Counternarratives by John Keene

Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: New Directions (May 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Barbara Epler

“There’s all this sorcery going on in the book – I mean overtly, but also in all sorts of ways that are sneaking in from the sidelines.” —Barbara Epler

John Keene is a writer from St Louis, Missouri. Conjuring slavery and witchcraft, and with bewitching powers all its own, Counternarratives continually spins history – and storytelling – on its head. Ranging from the 17th century to the present and crossing multiple continents, Counternarratives’ novellas and stories draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts and speculative fiction to create new and strange perspectives on our past and present.



The role of duty
“It is true that it has been said of blacks through the ages that ‘they don’t work, they don’t know what work is.’ It is true that they were forced to work, and to work more than anyone else, in terms of abstract quantity.”—Deleuze

Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?

The next morning de L’Écart rode down to Jérémie with Alexis at his side. He wore his holstered pistol and carried one of his brother’s rifles, while Alexis carried only a well-honed machete and a pike. Meanwhile at the dining table Madame. de L’Écart wrote missives to her mother and dearest cousin, who was married to a planter living outside Savannah, and with whom she often commiserated by letter. Eugénie pretended to browse through an illustrated copy of Aesop’s Fables while her mother was occupied, but eventually she invented solitary card games till she grew bored. She then tracked Carmel, who had continued to clean the house and pack up goods.

By late afternoon, neither Monsieur Olivier nor Alexis had returned, though Madame. de L’Écart affected not to show concern in front of her daughter. She ordered Carmel to find Boni or Ti-Louis and have either venture into town for news. Or Amalie, who had grown increasingly inattentive. This task provided Carmel with an opportunity to shake loose of Eugénie. But her search of the house, the near grounds, the gardens, the sorting house, the stables and barns produced neither man. Nor could she find Amalie, whom she had seen that morning preparing the day’s supper, a spiced squash soup, nor Jacinthe. Their absences filled her with unease. She went out to the mostly deserted slave quarters, which sat on an undulating ridge to the west of the house, away from the river; she had not visited them since the de L’Écarts moved in. There she encountered Joséphine, sitting on an overturned milk bucket in front of her shack, smoking a charoot. Carmel mimed a query to Joséphine, asking if she had seen any of the other servants or knew where they where or what was going on. The old woman offered only a smirk in reply, a grayish-blue question mark of smoke unfurling above her head. 

Carmel ran back to the house. She mimed to her mistress that she could not find any of the other servants, except Joséphine. Madame. de L’Écart, who was disposed to ignore slaves’ histrionics, ordered the girl to set places for herself and Eugénie, then complete her tasks. She planned to have a glass of rum with her bowl of soup, read, and wait for her husband to return.

Carmel returned to the cellar. She paused in front of her drawing. The mountains – or whatever they were – appeared to leap from the limestone wall towards her. The image as a whole churned her stomach, yet she could not pull away.  Suddenly, she felt fingers clasping her wrist.

  • Counternarratives by John Keene