Michaela Hansen & Patrick Cline Interview John Keene

Photo by Nina Subin

Most writers want to tell a good story, some writers want to set fire to the barn, and John Keene is a writer who does both. If the barn is history and our society’s view of it, then Keene is match, tinder, and oxygen. In his most recent collection Counternarratives, the stories Keene builds out of the ashes take voices you thought you knew and voices that have never been heard, to construct another side of history. In an interview with Lambda Literary’s Reginald Harris, Keene reminds us that “superstition under one perspective is spirituality under another.” Neither history nor the literary record, are iron truths and the story changes when you are able to view it from another perspective. The stories of Counternarratives are peopled with characters that demand a voice and Keene is fearless in his use of narrative technique to let them come off the page. I admire a writer who hopes to court a reader comfortable with ambiguity because isn’t it surety that builds a barn worth burning?

Front Porch: Do you feel a tension in adopting certain historical voices to tell the stories of characters these same historical voices have traditionally been used to ignore/marginalize? Do your stories affirm or critique an authoritative historical perspective, or is it more complicated than that? I ask because many of the stories in Counternarratives, particularly in the first section, go to enormous and detailed lengths to give a full historical perspective on your characters, but often end in a very fantastical manner.

John Keene: The stories in Counternarratives by their very nature critique the idea of historical authority, particularly master narratives. They ask, whose “authority” is regularly being invoked, and why? Thinking now of Fanon, I’d ask, how do certain kinds of narrative “authority” exclude many vital voices of the past and today? The tension of excluded voices speaking or disrupting the surface of and depths of these stories’ narratives is a central aspect of their drama.

To address another aspect of your question, what appears to be “a very fantastical manner” may hinge on what I have termed elsewhere the question of competing rationalities, as well as the tensions between history, myth and story. With many of these stories I’d point to the partial quality of the historical perspective, as well as the unstable nature and tone of the voice. Who is to say what really happened with Zion at the end of “An Outtake,” though the outcome of the hanging tracks with our contemporary status quo. In “Our Lady of the Sorrows,” aren’t we being asked to accept on faith that this occluded story, a footnote, could or even would be told at all? “A Letter on the Counterreformation” traffics in the beliefs and fears that existed at the moment the story chronicles; the idea of extra-human metaphysical and spiritual powers would not have seemed fantastical at all in the 1630s, or indeed for millions of people in 2015.

FP: However, by deliberately using a “historical” style in many of the early stories and juxtaposing it with various “primary source” voices, you seem to be deliberately invoking a historical perspective by which to read these stories. In this perspective, the superstitions of the times are typically discarded, or transformed into clues by which we investigate the psychologies and mundane realities of those historical figures. As such, it seems to me that the historical perspective itself undermines the contemporary rationalities of these stories–the arrogance of modernity, I suppose. Do you think that fiction can work to destabilize the “contemporary” rationality in a practical manner, or only in an aesthetic manner–that is, as a sort of thought experiment for the length of the story? If it’s the former, how do your stories work to do so?

JK: This question unfolds like a brilliant koan, so let me try to unpack it. Many of the stories deliberately invoke and evoke historical perspectives, but simultaneously and in multiple ways destabilize any possible reading of objective neutrality and authority in them. That is, these are clearly stories about history, but neither histories nor historical narratives in the conventional sense. They dramatize the tension between discursive structures (the law, politics, history, religion, etc.) and human subjectivity. I believe the scholar Andreas Huyssen once argued, apropos of the German writer Alexander Kluge, in favor of the concept of analytical storytelling. This is, in part, what these stories are undertaking, with critique of the narrative’s surface power and political resistance encoded in the narration’s weave, which creates a defamiliarizing effect. I’d add that rationalities in modernity—even contemporary modernity or post-post-modernity—are hardly stable, as Freud and others have reminded us. Slavery’s development tracks and is dialectically engaged with modernity’s rise, and the most murderous mind and death cults in recorded human history occurred at modernity’s peak. The superstitions and myths of the past remain legible in the stories, and yet, as they suggest, they are still with us today. With regard to the challenge of the stories’ effectiveness in destabilizing “contemporary” rationality in a practical vs. an aesthetic manner, I grasp the limits of any text to do either, and yet nevertheless hope the stories provoke a new, if limited and momentary horizon of enlightenment and recognition. 

FP: You make use of many clearly modernist modes of writing to tell some of the stories in the second and third parts of the collection. Do you see an ongoing vitality in these narrative techniques, or do they require a historical context to work? Can they be effectively applied (and received) to the modern world, or have they gone the way of the Third-Person-Omniscient (that is to say, quaint)?

JK: The modernist narrative techniques in the second and third sections of the book you refer to, which I presume include stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and formalism, are definitely applicable to the modern world, by which I gather you mean contemporary American, African American and global literature. They also draw from the post-modernist tool kit (pastiche, rhetoric, intertextuality, metonymy, irony, antiformal unity, reflexivity, etc.), and as many of the endings underline, resist closure. For me the question is, what techniques and forms are appropriate to these works of art, rather than what is au courant today? Also, in light of a great deal of aesthetically narrowed fictional practice, especially in terms of the contemporary, conventional American short story, might not the varied approaches in Counternarratives be especially salient and open up possibilities for others? (And don’t many critics still love the Third Person Omniscient realist narrator?)

