Looking for Langston, Du Bois, and Miss La La: An Interview with Author John Keene
by Artis Q. Wright, Specialist II, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Stephen A. Schwarzman BuildingDecember 7, 2016
John Keene is Chair of African American and African Studies and Associate Professor of English and AAAS at Rutgers University-Newark. A former member of the Dark Room Writers Collective of Cambridge and Boston and a Graduate Fellow of Cave Canem, he is author of the novel Annotations, the poetry collection (with artist Christopher Stackhouse) Seismosis, art book (with photographer Nicholas Muellner) GRIND, and the poetry chapbook Playland. He was a writer-in-residence in the Library’s Wertheim Study in 2013, where he researched and wrote Counternarratives, for which he received an American Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award in Fiction in 2016.
What impact did writing Counternarratives here at The New York Public Library have on your work?
Working at the Schwarzman Research Branch had a significant impact on my work. I benefited tremendously from the NYPL's collection; the stories draw directly and indirectly from a wide array of books, maps, and other holdings in the NYPL's collection. The opportunities afforded by the Wertheim Study Room also were numerous: the ability to keep books on the shelf for a sustained amount of time; the space's wonderful quiet; the camaraderie of fellow authors, researchers and the staff; and the general intellectual atmosphere, proved invaluable.
Many of the short stories and novellas in this book involve historical figures or take place in the past. What were some of the items from the library’s historic archive of books, maps, and prints that helped you portray the various settings described in this diverse collection of stories?
To take just one example, as I was writing the story "The Aeronauts," which takes place in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia during 1861, the first full year of the U.S. Civil War, I consulted books about pre-Civil War Philadelphia, free African Americans in the antebellum period (including W. E. B. Du Bois' magisterial The Philadelphia Negro), aeronautics and ballooning, the war's progression, and the U.S. Union Army balloon corps and its leading figures. I also read through newspapers from the free and slave states, and periodicals issued by the American Philosophical Society and similar organizations dedicated to disseminating 19th century scientific and cultural ideas. Lastly, I studied maps and photographs of Washington and Virginia, before and during the war. With each story that I worked on at the NYPL, I reviewed a similar array of archival texts, maps, and visual imagery.
I’m guessing that few people have heard of Juan Rodriguez who was born on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in the late 1500s and was the first “immigrant” to move to Mannahatta (Manhattan), what inspired you to write about this early New Yorker
I believe it was a news report a few years ago that inspired me to write the story. As often tends to be the case when I think about a figure like Juan Rodríguez/Jan Rodrigues, I was convinced that he had been the subject of numerous poems, short stories, and perhaps even a novel or two, but although I did find some fine scholarship about him and the world he inhabited, I realized this pioneering "black rascal," as I believe he is described in the Amsterdam City records, had slipped through the fictional cracks, so to speak. His story reorients our thinking about immigration and non-indigenous settlement in the US, in terms of race, ethnicity, class status, and so on, but also challenges the dominant settler-colonialist model in important ways.
Describe your first encounter with Edward Degas’ 1879 masterpiece “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando” and what motivated you to create a short story about the painting’s subject?
I had seen the photo online but had not gone beyond thinking it another example of Degas' masterful oeuvre. Late one afternoon, I took a break from writing at the library, and moseyed over to the Pierpont Morgan Library, which is one of New York City's treasures, and happened upon an exhibit about the painting and Ms. La La, also known as Olga Braun (Kaira). Images of the acrobat--who I immediately saw was a Black woman--as well her performances and flyers for the circus' shows, and reproductions of Degas' preparatory sketches, pastels and various attempts in oil to capture her remarkable artistry, covered the upper floor walls of the library's exhibition space. I was transfixed with her story and Degas' struggle to paint her, in particular because despite the fact that he had African-American relatives in Louisiana and had even painted a scene set in the New Orleans cotton market, she was the only Black person he ever put on canvas. As I left the Morgan Library I was under her spell, and the outline and even words from the story started to pour into my head.
“Persons and Places” depicts a fictional encounter between W.E.B. Du Bois and George Santayana that takes place on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. in the autumn of 1890 when the former was a graduate student and the latter was teaching philosophy at Harvard, the short story is structured to appear as two parallel journal entries written from the points of view of both men. How did your own experience as a Harvard undergrad and your current position as a professor of African American Studies inform this story?
Like anyone teaching African American Studies I owe a huge debt to W. E. B. DuBois, who was a path blazing intellectual, political and cultural forebear, leaving his mark in fields as diverse as history, sociology, and literary studies, to name a few. I had always wanted to write a story about him, and after I read both David Levering Lewis's superlative biography about him and George Santayana's strange and haunting memoir Persons and Places, I realized that while DuBois does describe studying with Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher does not ever mention DuBois in that volume of his memories, even though DuBois was becoming famous by the time Santayana was writing it. That led me to think about proximity and opacity, the asymmetries in their relationship, and how I might imagine and represent the unequal but still respectful bond they shared. In terms of Harvard and Cambridge, so much of the material world they would have inhabited in the 1880s was still around when I was a student a hundred years later, so I had to remove anachronisms, but the physical and even intellectual landscape, especially after reading Louis Menand's brilliant study The Metaphysical Club, was not hard to recover.
In “Rivers” you continue the storyline of three of Mark Twain’s most memorable characters Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Jim into the battlefields of the American Civil War, how has your appreciation for Twain’s fiction evolved over your lifetime?
Twain remains one of the essential American writers. Rereading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), I feel even more strongly that with Huckleberry Finn he created one of the most iconic characters in U.S. fiction, but I could see his limits as an author in his depictions of Jim, whom he does try to humanize. Twain's blind spots around race have analogues throughout the history of American literature, though, so he is not alone in this regard. I hope my story opens up a conversation with Twain and other US writers who have come before and after him.
How did it feel to write about a romantic encounter between literary giants Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia?
It felt exhilarating. On the one hand, talking about Langston Hughes' sexuality is less controversial today than it might have been a few decades ago, such as when Isaac Julien made his beautiful film Looking for Langston. On the other hand, there is still silence or obfuscation about aspects of his life. I have been a Hughes fan since childhood, and became fascinated when I came across Villaurrutia's poem "North Carolina Blues," which critiques Jim Crow segregation and which he dedicated to Hughes. I also learned that he had translated Hughes' poetry years before penning that poem. The poem, Villaurrutia's letters, scholarly studies of both men, and Arnold Rampersad's biography of Hughes all offered a portal into my fictional reimagining of how they might have connected, on multiple levels, including erotically. The story also surveys Depression-era Mexico City and New York, and ends in part with them returning to what brought them together in the first place: poetry.
How did writing Letters from a Seducer, your 2014 English translation of Hilda Hilst’s novel Cartas de um sedutor, influence your Brazil stories in this book?
I guess it's fair to say not so much directly as indirectly. Hilst's linguistic, stylistic and thematic daring were a great spur to try out all kinds of literary approaches, but the Brazil she presents is a highly idiosyncratic one. Her native São Paulo, however, does appear in several of the stories, though, so I suppose there was some imaginative osmosis at work.
Why did you choose to include maps of Brazil, one historic and the other modern, in the novella “On Brazil, or Denouement: The Londonias-Figueiras”?
After finishing several drafts of that story, I realized that most US readers would not have any sense of Brazil's geography, or perhaps not know it the way I did, so I ended up including the maps as an aid of sorts. But as you probably noticed, they are small and not overly illuminative, because, like the story, they still present a challenge about how to decipher how the past and present relate, and how to understand historical coincidence, and the continuities and discontinuities within any society.
What are some of the titles on your “to read” list?