Toward an Insurrectionary Narrative
John Keene with Maryam Monalisa Gharavi
October 1st, 2020
This conversation took place at the New York Public Library in July 2019. Its thread veins include bibliophilic anarchy, selfhood and becoming, the literary interrogation of history, Black mutiny in the Americas, South-South recognition, and the anti-hegemony of the archive
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi: I want to ask about your relationship to libraries, dating back to childhood, and what that relationship was like as a kid.
John Keene: That’s a great question. I’ve loved books, libraries, bookstores, even bookmobiles, all my life. One of the things that I can vividly remember as a child is being taken to the library by my mother. When I was in maybe fifth grade, we moved to a suburb of St. Louis because my neighborhood—and the city of St. Louis—had become so dangerous. My parents, like many working-class and middle-class Black people in the 1970s said, “We want a better environment for our kids, we want safe schools, better schools,” etc. So, we moved to a beautiful, old commuter suburb of St. Louis called Webster Groves, which was racially divided. There were literal train tracks and a creek, with the town’s Black population located on one side and white people on the other. The thing about Webster Groves, though, is they had an amazing public library and I used to love riding my bike or walking to that library. I would spend hours there—particularly during the summer—going through books, reading things I would find on the shelves.
Also, white librarians treated me decently as an inquisitive Black child. In my all-Black Catholic grade school, we had been taught how to use a card catalog, so I knew how to do that, but I was much more interested in the serendipity of going through the stacks. I would go to the record collection and just pull records out, and would borrow some of them. One book that had such an impression on me was Teach Yourself Sanskrit. I pulled it down and read it and took it out and kept renewing it. I was obsessed. I’ve always loved learning. To me, particularly public libraries are one of the greatest institutions ever invented and provided a really important foundation for me.
MMG: Do you remember any subject or book that you were discouraged from accessing?
JK: Not really.
MMG: I’m sure you were a voracious reader reading way above your grade level. Did you get any pushback from that, from being too voracious, or too ambitious a learner?
JK: At times my father would say things like, “Why are you in here reading books and not outside playing?” I did play with the kids in the neighborhood, but I also draw, so I’d spend a lot of time inside drawing and painting with watercolors. My mother paints, and she was a model for my brother and me. She didn’t paint professionally, but for her own pleasure. Thinking back on all of this, I remember that sometimes there were kids—and many others have written about this—who would say things like, “Oh, if you’re so into school you’re being white.” Most of the kids in my neighborhood, which was mostly all Black growing up, would call me “Encyclopedia.” They didn’t see it as a bad thing; it was like a fascination with how much I knew or could answer. This was before Wikipedia or anything online like we have today. We would play this game where they would ask me questions and I would come up with an answer, even if I didn't know it—which I guess is preparation for writing fiction! It was not a negative thing; it was a positive thing.
I also was very fortunate that my parents were willing to sacrifice for my education. I went to Catholic schools pretty much for my entire education. From seventh grade to twelfth grade I went to a very rigorous all-boys Catholic school run by English Benedictine monks. There, education and learning were celebrated. That school also had a library where I would just spend hours reading books. In general, I was not discouraged from learning things or teaching myself things.
MMG: I wanted to talk about Annotations and Counternarratives as points on a chronology, particularly the twenty years between their publication. I wondered what season of life you were in between 1995 and 2015. How did what was going on in the background, if it did, affect the writing of Counternarratives?
JK: Well, let me just say that there was a book between those two publications: Seismosis, which came out in 2006.
MMG: And the [translation of Hilda] Hilst!
JK: Exactly. Often New Directions describes the books—because they published Annotations and Counternarratives—in terms of this twenty-year gap, and I often counter that there was a book between them. And some that never got published, but that’s another story. Here’s a kind of very condensed chronology: when I wrote Annotations, I was not expecting to write that book. I was trying to write more conventional fiction in part dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, because that was really raging when I was in my twenties and thirties. There was also the crack epidemic. Violence raged in many major cities, deindustrialization, and the conservative social and political backlash to the 1960s and 1970s were underway. Black nationalism was still in the air. Very interesting things were happening at that moment of political ferment. On one level, it was a very difficult time and, on another level, a truly exciting one to be a young person. Hip-hop was coming into its own, R&B, new wave, House, punk, and so on, were filling the airwaves, and I was interested in all of these things.
I wrote very bad short stories, but mostly I was writing poetry. Not long after graduating from college, I started hanging out with the writers and artists involved with the Dark Room Collective and, one day, instead of that conventional novel, the opening lines to Annotations came to me.
One of the first people I met as a freshman in college was Paull Hejinian, the poet Lyn Hejinian’s son. He had told me, “My mother is a poet. You gotta read her work.” Before I graduated, I ended up meeting Lyn Hejinian’s parents—Paull’s grandparents, and his grandfather taught at Harvard’s Business School. But I hadn’t yet read her work. I used to go to downtown Boston and hang out with friends, just to visit bookstores. One day, I was in the legendary used bookstore Avenue Victor Hugo on Newbury Street, and I found Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. My first thought was, “Oh, this is my classmate Paull’s mother.” Then I started reading that book, and it was like a flare went off. It was illuminating so much, and as I thought about that text and all the things I had been so interested while in college, like Ntozake Shange’s work—I’d even performed in a Shange play in college, and met her when she came to campus—or writers I’d read or encountered through the Dark Room, like Clarence Major and Samuel Delany. Annotations found its roots.
