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​John Keene’s 'Counternarratives’ Rewires History with Imagination

We spoke to the author about his vividly imagined and vitally timed collection, 'Counternarratives.'
September 18, 2015, 4:00am

John Keene. Photo by Nina Subin/courtesy of New Directions Publishing

In an era when so many books and films seem concerned with the self and the now, John Keene's recent story collection, Counternarratives, opens a vast and vital eye toward the past, while charting inspired new imagined territories.

Encompassing hundreds of fictional and historical characters over several centuries, and utilizing a mesmerizing array of styles—including slave narrative, historical document, stream of consciousness, fever dream, diary, field manual, concrete poetry—the book amasses a vision of epic capacity. In magic-like language, Counternarrativesexplores the experiences of rebel slaves and slave women, and features a reimagining of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer years in the future (which appeared on, as well as the secret love life of Langston Hughes.


Of the scope of William T. Vollmann or Samuel R. Delany, but with a kaleidoscopic intuition all its own, Counternarratives is very easily one of the most vividly imagined and vitally timed books of the year. I haven't felt so refreshed in quite a while as a reader.

I spoke last month over the phone with John Keene about narrative, history, empathy, racism, and a lot more.

VICE: Your book has so many threads and directions and stations, and yet they fit together so satisfyingly I kept finding myself reading it as a novel.
John Keene: The writer and writer-critic Sarah Schulman wrote on Facebook that she read it that way too, as a kind of experimental novel, and I'm a huge fan of her so I took that as the highest compliment. But I really was thinking of it as intersecting in a formal, dramatic, philosophical way, as intersecting but non-directly connecting stories. But every story has a parallel story. And there are all these interior connections, interior architectures that reveal themselves.

The first story out of all of these that I wrote was "An Outtake from Ideological Origins of the American Revolution." I was in grad school when I wrote that. I was trying something different from the things I had been writing at the time. I was sitting in a classroom in New York thinking about how all of New York City had slavery before the Civil War—I mean well into the 1800s—but there were no physical signs of that past. So I was interested in thinking about how I might animate and dramatize that hidden past. Once I finished that story and it was workshopped and I discussed it with my professor, who was E. L. Doctorow, then I actually wrote a second section that I saw as in conversation with that first section, and then later, the final story of the collection, which is in a certain way the culmination and response or colloquy with the proceeding sections.


[Fiction] has this extraordinary capacity to create and engender and foster empathy.

That duality ended up becoming an essential setup of the book, yes? You have the first half, Counternarratives, which is then reflected by the second, Encounternarratives, thereafter leading into the final section, which is just the singular, Counternarrative.
I wasn't so conscious of this as I was writing, but it became clear to me later on that the first section there is a play with the objective perspective on history—but strange things start to happen with the voices in their accounts.

For example, in "An Outtake," "On Brazil," or in the beginning of the story "Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows," there is this seemingly objective voice. In the second section, almost all of the pieces are in first person, so we're actually hearing the characters themselves speak. There is this kind of movement from objectivity to subjectivity that is interesting to me in relation to who these speakers are, and why it's so important for them to tell their stories, and why their stories still remain so hidden to us today.

The effect is incredible. Usually when you read historical texts, they relay this information of experience without persona, and you are only able to experience the weight of it as sheer fact.
The older I get, and the more I write, [it becomes clear to me] that that is one of the most powerful things fiction can do. It has this extraordinary capacity to create and engender and foster empathy. Because on a certain level, when we are immersed in narrative, we allow ourselves to be transported to another place. James Geary wrote an amazing book on metaphor that talked exhaustively about the power of metaphor and the way metaphor works and metaphor especially in relation to narrative.


But to write fiction, one requirement is that you're willing to put yourself in the imaginative space of that fictional world. Even if that world is a barely fictionalized version of the reality of human living, all the way to the most speculative and fantastic work, we are immersed.

I see that also in light of Rilke's famous line in the "Archaic Torso of Apollo," where he says—well, at least it's translated into English as "you must change your life." But in German, the verb to change is very close to the English word for "other." So Rilke, what he's saying is: You must make yourself another. Which is to say in that encounter with a powerful work of art—a classical bust that's missing the head, for instance—you become that other person. You imagine yourself as this non-person, this god, just through the work of art itself. That's so powerful. That's really about engaging a work of art as a reader or a viewer. But as the poet himself, Rilke is also talking to himself. To write this poem, the poem, you must make yourself another.

