The celebrated author and academic died last month at the age of 57
Readers and scholars across the state are mourning the passing of one of the finest writers to emerge from Southeastern North Carolina.
Randall Kenan was found dead Aug. 28 at his home in Hillsborough, according to the Associated Press. He was 57. No cause of death was listed. A graveside service was held Wednesday.
Kenan’s latest book, a short story collection titled “If I Had Two Wings,” was just published Aug. 4 by W.W. Norton. A story from that collection, “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” appeared recently on the website for O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine.
“Randall Kenan was a gentle and fierce soul,” said novelist Clyde Edgerton, a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “And a unique combination of gentleness and fierceness is found in his stories, novels and essays.”
“No one who was ever in Randall’s presence will forget his voice and laugh,” Edgerton added.
“I have long considered him the heir to the legacy of James Baldwin — intellectually, artistically, and in terms of his passion for social justice,” said Philip Gerard, another UNCW professor and author of “Cape Fear Rising” and other novels. “He was generous and talented, firm in his convictions, and a voice that elevated any conversation he was part of..”
“He was just an immense talent,” novelist Daniel Wallace (“Big Fish”) told the Raleigh News & Observer. “His best years were still ahead of him.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kenan was almost immediately shipped South, where he was raised by his grandparents, who ran a dry cleaning business in Wallace, and by a network of great-aunts, aunts and cousins in the Chinquapin community. One of those great-aunts was a kindergarten teacher, who had young Randall reading by the time he was 4.
A bright student, Kenan volunteered with “The Liberty Cart,” the outdoor historical drama that ran for several summers in the 1970s in Kenansville. He enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, originally as a physics major but was lured over into English, studying with the authors Max Steele and Doris Betts.
After graduating from Chapel Hill in 1985, Kenan headed for New York, where he held a variety of positions with Knopf, eventually rising to be a book editor.
His first novel, “A Visitation of Spirits,” was published by Grove Press in 1989 to respectful reviews. Real acclaim did not come until 1992, however, with the publication of his short story collection “Let the Dead Bury The Dead,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the year and a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Both of Kenan’s first two books were set in Tims Creek, a fictional eastern North Carolina community with strong resemblances to his native Duplin County. He would return to Tims Creek for a number of stories in “If I Had Two Wings.” “God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters,” for example, describes the aftermath of a massive hurricane similar to Hurricane Floyd, which flooded much of Chinquapin in 1999.
Kenan’s characters were often troubled young men, torn between the South of the Sunday-go-to-meeting and the modern world of “Star Trek,” and particularly troubled by their sexuality. He took James Baldwin, the celebrated black gay writer, as a personal hero. In 1993, he published a young adult biography of Baldwin, and he titled his 2007 essay collection “The Fire This Time,” a direct reference to Baldwin’s classic “The Fire Next Time.”
In the meantime, Kenan began to teach, first at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University and Vassar, later at the University of Mississippi (where he was the John Grisham Visiting Writer), the University of Memphis and Duke. Eventually, he settled at his alma mater, where he was a professor of English and comparative literature, teaching courses in creative writing.
In 1999, Kenan published his big book — at 688 pages — “Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the 21st Century.” He traveled the country from Alaska to Florida, interviewing African-Americans from activists in Atlanta to film workers in Los Angeles to a Republican congressman, including the descendants of escaped slaves in Canada. Philip Gerard called it “a magisterial work not just of sparkling, powerful prose but also of brave reportage.” Edgerton called it “a yet-to-be-fully-realized gift to all Americans.”
In “The Fires This Time,” Kenan tried to measure how America had changed, or had not changed, since Baldwin wrote his 1963 book. The collection also contained memorable portraits of Kenan’s grandfather, and of his own father, a long-term prison inmate who found religion behind bars.
In later years, the honors piled up. Kenan was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Whiting Award winner, a winner of the John Dos Passos Prize and of the Sherwood Anderson Award. In 2005 he received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest award for letters. He was admitted to the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2017 and in 2018 was named to the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
Kenan had said that he was working on a major project dealing with the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981. Obituaries listed one unfinished work titled ” There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names.”
Ben Steeknab can be reached at 910-616-1788 or email@example.com.
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