I realized in struggling to write these other kinds of projects that I should pursue the story that was rising up in me, that was being dictated to me out of necessity, to use Audre Lorde’s concept. So that was the book that I wrote. I was very fortunate that I was able to show that to the Dark Room Collective first because they were very supportive. No one said, “This is not poetry,” or “This is not fiction.” They just said, “This is very interesting. Keep doing it.” I also was very fortunate that some publications were willing to publish sections of it, like one in St. Louis, Eyeball, edited by Ira Jones, and then the Kenyon Review published a little section when Marilyn Hacker was editing it.
I feel that Annotations was very much a book about coming to terms with who I was, coming to terms with the self, myself. But as you know, it’s a book that moves outwards from the self, so it encompasses a larger sense of the social. I was also reading a lot of critical and literary theory at the time, so theory makes its appearance in various ways. I also was reading a lot of history, so history is in there too. All of those things are in ferment, churning along the axes of rivers as a metaphor. Specifically, the Mississippi and the Missouri, moving forward with all these currents from early childhood all the way to late adolescence.
In the ten years between that book and Seismosis, I was writing, publishing fiction and poetry, and translating. Seismosis was a very important project for me because I’d always been interested in collaborative work, especially coming of age in the late ’80s, in the wake of what I would label a 1960s and ’70s ethos. In the artistic and literary collectives of that era—I was in a collective not long after that—what always impressed me was how some of the writers pursued the ideal and idea of letting go of one’s own individual ego. With Seismosis, a poet and editor named Veronica Corpuz initially combined poet and artist Christopher Stackhouse’s artwork with my poems without telling us, and then suggested that we work on a project together. Chris and I decided to do it, but we came up with new work. He had a nice bank of drawings, so I wrote texts in conversation with them. We went back and forth with new pieces. It became a text about Blackness and abstraction and collaboration and writing and drawing and art making and thinking. I feel like if Annotations was very personal and somewhat abstract, Seismosis is its antithesis, very impersonal and very abstract, although the self is in there. In fact, one of the poems is titled “Self.” If one were to graph or chart an abstract self, what would that look like? Probably like one of Chris’s beautiful drawings.
While I was working on Seismosis, I was also writing some of the stories that became Counternarratives. Right before Seismosis came out, I suffered a severe computer crash and lost drafts of maybe about four or five stories. I had not backed them up, emailed them to myself, or printed out drafts. I had to completely reconstruct them from my notes and doing so basically took forever.
The other thing that I began to feel was that I wanted to get away from myself and yet not completely avoid abstraction, but to think a bit more about what the scholar Andreas Huyssen has called “analytical writing” or “analytical fiction.” He was speaking about the work of the German writer Alexander Kluge, particularly, his stories in Lebensläufe, or Case Histories, and about Kluge’s capacity in general for embedding critical and emancipatory components into his texts. Huyssen is one of a number of critics who have thought about how writers have interrogated history in interesting ways.
One of the landmark texts for me in that regard was Beloved. I remember reading it when I came out and being astonished. But I was also reading writers like John Edgar Wideman, a number of whose books were incredibly important to me, and the same was true of Paule Marshall’s, [Samuel] Delany’s work, and so many others. And of course, from outside the US tradition, people like Gabriel García Márquez, Wilson Harris, Jorge Luis Borges, Ben Okri, and so on. When I was writing Counternarratives, I thought why not try to put these texts together, to think of a world in contiguous and metonymic terms more so than metaphorical ones, and to interrogate the nation and the national in the usual senses of those terms. This sort of metonymic effect of juxtaposition, of a story standing in for an entire society, era, and world, which is to say, placing the narratives side by side, feels truer to histories and our daily realities as they unfold, and this was something I wanted to achieve.
I tell people all the time: when I applied for funding for fellowships to work on Counternarratives, I was almost always turned down. Sometimes I would even get their comments, and usually the response was along the lines of “I don’t know what this is,” or “This writer is mixing up history and fiction,” and I thought, “That’s kind of the point.” I’m not trying to be a historian, but I’m trying to interrogate history. I’m not trying to write historical fiction. Back to the earlier point about Annotations and Seismosis, I do see and feel a throughline between all of those books.
And as you mentioned, there was the Hilst translation and my other translation work, and other short stories and a lot of poetry that I was writing through that period, up through the publication of Counternarratives. Counternarratives itself is part of a large internal conversation. The sometimes fractious and messy thinking through of how to negotiate creative work that is, on the one hand, in conversation with and speaking to the traditions and conventions of contemporary writing and art, but is also pushing back against it in interesting ways.
MMG: I never understand this problem people have with a writer or an artist’s work that they can’t easily contain. To me, that multivalent writing, particularly in your case, has a conceptual scaffolding, and to think of you as a historical writer or historical fiction writer seems quite erroneous. That conceptual scaffolding—or what you call a conversation within the works, or a conversation within yourself, because, after all, they come from you and you are but one person—it’s amazing to me that that can get problematized. I think that that speaks to a limitation of genre. Or an ease and fluidity with which you take on so much of a multiverse of writing. I think of older traditions where that was never a problem, and because they are dealt with in such rigor, that also kind of makes it understandable that you would have gotten some quizzical notes along the lines of, “I don’t know what this is.” Well, of course you don’t know what this is, your container is limited!
In that vein, I was thinking about how you account for this move you make: a geographical move from a United States-ian history in Annotations, one which is coming from a place of self as a starting point or initiation moment, to a history of the Americas that we get in Counternarratives. I’m also thinking of the way we see you tie in modernity with chattel slavery as the dominant political economy in Counternarratives, one that in Annotations, maybe because it is a personal history or maybe because modernity is dealt with in such a perceptually different way than Counternarratives, is less available. But I do see you grappling with modernity through this lens. Does that sound like one such conceptual scaffolding?
