John Keene brings philosophical concerns and an impressive range of historical detail to the short fiction of Counternarratives.
Your historical fictions range from the plausible to the magical. What makes them “counternarratives”?
I see these stories unfolding like a mixtape of alternative narratives of the United States, the Americas, the black Atlantic and diaspora, and modernity. They represent the outtakes, the glosses, the buried, and often queer forgotten tales that traditional accounts of our past have downplayed or omitted, while also countering the official narratives written by the powerful. This makes them “counternarratives.” I think of their range from the plausible to the magical through the lens of competing rationalities. The stories ask, where do one group’s or person’s perspectives intersect or clash with another’s? How do the stories we tell (or avoid telling) ourselves, individually and as societies, influence what we know and believe to be true?
Can you speak about your innovative formatting, such as when you have Du Bois and Santayana narrate side by side in “Persons and Places”?
Most of the formatting ideas arose as I conceptualized the stories. With “Persons and Places,” I imagined the student Du Bois and teacher Santayana passing each other on a Cambridge street. Given the era’s social norms, they do not speak, but each is already aware of the other, so the two columns embody this recognition through proximity, but without connecting.
One of the strongest pieces in the collection is the outstanding “Gloss, or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Can you take us through the process of writing it?
I love all these stories, but [that one] is my favorite as well. It’s also the longest and the most formally complex. The process of writing [it] posed huge challenges. I conceived the narrative’s general shape first, and then had to work through how to tell it. Key for me was figuring out how to convey the growth of the main character, Carmel, from voicelessness at the story’s beginning to her first-person narration at its end, which parallels her journey from bondage to her control of her destiny.
You end the collection with “The Lions,” a brutal take on fear and fearlessness. Is this a commentary on the accumulated trauma of black experience covered in the preceding stories?
That is such an insightful reading of “The Lions.” The fictions in Counternarratives explore many variations on the themes of flight and fugitivity, and this final story, a cautionary tale, is a commentary on the effects of the accumulated traumas of racism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and the many other local and global oppressive systems that affect the black characters in the preceding stories, though freedom remains on their horizons. “The Lions” is also a dramatization of the struggle these revolutionaries are still waging on their home turf over the loss of their ideals, their dreams, their senses of self, and the greater good. They have acquired wealth and power, but in the process they also have acquired the means to destroy themselves and others.