John Keene

Fiction

2018

United States

With coruscating imagination, language, and thought, John Keene experiments with concealed scenes from history and literature, stepping outside the confines of conventional narrative.

John Keene is a novelist, poet, and translator born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. His first book, Annotations (1995), reinvents the classic American coming-of-age story, charting an allusive, fragmented course through “the minefield of myth and memory” to explore what it was like to grow up black, middle-class, and queer in St. Louis during the 1960s and 1970s. In Counternarratives (2015), Keene shifts from the personal to the historical, re-visioning the European colonization of the Americas through a dizzyingly inventive set of stories. The book sweeps from nineteenth-century Kentucky to Reformation-era Brazil to pre-Renaissance Harlem, using folk tales, encounter narratives, epistolary fiction, pseudo-scholarly ephemera, and other forms to imagine stories concealed, palimpsest-like, by the dominant historical narrative. Keene gives us not just counter-narratives but counter-heroes: in one story, Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells of what happened to him after his journey down the Mississippi; in another, a mute Haitian slave named Carmel comes to speak, taking over the narrative and striking out for freedom. In Keene’s own words, Counternarratives “explore[s] those open meshes of possibilities, those gaps and overlaps, those dissonances and resonances present in historical and cultural archives and narratives.” In doing so, it reveals history’s essential queerness: its astonishing contingency, its radical fluidity, its ultimately liberating resistance to causation and linearity. Keene is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where he also chairs the Department of African American and African Studies.

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"I offer my deepest thanks to the Windham-Campbell Prize committee for this extraordinary vote of confidence in my work. I heartily appreciate this support for my artistic vision, and for the work I aim to undertake in the future."
John Keene