JK: Well, it does. One of the most exhilarating moments for me in terms of books that expanded my vista, was when I came across Paul Gilroy’s work in The Black Atlantic—and then any number of other writers, like Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Édouard Glissant, Ian Baucom, and others writing on analogous tracks. Thinking about Gilroy’s way of conceptualizing the Black Atlantic and the dawn of modernity, particularly Euro-modernity, American modernity, and his efforts to ensure that we don’t forget that chattel slavery was and is absolutely integral, was very important for me. Both in high school and college—and to some extent and in some places this has changed now—there was this dissociation happening, this attempt by teachers to isolate slavery as this American or hemispheric phenomenon and not to see it as the central engine, not only of the economic transformation of the West, but of the social, political, cultural, and intellectual aspects of Western culture. It was an agent and spur, in many ways, of the very system that produces this wealth of ideas, some of which emerge to critique the system of slavery itself.
Gilroy’s book, among so many, opened my eyes. One way of thinking about Counternarratives is as an account of the trajectory from the dawn of modernity through modernism. I’m fascinated by the connections between race, modernity, and modernism. I’m thinking of modernism here as a constellation of aesthetic practices and ideas, as a kind of conceptual and theoretical lens to understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and as a marker for the shifts and transformations that took place all over the globe. I can recall sitting in a modernist literature class with a wonderful professor, and even though race pops up again and again in the work we read by Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens, to name just two of the writers on the syllabus, there was almost no discussion of it. Nowadays, that probably wouldn’t happen, but then who knows? If the Harlem Renaissance or at least one or two of its writers weren’t included, race and racism still might be broached. The disconnections and the rhizomatic, associative connections that provide a scaffolding for holding all of these stories together led to Counternarratives looking the way it does.
MMG: One thing that comes to mind as you say the degree to which Black authorship and Black modernist authors are not readily taught to us, is that modernism is rarely framed outside of an anglophone lens. Thinking in terms of Iranian literature in the ’60s, often you saw Iranian modernists blamed as performing too much of an imitation, a kind of mimesis of French authors. You see the same in certain Brazilian authors as well, and in various parts of the global South.
MMG:There is a sneer that, “Well, you’re just imitating modernism and modernity from Europe.” You don’t see a continuation of this line of evidence: that so much of what we see as European modernism in fact depended in content and contour on the global South for its resources.
MMG: I wanted to ask you about more geolocating of your life: St. Louis, Harvard, NYU, and we talked earlier about Chicago and Rutgers. I’m always really interested in the lived and living environments of artists, and particularly for you, how they might have propelled you toward transgression. I feel that there are these invisible or maybe even visible lines or sidelines. I kind of see you both inside them, and also transgressing them. Specifically, I was thinking about what it must have been like to be a young, Black, queer man, an undergraduate in Cambridge.
JK: I think I have a rebellious streak that’s always been there. On the one hand, I am fascinated by tradition. On the other hand, I’ve always felt completely, to a great degree, outside of it, with the exception of the African-American tradition, and even there it took me a while, too. Because of course, on the one hand as a child I was introduced—thankfully—to Black authors, immersed in Black culture, primarily African-American culture, as well as Black culture writ large. As a child, we listened to music from sub-Saharan Africa, we listened to music from the Caribbean, we listened to all kinds of music by Black people. I was aware of writers and culture from across the Black world. I think my parents, like many people of their generation, had this broader sense of the world, even if they were also thinking primarily about how I’m going to make it to the next day. Tradition is something I’m interested in. On the other hand, I’ve been aware of the potential oppressiveness of tradition as well.
I understand that embedded in the DNA of tradition is the entire historical context out of which it emerges. It’s never neutral or value-free. Just to give you one example, the wonderful young poet Nikki Wallschlaeger was responding to someone about leftist, socialist poetry—though she might not have even typed “socialist.” She gave some suggestions that the person might look at. It was fantastic. I responded to her and thanked her for that. I also said that when I was younger I didn’t have a name for it, but when I read Eric Bennett’s book, Workshops of Empire about the Iowa MFA program and the Stanford program—how the Cold War had sparked all these fears about leftist, Marxist, activist writing, and US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, alongside private organizations, decided to fund and promote writing programs and writers at places like Iowa, or Stanford, who were focusing on and pushing craft like the personal lyric and writing that was far less overtly political, to inculcate an anti-leftist and anti-Marxist aesthetic and mindset—I came to see how, thirty years later, the status quo that we think of as just absolutely natural is not so.
MMG: It’s crafted.
JK: It’s crafted; it is the product of concerted ideological and political processes. The more you start to think about these things, the more I think some writers, or some artists may ask themselves, “Wait a minute. I need to critique this tradition even as I’m working within it.” Or work against it, even as I’m also acknowledging that it exists, because none of us exist in a vacuum. Harvard is one of those interesting places because it is like the ne plus ultra of tradition. You walk through those gates and it’s a particular and powerful version of American history everywhere you turn.
On the other hand, one of the most interesting things for me—I had this a bit of enlightenment when I was working on Counternarratives—was reading Craig Steven Wilder’s book, Ebony and Ivy, where he talks about the history of early American universities and, of course, almost all of the oldest ones have some direct tie to chattel slavery and the oppression of African-Americans. Nowhere, at most of these institutions, is that visible. There are no monuments (if they exist, they are mostly celebratory of a racist past). There are few to no plaques, at least not until very recently. There is nothing that says that among the very first people on Harvard’s campus were enslaved people. And that’s true of pretty much every one of these institutions. Thinking about that underscored the necessity of doing a certain kind of work. Of trying to make those invisibilities visible, particularly through the vehicle of fiction. Which isn’t to say that my work is a form of agitprop, but which is to say that for its grounding, that critical function was important.
