The Joy of Editing—and Knowing—Randall Kenan
Alane Mason Remembers a Brilliant Enigma
He had a virtuosic panoply of chuckles, like notes of an organ, from chuckles of delight and whimsy high in the chest, to those, a bit deeper, of wonder at the absurdity, to a perilously deep, dark chuckle of endurance, a one has to chuckle because one can’t kill the damn fool chuckle.
I really hoped and expected, when we got to be old and had more time, to sit on a porch with him and listen to him chuckle, about people we’d known and times behind and before us.
When I saw the Friday night email from Jill McCorkle saying to call her right away, I knew right away and was sick to my stomach, my head ached, I delayed calling her back just to delay hearing it. But of course I could not push the news away for long. And the spirits of the dead are so close in those first hours that if you are aware, if you are grieving, you can feel them. You feel the brush of their two wings, his many wings. He fluttered around me, so close, as I went to sleep that night.
I do believe that when he turned in that first story about a bluebird in the creative writing class where we met in the fall of 1984, English 99W at UNC-Chapel Hill, at least one of our teachers was expecting a window into Southern Black life and was disappointed. He was the only Black student in the class; the only Black student in any of my classes. “Write what you know!” he was chided by Max Steele, a comedo-tragic white Southern writer of the old school, who was part of the founding of The Paris Review. I do believe Randall greatly enjoyed defying Max’s expectations. He knew his bluebirds.
He was also the only student who knew, when he saw my own first paper for that class, that it was wildly derivative. “That reminds me a good deal of Garcia-Marquez,” he said, bemused. It even had ice in the first line. He made the call-out of my mimicry sound almost like a compliment while skewering my lack of originality. So we became classroom allies and friends. He had come to UNC planning to be a physics major (as a teenager he was in correspondence with NASA), but had fallen in love with science fiction, with Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, which led him to literature, especially writing not bound by the domestic realism then in fashion.
We shared a love and respect for and sense of obligation to old people—the generation of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles—that came from being raised up and deeply taught by them; made similar distinctions between biological parents and actual ones, born kin and kinships we made. He asserted his home-place, the rural, agricultural part of the North Carolina low country near the coast where his neighbors raised hogs and tobacco, not as someone who had “escaped” it, but as someone who was wholly of it, and also, being gay, not of it. Our other teacher, Daphne Athas, whom we both came to adore for three and a half decades, liked to talk about him as an aristocrat in that place, whose people had nobility. He chuckled—with pleasure, I believe.Fiction was his protected place, but I fear that elsewhere he wanted to give people what they asked and underestimated what the work would cost him.
He graduated a semester before me and went to New York, where he’d been born, but hadn’t lived since earliest infancy. He wanted to live in the place of the Harlem Renaissance, though Harlem was on some hard times in the Reagan years. He got a job as an editorial assistant at Knopf working for Ash Green—am I remembering correctly that Toni Morrison recommended him? He certainly knew that she’d preceded him as an editor there. He lived, not at first but eventually, on the very corner where Harlem meets Columbia University meets Central Park and the Upper West Side. He came back to visit the UNC English department and tell us about Publishing—I don’t remember what he said.
Publishers meant nothing to me. But after his visit back to Chapel Hill, Randall sent me in the mail two new books just coming out from Knopf, possibly even not quite yet officially published—including a reissue of Selected Poems by Langston Hughes, and The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was the first time I remember holding brand-new works of literature, in hardcover, in my hands. I was in awe. I was raised on library books and paperbacks for school, usually second hand. I remember the smell of the second-hand bookshop in Chapel Hill where my friends and I were reverential as faithfuls in a church, the mustiness of the volumes a kind of incense. We held up the covers of those with names we recognized as those of the greats, lighting candles before the saints. That I hadn’t had to pay even a dollar for these sparkling clean new hardcovers fresh from New York was a greedy bonus. It didn’t even cross my mind then that I, too, could end up having a job—a whole life—of trying to put new books in front of people. Come to New York, Randall wrote.
