Fall 2009 Vol. 6.1
Interview with Randall Kenan
DiAnne Malone
Randall Kenan’s first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, was published by Grove Press in 1989; and a collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, was published in 1992 by Harcourt, Brace. That collection was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was among The New York Times Notable Books of 1992. He is also the author of a young adult biography of James Baldwin (1993), and wrote the text for Norman Mauskoff ’s book of photographs, A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta (1997). Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999 and was nominated for the Southern Book Award. The Fire this Time, a work of nonfiction, was published in July 2007.
    From 1985 to 1989 he worked on the editorial staff of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., publishers. In 1989 he began teaching writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. He was the first William Blackburn Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University in the fall of 1994, and the Edourd Morot-Sir Visiting Professor of Creating Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1995. He was the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, Oxford (1997-98); Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Memphis; and held the Lehman Brady Professorship at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He has also taught urban literature at Vassar College.
      He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Award, and was the 1997 Rome Prize winner from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was awarded the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2005.
      DiAnne Malone interviewed Randall Kenan on November 5, 2007.

DiAnne Malone: So, Randall Kenan, what are you obsessing about these days, and do you write about these obsessions?

Randall Kenan: There is always something itching and scratching around in your subconscious or unconscious. You hope that something comes out of it that justifies you spending all of that time working on it. Now, looking back I can see that there are certain topics, certain situations, certain characters that keep and hold my attention, but I never set out to say, okay, I’m going to stop and write about this again for the fifteenth time.

D.M.: You say the obsessions are in your subconscious. My question is how do you become aware of them?

R.K.: I don’t, case in point. I hadn’t even thought of the title of Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, but I was sitting with my editor going over some revisions, and I said, “you know it’s so weird that every story in this selection has something to do with death and dying.” She gave me this look and said, “I thought you did that on purpose.” I mean, even on that level you’re not always aware of what you’re doing.

D.M.: It’s interesting that you brought up Let the Dead Bury Their Dead because I wanted to ask you some questions regarding structure, especially in the title story. How do you decide what structure to use and how do you develop it in a way that works?

R.K.: Generally, it’s a gestalt. You’re thinking about the subject and the characters first. I don’t think I’ve ever said, Oh, this would be a neat structure, what story would that fit, no. It usually comes with working with the characters and people and situations of the story, and then the real work comes with, oh, how do I get at this the most important here and there—it’s an evolution. I work through many drafts, and sometimes the first draft can be very plain and unfunky, and then I say, well, no, we have to get some funk in this house. This isn’t getting at what I want, the way I want. That’s generally when I start thinking about the best way to express it. Sometimes it comes straight away. The gestalt thing is happening, and I say, aha, this is the best way to get to the heart of the story. I try to break it apart this way and think about the architecture of the story in a way that suits the story I want to tell perfectly. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

D.M.: In The Fire This Time you utilize memoir, commentary, letters, and personal essay. Within, there is a thread that is supposed to keep your reader connected to the main idea of the book. How did that work for you, that is, playing with these forms while making sure that the reader keeps up with the message?

R.K.: Well, of course, the big inspiration for that book in particular was obviously James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. And Baldwin does that. He was initially sent to interview the honorable Elijah Mohammed, but the book starts out with very personal autobiographical material, and he weaves it in, and, so, he was very good at doing that. He’s always been good at that so that came organically to him. Everything was almost initially about him. I don’t consider that as a criticism, but that is just the way he works. I actually resisted doing that. I wanted to put the letter at the end, but my editor was like, “No, no, people need a little bit more. I mean, can you just let ’em. . . .” So, I tried to be more overtly like him. But there are other nonfiction writers who I have great respect and admiration for, so it echoes them. I hope I’m not too bigheaded, but their influence should be weighed in, too. The great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, he just died in the spring. He just gets bigger and bigger in my admiration, especially in the past two years.

D.M.: Speaking of admiration, you know the question is coming. I’ll try to phrase it in a relatively unique way. Does the admiration change as you grow as a writer? Do you tend to find more people whom you admire? Are there main writers that you admire and who are those people?

