August 18, 2019 | 73° F

Rutgers professor receives prestigious Lannan Literary Award

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Rutgers—Newark professor John Keene, and chair of the African-American and African Studies Department, earned the Lannan Literary Award.

In November, an English professor at Rutgers-Newark was one of seven authors from around the world to be recognized by the Lannan Foundation. The authors were awarded fellowships worth a total of $850,000.

John Keene, who is also chair of African American and African Studies, received the Lannan Literary Award for his book "Counternarratives."

The Lannan Literary Awards and Fellowships “honor both established and emerging writers whose work is of exceptional quality,” according to the Lannan Foundation website. This year, the recipients were comprised of poets and fiction writers.

After a world-wide network of authors, scholars, and publishers nominated a group of candidates, the Foundation’s literary committee selected the recipients.

“‘Counternarratives’ is a collection of short stories and novellas, set at various points from the 17th century through the present-day, in places ranging from pre-Dutch Manhattan to Boston during the US Revolutionary War to the Civil War’s earliest and last battles, to a prison in contemporary Africa,” Keene said in an email.

Keene said he aimed to present both fictional and historical characters who maintained strong presences in African communities. Though these characters are integrated into discrete time periods, he said they are meant to represent universal themes that defy chronology. 

“Core themes include the search for freedom, resistance against oppression, self-determination and self-making and self-fashioning within the context of larger historical and socioeconomic systems, the nature of truth and knowledge, countering official narratives and power,” Keene said. “All of these themes are relevant to today, perhaps even more so since the most recent election.”

During his career, Keene has received a "dizzying" number of literary awards and recognitions, said Sterling Bland, a colleague of Keene and a professor of English at Rutgers—Newark campus.

Bland said Keene brings creativity, collaboration, and intellectual rigor into the department, the campus, the university, and beyond and that he garners the respect of students and colleagues alike.

Keene said he applied the knowledge he gained from several aspects of his life throughout the development of “Counternarratives.” He said his literary inspirations came from the books he read and his desire to see something that was not already on bookshelves.

He said he also drew inspiration from his experiences with interacting with students as a university professor. 

“He has a wonderful ability to connect with his audience. The thinking he reflects in his work and his teaching is ambitious, multi-genre, and powerful,” Bland said. “He is able to find ways to approach the familiar and make it into something new and deeply original.”

With 13 short stories in his collection, Keen said the writing process was long and arduous at first. After several years of slower progress, he managed to complete about 10 stories in the duration of two years.

Because “Counternarratives” features controversial material, Keene said he was not expecting an award like the Lannan Literary Award or the American Book Award, which his collection received in August.

The American Book Awards, presented by the Before Columbus Foundation (BCF) and allocated by a panel of judges, recognizes “outstanding contribution to American literature,” according to the BCB website.

“We regard (Keene) as among the most innovative and exciting writers in America today,” said BCF Board Chairperson Justin Desmangles in an interview with Rutgers—Newark.

Keene said he is humbled by and thankful for the chance to be recognized among the impressive roster of Lannan Foundation awardees. 

“Every good review and form of recognition has been a pleasant surprise,” Keene said.

Keene received his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing at Rutgers—Newark. He said writing, for him, involves reading, dreaming and puzzling through things. 

While Keene said he would welcome the opportunity to devote more time to his work, his passion lies first and foremost in teaching. 

“I love working with students, so I would want to be teaching no matter what,” Keene said.

Kelly Kim is a School of Engineering first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

Kelly Kim

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