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Kenan, Randall (b. 1963)  
 
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African-American writer Randall Kenan delineates the richly nuanced internal landscapes of the diverse inhabitants of his fictional community, Tims Creek, N. C.

"She liked that small world [of the classroom]; for her it was large," the omniscient narrator observes concerning a young woman preparing to become a teacher in one of Randall Kenan's short stories. The same may be said of "Tims Creek," the community of 25,000 situated in the wooded agricultural area of eastern North Carolina that is the invented setting of Kenan's fictions.

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Like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Honoré de Balzac's Paris, Kenan's Tims Creek is a fertile imaginative universe, peopled by generations of his own making whose stories intersect and comment upon each other in ironic ways.

During a Sunday church service at the ubiquitous First Baptist Church of Tims Creek, for example, the title character of "The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall" silently contrasts the ignominy of her own life with the dignity of Dr. Streeter, whom Mabel cannot know has been cursed by a son engaged in an incestuous affair with his illegitimate step-sister ("Cornsilk"); and the prosperity of Mrs. Maggie Williams, whose hard-won self-possession is narrated in "The Foundations of the Earth."

Likewise, Rev. Hezekiah Barden, who self-righteously chastises a tenant farmer for operating a tractor on a Sunday in "Foundations," reappears in "Ragnarok" preaching the funeral sermon of a woman with whom he enjoyed a long-term, adulterous affair.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Kenan's mythic Tims Creek, however, is its density of black gay men whose sexuality is at variance with the community's evangelical Christian beliefs, yet whose lives are so deeply rooted in Tims Creek that they do not think of leaving it. "I can't hate it now," the narrator of one of Kenan's stories says of Tims Creek. "It's become a part of me. A part of my internal landscape." Kenan's most impressive accomplishment is his delineation of richly nuanced "internal landscape."

Biography

Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., on March 12, 1963, Kenan was raised first by his grandparents and then by a great-aunt in Chinquapin, N. C., a rural community of 1,000 that is the prototype of his fictional Tims Creek.

He enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he majored initially in physics, but graduated in 1985 with a degree in English and creative writing. His early concentration on science explains the competence with which he draws upon such fields as geology and botany, as well as his observations of wildlife, in his writing.

An instructor's recommendation brought him to the attention of novelist Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House. Kenan moved to New York City where he worked first as an "office-boy-in-waiting," but eventually as assistant to a senior editor at Random House's prestigious subsidiary, Alfred A. Knopf.

Kenan's novel, A Visitation of Spirits, was published in 1989, and a collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, followed in 1992. Kenan has taught intermittently as writer-in-residence or guest lecturer at Vassar College, Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, the University of Memphis, Duke University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, while traveling across America and Canada to collect the oral histories that appear in Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (1999).

In 1994 Kenan published a brief biography of gay African-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin, whose work clearly possesses great moral and artistic authority for Kenan.

At present Kenan, who has discussed with interviewers a novel-in-progress tentatively titled "The Fire and the Baptism," is continuing to delineate the "inner landscape" of Tims Creek.

"Integrity. Dignity. Pride"

When, in A Visitation of Spirits, Horace Cross gets into a playground fight with a white boy who stole his comic book, his aunts (all schoolteachers themselves and mindful of their family's position in the black community) surprise him by commending his having stood up for himself, despite their prohibitions against fighting.

The incident is the occasion for young Horace to observe of those family members who grew up under segregation: "There was an armor one wore to beat the consequences, invisible, but powerful and evident [of racism]; an armor he heard in the edge of his grandfather's voice, in the stoop of his great-aunt's walk, in the glint of their eyes when they encountered white people. Integrity. Dignity. Pride."

The history of American racism unfolds in Kenan's Tims Creek saga. The story "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead" records how pre-Civil War plantation owners derisively bestowed grandiose names like "Pharaoh" on those slaves whose native African dignity they wished to mock, and recalls as well the violent "spite" with which whites burned down a church "with some runaway slave girls, girls running away from [enforced] prostitution in New Orleans."

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