ironic the slave’s rebellion and crimes alongside the colonists’ same acts. Caught and sentenced to death, Zion escapes from jail the night before his execution. But, the perfunctory record reads, “given the severity of the crimes and the necessity of preserving the ruling order, another Negro, whose particular crimes are not recorded, was hanged in the Worcester Town Square.” There’s no mention of the witnesses’ reaction, whether they notice the switch or care. The contemporary reader recognizes the indiscriminate ease with which “justice” interchanges one black body for another. In the centre of each story is a reckoning of ethics, the dilemma of being subject to power. In the novella “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” Carmel, an orphaned and mute slave girl, is pulled between her enforced responsibility to the established order and her duty to her own history, ancestors, and desires. Styled as an experimental gothic bildungsroman, the story follows Carmel from a plantation in Saint-Domingue to a convent in frontier Kentucky as she loyally serves her teenage keeper, all the while surreptitiously honing the supernatural powers she inherited from her mother. As the narrator puts it, “Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?” By the end, having mastered the languages of both her oppressors and her ancestors, she speaks. Her voice, enacting her move toward freedom, breaks into the narration, first in pidgin English and then a learned tongue, and commandeers the telling just as she razes the nunnery and escapes.
Like his characters, Keene’s sentences observe and rebel, accreting clause by clause an image or a feeling, pushing against limits until it dilates into view. The nineteenth-century circus performer Miss La La—a.k.a. Anna Olga Albertina Brown, the African princess, la Venus noire—reclaims her representation from posterity in a single unspooling line as she hovers over Edgar Degas’s canvas, his “hands moving furiously across it, the eyes darting from it to me, his eyes, large and tourmaline and climbing their own invisible ladder, trying to seize and hold onto my waist, my ankles . . . I elude him and all of them, gliding higher, toward the freedom of the dome.”
Keene’s formal play bends these stories into self-criticizing vehicles that lay bare narrative’s culpability in oppression—not only in what stories are told and by whom but also in the hierarchy of literary categories. In one, he upends the power structure of the epistle by revealing the author of a seemingly-official correspondence between Catholic priests to be a slave with a command of the high language of authority. Or, as in “Gloss . . . ,” a footnote erupts out of and overwhelms an encyclopedia entry. Elsewhere, encounter narratives, rather than exoticizing their subject, are reworked as intimate openings into the interiors of black lives. In “Cold,” the second-person mind rush of real-life performer and composer Bob Cole runs like a stream written by Woolf or Joyce, as his guilt—“that cooning and crooning minstrelsy copping a mountain of green in return, concreting a vision of you, of all of you in their heads”—drowns him in “only a sound that sounds like the inside of a sound, a not-whistle, a not-warble, not-words, a code, a cloud of could and cannot.”
Some texts form a web of chance connections, and while reading Keene’s book I found I became sensitized to kindred works. So I can’t help but briefly mention Robin Coste Lewis’s poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, because, like Counternarratives, it undoes histories—attacking the boundedness that James Baldwin attributed to “the nature of our categorization.” In the epic title poem, Lewis implicates Western art history and its institutions in the erasures and perpetuations of black female identity by reweaving found text consisting of the names and descriptions of forty thousand years of art. From the section “Catalog 1: Ancient Greek & Ancient Rome”:
Statuette of a Woman Reduced
to the Shape of a Flat Paddle
Statuette of a Black Slave Girl
Right Half of Body and Head Missing
Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment
from a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl
And, in “Frames,” Lewis traces the limitations of photographic representation that she experienced as a child:
Every year these four photographs
taught us how English was really a type of trick math:
like the naked Emperor, you could be a King
capable of imagining just one single dream;
or there could be a body, bloody
at your feet—then you could point at the sky;
or you could be a hunched-over cotton-picking shame;
or you could swing from a tree by your neck into the frame.
This work of both Keene and Lewis, this agitating of history’s hidden fault lines, is a creative necessity for social change because, as Lewis said in an interview: “We haven’t been able to tell what’s been going on for millennia with regard to the majority narratives about black people. What has been projected onto us is so insane, so pathological, that we don’t know either.” Paradigm shifts begin with the stories we tell: first at the edges and then into the centre. In the final story of Counternarratives, “Lions,” a Beckett-bleak pastiche of dialogue, a dictator explains the risk of stories to the ruler he has deposed:
Lyric poems, oral stories, short stories. You banned them all. I initially followed your lead, all of it except the most inane trash, though some of that can provoke enough sympathy to start people thinking. . . . I give them a steady diet of garbage . . . nothing to give them any hope or ideas. Thin as wartime broth.
Baldwin, who remained hopeful despite everything, said, “but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding, forever, a new act of creation, which can save us.” Any act of writing is ultimately a project of hope, and hope, as it’s found in Keene’s work, centres on language and how it can right and renew and reimagine—or, as one character says, “in language you need to lose yourself . . . to recover yourself.”
Shaun Pett is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, Maisonneuve, Outpost, and the Financial Times, among others; his reviews and essays have appeared on The Millions and Full Stop.