Randall Kenan, Southern Writer of Magical Realism, Dies at 57

Randall Kenan, an award-winning gay Black writer whose fiction, set largely in a North Carolina hamlet similar to the one where he grew up, artfully blended myth, magic, mysticism and realism, died at his home in Hillsborough, N.C.He was 57.

His cousin Nakia Brown confirmed his death but did not know the cause. His body was found on Aug. 28. Five years ago, he learned he had had a mini-stroke and was starting to develop heart problems.

In his novel, “A Visitation of Spirits” (1989), and in two short story collections that were published 28 years apart, Mr. Kenan (pronounced KEY-nan) developed Tims Creek, a backwater founded by a runaway slave named Pharoah.

The inhabitants include Horace Cross, a straight-A high school student from a prominent Black family whose torment in “Visitation” over being gay leads to a decision to cast out the homosexuality demon.

“As he continued to chant the name of the demon, his eyes wide with fright, he wondered in part of his mind what the demon would look like,” Mr. Kenan wrote. “Tall, perhaps taller than the apple trees, the pine trees even. Red and fierce, with huge yellow teeth and foul breath. But no, this was a great demon, a member of Satan’s High Court, the Inner Cabal.”

In a tale in “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” (1992) Mr. Kenan conjured a uzunluk, Clarence, who at age 3, begins speaking in sophisticated sentences. He expresses a clairvoyance that frightens the townspeople because he knows their secrets and those of their dead, and his mystical presence leads a pig to converse.

In his review of the collection in The New York Times, the novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote that it was “nothing short of a wonder-book.”

In “The Eternal Glory That is Ham Hocks,” a story in “If I Had Two Wings,” which was published last month, Mr. Kenan transported the billionaire Howard Hughes to Tims Creek in search of the Black woman who had cooked for him as a teenager in Houston. Learning that she has died, he offers her daughter outlandish sums to cook for him in Las Vegas.

Mr. Kenan recalled thinking for a long time about how to bring the eccentric Hughes to Tims Creek, the type of odd juxtaposition that he reveled in.

“I couldn’t have him come looking for the love of his life,” Mr. Kenan told the interviewer Jason Jefferies on his “Bookin’” podcast last month. But he felt that an “old and dotty” Hughes would seek out the old woman whose cooking had long ago ignited his taste buds.

“That idea made sense to me,” he added. “Even the most coldhearted person eats.”

Randall Garrett Kenan was born on March 12, 1963, in Brooklyn to Harry Lee Kenan and Clara Dunn. As an infant, he was taken in by his paternal grandparents in Wallace, N.C., about 40 miles north of Wilmington, but their dry cleaning business gave them little time for him. His great-aunt, Mary Kenan Hall, a teacher who had doted on him at her home in nearby Chinquapin on weekends, raised him.

“One weekend, she just didn’t bring me back,” Mr. Kenan told James A. Crank, author of “Understanding Randall Kenan,” a study of his work published in 2019.

(His parents, with whom he did not develop a relationship, are his only immediate survivors.)

Ms. Hall kept young Randall reading books like “Peter Cottontail,” “Robinson Crusoe and “The Swiss Family Robinson.” In high school he studied engineering but also had a fascination with science fiction. At the University of North Carolina he focused on physics but was increasingly drawn to writing fiction because of the guidance of a teacher, Max Steele. When he was a senior, the writer James Baldwin and Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” spoke to one of his classes.

Mr. Kenan graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.

He worked in publishing at Random House, where he rose to assistant editor at Alfred A. Knopf, while working on “A Visitation of Spirits.” He later told Image, an arka and literature journal, in its 2005-2006 issue that the novel’s central theme was “how hard it can be to reconcile a rational view of the world with the irrational reality of lived, hands-on experience, where a lot of things don’t make sense.”

He then began teaching at various schools, including Vassar College, Duke University, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Mississippi, Oxford, before he was hired in 2003 at Chapel Hill, where he taught creative writing and food writing.

Mr. Kenan’s gregarious but guarded personality was topped with a “virtuosic panoply of chuckles,” Alane Mason, his editor at W.W. Norton and former college classmate, wrote in the draft of a tribute to him for the website Literary Hub. His eclectic enthusiasms included physics, science fiction, Moby-Dick comic books, the blues, the music of Taylor Swift, great meals and the food writing of M.F.K. Fisher.

“He had the most capacious mind and heart of anybody I’ve ever known,” Daniel Wallace, the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where Mr. Kenan taught, said in a phone interview.

The novelist Tayari Jones, who met Mr. Kenan at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2004, said he did not resist being characterized as gay, Black and Southern.

“He embodied all of them, but he’d be loath to make a hierarchy of them,” she said in an interview. “ He didn’t say, ‘Don’t label me.’ He wore them all as ornaments.”

Mr. Kenan, whose writing beautifully portrayed gay romance, won the 1992 Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. His other honors include a Guggenheim fellowship and a Whiting Award for emerging writers, in 1994; and the John Dos Passos Prize from Longwood University, in 2002.

In the years between publishing his short story collections, Mr. Kenan ventured into nonfiction. For “Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century” (1999), he traveled the United States to explore his own Blackness and what it meant to be African-American.

In 2005, he began to focus on James Baldwin. He wrote a young adult biography and then “The Fire This Time” (2007), a commentary on race inspired by Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” and edited “The Cross of Redemption” (2010), a collection of Baldwin’s unpublished writings.

Mr. Kenan’s last published piece was about the removal of Confederate statues around the United States.

Writing on Literary Hub last month, Mr. Kenan said that in the mid-1980s, it would have been as improbable as science fiction to imagine that any Confederate monuments would come down. Among them was “Silent Sam,” a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier that he saw every day as a student on North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus. The statue, which he said pained him, was toppled by protesters two years ago.

“Still, what I most would have struggled to imagine, is that certain people would be up-in arms were it to ever happen,” he wrote. “That they would quite literally take over a state capital building, bearing arms, in anger to keep monuments up. That we might have another civil war over the matter.

“Can we seize the moment?” he asked. “We all must now readjust our thinking.”

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