R.K.: The younger you are, the easier it is for a writer to have an impact on you because it’s just a numbers game. You haven’t read that many people with your 18, 19, 20 years, so when you come across a writer that really resonates with you, that writer takes up a lot of space in your head. The older you get, somebody has to be really doing something that turns you on in a way that gets your attention or strikes you as completely new or as interesting. So, yeah, I think the older you get, the more rare it is to find someone younger or older who moves you like that. When I was first getting into the game, there were people. I remember as a sophomore, at one fell swoop, Toni Morrison, Anthony Burgess, and Gabriel García Márquez and then [Hiro] Mashima, they really took up a big part of my head and my imagination.

D.M.: You mentioned Toni Morrison. I am also a huge fan. I want you to talk about how you perceive oral tradition contributing to the success of a writer.

R.K.: Well, you know it’s interesting you say that because I actually believe they are two different forms. I remember when I was studying Alice Walker—that’s another one of those writers I encountered. The Color Purple had just come out when I was in college, and I actually had the great luck of studying while an undergraduate a graduate course in [Eudora] Welty, [Flannery] O’Connor, and [Alice] Walker. This all came when Walker was a huge figure in the literary landscape. She had just won the Pulitzer Prize. I was listening to interviews she’d done in the seventies, and someone asked her a very similar question. But they were being much more political and much more insistent. You know this thing about African-American letters and how it’s all sort of based in oratorical history. She said, “Wait a minute. Don’t discount the importance of the written word. I know all the African-American writers. I don’t speak Ibo. I don’t speak Yoruba. How do I know them? I know them through the written word, translation.” A great example would be Amos Totuola. People talk about the The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his other books because they feel so much like you’re sitting at the feet of a griot and he’s telling you this stuff straight away. But there is a great deal of written discipline that goes into putting a story on the page so that you can receive in the same way that you would if someone were telling you the story. It’s not exactly the same thing because you are in the presence of a storyteller, and this is my surrounding, how I grew up. I was in the presence of all of these storytellers—old folk who were very loquacious and they just were masters of true storytelling. So there are similarities in terms of how you should construct narratives, but into the actual technique. How do you represent that personality of my cousin Norman sitting on the porch drinking lemonade and his inflections and his facial expressions and all that? How do you put that on the page with this ink? So there are certain written traditions that have been part of the African Diaspora going back to before slavery, and I think it is important to honor that part of our tradition as well.

D.M.: How do you perceive storytelling fitting into this thing call Southern writing?

R.K.: I don’t mean to discount that, and there is a lot of back and forth, and they splash over into each other. Sometimes beneath that question is the idea that black folk have come to the written word late, and that the written word is not part of our tradition and somehow is more organic and more pure. When you go back and look at some of the slave narratives and think about how many of those narratives were written by the slaves. Gates came out with this book about five or six years ago, Hannah, the Bondswoman’s Narrative, written by a black woman slave herself. I think that is deeply empowering to acknowledge for ourselves. That is, how long black folks have actually been writing down their stories, and the power of the written word. She couldn’t, like Sojourner Truth, go around telling her stories in churches all across the country. Look how many more people she reached by actually being able to write it down. So there is an art to being able to do this. It’s the same thing with [Olaudo] Equiano. I mean, Equiano was probably the most famous African in the world in his day. The reason he achieved that was because he wrote down this incredible story.

D.M.: So this art of oral story and the art of being able to translate it onto the page—how do you do that? Because, there is very much that feels present in Let the Dead Bury their Dead? How do you reconcile those things?

R.K.: Well, I think you have to realize what I’m getting at ultimately, which is that there is on some level a point when you start grappling with how to represent focused beats on the page. You run into all kinds of technical problems, technical problems that your reader may not even think about. We speak in really different ways than we write, and I think the challenge for the writer is to recognize how different the written word is—how you have to shape your sentence, how you have to align things that the speaker can get away with, how you have to fill in blanks that a speaker wouldn’t have to, and how you deal with time. The speaker has to compress things sometimes, where the writer has the luxury of filling in space, filling in the blanks. There are many more opportunities to deepen and widen a story on the page that the oral storyteller doesn’t have. Essentially, writing is largely illusion. Speaking is performance. Does that make sense?