I came. Did a Harper’s internship, got a job (still suspicious of publishing) as an assistant at Summit Books, the wannabe-Knopf of S&S, the primary rival to Knopf’s parent company, called Random House back then. As fellow editorial assistants, Randall and I met to roam the city. We went to free concerts by jazz and gospel greats on Central Park’s Summerstage, and to hear my brother, a drummer, play ska, the fusion of jazz, r&b, and proto-reggae briefly popular in those days. Randall had discovered Film Forum, with its classic and foreign movies, and the theaters around Lincoln Center. We had picnics in the park (I was that kind of girl who loved a picnic; one occasion on the campus quad led Max Steele to nickname me the Wine and Cheese Girl, which I hated). Randall liked that I’d given a linguine with garlic and fresh tomatoes recipe a North Carolina spin by adding squash and goat cheese. He insisted we see “Babette’s Feast”— he’d seen it at least once before. (I just discovered he wrote about Ingmar Bergman in relation to Baldwin, one of his lesser-read works I’m sure.) He was obsessed with MFK Fisher, whom he could never get me to read. He did get me to try a pomegranate from a sidewalk fruit vendor, and might have convinced me about persimmons, which I’d thought I didn’t like; he introduced me to Indian food, in the restaurants on East 6th Street that editorial assistants could afford—he was especially fond, if I recall correctly, of lamb vindaloo.
Cabbages and kings and Edward Lear and Toni Cade Bambara: conversations with Randall ranged widely, from his fondness for nonsense to the utter seriousness of the damning fiction of race. He slept little, wrote in the wee hours, read so widely I could never understand when or how— history and biography as well as fiction, and science fiction and foreign writers and classics and contemporaries. He was wildly enthusiastic about the memoir of a Chinese physicist and dissident who later won the Nobel Prize—books like that were far beyond my purview. He knew that the rock garden near Belvedere Castle in Central Park was known as Shakespeare’s Garden, that the plants were associated with particular plays, which he also knew, having read everything that daunted me. He knew so much, not just the surface stories but the backstories, about everything. He would chuckle at being called a polymath, but he was.
While putting in the long days as an editorial assistant, during those wee hours, he managed to write his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, agented by the great Eric Ashworth (who would die of AIDS a few years later) and published by one of the top literary editors then, Aaron Asher, who had moved to Grove from the old Harper&Row. I suggested to Randall he call it, “Spirits Come Down,” just like Max who expected Southern Black folk to go on and be folksy. Commercially, for white book-buyers, I might not have been entirely wrong. But what an idiot I was. He didn’t bat an eye, just said firmly, No. He also had to tell me that “commence” was perfectly realistic Southern talk for “begin.”He was one of those who never really believed that he was loved as he was, that his generosity was recognized and cherished, that his work had changed lives.
He continued to invent nicknames, suffused with bemusement, for each of my boyfriends—the college flame I continued to moon over for some years, a “slim reed of a young man” Randall called the Dane, then the Maltese Falcon, the Patent Lawyer, the Sovietologist. Apparently he had students give each other nicknames too. He was ebullient, rhapsodic, in the way he addressed his friends. With apologies to those who thought they were his one-and-only, I’ve been garlanded with Darlin’ Chile, Darlingest Queen of Women, and piles of endearments so high they could topple, like a competition of greetings in Arabic.
“Who’d have thought that such a sharp mind resided in such a fragile vessel,” he said to me once, and was mortified at what he considered the sexism of his own chivalry—“Vessel! How could I say that?” he chided himself. Age sobered him just a little—“nuttified” him, our teacher Daphne wrote me, clarifying that she thought he hadn’t become nutty, but more confident in himself, concentrated and mature like a walnut. But the endearments lasted, even “Wine and Cheese Girl” which he knew I’d tolerate only from him.
