Randall Kenan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

Randall Garrett Kenan is a gay African American southern writer. Like his works, he defies easy categorization. Born in Brooklyn, Kenan was raised by a great-aunt in the small rural southern community of Chinquapin, North Carolina. He attended integrated schools and graduated from East Duplin High School in Beulahville, North Carolina. At the University of North Carolina, he majored in physics. During his senior year of college, writing fiction, in Kenan’s own words, “just took holt of me.”

After receiving a B.A. from the honors writing program at the University of North Carolina in 1984, Kenan, always well connected, was assisted by Toni Morrison in obtaining an editorial position at Random House. No doubt his inside knowledge of the publishing world served him in good stead: His novel A Visitation of Spirits was published in 1989 by Grove Press. It was judged favorably by major reviewers, including Kirkus Review and Publishers Weekly.

A Visitation of Spirits is set in Tims Creek, North Carolina, a fictional community obviously modeled on Kenan’s own hometown. The story primarily concerns Horace, a young, gay, black man who attempts to reconcile his own homosexuality with his religious beliefs and his family. Events in the book move back and forth between April, 1984, when Horace commits suicide, and December, 1985. Though each of more than a dozen fragmentary sections is precisely dated, this nonlinear structure upsets the reader’s sense of continuity. Horace believes that he communicates directly with spirits. It is never clear whether these spirits and devils exist only in Horace’s mind or they are real entities risen from the nether world. Though acknowledging Gabriel García Márquez as a major influence, Kenan resisted attempts to label the work Magical Realism. It is merely the way many southerners write, he said, “another way of looking at the truth.”

In 1992, Harcourt Brace published Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, a collection of related short stories in much the same vein as William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). In this collection, Kenan again uses the fictional community of Tims Creek and the same fictional families seen in A Visitation of Spirits. In addition to the characters and the setting, three themes provide Let the Dead Bury Their Dead with some degree of commonality, if not unity. The dominant theme is that of the death of the gods, or “Ragnarok,” the mythical day of judgment when heaven and earth will pass away, the dead will break out of their tombs and walk, and the demons will contend with the gods and destroy them. A second theme is a mystical, physical tie of the people to the land (another similarity to Faulkner). The third theme, puzzlingly unresolved, is that of families, black and white, that are largely dysfunctional.

As was the case with Kenan’s first book, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead elicited little critical response in print. It is possible that critics are still uncertain as to which “canon” Kenan should be assigned. Kenan himself seems unsure, but in interviews adds the label “postmodern” to that of “southern.” Among his literary mentors he lists Katherine Anne Porter, Carlos Fuentes, and particularly Yukio Mishima.

In 1999, Kenan published Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, a nonfiction work focusing on what it means to be black in various places in North America. The book is based on Kenan’s interviews with African Americans from all walks of life.

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