Friday, October 09, 2015

Counternarratives on WNYC's/NPR's On the Media + The Nation & Konch Reviews

Three weeks back, through serendipity's hand, Counternarratives and its author made their way into the WNYC studios and onto the air, courtesy of On the Media host Brooke Gladstone, producer Kimmie Regler, and their amazing staff. Why do I lay this turn of fortune at serendipity? Because it was not the the usual route of a New York Times review (there hasn't been one) or a galvanizing PR campaign (none exists), but old-style independent bookstore advocacy by the exceptional people at Park Slope Community Bookstore. They sold--and championed--the book to Brooke Gladstone's husband, who in turn passed it onto her, and after she read it, and shared it with Kimmie Regler, they decided the book and I should be on the air.

What I had originally thought would be a hour-long session extended to over two, I believe, with Gladstone (about and to whom I had to kvell, as I am a longtime fan) posing a wide array of questions and inviting me to read (and re-read) selections from the book, including from "Our Lady of the Sorrows," the novella at the heart of the collection and a text I'd never read from publicly. Afterwards, Gladstone, Regler and their team went to work and cooked up a delicious, distilled confection that also drew in musician and host Terrance McKnight, who with his rich bass voice read the part of Jim (aka James Alton Rivers), from my story "Rivers," and included musical selections by Georges Bizet ("L'Arlesienne Suite No 1 (III. Minuet)"), Jim Taylor ("Little Rose Is Gone/Billy in the Lowground"); George Whitefield Chadwick ("String Quartet No. (II. Andante semplice)"), and John Scofield ("After the Facts").

The result: "Every Story Has a Twin."

You can hear the show here, and you can find the rush(ed) transcript here. I couldn't be happier with the beautiful work Gladstone, Regler, and the On the Media staff did, and it has been one of the best boosts the book has received thus far. Many thanks to everyone involved!


Of the many things about which I can express gratitude concerning Counternarratives, one is the steady stream of reviews, and excellent ones, that have appeared since the book's début in May. It feels, at least to me, almost inconceivable that nearly five months have passed since I got the official word from New Directions that Counternarratives was on bookstore shelves, and from shortly before its appearance the notices have flowed in. Two of the very best are the most recent. 

In esteemed progressive magazine The Nation, writer and critic Ben Ehrenreich recently provided an appraisal not only of the new book but of my first as well, in his review "Literature as Map to Liberty." This is without question one of the finest reviews I've received. A quote:

Counternarratives is no less ambitious or complex a work than Annotations, but it is considerably more approachable. Yet it is a book of such richness that it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll start with a moment—and there are many of these—where Keene’s text slides into another’s. This one occurs in a novella with the sly, unwieldy title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Like many of his stories, it’s quite epic for its length. It follows a young and variously gifted enslaved woman named Carmel as she accompanies her erstwhile master (mistress, really—a teenage girl holds title to her body) from Haiti in the throes of revolution to a Catholic convent school in Kentucky, which was then on the far western fringes of the young American Republic. Keene interrupts the narrative with several brief intertextual meditations on “the role of duty,” one of which leads with a quote from Gilles Deleuze and concludes with a question: “Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?”

“To speak of culture,” Keene wrote in Annotations, “is to foreshadow a battle.” With Counternarratives, Keene is engaged, the battle roaring on several fronts at once. As in his previous book, there are missing texts at work in all these stories. This time, they are the reader’s assumptions and expectations, the dominant narratives—historical and political as well as strictly literary—with which we conjure the world and reproduce it, exclusions and erasures intact. Probably the most exemplary of them in that regard is “Rivers,” a tender and brutal tale in which Keene avenges a historic injustice, granting Mark Twain’s Jim the opportunity to narrate his own post-Huckleberry life. Tom Sawyer has aged into a less charming version of the glib sadist we always knew he was. Huck is broken and earnest and sad. And Jim, who has in freedom renamed himself James Alton Rivers, is something Twain never allowed him to be: a man of complexity and depth, with his own loves, tragedies, desires. Even here, Keene lets the telling be hinged on white hunger for a narrative in which Jim will always be pushed aside. The story is spurred by a—presumably white—reporter’s question about “the time you and that little boy…” Jim shushes him with a glance, annoyed because “this is supposed to be an interview about the war and my service in it”—at 46, Jim enlisted in the First Missouri Colored Troops and fought with them all the way to Texas. He seldom even thinks of Huck Finn anymore, “not even in dreams or nightmares.” I won’t give away the end, but you will never think of either Jim or Huck in quite the same way after reading it.

Another review, sidereal, if I may use that word, with an understanding as deep as a seismograph's needle, appeared in Konch Magazine, the journal that Ishmael Reed has been publishing for decades (the online archives, however, only go back to 2008). Reviewer, author and artist D. Scot Miller sussed out aspects of the collection that almost no other reviewers have mentioned. Here is a snippet:

And passage requires papers. Permits, letters, carte de visits, journals, diaries, and newspaper clippings give access, and decipher the cipher secreted within the stories. Mute Carmel creates specific languages for all she encounters, and draws maps as she secretly learns how to “make marks”, while Red learns how to mark time, creating a map of Civil War Washington D.C. in his head, but not free to walk its streets without his freedom papers. Jim Rivers has his in a water-proof metal locket laced around his neck when he bumps into “Mr. Tom Sawyer, Sir”, and the boy who tried to lead the fugitive slave deeper into the south years before in Rivers. It’s Rivers who gives a pass-key in the passage, “Have you ever noticed how on the decisive day the future reveal themselves as a ghost language and you got to do more than just pay attention but use all the knowledge and wisdom you have ever gained to interpret it?...the gleaming dressing the leaves with omens and auguries, printing clues in shadowed patterns in the grass and soil you just needed to discern if you could, because the real test is always to go beyond mere guessing to following the map the world around you sets forth.”

There are clues along the way, but they are coded in the ghost languages of history. A dedication to Samuel Delany invites the reader to seek, and find them through Möbius strips, through fractured text, peering between columns, or nestled between subtle breaks in type, notation, and marginalia. Keene posits history as a map of time, with language as the passage to freedom from time, through time. Time un-marked and un-timed, conjured by a multi-lingual tongue of a mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Haitian French, English, Pig Latin, German, and Arabic, like a poem from The Hallucinated City, containing neither rhyme nor meter, speaking what remains unsaid.

What is not being unsaid? The “unknown knowns” found in Langston Hughes’ "Blues" (“He slept like a rock/Or a man whose dead.”), the gentle caress between Carmel and Sophie, or Red and Horatio. Keene succeeds in “un-queering” history by queering historical text. Not so much re-writing it, as reclaiming it.
Many thanks to both reviewers and to The Nation and Konch!

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