D.M.: Yes, it makes perfect sense, and it leads to my next question, the question of voice. How do you usher your writing students into developing their own writing voice on the page?

R.K.: Well, it’s not something you can just come out straight ahead. You can’t say, you have to develop a voice—go do it—or you have write more like Tolstoy—go do it. It doesn’t work like that. First of all, everything is predicated on reading. If you want to be a writer, you have to read and make yourself conscious of the tradition. So, the first thing you need to recognize is what that is and come up with a definition. There are many definitions of what a voice is. It’s almost like saying soul. You might know it. I know it when I see it, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is. So you look at writers who have distinctive voices and you try to anatomize what it is about them. Is it the language? Is it the vocabulary? Is it the rhythm? Is it a particular tone about the characters? You look at that and then you encourage them to expose themselves to as many different voices as possible and find out what resonates with them. More often than not it’s not going to be just one writer. That’s how it’s always been done—we pick and choose from our heroes what we can use and what we can’t and then we coddle together, and I think it’s largely unconsciously, what it is about these particular voices that work for us. It is a very utilitarian effort, but you can’t do it unless you put forth the effort.

D.M.: When did you recognize that, yes, this is my voice. How was that for you?

R.K.: Oh, God, child, I’m still looking for it! I don’t know if you ever actually ultimately achieve or arrive at, but it is something that you are always working toward. Maybe it’s superstitious but my feeling is that if you ever arrive at it then the trip is over.

D.M.: It’s like once you’ve found it you may as well die, right?

R.K.: Yeah, jeez-Louise, and it’s interesting to see how the better writers change and evolve. I mean, you take Philip Roth, goodness gracious. I mean, you would’ve thought that he had achieved his voice in Good Bye Columbus, but look how many permutations he’s gone through, and still doing it. It’s easier with writers who have longevity. You mentioned Morrision—look at the differences from novel to novel. In truth, none of those novels sound like the ones before. I mean, she has particular tics and habits and, as we pointed out, obsessions, but there is a world of difference between The Bluest Eye and Beloved.

D.M.: Let’s switch gears a bit. I want to talk about how you develop your stories. I remember reading somewhere that you usually know where you want your story to go before you write it down. So what happens when you see that your story is beginning to change? Do you allow this organic movement from what you perceive to be the story to what the story becomes?

R.K.: That happens. Sometimes you realize you have more than one story. I mean, there are a lot of reasons why what you originally had in your head comes out as being. It’s not implausible, and it’s not the “truth.” So that’s always been exciting to me, I always feel that I am getting closer to what I want. The metaphor that works best for me, and it might sound crazy—I don’t know—I heard when I was a boy this thing on Michelangelo. His idea was that the sculpture was in the block of marble and his goal was to free it up, to liberate that sculpture out of the single block. To me, that is what the story writing process is about. That is, the actual story is already there and my goal is to find it. That’s why I always feel, more often than not, that ultimately I fail. I haven’t quite gotten to it. I always think, if I had a little more time, was a little smarter, a little better, I can actually get it. But that’s closer to how I actually feel about the process. It’s not so much a matter of my determining beforehand what I want, but an attempt to discover something.

D.M.: So I crack open the book Walking on Water and I start reading the preface where you talk about how you feel the book is a failure. What specific things happened in the writing process, if it was during the writing process, that made you feel this way about that particular book.

R.K.: Oh, gosh! Well, again, my original concept was so grand, so broad, so deep, so wide, I had to realize that Okay, what you wanna do, you just ain’t gonna get it. But it’s cool because I think that what I wound up doing has some value, a lot of value. I just needed to put that in for myself, that it wasn’t what I set out to capture. That happens more often than not. I would love to meet someone who genuinely believes (because I know a lot of people lie and say, oh, no, this is exactly the book I started out to write) they have achieved that. I mean the original idea for the book was basically the imaginings or ambitions of a kid, and as Cedric the Entertainer says, I was a “grown-ass man” before it came to fruition. You know a lot more about the world and what our limitations are.

