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Randall Kenan

(b. 1963)


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(b. 1963), novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor, and educator.

Randall Kenan was born in New York City but moved shortly thereafter to rural North Carolina. Growing up in Chinquapin, Kenan received his BA in English and creative writing with a minor in physics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1985. He also studied at Oxford University during the summer of 1984

Kenan then became an editor at Knopf and began advancing in the publishing profession. In 1989 his writing career gained momentum with the publication of his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits. He became a lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College in 1989, and later at Columbia University, and was a visiting professor at Duke University in 1994 and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. Kenan's many honors include nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a 1995 Sherwood Anderson Award.

Published by Grove Press, A Visitation of Spirits received impressive accolades for a first novel: the dust jacket includes endorsements by Gloria Naylor and Adrienne Kennedy. Set in rural Tims Creek, North Carolina—a community clearly modeled after Chinquapin—the novel is divided into five sections, all of which concentrate on the Cross family, specifically sixteen-year-old Horace Cross and his older cousin, the Reverend Jimmy Greene. The focus of A Visitation of Spirits is on Horace and his slide into insanity and suicide. Horace's realization that he is homosexual causes him to believe that he is damned and that he can only escape by transforming himself into a red-tailed hawk. When Horace's sorcery fails to achieve this transformation, his despair is so great that he cannot return to reality. Instead, on a terrifying night filled with demons, the deranged and naked Horace revisits sites of earlier significance in his life but finds no redemption. While confronting his cousin Jimmy, Horace shoots himself in the head with his grandfather's shotgun.

Kenan's Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992) is a collection of short stories that are also based in Tims Creek. A widely ranging group of twelve tales, the work includes some characters from his earlier work, such as Jimmy Greene, who is the “author” of the title story, a pseudoscholarly history of the town. The first selection humorously portrays a clairvoyant five-year-old, a possessed tractor, and a talking hog. Other stories depict such wildly varied topics as an elderly woman learning that her dead grandson was gay and that his lover was white, and a middle-aged lawyer who is obsessed with his incestuous relationship with his half sister. Throughout, the only apparent link among these stories is Tims Creek.

In 1994 Kenan published a biography, James Baldwin, which is in the Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians series, edited by Martin Duberman. In 1996, Kenan was working on a travel book that detailed his explorations of black culture throughout the United States and Canada. It was published as Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (1999). He was also writing another Tims Creek novel, tentatively called “The Fire and the Baptism” and a play, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”. In addition to his longer works, Kenan has published several short stories (in periodicals and anthologies), as well as reviews, interviews, and articles on topics ranging from John Edgar Wideman to hip-hop music. As a promising young writer who openly addresses homosexuality, Kenan's impact on African American literature is significant. While his use of the supernatural is reminiscent of Toni Morrison, an early inspiration for him, Randall Kenan's journeys through the rural South are uniquely his own. That uniqueness is also apparent in A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta (1996), a volume of photographs by Norman Mauskopf, for which Kenan wrote the accompanying essay.

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Subjects: Literature.


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