When I became an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Eric Ashworth sent a proposal for two books—a story collection, and a travel book, through Black America (and, as if that weren’t big enough, Canada!). Harcourt wanted the collection but was worried that the travel book was biting off more than any young writer could chew. Knopf didn’t want the collection but wanted the nonfiction. So he ended up with two different contracts. He was already traveling for Walking on Water by the time Let the Dead Bury Their Dead was in production. While checking his proofs, he called me from Utah, after a day of talking to elderly Mormon aunties, to say, “How could you let me use the C-word?” in a 1-800 number for phone sex in one of his stories. It was 3 am in New York but he’d lost track of the time. He wanted to change it to PSSY. In the acknowledgments—still making up for that “fragile vessel” comment—he said I was his boxing coach. When the finished book came in, I carried it around face out on the subway like a walking billboard. It was “my” first book as an editor. Its success jump-started my career.
Let the Dead Bury Their Dead led to fellowships that took Randall away from New York, so after his travel research—hundreds of hours of interviews that took years to turn into a book—he never really came back. He would have been a brilliant editor, but must have made the calculation that academia would allow him more time to write, even if it meant being more unsettled for a while. He loved words like “peregrinations.” I followed him in his peregrinations only a little. The American Academy in Rome when he had the Rome Prize, and we decided to go to Venice during Carnevale. Oxford, MI, when he had the Grisham Fellowship and showed me Faulkner’s house and the Square. I marvel at the pictures, how young we were. Memphis, Sewanee—I wish I’d followed him to those places too.
He had a plan to write, in addition to several works of fiction, a work of nonfiction, a biography, and a play—when other writers his age just dreamt of getting a first work of fiction published. And he did exactly as he planned, but for the play, which for all I know might reside among his papers, and but for more novels, with “the Chapel Hill novel” he’d been working on for well-nigh three decades edging toward completion this year. He might indeed have been almost finished, though self-imposed deadlines had passed before—he told his close friend Daniel Wallace he would finish by the end of the summer in 1997. But he also told him he couldn’t stop adding characters, and a few days before he died, mused to him, “I’m afraid people don’t read long books anymore.” Maybe, I’d like to think, maybe that meant he’d reached a finish line and could see the full length of the journey.
Fiction was his protected place, but I fear that elsewhere he wanted to give people what they asked and underestimated what the work would cost him. He was commissioned to write a young adult biography of James Baldwin that the Estate loved so much that they asked him to curate Baldwin’s unpublished work. He could not say no to the privilege. Thirty boxes of Baldwin’s papers arrived at his house. Someone in a different department, not in creative writing, might have gotten a grant for one or more research assistants; Randall did the work himself. Ultimately, he published a selection of Baldwin’s uncollected writings called The Cross of Redemption, with his own introduction so magnificent, written with such fire and power, knowledge and vision, it’s worth buying the book for that only. Then, a few years later, Melville House commissioned him to write a meditation on Baldwin called The Fire This Time, to commemorate an anniversary of Baldwin’s work.
Meanwhile the novel grew. And with it my feeling that he was somehow ashamed at not finishing it—despite the increasing number of requests and demands on his time, to which, it seemed, he could never say no. I had to put editorial avarice aside; each time I tried to ask him how the book was coming, it wasn’t clear which of us was more embarrassed. When I tried to get him to turn down some of the other requests, the literary service-work, to free up space for his novel, he basically said to me, “It’s too risky. As a Black man I can never feel that my livelihood is secure.”
So for nearly 30 years, I wasn’t his editor, while other people had that privilege and I feared I would never have it again. But we remained friends. It helped that he returned to Chapel Hill and we had people there, namely Daphne Athas, our friend and one-time teacher, in common. Each time I visited, I admired how he had matured, became more confident and stentorian in his voice, seasoned behind his beard, even more widely knowledgeable than he’d been as an omnivorous youth.