D.M.: The ambition to discover what it means to be black in America is a huge endeavor, but then when I read The Fire This Time, it seems as if it is kind of doing what you wanted Walking on Water to do. I guess my question is how did Walking on Water inform The Fire This Time?

R.K.: Well, you know, it’s funny that you should mention that because again it shows how dumb I am. Of course when Denis Johnson at Melville House approached me about doing it I thought initially, I’m not worthy, this will be looked upon as an over-reaching ambition. I doubted that I could pull anything off. My initial approach was extremely academic and abstract in a way. But, somewhere in working on it, it occurred to me that, hey, you remember you spent all those years like talking to and studying black folks, you got something to say. And then I started to make connections, and a lot of that stuff resurfaced in my mind, and I said, oh I could use this and what about that and isn’t it interesting how this is connected to that. It became exciting again. It was also a great challenge after having done this six-hundred-page book to do another with great brevity. So I warmed up to the idea.

D.M.: And so, between the pages of the two books Walking on Water and The Fire This Time, have you finally hit upon what it means to be black in America? Finally?

R.K.: I would go back to the other question about “When do you know that you’ve found your voice?” I don’t know. It’s in flux; it’s certainly in flux. I see things every day that make me say, Oh, my God, this is an interesting development in the history of black folks. I have a greater understanding of what it means to me, and I think that one of the things that all of that has taught me is that everybody has a different view. We still have some people who are very firmly, deeply, unshakeably essentialist, and they believe there is something essentially black about them. I can’t argue with them. I don’t necessarily view it that way. I think my view of culture and politics and psychology is different from theirs. Even recognizing that dichotomy or that multifaceted view informs it. I don’t think you can arrive at it. I think that there is something diabolical in the root of black folk, but there is something angelic in our history, too, and I think that recognizing those and realizing that it is, like all cultures, a process, is exciting.

D.M.: In The Fire This Time you talk about the use of the word nigger. I read this aloud because at one point while reading I realized that “Randall Kenan just called me a nigger.” You say a lot of things, often waxing philosophically in the book, and then there’s one paragraph with just two words: “Nigger, please.” Could you talk more about your stance on the use of the word. Let’s talk about that Randall Kenan.

R.K.: You set it up already. Lord Have Mercy [laughter]. I have no anxiety of the word. The thing that makes me anxious is other people’s anxiety over it. I think that I have a sufficiently complex view that I can assess it from context to context. I think that’s where the problem is. You have a lot of people who are too afraid or too lazy to accept that a word can have many colorations and can be used in different ways. A lot of that is what we bring to it. I think it’s really, really dangerous to assumed that any part of language can be fixed. That’s okay in religion, but I’m not going to get into that. But in certain traditions there are words that you are not supposed to say, but by doing that¬—and I think the people who made those laws knew—that by making words off limits, it gives those words extreme power. I think that we need to think about that when we start legislating—okay we can’t use this word—you are inadvertently giving that word a lot of power. And, I think our complexity of our use of the word negates the fact that what these men and women were doing at the turn of the century and probably in the nineteenth century was leeching the poison out of that word. I have no doubt that when a mother in the Deep South uses the word to talk to her children to get their attention or what have you, that they didn’t know that this kid that they were talking to might be the object of lynching or some sort of violence or discrimination. They were intelligent enough to hold the supposing idea in their head at the same time. There are a lot of complexities that we’ve carried with us for a long time, and it pains me to be in the presence of people who want to simplify that, reduce that, and ignore that. Because it’s difficult not to discuss but just ignore it all together. So, that’s what I was trying to recover with that. There is a lot of complexity in the use of the word nigger, and making it forbidden is not going to take that away. Go to a barber shop right down the street, and all these old black men are going to be sitting in there laughing and talking, talking about President Bush, talking about Condoleeza Rice, talking about gas prices, and, invariably someone is going to say, nigger please, or that nigger needs to do that. Are they racist? Or do I gain more out of understanding where they are coming from, understanding more about the music of the language, understanding how, when they use that word, they mean one thing, but when someone else uses out of the context of their own understanding, it can be vile and disgusting. Just because the same word is employed in both instances, it is not the word itself but the intent and the use.

