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Keene Receives Prestigious Writers' Award

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November 10, 2005 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- One morning this fall, John Keene — author of an autobiographical novel about growing up Black in St. Louis titled “Annotations” — got a call from the president of the Whiting Foundation. Initially confused, Keene thought that he had missed a deadline, or someone was joking with him or the call had come to him by mistake.

Not so. Instead, the Northwestern associate professor of English and African American Studies learned he was one of 10 writers selected to receive the prestigious 2005 Whiting Writers’ Award and the $40,000 that comes with it. The annual prize recognizes emerging writers who show exceptional talent and promise.

The 2005 Whiting win puts Keene in the company of a long list of literary heavy hitters including Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham, Tony Kushner, Alice McDermott and Jorie Graham. National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen and bestselling “Liar’s Club” author Mary Karr also are past Whiting award recipients.

Although Keene is not ready to speculate on how the Whiting award might affect his future, he calls it “an incredible affirmation…For me, to be able to continue to make valuable contributions to literature – to African-American, African diasporic, Anglophone and world literature – is the most important thing.”

Ten years ago, “Annotations,”Keene’s first novel, met with critical acclaim for its use of language and exploration of sexual (gay and straight), class and racial identity. Publishers Weekly called it a “dense, lyrically beautiful and highly experimental debut…a meditation on the African American influence (of Keene’s native St. Louis) and much, much more.”

Library Journal suggested reading the novel twice – “once to get an idea of events and a second time to savor its language and pounding images…Keene’s artistry makes him a writer to watch.”

An avid reader in his youth, Keene penned stories, poems and songs as a child, and liked to draw and paint. He describes “Seismosis,” his forthcoming book with artist/poet Christopher Stackhouse, as an “art-text dialogue” exploring issues of abstract artistic representation.

Keene has published fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and translations in publications including African American Review, Ploughshares, and the Washington Post Book Review. He has been a fellow at the New York Times Foundation, Yaddo and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

Nominated for five Pushcart Prizes, he won the 2000 AGNI/John Cheever Short Fiction Prize and 2001 Solo Press Poetry Award. He teaches creative writing, cross-genre writing African American and diasporic literature. Keene, who reads five languages, also teaches translation.