The boundaries of friendship: I never saw the inside of any of his homes. We were not present to each other upon the deaths of our old folk. He never, ever spoke to me about his love life—other than an occasional admiring comment about one or another fine-looking man, and a mention long after the fact that back in those early years in New York he’d gone out with David Rakoff (another editorial assistant and uncannily talented comic writer who died much much too young). He was extraordinarily private and elusive. His ebullient affections, his powerful wisdom in teaching, all must have drained him. He was a wall of reticence about many things, most things, but he hinted that he did suffer from periods of depression. A few years ago, he had a stroke and heart attack that he didn’t tell me about until he was fully recovered. I caught him smoking once when we were in our twenties and he was so embarrassed I felt like his mother. I then believed he had stopped, but it turned out he continued to smoke, never in public, only alone, about half a pack a day, which he admitted only under duress at an emergency room.
Over the years, we developed a kind of sibling rapport in relation to Daphne, with my urging him from a distance to check in on her, since he was closer, and he finding it increasingly difficult to do so as her mind started to escape its earthly confines. She couldn’t hear worth a damn so it was impossible to talk with her by phone, it was more and more painful for her to walk, and her emailing drifted. We visited her together on what turned out to be—as he knew and informed me when I came to NC—her 95th birthday, in November 2018. Her cabin, the bookshelves, the old armchair she liked with the wooden armrest, the piney smell and banging of hickory nuts on the tin roof, seem as near to me now as my own skin. She wrote me for months afterwards about the birthday balloon left behind by another visitor, how it hovered over her and seemed to take on a life of its own, reminding her that we had been there.
Back in New York, not long after that trip, a joyful thing happened that once I’d have told Daphne about immediately, and now neglected to tell her at all: I got the chance to publish, once again, the fiction of Randall Kenan! He’d finally decided to bring together the stories he’d written since Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, and put a collection out there in the run-up to the long-awaited novel. But it had been so long, and I had lost all trust in Fate to bring us together again in that way, I thought certainly I’d lose the chance to work with him again. The manuscript came to me at Norton, and when I made our modest offer for If I Had Two Wings to Jin Auh, his agent at Wylie, I said, “Please do what’s best for Randall. If you find a better situation for him, please, convince him to do whatever is best for him, I don’t want him to feel emotional obligation or pressure from me because we’re friends.” She said, he was very clear about what he wanted.
There were no middle-of-the-night calls about dirty words in the book this time; I teased him that without that, the journey felt somehow incomplete. But we were so much older now, each a little less flexible and more burdened with obligations than in the past. I wanted him to add a story about a North Carolina hurricane, knowing his home place, the real Tims Creek, had gone under in the floods—he’d had a character knocking on his brain, ready to tell that story, so he was only slightly ruffled at the impertinence of anyone suggesting subject matter for his fiction. It was impertinent! That was a word Randall liked, if not the behavior.
I wanted to go back to North Carolina last November for Daphne’s 96th, which I knew might be her last, and to beg Randall to show me the pages of the novel so long in progress, now that we once again had a working relationship. Inconveniences intervened, and after all Randall felt unwell, and a paid trip turned up for February, which seemed a godsend—until it was postponed, and postponed again, indefinitely. Sometime over winter, Daphne fell and broke her hip, which put her in a nursing home. At the end of July, she died, not unexpectedly, after several months in a nursing home considerably confused about why no one was able to visit her. Her genius for the Mythic in life and in people had in part made us.The stunning CV listing all his prizes, his role in dozens of literary committees and organizations, the entire books of scholarly criticism on his work, his myriad contributions to so many publications—I never saw it till now.
Randall and I spoke for the last time when we got the news. It was a sad conversation that day—“A mighty sad day indeed,” he texted. I was nervous about whether he was happy with how things were lining up for the book coming out, but he seemed less anxious than I, delighted by the glorious advance reviews. He seemed resigned, but not dispirited, about the difficulties of these times. I worried about him being alone during the pandemic, he said he had a boyfriend he was able to see often enough. But the relationship ended, apparently. As deeply solitary as he seemed (the flip side of pouring out such wealth of gregarious charm and generosity to others), he was not someone for whom enforced isolation could have been easy. When UNC opened for in-person classes only for a week, then retreated to Zoom for the rest of the semester, that too must have been a blow.
