John Keene

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.

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