“Like Currents in a River”: A Conversation with Speculative Fiction Writer John Keene: An Interview by Rochelle Spencer

Lambda Literary (c) 2016

“John Keene is an incredibly well-read poet….John is a scholar”

—Afaa Michael Weaver, interview, August 2013

Ask the mentors and members of the Dark Room Collective, the Cambridge-based reading series and workshop that Cornelius Eady claimed “a group that could turn well out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance,” what they think of John Keene’s work, and they’ll most likely point to the obvious: his broad and glittering intelligence.

To read Keene’s masterpiece Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is to recognize the complexity of his thought. Written when he was just twenty-nine years old, Annotations juxtaposes traditional ideas of what it means to black (facing color and class oppression) with less obvious notions (cosmopolitanism, scholarship, a love of Joyce), and in doing so, Annotations provides one of contemporary literature’s most multidimensional portraits of blackness. Annotations show that blackness could be a discussion about “good hair”; then again, blackness could also be incorporating German, Portuguese, French, Arabic, ancient Greece, and Ebonics into the very same text.

What’s less obvious—and less discussed—than the breadth of Keene’s knowledge is how that knowledge has enabled him to become a leader in the recent Afrofuturism movement. Keene, who has created both a popular online photo gallery for his I-pad drawn portraits and an app for his blog, clearly understands innovation and Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism–or black America’s aesthetic response to technology–has created in-depth examination of the inventions (the cotton gin, guns) and scientific experiments (the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the cells of Henrietta Lacks) that have preyed upon and destabilized black communities. Afrofuturism, as scholar Alondra Nelson has pointed out, positions African-Americans as producers of technology and art. And from websites (http://afrofuturism.net) to art exhibits (the Studio Museum of Harlem’s The Shadows Took Shape and Hall Walls’s Black Kirby) and anthologies (Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Culture and the Black Futurists Collective’s Black Futurists Speak: An Anthology of New Black Writing), Afrofuturism is becoming a well-documented cultural phenomenon.

And if Keene’s Annotations captures the spirit of Afrofuturism, his latest, Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015), releases it in a related form of black speculative fiction and art, Afro-Surrealism. (Afrofuturism focuses on the future, but Afro-Surrealism examines how the past, present, and future all intersect.) Described by Vanity Fair as a collection that “finds inspiration in newspaper clippings, memoirs, and history,” Counternarratives encapsulates the tenets of Afro-Surrealism–its ability to meld future and past, its tendency to blend myth and history, and outward-searching technology with inward-facing psychology.

It is fitting, then, that Samuel Delany (who, after the 2006 death of Octavia Butler, is the most well known black science fiction writer) dedicated Atlantis: Model 1924, his collection of novellas, to Keene. Keene’s Annotations proved that he could be futurist, as his text explores Afrofuturistic ideas twenty years before the explosion of the Afrofuturism movement. And today, Keene’s Counternarratives demonstrates the challenges of living in a postmodern age.

Keene’s title, Counternarratives, suggests the desire to make sure that modern technology expands, rather than limits, the kinds of conversations we should be able to have. And because this is Keene, these conversations will be complex; Keene’s work allows his readers to dip a toe into the warm waves of a mind forever churning with thought.

RS: Can you talk about Counternarratives? What are your aesthetic goals with this collection and with the short story “Mannahatta”?

Keene: We live in a state of erasure, constant erasure of history. The first permanent settler of Manhattan is a black person [this is the basis for the story “Mannahatta”]–a black or mulatto person born in the Caribbean who was called “black rascal” and who got beaten up. But he’s also a person who frees himself, who makes profound social and economic connections. How crucial is this history for discovering New York? With Counternarratives part of my goal is a deep imagining, showing that history is not something we should be ashamed of. Part of what I want to show is history and out of the footnotes in society, an entire story unfolds…European rationality is presented as the pinnacle of achievement and modernism, but our bodies (black bodies) make that modernity possible. This is all in the backdrop with Annotations and Counternarratives.


RS: Can you go into more detail about rationality and does it conflict with your use of the surreal and Afrofuturistic?

Keene: Rationality is a kind of fiction as well. …Part of the source of the English novel is history. Myth, fables, storytelling itself—they are all a deeply human enterprise. We have these views of the world that are clashing—and how do we in contemporary society read these views that are clashing?


