A Strange Alchemy: Keenan Norris brings deep listening, dystopia and hope in latest novel

In a conversation with Oakland-based writer Keenan Norris about his new novel, The Confessions of Copeland Cane, there is agreement that deep listening is a complex, underrated skill. “It’s important to get quiet,” he says, “not just when writing, but out in public, which is how you learn how people talk, when they’re funny, how they think and combine gesture and mannerism.” Listening closely to dialect, to individual timing of words and phrases, even listening to the sounds of a city—in Oakland, the truck engines, police sirens, car horns, BART; the rumble of public discourse muted by distance or voices sharpened by close proximity; Black, Asian, brown, white or indigenous vernacular; languages other than English and more—all bring Norris to his sweet spot: “I love being plugged into what’s going on.”

Norris is a tenured assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. His first novel, Brother and the Dancer, won the 2012 James D. Houston Award and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize. He holds a doctorate from the University of California, Riverside, and was a 2020–21 Public Voices fellow, 2017 Marin Headlands Artist-in-Residence and 2016 Callaloo Writers Workshop fellow. Norris received two Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellowships—in 2017 and 2015—and has been guest editor for the Oxford African-American Studies Center since 2014. His editorials, essays and short fiction have appeared in notable literary journals and the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, Alta, LitHub, Visible magazine, Remezcla and other publications.

The Confessions of Copeland Cane is set in East Oakland, primarily in the year 2030. It’s a dystopian, disjointed space in which shadows cast by environmental degradation, disproportionate incarceration of people of color, undeniable economic and educational disparities between East Bay’s affluent and underserved communities, society’s systemic racism, media conglomerate dominance and police brutality on the bodies and psyche of people of color are prevailing winds blowing through the lives of “darkly complected people” such as Cope, a mesmerizingly complex character who presents as a typical/extraordinary teenager as the story unfolds.

Cope pinballs through high-contrast worlds: The Rock, a “towering old East Oakland apartment complex located in a rapidly gentrifying area of Oakland known as Rockwood and a day-school on Treasure Island that has the punishment-based Youth Control system subjecting incarcerated juveniles to literal soul-enervating, long-lasting, and nightmare-inducing toxicity. There are also Oakland schools: Rockwood High and Piedmontagne Prep, the most prestigious prep school in the Bay Area; a move to Antioch—Cope calls it “the Och” and describes it as “dusty like a brother who’s still rockin’ his FUBU fitted from the twentieth century. Dusty like a wardrobe full of clothes two sizes too small …”—and the many metaphysical nooks and crannies drawn from Black American history and the existential “spaces” of Cope’s copious imagination.

Norris says important themes in the novel—such as micro and macro time spans, social protest, anti-Blackness history, the perils of miseducation and the dramatic conflicts often generated in public spaces—are vastly important, but never preempts his central concerns of creating compelling characters and continuous plot movement. “You never know when you make something, what impact, if any, it will have,” he says. “There’s a strange alchemy that inspires social movements, general public reaction to a book or movie. The absurdity of writing about a major social issue: it’s a gamble. Literature obviously in the past has had a great impact on political events, history; but it’s also tricky. A novel can dramatize and individualize an injustice that may be better understood on its impact on a collective group of people. It’s tricky to think about how to write a story that can draw people in through an individual narrative that isn’t a story obscuring the clarity of events.”

Time, according to Norris, serves throughout the novel in contradictory fashion as a laughing point and a racist element of control. “The Youth Control is very strict,” he says. “Holding ‘being late’ against colored people starts the book: there’s something that [Cope] was born with, born into. It’s an understanding of himself in history, in things that happened to Black people who are dead before you’re born that impact you as a person. It’s time that takes us back to enslavement and prior to enslavement.”

Although the novel was mostly written prior to the pandemic and is primarily Norris’ response to the murders by law enforcement officers and others of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Brianna Taylor, Oscar Grant, George Floyd and named and unnamed additional people of color for centuries, he’s concerned that the isolation caused by Covid-19 lessens society’s organic—non-internet—collective knowledge. “Decreasing shared information in public spaces through casual conversations on trains, in parks, in public squares—the classroom is not the totality of our education, it’s a place to launch from—is a concern.” Norris favors reading widely, not alone but in community, and accessing fields of study such as critical race theory because they provide “ways of understanding history, literature and current events in ways other than typical.” Public spaces for sharing, he says, are “compelling places of conflict, drama, comedy and contested lands where we get to know ourselves in relationship to others as power, disadvantage, wit, charm and ingenuity all play out.”

As a writer, Norris suggests his deepest listening must be to his characters. He says book reviews of his two novels are primarily written by white people who focus on the social or political aspects of the work and skirt more complicated elements. “Especially with the main characters, I have to have a deep understanding of their psychology, subconscious life and motivations,” he says. “The second thing I think is true of my [fiction writing] are the versions of love. I’m in love with my characters, there’s love between parents and children, and community love that’s complicated in the new novel because Cope is in many ways shunned by his Black community, but then across town he’s also looked up to for his education and status. Most reviewers are white and most of these characters are Black, so maybe they think they can’t write about lines where Black people in the community don’t love each other. Intra-racial dynamics are core to what I write, but difficult to review.”

Learning from his first book that what drives a story are compelling characters and enough plot for characters to be themselves, he says, “If you have that, the other pieces you create along the way don’t have to be perfect at first blush or stop you from submitting it to an agent or publisher. My favorite books written by world-famous authors? I could tell you glaring flaws in their work. Why should I hold myself to a higher level or standard than James Baldwin, Toni Morrison or Shakespeare?”

Although Norris says Cope’s father was the most difficult character to “hear,” and required he “excavate and retrograde” his opinions about the aging, perennially struggling Black entrepreneur, the father-son relationship is the novel’s most vital and dynamic. “I was 100 pages into the book and thought, uh-oh, I don’t really understand his relationship with Cope,” Norris says. “I had to think about where he came from in my imagination. He came from me: I have a fascination with Black popular culture and maverick, crazy Black guys who—the things they say are not always socially acceptable—have a real passion for their families and community and something they’re trying to create, no matter how quixotic. It’s a general fascination, but also from learning about my grandfather. My dad was born right after World War II, and his dad had been in the war. He had a family in Alabama, a wife and kid, and then had a second whole family and moved to Chicago and had my dad and three other children. To go back to Birmingham every summer, I was always fascinated by the detail of stories my dad told me. My interest in storytelling started there.”

Norris’ habit of deep listening—rooted in his ancestry, the Jim Crow South, century-spanning literature and history, and finding contemporary flight in Oakland’s public spaces—will undoubtedly continue. Novel No. 3 holds much future promise.

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