FP: Hmm, I suppose it’s the stylistic pastiches of “Encounternarratives” that I’m asking about. The styles invoked seem to correspond to the historical moment of each story—an impressionistic style in “Acrobatique” to capture an impressionist subject, the cacophony of languages in “Cold” at a time when it seemed that art was working to capture exactly that (e.g. Dada, Eliot)—as well as the subjects. I think what I was most struck by was that the stories seem to exhibit no fear of Yvor Winters’ “imitative fallacy”—that they’re fully willing to invent new stylistic modes simply to accurately capture varieties of experience, without reflexively casting doubt their ability to do so. I’m wondering if the justification of pastiche affords them this boldness.

JK: Your identification of the historicization embedded in the stories’ forms is a great one. I do wonder, though are these fully stylistic “pastiches”? Of Modernist prose? Or does “pastiche” function as one of many modes in them and all the volume’s narratives? I see the forms and styles as apt textual embodiments and enactments of the stories’ themes. To put it another way, the prose forms and texts here serve not merely as presentations but as partial representations of the narratives they convey, which is to say, they possess a mimetic function or component, which is, admittedly, fairly uncommon in contemporary American literature. With “Acrobatique,” the prose visually mirrors the story’s progression but also its central ideas. In popular memory, the specificity of Miss La La had become as lost to us as any single thread within the vast tapestry of Degas’s artistic output. That recovered thread, via my imagination, is the one the story hangs on. As for Winters, I suppose I read his “imitative fallacy” as too proscriptive, which is always a spur to defiance. How did Caliban put it in The Tempest? “I’ll have none on’t.” Or as Elizabeth Alexander has written, “Oh language/my trinket, my dialect bucket,/my bracelet of flesh.” If we listened too closely to Winters, we’d lose a sizable swath of our literary treasures, and not just those from modernism—or post-modernism—on.

FP: Do you see Google as a necessary companion to your collection? Who is your ideal reader, and does it matter if they don’t exist?

JK: Given that one of the key themes of the book is knowledge and how we acquire it, my ideal reader is someone who is willing to proceed in a state of not-knowing, or not fully knowing, just as she might read any challenging work that operates on multiple, not fully graspable levels, yet provides numerous opportunities for engagement and pleasure. Having a dictionary or search engine nearby is optional.

FP: You refer to Counternarratives as a literary and archival mixtape; what do you think about the effects of new media and technology on storytelling? How did these changes affect your approach to Counternarratives vs. Annotations, and do you anticipate that new media will change the way you create your future works?

JK: In general I am agnostic, or neutral, on new media and technologies’ effects on storytelling; I have witnessed some positive things occurring, and some that are not so positive. All successful or at least interesting storytelling requires a marshaling of key elements of narration, and, on the part of the listener or reader, focused attention. In a world in which a welter of things, let alone people, endlessly compete for our attention, what does a storyteller need to capture us, however briefly? But this also was a challenge 100 years ago and will continue to be the case.

Annotations includes a good deal of collage and sampling, and references to high and popular culture, including (the dreaded) TV; new media techniques are certainly operative in that brief book, as with my second, Seismosis. In Counternarratives, there are a range of non-literary discourses, all of which you can now easily access online, though one of my goals was a more conventionally accessible work of fiction. I have created works using new technologies (I am of the generation that shifted from typewriters to word processers, and from desktop computers to laptops, and now to tablets and e-readers, and yet I also still do use a pen and paper at times), and have a scholarly paper soon to appear that explores black digital poetics, so my work is always in conversation with the world around me, past, present and future.

FP: Your stories push against the dominant narrative of our society in a political way and explore the possibilities of narrative and form in a manner that, to me, is very true to the art of storytelling. Do you think art and political statement are at odds with each other? How do you negotiate the balance between the political and the artistic in your work? What kind of responsibility do you think a storyteller has to either art or the political history of our society?

JK: To utter a banal truism, all art is political. Even artworks that appear to have no politics are political and ideological. To put it another way, as Adorno suggested, every work of art is an aesthetic artifact and a social fact. It never exists in a vacuum outside the political and social economy of its time. We also shouldn’t forget that some artists have the luxury of remaining silent in the face of and benefiting from that silence in the face of larger societal concerns, while others, because of their economically, socially and politically intersectional positions in society, do not.

I’d say that overtly political art must walk a fine line not to tumble into cant. (All of us bear the responsibility of becoming politically engaged in a direct way, however.) Let’s also not forget that many of the greatest storytellers—and artists in all genres—have created works that are insistently political and offer exemplary aesthetic models. Take Shakespeare’s very political, artistically superlative plays Hamlet or Othello, both as resonant today, though in different ways, as they were in their author’s era. Ultimately the storyteller’s—artist’s—responsibility is to her art; the responsibility or lack thereof to the society around her is already in there.

-Michaela Hansen & Patrick Cline

For more with John Keene, visit our Review of Counternarratives in this issue.


John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, published by 1913 Press, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer, published by Nightboat Books and A Bolha Editora. A former member of the Dark Room Writers Collective of Cambridge and Boston, and a Graduate Fellow of the Cave Canem Writers Workshop, he has received many honors for his work, and has published it widely in periodicals and anthologies, including most recently in What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America, edited by Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey. He has exhibited his artwork in Brooklyn and Berlin, has blogged for a decade at jstheater.blogspot.com, and is Associate Professor in the departments of English and African American and African Studies, which he chairs, and teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark.