We’re treading the treacherous waters of the Age of Exploration and the history of New World slavery. Guiding your rudder will be two formally adventurous story collections: Dark Room Collective member John Keene’s Counternarratives (named Best of 2015 by Flavorwire, Lambda Literary, LitHub, Vanity Fair, and New York Magazine) and Japanese American novelist Naomi Williams’s Landfalls (picked for the NBCC longlist and the One Story Debut Ball). Moderated by AAWW Executive Director Ken Chen.
John’s story collection Counternarratives (New Directions 2015) documents the history of race and transatlantic slavery wielding a metatextual witchcraft that tries to be as expansive as what it documents. The book spans several centuries, hundreds of characters, both real and imagined, and a range of styles, from slave narrative, field manual, newspaper accounts, epistolary narrative, maritime history, and concrete poetry. Keene writes about a settlements in Brazil, the death of a newborn in a Kentucky convent, and a curious remeeting between Huck and Jim. As Max Nelson writes in Bookforum: “Keene has a gift for channeling archaic literary idioms, and it’s no accident that many of the styles he most often slips into—epistolary narratives; histories of maritime exploration and trade—are relics from a specific stage in Western Europe’s colonial past. The stories in Counternarratives all address the efforts of enslaved or nominally free people of color to give their stymied, overflowing consciousnesses room to unfold, and a similar effort is evident in Keene’s style. Practically every sentence in the book perforates, stretches out, or pries open literary modes designed to be airtight, restrictive, and racially exclusionary.” Alternative narratives, told from the perspectives of enslaved or nominally free people of color, Counternarratives reinvents the histories of maritime exploration, slave rebellion, sorcery, and trade to map centuries of western colonization. Major Jackson calls it, “the story collection as freedom project.”
Naomi Williams’s meticulous debut collection Landfalls (Macmillian 2015) reimagines the ill-fated Lapérouse expedition (1785-1788), an ill-fated French voyage that went from Chile to Alaska to California, Macao to Sydney–only to never be heard from again. Williams narrates each chapter of Landfalls from a different point of view, ranging from French captains to the scientists onboard to indigenous subjects encountering the Europeans. A captivating narrative of an 18th century French voyage for a 21st century readership, Landfalls blurs the line between real and imagined, pushing the boundaries of interpretation and art. As The Guardian writes: “This is a novel that blurs the line between history and fiction and, in its method and its structure, pushes the boundaries of the form. Throughout the long voyage, the expedition sent back regular dispatches to France, and Williams has devoured every available source (her monumental bibliography is published on her website). Just as her characters are drawn mostly from the ships’ manifests, their stories cleave closely to the historical record. They explore the otherness of a world for the most part charted but still barely understood.” Japanese-born and not speaking English until age six, Puschart-winner Williams was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for this book.
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