RS: Speaking of clashing views. In “The Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows,” the novella that is included in Counternarratives, you’ve created two interesting characters: Carmel, a slave girl who has some very unusual abilities, and Eugénie, her mistress. Sometimes it seems as though Eugénie cares about Carmel and other times, she is terribly cruel. Can you go into more detail about their relationship?


Keene: People can be loving and horrible at the same time. Carmel is Eugénie’s property and she forces her to lie for her; she sexually abuses her. But at the same time, she shares with her like she’s her sister.


RS: Could you tell me about Annotations and some of the themes that emerge in your work?


Keene: I think it differs with subsequent work. I was trying to write a much more straightforward novel. At this point, I was trying to grapple with AIDS and a certain understanding of black masculinity and sexuality. I was struck dumb. Seeing people disappearing or dying before my eyes—my young black peers, most of who were heterosexual. I was trying to figure out a way to put my experience in the world. I couldn’t put it in a standard realist approach and the New Black Aesthetic Movement [a reference to Trey Ellis’s landmark essay “The New Black Aesthetic,” which argues that the writers who emerged in the late 1990s developed a sort of Afrocentric postmodernism; these writers, Ellis claims, were highly aware of African-American culture, but also consciously drew material from other races and ethnic groups]—things were woven together. I was reading Clarence Major, Ntozake Shange, Jay Wright, Michael Harper, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison—that’s where you get that density of reference, the description, the aphorisms—it was all coming together. They were currents in a river. Annotations isn’t pure theory or pure memoir or a novel.


RS: One of the remarkable aspects of your writing is the way you use language. Can you discuss your use of multiple voices?


Keene: African American culture involves code switching. In Annotations [which is set in St. Louis], people spoke French to each other and to their horse, but not to their Negroes. People can be very critical of African American vernacular, but we all have these multiple layers of language…we use one language at home. The kids in the neighborhood have another way of speaking.


RS: Could you describe some of the misconceptions about the Dark Room Collective, the acclaimed writing group that you joined early in your career?


Keene: There was an idea that in the early 1990s that everyone was a graduate of Harvard or had gone to Harvard or had somehow disengaged with Black Poetics and its experience. But the group directly countered that, in every possible way. We were from all over the place. Some of us were from New England; some of us were Haitian or Latino; we were involved with visual arts, music, film. It was a rather complex group and that reality is much more complex and exciting.


RS: How did you get involved with the Dark Room?


Keene: I went to my barbershop and saw a card with the words “Dark Room.” The card had an address, and I thought it was a bookstore. I went to the house before they started. They told me they were going to get started next week. So, I went the first week the Dark Room started. I was drawn in. I started showing them my work. I spoke to Sharan [Strange, the co-founder of the Dark Room Collective].


RS: You just alluded to the Black Arts Movement. How did the Black Arts Movement influence the Dark Room?


Keene: The DNA of the Black Arts Movement is in every contemporary Black American poet and in Black poets all over the world, whether they acknowledge this influence or not. The ideas of self discovery, black pride, connection, to do something on your own rather than waiting for someone else to do it—those ideas were central to Dark Room Collective writers in their youth, so I feel we wouldn’t have been possible without them, without the crucial well of Black Arts Movement poets. They are invaluable, and they remain invaluable, though people sometimes talk about the Movement as if it failed. I think counter to that: their influence will continue well into the first century and beyond.


RS: What is your response to people who look at the election of a black president and wonder if we are post-racial, if we still need spaces like the Dark Room Collective that support writers of color?


Keene:  These spaces are absolutely crucial. We’re deluding ourselves if we buy into the notion of post-racialism. Racism, white supremacy, sexism, classism, heteronormativity still exist. Still, on the one hand, things are so much better. Junot Díaz was in the crowd with Hilton Als at the Strand and a woman was praising him for his success, and his response was that his success was predicated on a system that people who looked like him didn’t become writers.


RS: Can you discuss the hybrid nature of the Dark Room and your own work?


Keene: More than anything, it is an example of putting work out there that is not so straightforward. Artists make connections; that’s what they do… I went to a discussion last weekend at the CUNY grad center. I think it’s interesting how they were all emphasizing connections between different literary genres. The Dark Room did this (they had music, visual artists, people who just liked to party). Artists—the writers I most deeply admire–open up new possibilities for those who follow. To do that, I salute them.