I hoped that Southern modesty wasn’t keeping him from a publication announcement email to his contacts—trying to egg him on by text while knowing full well this was the kind of self-promotion he abhorred. He didn’t answer. Yet it did seem he was thrilled with If I Had Two Wings, every aspect, and as usual, became beloved by everyone who worked with him, being courteous and kind and funny. I heard not a hint of self-pity about publishing his first work of fiction in almost thirty years, his great literary come-back, into the hurricane of a pandemic. He seemed happy it had been born, was doing virtual events with more to come, including an event in support of North Carolina Democrats with the governor in a few weeks.
The stunning CV listing all his prizes, his role in dozens of literary committees and organizations, the entire books of scholarly criticism on his work, his myriad contributions to so many publications—I never saw it till now. He never shared it with his publicist or agent. All the prominent authors tweeting about him—he never mentioned them as admirers who might be approached for blurbs. He was self-deprecating to an absurd degree. No more potent brew of confidence in his thoughts, in his voice, and of bashfulness has ever found human form. He would not presume.
Earlier this summer, Brad Watson, a great writer whose work and person I came to love, also died much too young and unexpectedly, also of “natural causes.” My eulogy for Brad was published in these pages too and I had the weird thought that Randall might be jealous—I emailed, or thought to email him, saying he must not make me do anything of the kind until we were well into our nineties. We all must have known, and not wanted to know, that his health was not to be taken for granted.
Thinking about Randall and Brad together, given how close and in a way similar their sudden deaths were, I can’t help thinking about a shared additional stressor in their lives: that they were both on the front lines of a battle-to-the-death in the state universities—among those emboldened in recent years are those trying to end state education in the humanities. Brad had spent much of the last few years trying to save the creative writing program at University of Wyoming. The North Carolina legislature has been on the warpath against the humanities at its flagship university, Chapel Hill. And Randall, it seemed to me, always had as many, and more burdensome, PR and fundraising duties on the university’s behalf as educational or creative ones. The Literary World asked him to do a huge amount of diversity representation as well: prize committees, boards of literary organizations, contributions to every anthology—this I knew even before I saw that CV.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to know that every day, politicians tasked with the public good are trying to eliminate that livelihood, while around you, students crowd in with craws agape like thirsty chicks, wanting/needing your wisdom, your affirmation that their thoughts and feelings and creative visions matter (assurances that their business and science teachers are unlikely to give). The ambitious ones determined to surpass you, some perfectly willing to eat you alive because deep down they know the world offers a living for only a small number of writers. And the more time passes without your finishing the next novel, one that will satisfy those trying to turn it into money in New York, the more you fear that soon you might no longer be one of the lucky ones. And in Randall’s case, knowing your very existence, the skin of your own body, is a target of a vicious politics. I can imagine that the stress of it all might burst the blood vessels in your brain or break your heart.
The outpouring of love for Randall Kenan on Twitter—oh how one wishes he could see it, for he was one of those who never really believed that he was loved as he was, that his generosity was recognized and cherished, that his work had changed lives. And for his influence to be compared to that of Toni Morrison! His work to W.E.B Dubois and James Baldwin, with gorgeous photographic profiles of him facing each of theirs! I dreamt the other night that he was scrolling through Twitter mightily amused that people thought he was dead. And mightily pleased (though he would say, “humbled”) by all the encomia. Such joy to find him alive! Then cruel semi-consciousness said, No.
One reader of his recent essay in Lit Hub proposed that every Confederate statue across the state of North Carolina be replaced with a statue of Randall Kenan. Another said that the UNC-CH football stadium—Kenan Memorial Stadium, originally named by a big donor “white Kenan” for his father, captain of a white supremacist militia in the Wilmington Massacre —should be renamed, Randall Kenan Stadium. Oh how he would chuckle!