D.M.: So my understanding of how you view the word, as I read it in the book, is informed by your personal history with it. It is not necessarily attached to this broad history of American idea.

R.K.: And that’s true with so many other things. That’s what makes life so confounding. I mean, you talk to black folk about spanking and talk to white folk about spanking, oh, my God; you can go to war over that. Who is right, and who is wrong?

D.M.: I read somewhere that it was much easier for you to write a novel than a short story. Why?

R.K.: I guess for the same reason I think that being a good oral storyteller is different from being a good writer. I don’t know. I think that the big work of a novel is organizing it and coming up with the good idea. You do a lot of work in the beginning, and then you sort of relax into it. You have more room to explain things and discover things. I think García Márquez says it is like taking an ocean cruise. You do a lot of work getting prepared for it, and then you just fail. The short story is all scaffolding and nailing and building and sawing and chopping; none of that stops until you’re done. The building of a short story is all build; there is no sailing. But in a novel you get to relax for a while and watch it come together.

D.M.: You mentioned García Márquez. Does it still make you shiver in your boots when people comment that you are the black Gabriel García Márquez? How does that make you feel now?

R.K.: It’s always been flattering. I can’t dare ever take something like that seriously. I can understand why someone would want to say that and how it makes their job easier, and it was meant as a compliment, and I take it. But I live in the real world, and I can bask in that glow, but I have to get back to work, and that don’t help me none.

D.M.: Why the black García Márquez, why not reminiscent of
. . . Márquez?

R.K.: Oh, well, I know that it meant no harm. I knew where it was coming from. I think García Márquez himself would be the first to recognize or acknowledge that Columbian culture is a mulatto culture. You have your European, Indian, and African blend down there. That is why his work resonates so much with me, his forthrightness about that and how all those characters come together in a very honest way.

D.M.: Do you have a writing ritual—or do you have writing rituals—and what are they?

R.K.: It depends on the project. There is a period of time when I can work between this time and that time very well. One day I hope to have enough clout that I can keep it like that. But now things are unpredictable, and stuff happens, so you do what you have to do and write when you have to write. For me it’s as catch can, fit in between test and papers, talks, and family stuff. And, I think that’s how most people get it done.

D.M.: Do you have any tics or habits when you sit down to write?

R.K.: Well, you know for a time, I had that, but I’ve moved so much. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve moved since I’ve left college. I’ve never stayed in one place more than five years, and I find that if I get too attached to that, it can be paralyzing. I think Isabelle Allende has this, where she has to light this candle, but she’s had the same house in San Raphael for two decades. So, if I can get to the point where I can have this beautiful house with this little house on the side—where I can do my writing and everything—I’ll find all sorts of rituals. But right now I’m writing on airplanes, I’m writing in my office, I’m writing at my mother’s house in the back room. I think that’s how most people, especially most people who are not yet externally validated as writers, have to go about it. It’s a catch can. Whatever ritual you find that works for you; dandy, go for it. But don’t allow that to stop you. I’ve heard people say, “I can’t write because I don’t have my number three pencil at 4:20.” I always worry about letting those kinds of things stop me. I will write between commercials. A professor once said to one of my colleagues in grad school, “You’re looking for that two-to-three hour block of time to write, and it doesn’t exist. You might get it in here or there, but you need to learn how to do it without that.” This particular woman had a little baby and a baby on the way, and she would get 15 minutes here and fifteen minutes there. She would take the baby in the car and let the baby sleep in the car seat, and she’d just stop and steal some time. Toni Morrison talks about this because she had two boys when she was writing her first novel, two little boys. And she had a full-time job. So, I’d just like to de-romanticize the actual act and say that if you treat it like work, then it works better for you.