A Conversation with Keenan Norris
BY TOMMY MOUTON
Keenan Norris’s latest novel is The Confession of Copeland Cane. He teaches American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. In 2021 he served as a Rea Visiting Writer at the University of Virginia. His essay “One Coyote” won a 2021 Folio: Eddie Award and his debut novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. He also served as editor for the anthology Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. Keenan continues to serve as the California guest editor for the Oxford African-American Studies Center. He was a 2016 Callaloo fellow, as well as a 2020-21 Public Voices fellow and a 2017 Marin Headlands Artist-in-Residence fellow. His editorials and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, Alta and LitHub.
Tommy Mouton: Let us dive right in. I was surprised to see that The Confession of Copeland Cane actually takes place in the future, perhaps sometime around 2025. And throughout the book you allude to George Floyd’s 2020 passing as a powerful motif. When did you first begin writing the book and how, ultimately, did George Floyd’s death change or influence the book’s trajectory?
Keenan Norris: So, I started writing the book in 2015—in part spurred on by the police murders of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and numerous other unarmed Black people. The book did take on a sharpened focus in 2020 when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered and global protests rose up around that. I needed to contrast those global protests of 2020 to my experience in 1999 in Riverside, California, when Tyisha Miller, on December 28, 1999, was murdered by four Riverside police officers.
It definitely gave the book—the police brutality and the subsequent protests—a sharper, hotter edge. There was just no way that anybody who lived through 2020 wasn’t changed—I think we are all irrevocably altered by 2020. I think it probably took five years off of everybody’s life. I think it made us more internal as people. I think it also led to, you know, some real chaos in our society as well, unfortunately. I don’t think this world and certainly this country will ever be the same. I think it really changed things, and so just to live through the utter cauldron of 2020, yes, it did change the book. I feel like the book, which had been more about gentrification and its predations, shifted more into the police brutality aspect because of that.
TM: Who is the book’s ideal reader and perhaps why?
KN: As a writer, you always want to write with your ideal reader in mind, with what that reader brings to the table but also what you bring to them—like any relationship. So, you ask yourself: How do I meet them halfway? Yeah, my ideal reader is probably between the ages of 15 and 30, a young person of African descent—either classifying themselves as biracial, multiracial, or just Black American, Black Colombian, Black Latino. So that’s my ideal reader. But if we go deeper into demographics, do they have to be college educated? No, not necessarily. But it would be somebody who reads. Or who listens to a lot of podcasts—somebody who is living the life of the mind—someone who brings relevant life experiences and will be emotionally open to learning something from it. I think that’s more important than a college degree.
TM: As I was reading, I kept visualizing your characters on stage. The dialogue is so rich. I kept thinking that the language needed to be, beyond the page, witnessed anew. Were notions of performance at the core of your writing?
KN: Yeah, you know, when I wrote the book, I was very much thinking about the book in performance. I’m glad that you responded to it this way because I feel like that was part of my objective—was a book that could live in different media.
TM: One of your past projects was Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. Is The Confession of Copeland Cane street lit? And better yet, how would you define street lit?
KN: For people who don’t know, I edited the first multi-author critical volume about street lit in 2013. Street lit as a genre is defined by a number of things: subject matter as it’s generally set in urban spaces, urban America. But there’s street lit coming out of London, out of Jamaica, a few other places—often gritty and violent, often dealing with the criminal underworld or people sort of just working at the margins—living at the margins of society. Not that they’re doing anything clandestine, just survival-level activity. Dialogue, yes, typically is African American vernacular or Afro-Latino vernacular—I should also say that all street lit is not Black lit. So you have street lit written by Mexican Americans, you know various Afro Latinos who may or may not primarily identify as Black. And so those are the basic hallmarks of street lit—representative texts like Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Trick Baby, Mama Black Widow; Donald Goines’s various novels, especially Whoreson; Sister Souljah’s Coldest Winter Ever; Omar Tyree’s Capital City; and K’waan Kenji Jasper; and Terri Woods. So, does Copeland Cane fit into that designation? I mean, it just depends how flexible one would want to be with the categories.
