A Review of Counternarratives by John Keene
It is often said that history is written by the winners, and thinking back to my early education, my first conceptualization of what it meant to be American, I couldn’t agree more. But we often underestimate how powerful of a tool history can be, especially when we identify more with the ‘winners’ of history than the ‘losers’. Our concepts of modern morality were founded upon the nations and stories that we believe came before us. People often argue that something is right because it is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or worse ‘how it has always been’, but these concepts only come from our sense of history. Something that often times we owe more to history textbooks than to our own research. Even if we do investigate historical events on our own, our version of the ‘truth’ can only be based on what texts have been translated into our native language and which documents have survived the test of time. In his book, Counternarratives, John Keene provides an essential perspective on the history of the Americas with stories that span the Western side of the globe.
Keene’s book is a collection of short stories and novellas written in various formats: letters, footnotes, newspaper columns, and traditional short story form. The stories and novellas are not linked by characters, but rather by concept. All of them aim to disturb our traditional notions of both fiction and history. To challenge the concept of fiction, Keene utilizes various appropriated forms to shake our idea of what makes something a ‘story’. While reading through this collection, I felt like a historian sorting through newly discovered documents, trying to join these new narratives with the narratives I had known before opening this book. It made the book feel like it was an artifact, a great advocate for why we still favor physical books over online publications–this is a book you want to hold, a book that makes you take on a certain role as you leaf through it.
Along with challenging form, Counternarratives also challenges our perceptions of history. All of the accounts in the book are centered around people of color whose voices have been ignored or silenced by the white narrative. The very first story, “Manhatta”, tells the story of Juan Rodriguez, the first non-native to set foot on the island of Manhattan. Rodriguez was born in Santo Domingo (what is now the Dominican Republic) to Portuguese and African parents. He was hired by a Dutch ship as a translator and became part of a crew sailing to America. Typically we think of the first settlers in America as Europeans, but Keene gives emotion and voice to this factual account and troubles our long-held notions about the first settlers.
My favorite story from this collection is called “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” which takes place in a monastery in Brazil. The narrator is sending a report in the form of a letter about the ongoings of a monastery in Alagoas, hinting that the monastery is guilty of deceiving the addressees of this letter. Through the letter, Keene is able to build both plot and characterization while still maintaining the formality of a report:
“That is, I shall now tell of that series of events, unforeseeable at least to some of those who lived them, that inverted worlds, bringing those whom you knew, or thought you knew, intimately, northward in retreat to Olinda from the south, just as you bore only the clothes on your back and your Bible in your departure south for the capital city of the Savior. How do I know these facts, their recounting never having passed any man’s lips? This, as with so many other things, I shall reveal in due time.”
Complex discoveries of history and identity are intertwined with every aspect of this collection. But mostly, I feel this collection gives voice to identities that have often been silenced in our current versions of history. The voices that tie the collection together by the end of the book are two characters in the short story “The Lions”. This story starts with an epigraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him”. This comes from Wittgenstein’s second book, Philosophical Investigations, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this quote. In a stuffy classroom my professor explained it to us, a group of senior philosophy majors who had just learned that every other author we’d studied now stood in the shadows of Wittgenstein’s new solutions. My professor explained, “Even if a lion could speak, he would be looking at life from an entirely different frame of reference than a human. If language is created based on commonalities and a lion has nothing in common with a human, then we would not be able to understand each other.”
“The Lions” is a story where, much like the others in this collection, having the background knowledge of the history or the form, adds exponential layers to the reading experience. The form of this story is written in the style of Wittgenstein’s work, almost a call and response type of dialogue. Two thinkers express ideas on leadership, betrayal, and power, with an ellipses between each thought. In contrast to the other stories in the collection, “The Lions”, documents two leaders unafraid of using violence and greed to maintain positions of power, unaffected, it seems, by the oppression that sits side by side with the other stories in this collection. Here, we listen to the thoughts of two dictators, two voices that history often chooses to ignore because we do not want to understand their language, how they are capable of such acts. This story is a perfect example of the theme that runs throughout Keene’s book–narratives that push against what we have been taught to accept as ‘history’. The collection not only challenges old schools of thought, but also asserts that concepts of queerness, blackness, and gender identity, have always played a role in our foundations and will continue to do so as long as history continues to be written.