MMG: Do you think it’s because fiction can crystallize ideological apparatuses that we can’t readily see while we’re living through them? The invisible layers of history are invisible for a reason, right? There’s a reason the institution keeps that knowledge hidden until a mass movement says we need to take the monuments down. Why is fiction particularly a good vehicle for that counter-history?
JK: I would say all art, or all of the arts, offer that possibility. The genres within all the arts have their ways of doing this. Fiction is something I’m strongly drawn to. But poetry can do it as well, and there are a number of poets who have done it in really important ways. The same is true of drama, creative nonfiction, graphic writing and comics, hybrid texts, you name it.
With fiction, the power of narrative should never be underestimated. Cognitive scientists have shown that narrative has really profound psychological and cognitive effects on us. There’s a way in which that immersion in story or particular kinds of stories, fictional stories, affects us, and the kind of unconscious identification, recognition, and then the kind of empathetic (I think this is a very fraught term because it’s understated often in simple or simplistic ways, but I’m intending it in the more complex ways) relationships that we have with characters, and thus with other human beings and other species. When we are embedded in the plots, moving through them, we’re immersed in a virtual setting. We experience that in other ways by watching a film or TV show, let alone wearing a virtual reality headset. When you think about how strongly people identify with characters in TV shows or films, it makes sense right? It’s about language. Language that grips you and holds you and provokes emotion. I’m always captivated by people who will read a poem and are touched so deeply they’re almost moved to cry, or cry out, “Oh my God!” or some other affirmation. I know it’s real. I’ve experienced it many times. It occurs because of the poem’s language, by which I mean language organized in certain powerful ways.
MMG: I think of you as a modernist tactician. There’s a scene in Mrs. Dalloway that I always go to when someone refers to modernism. An airplane is passing in the sky, and in the passing of the airplane, rather than, say, staying with the linear story of one character or one protagonist, what you get is a crystallization of vantage points. It’s not so much the airplane that’s important, but all of these different vantage points in relation to the airplane. I see your work affording many, many untrammeled layers of those vantage points that are missing in just the airplane overhead.
JK: I would just say about modernism—and I also am a product of postmodernism—that I often have taken great delight in encountering modernist and postmodernist hijinks. I know there are people now who will say, “I can’t take this crap,” but for me it was thrilling to come across, for example, the Metafictionists of the 1970s and ’80s, or Minimalist writing or the Black writers who were very political but were not exactly Black Arts figures. I’m thinking of Ishmael Reed, who was also one of my teachers. Just reading a book like Mumbo Jumbo, for example, or Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, where he’s critiquing Westerns but also exploring Black folk culture and alternative knowledge systems, specifically Hoodoo, as well as American popular culture and history. All these things opened up a sense of what was possible as a writer, but they also offered another way of thinking about the society we’re in, thinking into the past, thinking into how to understand and then be able to critique, as opposed to taking things in passively.
MMG: It makes sense that with the rise of late-stage capitalism, as we approach the ’80s, you’re going to have these experiments in postmodernism. Speaking of translation—I read your essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” and you write about coming to the Portuguese language through autodidactism and libraries. I wanted to ask how your relationship to Brazilian Portuguese and, by extension, contemporary Brazil, has changed since that time and even since the time of the Hilst translation.
JK: I’ve had more contact with Brazilian writers and other translators of Brazilian literature, which has been really salutary, and I think one of the things I have always been very cognizant of is my limits as a writer, as a thinker, as a translator. Translating the Hilst book was really kind of an insane assignment, which is to say that now that I’m done with it, I realize how difficult a book Letters from a Seducer was to translate.
One of the publishers, Rachel Gontijo Araújo, a gifted writer herself, was a great resource, as was Stephanie Sauer, another talented writer who was also one of the publishers and based in Brazil at the time. I would consult with them and they would read my translations, but there would be certain things that they weren’t sure about, so a few times I asked my friend the Bahian poet Narlan Teixeira, and he had no idea either. I asked myself, “What have I done?” I wasn’t translating João Guimarães Rosa, but Hilst really was a challenge. It’s not even Hilst’s prose so much as it is her condensation of registers, of styles—particularly in Letters From a Seducer. It’s that condensation, because the book itself is highly poetic, anti-poetic, and a critique of writing. In part, it’s an account of her struggles, but fictionalized. On the one hand, she is Stamatius, one of the novel’s protagonists who has pretty much given up everything. She’s given up society. She’s given up the possibility of fame in her lifetime. She’s given up financial security, in a way. She’s removed herself from the currents of contemporary Brazilian and Latin American and global South literature to write at the Casa do Sol, and to undertake these experiments, which are revolutionary in Brazilian literature. She’s aware of the wider world of literature and that’s all in the book, but she’s also removed herself. She’s like Stamatius, the real Christian martyr from history, as well as the character in the novel. On the other hand, she’s very cognizant of her character Karl, the novel’s other protagonist, who is facile and superficial and sex-obsessed and knows exactly what to produce to generate attention, sales, and a readership.
I feel like I have a deep sense, since the Hilst book was published, of where Brazilian literature is, and why someone like Hilst struggled so much. I also have a sense of personal vindication for undertaking that translation, and a translation in general—and not just from a Brazilian writer. A few years ago, Laura Cesarco Eglin won a major prize for her translation of Hilst’s Da morte. Odes mínimas [Of Death. Minimal Odes]. There are other great Hilst translators—
MMG: Adam Morris?
JK: Of course, he’s a great translator. Adam’s also beautifully translated João Gilberto Noll, who was another one of Brazil’s really unusual...