TM: Speaking of street lit, and perhaps because you mention African American Vernacular English (AAVE), your book made me think so much about my students and the languages they speak. Just this past semester I taught a multilingual Afro-Latina originally from Panama who said she didn’t know that she could write in Spanish in an English classroom. Why is it important for our students to exploit the languages they speak?
KN: Oh yeah, I think that people need to access their language—they need to access their voice—not the standard English voice. First of all, Americans don’t even speak Standard English. White suburban American English is not Standard English. There’s an old essay by Paul Fussell that addresses this idea. He wrote his most famous work about his experience as a Marine in WWII. He said that over in Europe, during the war, he was introduced to a respect for the English language. So the idea that that [White suburban] America should then dictate to everybody else what the standard is, and its value, and then to place relative value on all the permutations of English is a logical fallacy to begin with. So I would say that, you know, thus everybody needs to access their language and their voice—I would encourage and challenge students to go beyond those boundaries, where you get not just the social truth but where you can get real artistic experiment and innovation.
TM: Speaking of language. As I was reading, there was such a strong musicality in Cope’s narration. On a number of occasions I said to myself: Yeah, Cope is a lyricist. I’ve got to ask Keenan about hip-hop’s influence on him and his writing. Tell me about your musical influences as a writer.
KN: Thank you for asking that. I feel like I do get asked a lot about my literary influences because I teach literature and so forth, but hip hop also taught me how to write. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a great scholar of poetry. I know the poets who I regard most highly, but I know way more about hip hop than literary poetry. It is what it is—a child of the ’80s and ’90s. So, I learned a lot about how to write from Nas, from Illmatic. Even though I was out on the west coast, I really admired the depth of lyricism, of imagery:
While all the old folks pray to Jesus, soaking their sins in trays
Of holy water…
When I listened to it, I was about 20. I thought: That’s beautiful. That’s just beautiful. I mean you get everything there. You get, you know, that these people are Latino in his neighborhood, saying their prayers to Jesus (Hey-sus), and then, you know, ceremony, the [Catholic] ritual, but then a sort of re-imagining that is soaking the sins and trays of holy water, right… (Keenan continues reciting from Nas’s “The World Is Yours”):
Odds against Nas are slaughter
Thinking a word best describing my life to name my daughter
My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection
Born in correction, all the wrong shit I did, he’ll lead a right direction…
TM: Thanks for bringing me back. Now that I’m fully convinced about your musical influences, who, from a literary standpoint (though I kept thinking about Ellison and Wright while reading), influenced The Confession of Copeland Cane?
KN: I’m actually completing a book that will be published next year that deals in part with Richard Wright’s time in Chicago—both writing Native Son and Black Boy, but also just his life there. So I’m deeply familiar with Wright’s early work, his early novels and essays. But Ellison’s Invisible Man was much more influential than Richard Wright. Jacqueline in the very first couple pages of my novel references Ellison. She makes this comment about how she won’t disclose where she is making the recording from, but she says, just imagine that I’m in, you know, a New York City cellar. And so for people who know Invisible Man I want that to be a connection from the jump.
I was most thinking about Invisible Man and the kind of conceptual juxtapositions that the invisible man so oftentimes observes or finds himself in the maw of, these contradictory forces, these contradictory dualities that he’s constantly having to negotiate, and so I wanted Cope to also occupy a similarly complex space.
TM: You mention contradictions. There is such profound symbolism in the book. One of the characters is named Mr. America. Can we briefly talk about the irony here?
KN: I have long been inspired by those train dancers. They’re not just on the BART trains out in the Bay. They’re in New York, in Rio; they’re everywhere. I just love that these young Black people who are, despite being relegated to the street and making their money in the street hustling, are doing something positive; they’re doing something incredibly artful—it requires great athleticism, training in various forms of dance—and on a moving train, no less.
