Konch Magazine - Review of John Keene's "Counternarratives"

“Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance, and cunning?”

                                                                                          -From Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows

Of course, my name is not “D. Scot Miller”.  It is a nom de plume, a “name of the pen”.  I have gone by many names, nick-names mostly, but seldom my birth name, (Or “government name”, as Black men of my generation call it.). I also have a name I can never tell because it is my “secret name”.  “D. Scot Miller” is a name of my creation and choosing.  This is very important.  You must know who is speaking to truly understand what is being said.

True names are rarely spoken In John Keene’s Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015). The book is filled with aliases and census defying classifications. The boy in Civil War Philadelphia, from the story “The Aeronauts”, is known as “Red”, whose birth name is “Theodore”, but goes by “Edray”, the pig-latin version of his name to his friends. Haiti at the height of the revolution brings us the slave, “Prince (called by his fellow servants Bel-Aire, for the enchanting aura he left in his wake,)” in Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows”.  In A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon, 1630 introduces us to the slaves, “Aparecido, Benedito (commonly known as Bem-Boi), Jorginho (who they called Zuzi), Miguel (Muene, who was frequently called Negao), and Ze (Jose Africano), and the children Filhino (Either Fela or Falodun) and ZE Pequeninho (Sometimes called Ayoola).”  Throughout this collection of novellas and short stories, Keene understands the power of names to the brutalized and enslaved people of color who have been stripped of name as extinguished indigenous victims of early colonialism to Africans across the Middle Passage. To the characters in the book, names are more than bonds. Names are codes. Nick-names are resistance. And naming, un-naming and re-naming yourself is a fugitive act.   

Fugitive tales are told from the thickets. And Counternarratives is a fugitive book full of fugitive tales.  Beginning in 1612 with Juan Hernandez (The first documented non-native American, Afro-Latino-European settler to live and trade on Manhattan Island. That’s the only one you’re getting.), walking through high grass in a clearing, in Manhatta, Keene’s language is a machete slashing through the underbrush of the history of Western Civilization “tearing the white out” by giving voice to the marginalized, all the way to a basement in a none-too distant future in Lions.  Along the way, the book whispers in the code of those in bondage.  Coded language, coded names, coded text, coded bodies and secret spaces all play pivotal roles in the passages of Keene’s fugitive journey.

What is meant by “passage”? Keene is alchemical in his construction of the story.  Literary elements are constantly mixed and re-mixed.  He distills the boast, the toast, the tall-tale, the sonnet, the lyric, the song, the gothic, and erotica through an AfroSurreal lens, infusing them with echoes beckoning the reader back (Or forward.) to the writings Alexander Dumas, Henry Dumas, Audre Lorde and Ishmael Reed.  Sometimes these echoes are just faint scents that call for a savoring of the passage of time in the passage itself.  But passage as in movement too, because the characters in each story are always in motion.  They travel the span of the globe as the protagonist Carmel does in Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows”, or the span of two or three states as both Red in The Aeronauts and Zion  in An Outtake From The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution do, ever aware that their true destination is freedom.

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.

Counternarratives also invites us to entertain the possibility of magic. The witches, the sprites, and the spirits speak for themselves, in the silence between their words, in the thing’s they don’t say, you can hear:  “Pay attention to the simple gestures: The nod, the caress, the knowing eye that tells you that you are amongst your own. Remember the lions, hunting each other, dismembering while remembering. Note the clown haunted by the lavish prison of his songs.  Do not become the thing that devoured you. Secret yourself, prepare for flight, to rise above the crowd and the clouds.  Remember who is speaking to understand what is truly being said.”

Keene employs a disarming and silent cunning in this book that I feel many reviewers have missed. Could it be because his re-inventions are more than mere word-play but direct, active resistance- through stories of resistance - to the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African American, Asian Americans, Latinos and queer folk in contemporary fiction, and thus, not being seen or heard? As Olga says in Acrobatique,  “I aim to exceed  placed on me, unless I place it there, because that’s what I think of when I think of freedom,”.  What fugitive could disagree?  What slaver couldn’t?

The depth and scope of Counternarratives leaves so much more room for saying the unsaid: The violence, the wars within and without, seeing the unseen, and discovering the pathways through the passages of these fugitives’ journeys. But those are still secrets. You must take that journey for yourself.