JK: Exactly! These figures loom over the literary landscape and are utterly original and strange, but their work really reflects contemporary Brazil in ways that the more popular writing probably doesn’t—or can’t, let’s put it that way. I was going to say: Ana Cristina César. I was really excited when Brenda Hillman and her mother translated all of those César poems in that beautiful volume At Your Feet. It’s marvelous. I feel like it gives another sense of Brazil that you otherwise wouldn’t get. I also feel like it’s important—it’s hard to state this from the perspective of someone in the United States—it’s important when you’re in one society, and particularly if you’re overlooked, when you get recognition from outside because people outside your own culture can see the importance of your work. It’s crucial for an artist like Hilst. And this is the case all over the world. I don’t just mean someone receiving recognition from people in the West or people in Europe; it could be an Iranian filmmaker being beloved in Nigeria. It’s important because people are able to make these connections and see the value of the work in a way that sometimes a given society itself can’t do, or the people who are guardians of the culture can’t or won’t. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I have a deeper sense of what’s going on in Brazil and a deeper appreciation for the work that’s coming out of Brazil today.
MMG: What I make of you translating someone like her, and particularly a book as strange as this one, is how deeply decentered the narrative is and how, even from sentence to sentence, it would almost make a lot more literary sense were this laid out in poetic schema or something other than prose. What’s often called difficulty with her, particularly in this book, is just a decentering of narrative. When we’re inside the head of one person, we’re never staying in one place and as a reader that can be thrilling, as well as disconcerting.
I wanted to elongate that towards something I’m really interested in, which is non-Western universalism and particularly Black universalism, and what you yourself call “#Black Narratives Matter”: “To decenter Western and U.S. hegemonic perspectives about Blackness and Black people.” I wanted to take a temperature check of what you think about that from our particular vantage point in New York City in this moment [July 2019], and extend that to talking about Pan-Africanism and Black power as historical phenomena, and how they’re often referred to as having these symbolic gestures or as safely tucked away in the annals of history, where I really see them as historical miracles. In contemporary history the miracle, that one as a person, as an Afro-descended person, can fictionalize or project in your mind, often without mass media, a Black subjectivity of someone that lives many continents away from you and have a projected solidarity to that person—that is fundamentally miraculous and so under-highlighted as a phenomenon. I’m using fiction with a degree of respect: not to say that this is a fictional solidarity, but to say that this is projected and a projection that is based on levels of solidarity that we can’t even contain at this moment. But in in light of Black Lives Matter as one of the few politically viable movements, at least since 2014 to this present moment, with many others scattering away, I wonder what temperature check you take of that decentering of history and particularly of the importance of non-Western universalism now?
JK: Well, I think we’re in a very difficult time. We’re living in a moment where we’re seeing yet another white backlash. We’re seeing rationalizations, particularly of anti-Black racism and white supremacy, but it’s not just anti-Black. Here in the US it’s primarily anti-Black, but it’s also anti-Muslim, anti-Latinx, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous. Against this, what makes this act of boundary crossing, this act of imagination and activism and solidarity possible, on the one hand, is a sense of shared purpose, however tenuous and fraught. Then there are all these new technologies. On the other hand, neoliberalism is always telling us, “It’s about the individual self. Everything is a market. Brand yourself. Be your own individual thing.” This is the highest value in neoliberalism. Commodify oneself, anything, and then sell it. It’s a challenge to keep older channels and frequencies active. But I think they’re functional.
I look at the wave of Black consciousness underway in Brazil, and at recent protests saying "Vidas Negras Importam or Vidas Pretas Importam" [Black Lives Matter], and admire the sense that, “OK, look we’re in this together,” but also, that this is not a hegemonic movement that’s being brought from the US, it has roots in Brazil’s history. When the military dictatorship was in power in Brazil, one of the things it was careful about clamping down on Afro-Brazilian religions because they could be sites of resistance and protest. Another was transnational anti-racist and racialized activism emerging from Black America. They did not want Black Americans coming over and saying, “OK, not only is a military dictatorship bad on all kinds of levels but it’s also racist.” In the recent trajectory of Black Lives Matter there was a moment where young activists in Sri Lanka raised solidarity signs. This is tapping into what you’re saying, but I feel like it’s now in a struggle for survival with this profound ideology—economic, political, social—of neoliberalism. People keep talking about it as if Donald Trump was the first person who inaugurated it, and he is definitely advancing it, but this has been taking root for quite some time in Europe and elsewhere. There’s also a propaganda machine for it coming out of Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
I see this being a moment of struggle. I also think those earlier and important and absolutely vital frequencies continue and people continue to tune and tap into them.
MMG: I’m always amazed at the fear stoked around difference, whether under a military regime in Brazil or under our current time. I also think about Counternarratives and the way you deal with syncretism in Brazil. “Syncretism” isn’t a word that is often used in US parlance, like whenever I say “syncretic” to hyper-educated anglophone people they say, “What are you talking about?” Whereas sincretismo, that style whether it’s from religion or other differences, is understood in Brazil by a lot of people, I think, as having been a necessary concealment to protecting and defending one’s origins under enslavement and then of course stretching all the way over the expanse of 450 years to the [military] regime. In your book we get this interesting Russian nesting doll uncovering of one of your characters and his origins as Jewish. I often think about the treatment of Islam in Brazil in the same vein: that, from the Malês to other tribes, so many of the enslaved peoples that make up the forced migration to Brazil have Islamic roots and heritage that is now so scattered or so invested inside syncretism that you cannot really pull it apart from all of the other things its embedded in: Catholicism, Yoruba or Bantu heritage, and so on. This strangeness that you talk about, and Brazil as harboring such strangeness, makes me think of how difference was contended with by historical figures and how one of the more scary aspects of the current moment and this tide of neofascism all over the world—not just in Brazil and the United States—its scariness conceptually is its absolute staunch defense of sameness.
