John Keene (left) and Counternarratives book cover

John Keene wins MacArthur Genius Grant for Challenging and Expanding Our Views on American History

Author, translator, artist, historian, professor. These are just a few of John Keene’s titles. He is also the chair of the Department of African-American and African Studies at Rutgers University – Newark (RU-N), as well as the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Book Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, and most recently, the 2018 Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction for Counternarratives. Today he joins the 2018 class of MacArthur Fellows, commonly known as “genius grants.”

The MacArthur Fellowship is awarded every year to talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits. Fellows receive $625,000 stipends that are bestowed with no conditions; recipients may use the money as they see fit. Nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and considered by an anonymous selection committee, recipients learn of their selection only when they receive a call from the MacArthur Foundation just before the public announcement. 

“My first thought when I received the call was that it might not be real”, said Keene when asked how he responded when the Foundation called to tell him the news. “I was on my way to the main post office in downtown Jersey City, and thought that the Foundation might want to speak with me about one of the many superlative writers whose work I am familiar with and have written about, so when they told me that I was a recipient, I almost did not believe them.”

Keene is the first person to become a fellow while part of the faculty at RU-N. Annette Gordon-Reed, who was a Board of Governors Professor of History at RU-N from 2007–2010, received the grant in 2010. According to the Foundation, Keene was awarded the grant for his work exploring the impact of historical narratives on contemporary lives and re-imagining the history of the Americas from the perspective of suppressed voices.

“It’s hard to imagine someone more deserving of this award than John,” said Rutgers University – Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor. “The work he has been doing for years at the intersection of history, race, memory, voice, presence, and absence encapsulates some of the most critical issues we are facing today in our nation and in the world—as well as the core of what Rutgers-Newark is all about. We could not be more thrilled that he is being recognized in this way.”

Denis Paré, Acting Dean for the School of Arts and Sciences-Newark, said the school is “fortunate to have such a distinguished and respected scholar, artist, and teacher as a member of our faculty. John Keene’s recognition as a MacArthur Fellow is richly deserved. His achievements are an inspiration to our students and faculty."

In his fiction and in a number of other projects spanning translation, poetry, and cultural criticism, Keene is correcting and enlarging our distorted, partial views of American history and culture, and challenging his readers to question received understandings of our past.

John Keene’s fiction explores the ways in which historical narratives shape contemporary lives while simultaneously re-envisioning these narratives from the perspectives of those whose voices have been suppressed. Through innovations in language and form, he imbues with multifaceted subjectivities those who have been denied nuanced histories within the story of the Americas—primarily people of color and queer people—and exposes the social structures that confine, enslave, or destroy them.

His first book, Annotations (1995), is simultaneously a semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the coming of age of a black, queer, middle-class child in the 1970s and ‘80s in St. Louis and a collection of essays about the ideological, philosophical, and political contexts that define his struggle to achieve agency. In the story collection Counternarratives (2015), Keene reimagines moments, both real and fictional, from the history of the Americas, adopting the language and literary forms of the time periods in which his characters live—from seventeenth-century epistolary novels to Modernist and post-modernist experiments with stream of consciousness.  One story, “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic,” is framed as an excerpt from a history book. As the text unfolds, it is revealed that what at first appears to be a footnote about the disappearance of a convent school in early nineteenth-century Kentucky is in fact the eyewitness account of Carmel, an enslaved girl who achieves literacy and a literary voice within the space of the work. “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” also narrated by an enslaved person, turns a letter between missionary priests into an assertion of queer African presence in the New World. In “Rivers,” Keene imagines two meetings between an older Huckleberry Finn and a now-free Jim; he endows Jim with a voice and consciousness, thereby presenting Tom Sawyer and Huck from a powerful new perspective that extends and transforms Twain’s original novels.

In his fiction and in a number of other projects spanning translation, poetry, and cultural criticism, Keene is correcting and enlarging our distorted, partial views of American history and culture, and challenging his readers to question received understandings of our past.

In addition to his role as department chair, Keene is Professor of English and African American Studies, and also teaches in the Rutgers-Newark MFA in Creative Writing Program. In May 2017, he was awarded the Rutgers Faculty Scholar-Teacher Award, given across all Rutgers' campuses since 2000 to "honor tenured professors who make exceptional connections between their academic research and their teaching."

Keene credits the community and environment at RU-N for much of his recent work. “I completed my last three books while a faculty member at Rutgers-Newark, in no small part because of the tremendous inspiration I have felt, from Rutgers-Newark’s amazing students, staff, faculty, and larger community, since I arrived in 2012. I feel invigorated whenever I enter the classroom and have the opportunity to interact with our students, and so energized by my colleagues and the incredible work they do.”

Read John Keene's profile on the MacArthur website