John R. Keene was born in St. Louis in 1965. He graduated from the St. Louis Priory School, Harvard College, and New York University, where he was a New York Times Fellow. In 1989, Mr. Keene joined the Dark Room Writers Collective, and is a Graduate Fellow of the Cave Canem Writers Workshops. He is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst's novel Letters from a Seducer. He teaches at Rutgers University-Newark.
Ranging from the 17th century to the present and crossing multiple continents, Counternarratives’ novellas and stories draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to create new and strange perspectives on our past and present. In “Rivers,” a free Jim meets up decades later with his former raftmate Huckleberry Finn; “An Outtake” chronicles an escaped slave’s fate in the American Revolution; “On Brazil, or Dénouement” burrows deep into slavery and sorcery in early colonial South America; and in “Blues” the great poets Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet in Depression-era New York and share more than secrets.
An experimental first novel of poem-like compression, Annotations has a great deal to say about growing up Black in St. Louis. Reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane, the book is in part a meditation on African-American autobiography. Keene explores questions of identity from many angles––from race to social class to sexuality (gay and straight). Employing all manner of textual play and rhythmic and rhetorical maneuvers, he (re)creates his life story as a jazz fugue-in-words.