JK: Right, right.
MMG: Well, I was hoping to have a question come out of that. But I was just too indignant.
JK: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned, for example, Islam in early Brazil because the scholar Michael Gomez published several books where he talks about Islamic adherence among the enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States. One of the key elements in the fear of enslaved Black Muslims was that they might be able to read and recite the Qur’an and if you can read the Qur’an, meaning Arabic, and write it or write anything, you have multiple ways to organize people. And then, of course, because of such training, those who could read and write might be natural teachers and leaders. Leaders lead insurrections.
But in general, I think there is a US societal obsession with a certain kind of sameness—conformity—and this absolute fear of difference in its multiple aspects and valences, a kind of ever-unfolding reaction that takes sociopolitical, economic, and cultural forms. I think the underlying non-neoliberal ethos, in its various forms, represents something that also is a challenge to a non-Western universalism and humanism, and, as the group Public Enemy called it, “fear of a Black planet.”
MMG: Does it sadden you or throw you into despair or galvanize you, this hatred of difference?
JK: It galvanizes me. I mean, it’s insane. It runs so counter to the very idea of the human. I’m not trying to make a humanistic argument, because I’m mindful of the critiques of Sylvia Wynter, Alex Weheliye, and others. What I am trying to say is that the people who, on the one hand, are so obsessed with a limitless understanding of human power and agency that nothing else matters—the complete destruction the globe has no meaning for them—simultaneously live in terror of the complexity and richness of the human. And that’s what I find so fascinating. It galvanizes me. It doesn’t cause me to feel despair. It’s exhausting, but not dispiriting. Of course, on a certain level, one of the fears I have is that when you have extremely dangerous people in positions of power, people who have access to nuclear weapons, who are driven by phantasms and buzzwords and so on, the effects can be catastrophic. We’ve seen this again and again in history.
MMG: Nearly everything of social and cultural value in Brazil is Afro-descendant. Everything, from cuisine to linguistic expression, to musical expression. I think that the erasure that you write about in that translation essay is very real and, I would even say, feels conspiratorial given the fact that Brazil also had something like 4.2 million enslaved peoples to the United States’s 400,000. At that level of erasure and hatred of difference—maybe hatred of difference is an overstatement considering that there is also this humanistic, “We’re so many different colors and we’re so beautiful”—there’s a kind of surface appreciation of it. But in terms of recognizing cultural and social value, that respect is far from given.
JK: Livio Sansone wrote a very interesting book about the contemporary Brazilian construction and marketing of Blackness without Black people. He wrote about how, on the one hand—not in a dissimilar fashion to how it unfolds in the US as various forms of appropriation and whitewashing—Brazil celebrates these aspects of Brazilian culture that come from Africa and it even has a central place where you can go, Salvador da Bahia, where you can imbibe and consume it. On the other hand, the country does not want to create a space for Afro-Brazilians to be a full part of the society. It wants certain aspects, like the African-inflected Carnivals, it wants the music, the food, all these things, yet also wants to be able to say, “You know, do we need or want Black people?” It is a neoliberal desire, to market Africanness and a certain kind of Blackness, but the people who created it, who embody it, are a problem. They’ve—we’ve—been viewed as a problem since the beginning.
The US would never call it this and people never really talk about it here, even though we have had versions of it and are experiencing it again, but there was an official, imperial Brazilian ideological and political project, embranquecimento. The whitening of the country. It involved encouraging European immigrants, also trying to figure out a way to think about, for example, Japanese immigrants, because they racially were not Black, but they’re not white. Then there’s the challenge of racial mixture: on the one hand, former president F. H. Cardoso allegedly stated publicly that all Brazilians “have a little bit of Blackness behind the ear,” meaning some African ancestry somewhere in the family tree; on the other hand, there’s the historical fact that one could and can shift from Blackness to whiteness via social affiliation, class ascension, and wealth, with intermarriage a part of this. Brazil under Lula instituted affirmative action, which has actually been extremely successful thus far, but now you have white Brazilians, people who are white passing or living as white Brazilians, who are saying, “Well, I have a Black grandmother or ancestor, so I should be an affirmative action candidate.” Recently I saw on Black Women of Brazil blog that a white guy who’d been dismissed from his job actually took some kind of chemicals to darken his skin so he could pass as a Black person and then was rehired. This was used as a send-up of affirmative action and everything else. It was like a bad Hollywood movie; I think there’s even one out involving this very kind of racial mimicry, and it sounds absolutely appalling: Loqueesha. It’s not localized just to these two countries. You get versions of this elsewhere. But to sum up, it entails wanting this use of the surface, but when it comes to grappling with a deeper history and the complexities of everyday existence, they don’t want it at all. It comes down to how some can erase a whole aspect of our population, of our culture.
MMG: You have written: “Our generation possesses only a cursory sense of the world that our ancestors braved, though the burdens of history bear unmovably upon us.” That’s probably my favorite quote of yours. I wanted to ask you how we should position our gratitude toward that inherited world. I say gratitude because in certain waves of feminism, for example, there’s this idea that younger generations of women are usually ungrateful for the gains that they’ve been bequeathed, and ingratitude is seen as a gain. That may not be appropriate here. So how should we position ourselves toward this world that people of color, brown people, and Black people have inherited? But also how do we revere biological and chosen ancestors while making an imprint on the sand of this world?