One of your scenes that stands out very much is in "Rivers," where Huck and Tom Sawyer run into Jim years in the future after Twain's rendition of them. And Tom comes off as a rude bigot, talking down to Jim, even threatening him. I wonder if it feels different to enter a fictional character and kind of rewrite fictional history versus imagining someone actual's persona.
On one level, I would say it's easier to enter the fiction. You know there is no objective. We have these very powerful, widely read, and, in many cases, long, beloved texts. So when you challenge those, of course, not only are people going to get upset, but they are going to be challenged. How are you going to rise to the level of the text that you've been working with especially when it is so iconic and powerful as with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer?


One of the things I realized when I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I remember going back all the way when I was a kid in ninth-grade high school and cringing as we had to go through and read this text with the N-word every five seconds, but it isn't [actually] in there all that much. One of the things that really comes through in that book is that there's this other side of Tom Sawyer. In the movies or the book of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he is this lovable, adorable, all-American, 19th-century boy. But in the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom's scheming to tie Jim up, and toward the end of the book he is the one who ends up getting Jim re-enslaved in Arkansas.

Whereas what I thought about someone like Huck—he's coming from a real sort of profound community with Jim, as friends. Jim is on a certain level in a subordinate position to him, but on another level he's like a second father, a brother, a traveler. I saw even down the road as the country was sort of being torn apart that he would still have on a one-to-one basis with Jim, a fondness, a kind of respect—really, a love. I wanted to try to capture that, the complexity of those characters particularly in a place like Missouri, which itself is torn.

To write this poem, the poem, you must make yourself another.

I remember maybe it was like five years ago when they were trying to get the racial slurs removed from Huck Finn, or at least change them to a different word. Do you think of a practice like that versus going in and exposing the trouble from a completely different way?
I feel like we shouldn't whitewash anything. Because Huckleberry Finn, and any number of such books, are artifacts of our history. And I think if you're teaching it to a younger person then the teacher should frame it. You don't want to say, "This is a bad book, this is a good book." You want to say: "This term will appear here, and we want to understand why it is in here. So one of the things we are going to think about while we're reading—and it's not going to be easy—[is] why do you think this term appears in here and what does it tell us about the moment, the era, the time in which it was written?"


I think this is actually very, very powerful for students. But it's the role of the teacher to contextualize and assist the students in understanding why a book reads the way it does. This is not just in the matter of race and racism, but gender and misogyny, and homophobia and classism in certain kinds of books. Because if a book is a very good book on most levels, we want to understand not only why it's a good book and its successes, but also what are its failures? What is problematic about it? Not just a book, but any work of art. What is succeeding in it, and also what isn't succeeding?

As an author, particularly in a time like today, do you feel a responsibility—a historical responsibility—to your reader or to history?
I do. And I think some of the stories more clearly lend themselves to certain kinds of readings, such as in thinking about the boundedness of black bodies and our understanding of freedom and democracy in the United States today and the limits of liberalism and ideology—and how we might think about moving forward.

But I do feel there's a continuum between the past and today, and it really is important that people think about what was happening then because we don't operate in a vacuum. So much of our discourse today is still informed by our history, in this country and this hemisphere.

I've always had problems with a lot of realistic fiction because it so often seems to be missing so much of the magic and sensuality that your work is able to accomplish. I wonder how much you consider that condition and your viewpoint amongst it as an eye that integrates so much musicality and imagination into fact.
I think a lot of it has to do with the economics of publishing, and the kinds of expectations that people have for the work—what people want to read, what people are interested in. Part of it is a product of the institutional forces that many writers now engage with, not just in publishing but with MFA programs. I don't agree that those programs ruin writing, and in fact there's much one can say to praise them.


But alongside that, there is this long tradition of experimentation, of play, of doing things that aren't the expected things. And when we look back on the history of literature, and think about writers that we return to again and again, they are people who are the embodiment of their time in certain ways, but quite often they are people who are writing not against the time, but against the tide. You look at someone like Whitman or Dickinson or Faulkner or Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, and you see a whole onslaught of interesting approaches.

That isn't to say someone like Edith Wharton isn't important—she's a great writer, and we return to her for what she wrote and the way she wrote it. But I do think I was very conscious of the fact that in certain ways this book, Counternarratives, doesn't look like most of the books that are out there right now. But it is in conversation with those texts. It comes out of the same political and economic forces. But it is different. And I think that's a good thing.

Though I do think, in trying to find a publisher, writers internalize this. They see what gets praised and what gets championed, and then they think, I have this story I want to tell, and I have all these ways I could tell it, and so what ways will most probably lead me to seeing it in print? We're really sort of socialized to see the world in certain ways. And I think that does affect how people write. Maybe you write the tamer fantasy, make it more polished, and you win the Pulitzer Prize.

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Counternarratives by John Keene is out now from New Directions Publishing.