Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Randall Kenan beyond the Final Frontier: Science Fiction, Superheroes, and the South in A Visitation of Spirits

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Randall Kenan beyond the Final Frontier: Science Fiction, Superheroes, and the South in A Visitation of Spirits

Article excerpt

Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits (1989) opens with two epigraphs, one from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and another from William Gibson's landmark 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Critics have frequently remarked upon the significance of the Dickens quotation, noting that it anticipates the Scrooge-like evening of visions endured by protagonist Horace Cross as part of his attempt to come to terms with his homosexuality in a traditional religious culture that abhors any form of sexuality it deems aberrant. (1) The quotation from Neuromancer, however, has drawn almost no comment at all. This omission may seem minor, yet it becomes more glaring when we consider how densely the novel is woven with allusions to science fiction tales and superhero comic books--literary genres that we might include along with fantasy narratives under the broad category of speculative fiction. (2) Although such narratives are not conventionally associated with the rural southern settings and African American folkways that figure prominently in Kenan's work, A Visitation of Spirits implicitly argues for a reconsideration of those conventions. At the heart of many such texts and at the heart of Kenan's novel lies the highly vexed issue of embodiment: the complex relationship between what we define as mind and what we define as body, and how African American southerners such as Horace have learned from multiple sources either to see themselves as all body with no mind or as minds housed in bodies that are no more than wayward and unreliable vehicles. Kenan's novel draws upon tropes from comic book superheroes and science fiction not only to dramatize this dilemma but also to reconceptualize the very notion of embodiment.

Kenan's earliest writerly ambition was to be a science fiction novelist. He writes of growing up in Chinquapin, North Carolina: "I had been a dreamy kid, aloft in fantasy and make-believe. Comic books, fairy stories, tales of the amazing and especially of the fantastic were my real world. Paying little attention to the outside world, I lived for Star Trek and Spiderman and the vampires, werewolves, and bigfoots of horror novels" ("Mr. Brown" 65). Kenan describes himself in his teenage years as "besotted and beset" by science fiction (Walking 610); he even composed novels in that genre while still in high school, and his ambitions remained focused on science fiction as he entered college. He enrolled in the University of North Carolina with the desire to become "a black Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov" (614). Although Kenan has not gone on to write science fiction--at least as the genre is traditionally conceived--neither did he abandon his interest in it. He stresses that his literary turn toward the rural southern settings of his childhood did not come about because he began to "think any less of" science fiction (qtd in Rowell 141). Kenan describes himself as still an "avid comic book collector" ("Identity" 9) and an "unapologetic fan" of science fiction (qtd in Cornett 62), and in The Fire This Time (2007) he writes, "comic books were my original vice, and they still have more allure to me than sex or drugs" (82).

Given Kenan's frequent emphasis on the importance of these fantastic modes for the development of his imagination and of his ambitions as a writer, the critical silence on his references to them in A Visitation of Spirits is all the more striking. One reason for this silence may simply be that these allusions do not seem "southern" enough. In the various literary-critical subfields in which Kenan's work is most often discussed, the regional nature of his work is a frequent locus of interest. Queer studies scholars such as Robert McRuer (Queer Renaissance) and Sheila Smith McKoy ("Rescuing the Black Male Homosexual Lambs") find in Kenan's work a model of black gay masculinity different from those found in works with more urban settings. Within southern literary studies, where Kenan enjoys a high profile, scholars have been particularly interested in those aspects of his fiction that recall some of the field's sturdiest tropes: his evocation of place and of the tension between the individual and the community, his chronicling of agrarian traditions as they are lost in the wake of encroaching modernization. …

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