JK: That’s a tough question. I feel like, in terms of ingratitude, whatever provokes us to maintain a kind of critical relationship with the present is important, so that ingratitude to a certain degree is vital. On the other hand, one of the things that I’m always keeping in mind is just how much my ancestors were able to achieve under the absolutely worst circumstances possible. We’re bombarded with all of these superhero movies and I think my grandparents, my parents, my ancestors were superheroes, in various ways, particularly in surviving and thriving at times in the face of white supremacy and racism, and all the other -isms.
Thinking about my great-great-grandparents, what does it mean to be in a system so brutal, so dehumanizing, one that produces widespread social death, political death, economic death, and then just a few years later, you are legally—to a certain extent, but not really—free, and expected to create a whole new life, a whole new world for yourself? And it’s not just one person, but millions of people. It’s not just in the United States, but all over the Americas. And then here, the societal response is a multilayered, systemic apartheid. Of course, we can think about analogues, but to me, the most remarkable thing is that they didn’t give up. Yes, some people were crushed, many were destroyed and still are. Some people basically were left only part of a person, but most still kept going. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Many of us wouldn’t be here otherwise. So that is something that I try to remember about tradition and biological ancestors, and not just biological ancestors, but ancestors of all kinds. I think we can think of our affiliations in relation to our filiations, to cast a wide net into the past and present to find who inspires us, who made and make it possible for us to be here, even if we don’t have a direct hereditary line to them.
MMG: You grapple with this ongoing social death in Counternarratives. The Washington Post reported in June 2019 about the Trump administration nixing recreational and play activities for migrant detained children. I don’t like to use “migrant” children because I think that adjective is used to stigmatize them: these children that are imprisoned through migration. One of my friends was reflecting on this act in larger historical terms in a social media post. Thinking about art forms such as capoeira, she lamented that there may be another capoeira that is about to be formed and that we don’t or shouldn’t want it. They’re forcing these historical conditions; these ongoing forms of social deaths are forcing something that we may not see in our time.
MMG: I’m thinking about how future generations are going to judge us based on the suffering that is being squeezed out of the most disenfranchised and deterred among us. That’s why I asked you the question of despair versus galvanization. Because there’s something so despairing about that to me as an otherwise freely walking person, who has shelter and food and access to so much and is privileged in so many ways, how I feel incredibly stymied when I think about the border at the moment and when I think about the things that are being done in our name. These forms are here and now with us in a much different way than they were 450 years ago, but they’re here and something is going to come out of that that we will be judged by.
JK: Well, I mean, we will always be judged, and I think I understand the despair. I feel it sometimes. Frustration, a kind of exhaustion, but I don’t think you can ever give up. I don’t think you can ever stop fighting. I don’t think you can ever stop speaking out. It can be terrifying. Often the response is brutal, mortal even. I think of the situation on the border, we’ve got situations happening in prisons all across the US, we’re bombing or aiding in the bombing of Yemen, just absolutely destroying that country. I think about the horrific situation that has unfolded in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. We had the president of the United States yesterday saying, “I could basically wipe Afghanistan off the face of the earth.” I thought to myself, how could that have even come out of your mouth, and how can people just sit there with this man, and not say, “Are you out of your damn mind?” It’s like he’s doing everyone a favor by not killing 10 million people. So, yeah, I do occasionally find that my hopefulness dims.
But I also feel like there are many things we can be and are doing. I strive to keep that in mind too. I remind myself that just because I’m not marching or doing something at a particular moment, that doesn’t mean other people aren’t organizing, that they aren’t working towards a better and fair and just world. A more equal world. That’s happening, but at the same time, it can be really tough. The more you dig into history, the more it can provoke tremendous despair as opposed to having an invigorating effect. I always feel this way when I’m looking at any sort of historical moment—you think you know what happened, and once you start reading and delving into the archive, it’s usually worse than you thought. Sometimes it’s better, but often it’s worse. The effect has not led to me shutting me down, but to keep wanting to know and to read more, asking, “How can I bring some light to this or reflect on this and be with this moment?” Often, I don’t have the answers. Sometimes I feel like I do. Sometimes when you bring these things into the larger light, it can have a very powerful effect on other people. They can experience a counterpoint to their despair and say, “There are possible ways of responding to what’s happening now.”
MMG:To the extent that despair is sort of isolating and paralyzing... I think what you’re saying is that—.
JK: Hopelessness! That’s what I guess I mean.
MMG: I’ve been thinking a lot about your relationship to form and what I’m thinking of as brevity, compression, and concision. I want to hear you speak about that relationship to form, but, at the same time, when I was reading reviews of Counternarratives, when they would call it short-form writing, I would think about how limiting that label is for you considering the encyclopedic breadth and depth of your sources and not to mention the heft of the book itself—it’s a kind of a doorstop of a book. There is something about the way subheadings and chapters and sections are divided. And I would extend that to some of the other work that I’ve seen from you.
JK: Counternarratives is not as big as it seems—it seems longer than it is. It might be 260 pages? Maybe more. But it’s not 2666. The novel I’ve published is just 80-something pages and the collection of stories is over 250 pages. Usually you have the reverse, right? In terms of form, with Counternarratives, I wanted each piece to have a different form. Sometimes it’s a radically different form. I wanted almost an encyclopedic approach, a range to suggest and individually distinguish each story. Each form also speaks to the subject that it explores. Each has a performative relation to the subject matter, but the overall range suggests the idea of a conversation that’s not neat, but complex in terms of thinking about form, ideas, narrative, and their development. In the first section of the book, the narratives are all third person. In the second section, they’re all first person, and then the final story is almost like a playlet. That last story moves somewhat back from the strict plane of the real, in an engagement with abstraction.