And then you have the juxtaposition of Cope who has lost his rhythm. He had his rhythm literally radiated out of him, versus Mr. America who is fully in touch with colored people time. And yet, Mr. America has to make his money by dressing up in this red, white, and blue outfit—with a bunch of bells and jingles and jangles right on him, because that is the way you make money. “America is the place where you make the money” is what a Jamaican taxi cab driver once told me in New York City. So, yeah, his very being is very dualistic and really contradictory. You have the contrast of colored people time in America and Cope himself is the child who fell out of colored people time and into America. Mr. America is, perhaps, more because he’s a little older, a little more self-possessed; he is in some ways more in control—has a better sense of who he is than Cope. The book is basically Cope’s identity formation, whereas Mr. America has come of age.
TM: Multiple times while reading I mouthed the words “So Full.” I don’t think I was punning (soulful) but I found, then and still, so much of this book to be full and rich on so many levels. How would you like others to describe the book?
KN: You know, I appreciate your description. First, I want them to speak to Cope’s voice—to the kind of elasticity of the vernacular. I want them to speak to the anger in the book too. And so I want [Cope] to inhabit times before, as well as his own moment, and to be the vessel for all these people’s stories: for his father’s story, for Mr. America’s story, for even Jacqueline’s story. So I want them to speak to the sadness, the tragedy, and the anger that is generated through a real understanding of our history—as well as pride, of course, that we’ve come through and we’ve survived and are much better off than when we got here. But also counting the losses. So I think the fact that Cope is very much aware of the historical traumas that precede him is part of the book’s consciousness. I want people to speak to that. I want them to speak to the humor of the book. That it’s part of what sustains Cope through this kind of hellscape that he endures—the absurd contradictions in his world. And finally, I want them to be able to connect it to not only the present but to the future. I want them to see the book as a sort of cautionary vision, not a cautionary tale of the past but a cautionary vision of the future. I hope to be disproven in all the book’s predictions. I hope for none of them to come true.
TM: In one of your first interviews after the book was released (and before I read the book) I learned that you were headed to Oregon to attend the U.S. Track and Field Trials. And so when I finally began reading and found out how much this book was about running and perhaps a tribute to your father, I can’t help but wonder how much of your father’s past influenced the book.
KN: Yeah, in a way, Cope is a tribute to my father. There are elements of this story that were part of my dad’s story or maybe an embellishment, not in kind but only in degree. I think I always knew I wanted to write about a runner but was really inspired by an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. It was the one on Ben Johnson’s and Carl Lewis’s famous, or infamous, hundred meter race at the ’88 Olympics. The way the documentary starts off is by going from lane one, all the way out through lane eight. They start an interview with each man at the starting line, showing them in the blocks, and then they fast-forward to 25 years later, and each brother is talking about how he was feeling back then and relating that to his life now. And you just get, like, the tension of that moment. So it’s like, you know, you can do this. So that’s why one of the early scenes in the book is of Cope and his friends running—they all line up against the handball wall and use it as the starting blocks and run. Right there, in a microcosm, all the major figures of the book express something about their characters. So it’s a mini-introduction to each character. Cope finds that on the track, and I think there’s something very beautiful about how he’s able to connect to something deep within himself. And he realizes that because it’s deep within himself, nobody else will understand it, and so this is both the beauty and the tragedy of that.
TM: Wow! Beautifully said. Thank you. In one of our original correspondences you mentioned the idea of “Writing While Black.” I’m not sure if these crazy times have kept me a bit detached, but I hadn’t heard it put like that before. Can you talk about what Writing While Black means?
KN: I think Writing While Black means being part of a Black literary tradition that far precedes us. Wherever one wants to situate the beginning of Blackness as a racial concept, wherever one wants to start—it’s on from there. So I’d say that the first thing it means is being part of a unique tradition that isn’t bound by time—isn’t bound by trends, and isn’t bound by nations either. I think it’s about being in an emotional and intellectual and philosophical conversation about the things that have most deeply impacted Black people. I think it’s also got a lot to do with humor and, you know, the survival, the survivalism in humor—being creative with the language and ways that break open Standardized English. Or in other languages. I think it has everything to do with those things, and I think that it’s also about this kind of dualism of both being American and being Black, operating cooperatively within them both, but also where those two identities conflict and contradict one another. So I think it’s all those things.