It’s hard to believe that, under John Keene’s shoulder-length dreadlocks and permanent, toothy smile, there is a mind pondering the representation of the deepest emotions. “I was in a struggle with how to convey those feelings — impotence, powerlessness, frustration and sadness — into language and not have it be propaganda,” he muses. And although his eyebrows knit in concentration, there is still a pleasant look on his face, unthwarted by its intensity.
This struggle with emotion through writing is prompted by the memory of creating “Pariah”, a short piece by the Northwestern English professor that was published in the compilation 110 Stories: New York writes after September 11. As a former graduate student at New York University and resident of the Northeast at the time of Sept. 11, Keene was greatly affected by the tragedy. But it was even before the terrorist attacks that he felt something wasn’t quite right. “There was something really unsettling from the end of the turn of the 21st century, this apocalyptic feeling at the time concerning the new millennium,” he says. “Up until that point I was trying to write but it wasn’t coming out.”
This ominous feeling permeated Keene’s work on “Pariah” and came to a climax on the day of Sept. 11, his first day as a professor at Brown University. “I woke up that morning and I had been working on ‘Pariah.’ I remember going to work and dealing with the news and all of that. But then on my trip back, my train was searched because a Sikh man had carried a ceremonial knife onto the train. So there were cops everywhere, and search dogs. I was freaking out!” “Pariah” was then born as an account of the apocalyptic nature of the time surrounding Sept. 11 rather than as an account of the event on its own.
Keene describes his story through “prose that was grounded in nightmarish experience.” A creative mix between poetry and prose, the piece reads as a sort of dialogue between two or more people. The writing might be best described as art through words in the most literal sense: no phrase spared from artistic purpose, no line misplaced or overlooked.
It must have taken hours to fold each corner, making sure to utilize the necessary seals. The moon scything on the ceiling, which is when I rose as always. The dial buzzed and then I had to burn everything I couldn’t carry with me.
Which is required.
Which is required, as you know, by the most recent statute.
But Keene doesn’t admit to a conventional style and doesn’t want to attempt to define it. This is the attitude that he took with his first major publication, Annotations, a short novel whose structure allows for sentences to bleed together without the restriction of paragraphs. He says, “It was a book that I had to write, at the time, in that style.”
Many publishers suggested that Keene make his writing more conventional to more easily publish a novel so early in his career. But he stuck to his guns and was rewarded with a publishing company, New Directions, that allowed him to keep his personal style. Keene describes New Directions as “my dream publisher.”
But it’s still all about the art of writing for him. “To write about something so horrible is tremendous, and you need to give yourself space and time,” he explains, in reference to his experience with Sept. 11 and writing “Pariah.” He advises those interested in a career in writing: “The most important thing is to read as much as you can and be in dialogue with other writers. Also, test yourself, set your standards high — not impossible, but high enough to challenge yourself.”
Keene, along with the most English professors at Northwestern, also emphasizes reading literature more than once. “Tastes change; there are writers that I used to dislike and I love them now,” he explains. “There are some books that I never finish but I have to come back to them for some reason. Because every time I read it I get something new out of it.”
Professor Keene’s smile is a constant through our interview up until the final few minutes. The hard-hitting issues come to the surface and he is thrown for a loop with one pressing question: If you were stuck on a desert island with only one book to read over and over again, what would it be? His face drops for the first time, I suspect, all day as he utters as his only response: “That would be hell.”