MMG: Are you thinking of the Josephine Baker section in the very end?
JK: I think you’re thinking of “Acrobatique,” which tells the story of Olga Kaira, a.k.a. Miss LaLa, the famous acrobat. In some ways she was like Josephine Baker, but half a century, or a century before. She enthralled Europeans with her performances during her era, like Baker, and was admired, caricatured, and eroticized by audiences and the media. Edgar Degas represents and embodies these tendencies when he appears towards the story’s end.
I was actually thinking of the final story “The Lions.” I don’t say which country that it’s set in. One of the things that I have actually shared with people is that the speech the main characters cite is drawn from one by Robert Mugabe. The Prophet, as he’s called, is a kind of amalgam of Mugabe and Idi Amin, and similar figures past and present. I didn’t want to make it so specific; I wanted to have it resonate in a broader sense. Part of it is a critique of the idea of a particular kind of American short story, the epiphanic short story emerging from Chekhov or Joyce. I wanted to queer the form. The sort of proximity and contiguity of these forms—their placement side by side—makes each individual one resonate and queer the very idea of the story collection genre. If you talk about the form of this book, you could say it’s a collection of short stories and novellas.. Some people have called it a novel, and described individual stories in interesting ways.
MMG: That was exactly my thought: how is this book held together when it has a seemingly singular purpose—it is purposeful, it is even there in the title—but at the same time it is so... The “multiverse” is the word that I keep thinking about. Beyond how it’s held together, there is a tactic. You ask a lot of the reader in terms of cognitive load. There’s this idea in neuropsychology that when you’re distracted from a task and return to it, your operating system is weighed down. It’s not because of the distraction, but because you have a new context that you have moved away from, and then moved back into.
I haven’t read the book twice, but I’ve certainly read sections of it twice because it is those transitions that create a load. It is very poetically done. You’re seeing the macro-picture of history; you’re a kind of god-author of the book and we’re—this is a horrible mixing of metaphors—we’re in the forest of it and as soon as we think we found it, then there’s a shift. Starting from the middle section in the first person, then we’re in “Trapeze.” We’re in a very different kind of first-person narrative.
MMG: And that is maybe why your readership—I can only speak for myself—but maybe that’s why it feels lengthy, and it feels like I carried a heavy book last October or November. And I think it’s as much for the tactics and contents as it is the context.
JK: I described it at one point as a kind of mixtape, but of course with each track being not just the individual song or rap, but something more elaborate. It’s like Prince Paul’s 1997-98 album A Prince Among Thieves. All of these pieces together constitute an entire world, with each of varying lengths, approaches, styles, and so on. I also think it’s akin to a TV, whose stations I’m manually changing, with my hand or a remote. Each channel offers a different, involved piece.
MMG: I wanted to end by etymologizing your name.
MMG: The furthest I got—and I didn’t Google it—but the furthest I got was “to keen” or “keening” as a wail in grief for a dead person, like when they say to sing a “keen” as a noun, and then “keening” as a lamentation for the dead. In fact, in Counternarratives you explicitly used it as a verb in the story about Zion who’s born to marry the enslaved woman in the household of Isaac Wantone in Roxbury, Massachusetts. You use it to describe the weeping of the newborn child in the slave quarters, that it “soon became a kind of keening.” When I read that, the word winked at me, and it didn’t feel that that was in any way an accident of choice. I think etymologically there’s an Irish history to that word as well. I also think of the ladainha or litany in the context of capoeira, which is a song sung at the beginning of a roda. It has a connection to Islamic chant or the adhan as a kind of melancholic recitation or lamentation. Is that lamentation in fact the etymology of your name?
JK: Well, it is! But also, of course, in addition to the Gaelic origins of “keen,” there’s the Old English word “cēnē,” meaning “wise, clever,” but also “brave, daring,” and “sharp” as well.
MMG: How would you spell that?
JK: K-E-E-N. You sometimes hear people say that someone has a “keen” intelligence or a “keen” wit, meaning a very sharp—.
MMG: And the cēne?
JK: I think it’s C-Ē-N-Ē. An ongoing joke—the name means very sharp and it’s very short, but of course no one can ever spell it properly or often even pronounce it right.
MMG: So, it’s the old British block where we get the word “keen” that we use today. But there’s also like “keening,” the Irish lamentation.
JK: Right, the verb. Part of it is that Zion at birth is already mourning, almost as if he preternaturally knows what’s to come. He doesn’t know exactly, but he has a sense of the world’s limits even as a newborn. His mother’s dying and he’s going to be in bondage in this world in which there is absolutely no place for him as a free person even though he possesses an inner drive to be free. You know, most reviewers don’t touch that story for whatever reason. I’ve always wondered if it is because it’s about slavery in New England or is it the story’s complexity? One parallel I find interesting—and this is a critique of male privileges—is that much of what Zion does parallels what his master Mr. Wantone does, and what other powerful white men in society are doing.
Yet at a moment when the discourse of freedom, as I say, is in the air like incense, there is no social or political accounting for a figure like Zion. There is no accounting for his selfhood or being—he cannot be. He cannot exist. He does not exist even though the first person, or one of the first people, to give his life for this idea of freedom, and to make that abstraction literal, juridical, political, possible, is Crispus Attucks, a Black man and former or escaped enslaved person. I’m fascinated by this idea that Zion—because there is no space for Zion, which mirrors the situation today—his life becomes criminalized. I’ve been reading Saidiya Hartman’s brilliant new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Social Histories of Social Upheaval, and I just love how she sort of delves into the archive and takes these lives that are criminalized and problematized and marginalized and wants to re-see them. To reorient our way of thinking to see these lives as remarkable lives of freedom.