John Keene’s short story collection “Counternarratives” reimagines popular stories in American literature from the African-American perspective. His characters travel throughout the Americas, fight in the Civil War and experience depression-era New York. Keene spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Willis Ryder Arnold about the book’s connections to St. Louis and to the grand American narrative. You can listen to the interview or read the highlights below.
Keene was born in St. Louis in 1965 and attended St. Louis Priory School. Keene drew on this experience to inform two of the stories in "Counternarratives." One story is set in a monastery, the other in a convent. Both examine the experience of being African American and Catholic. According to Keene, growing up in a city influenced by northern and southern cultures, as well as cultures from both coasts, influenced his perspective as a writer and a person.
"The city itself has so many different elements that suggest all the different aspects of the United States. It sort of gave me the sense that the black experience in St. Louis parallels many different parts of the country," said Keene.
How do you enter the mindset of fictional characters like Jim from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" who already exist on the page?
"Trying to imagine that world began the process for me of allowing me to enter Jim’s perspective. And I felt that once I was in, it was the character that guided me forward. But I think that often happens for writers if you find a character that is compelling enough, the character will lead you where the character needs to lead you. And it was actually quite enjoyable to follow Jim from that period not too long after 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' would have ended into the period of the Civil War and even further."
What was one of the places that Jim led you that was the most surprising for you?
"When Jim comes back to Missouri as a free person, he comes back to St. Louis. From the moment he crosses the river to a second kind of freedom and then heads to Chicago, he was going to places that I hadn’t expected."
The stories in the book are positioned as an alternative to traditional narrative. Previously you’ve said it challenges official master narratives. Can you explain that concept a little bit?
"Well, there are all sorts of guiding narratives that we have internalized. One of the most powerful master narratives out there is that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You see this on TV all the time. You see this in movies that it was Lincoln that freed the slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, when in reality, the process of ending slavery was much more complex. The enslaved people themselves fought for their freedom. So, in a sense, having two narratives in this book in which — in the case of one person, Jim a formerly enslaved person, and in the case of Theodore, or Red, the free person from Philadelphia — participating in the Civil War in different ways writes against that master narrative that most people still hold to be the kind of definitive story of how slavery ended in the United States."
Why do you think that challenging specifically these master narratives is important right now?
"As the situation in Ferguson or Baltimore or Staten Island, the kinds of crises that we are seeing in so many places and cases suggest, we cannot really go forward until we come to terms with the past. And part of coming to terms with the past requires that we understand the past. And it’s not only historical facts and the amazing work that historians and sociologists and political scientists do, but also art can illuminate the past in ways that very few other things can. I feel like that with this book and other texts they help to enlighten us about the past in ways that can be very very, productive for understanding where we’ll be going in the future.