Keenan Norris sits down for a digital conversation with Susan Straight on Wednesday, November 4 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Since his teens, Keenan Norris has been writing fiction and nonfiction about a wide range of landscapes in California. To look at his work is to see everywhere from San Bernardino to Oakland to Fresno in deeply felt prose that provides vivid details and unforgettable images.
His books include the novel Brother and the Dancer, winner of the 2012 James D. Houston Award for fiction of the American West; By the Lemon Tree, a story collection published in 2018; and an anthology that he edited, Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. His personal essay for Alta, “One Coyote,” is about growing up in East Highland, California; experiencing racism; and living in the heat and wildness of the Inland Empire.
Norris discussed his recent Alta article with friend and mentor Susan Straight via email.
Royal, Pat, and Jerry sprinted up the road toward the bus stop as the dog cut for the gap between me and the three of them. I took one step up the street toward their escaping shadows, and I saw the dog leaping for that same strip of brightening sidewalk. The beast had sensed that I was the weakest and cleaved me from my pack. I reversed field and ran into the street, making for the fences on the opposite side of the road. The dog cut on a dime and left nine cents on the sidewalk, chasing me down. I looked over my shoulder and saw it nearly at my heels. In one kinetic sequence, I slipped my backpack off my shoulder, slung it at the dog, lost my balance, and went skidding across the asphalt, leaving my melanin in the road. My bag of books hit it squarely in the face. The dog, dazed, paused, and its owner called it back. I watched it shake away the impact of the blow and trot away, an animal weaponized to kill on command. I got up and with my fingers dug gravel out of the white inner layer of skin that draped my kneecap. I started to bleed badly, the white meat overtaken by my clotting blackish blood. The man vanished into his home with his dog. I don’t remember anything else about that day.
We met when you were a freshman in my undergraduate course. I was so taken by your singular and astonishing imagery that I knew you’d be a great writer someday. How did you feel then, writing about a place no one had really explored?
I had written a couple of short stories while I was in high school. They were about Black and Mexican kids ping-ponging around the triad of San Bernardino, Highland, and Redlands, with each of those towns representing different racial and class dynamics that the kids then faced. I didn’t know how to write dramatically at the time, so not much happened in those stories, but I think writing them helped me to get a mental handle on how all the little internal communities of the Inland Empire (I.E.) made sense within the broader sweep of things, the American world that I had learned about from my parents and in my high school history classes.
The I.E. has always been ignored in popular culture, or simply seen as an adjunct to Los Angeles. But it is not Los Angeles, as everybody in the I.E. and in L.A. will tell you. It is adjacent geographically, but it is its own thing culturally and elsewise.
Your characters move through San Bernardino County almost as spirits, seeing the mountains, coyotes, dust-whipped winds. How does the landscape shape your work?
The I.E. is its own thing. That’s why L.A. will never claim it, nor should it. Our weather is severe: Mean heat, mean winds. Confrontations with nature that you will not get in the denser-packed parts of Southern California. We have our own much slower, much more southern rhythms than anywhere to our west. Like southern towns, the I.E. is sun-bleached by day and mostly unlit and dark at night. Our landscape is desert, though, which makes it that much more unique, that much more its own irreducible and ultimately incomparable object. I had to love it to write about it, and love is complicated. It’s not an endorsement or a bunch of platitudes about how great it is. There’s a lot about that place I don’t like. My work was shaped by my complicated feelings for that place.
How, as a writer, do you think about your characters and their deepening?
I think childhood is very powerful to write about because we have a lot of our most powerful experiences in that period of our lives and we’re for the most part unable to fully process them, let alone articulate their meaning within our lives and within the life of our community. So what the writer can do is look back and place those childhood or adolescent experiences, primal scenes and all that, in a particular context. They can see for the reader what the child can’t, or what the child might see differently, so that there are layers of perception.
You wrote a great op-ed for the Los Angeles Times recently about your father, sports, and racism. How did you approach that essay?
I know about athlete activism because my dad was both an athlete and an activist and because he came of age in an era and in an area where athlete activism was as strident as anywhere ever. My dad, Calvin Norris, was a lot of things: a good brother, a great father and husband. When he was in college, he happened to be fast. He ran anchor on a sprint medley team that broke the national junior college record in that event by nearly three seconds. He ran against the great American sprinters of the late 1960s and early ’70s, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose Black Power statue overlooks the campus where I teach. As I mention in the L.A. Times essay, my dad paid a price for his activism. That it ended his career as a sprinter is an afterthought compared with the rest of the story. The day that he and his fellow student activists were arrested at gunpoint for blocking traffic outside Fresno State (where he had transferred after junior college) fell only a week or so after the Kent State massacre, only a few days after the Jackson State student shootings. So I grew up in the shadow of all of that just like I teach in the shadow of Tommie and John now. This life is a strange thing.
Your parents lived in Fresno for many years, and you have relatives there. Who do you read from Fresno and the Central Valley?
I read Gary Soto’s work. His Buried Onions is a great book. I’ve also read a lot of Juan Felipe Herrera’s work. The Merced-born Diana Garcia’s book of poetry When Living Was a Labor Camp is another book that made an impression on me when I was first starting to write.
When it comes to inland Southern California, though, who do you read?
I read your books. Aquaboogie was one of my favorite books when I was a college student; The Gettin’ Place is one of my favorites now, in part because it links the I.E. with Oklahoma and with the Tulsa massacre. My mother’s family came through Oklahoma, and the massacre was what funneled them further west.
I read Nikia Chaney, Jenoyne Adams, Alex Espinoza, Juan Delgado, Morgan Parker, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, among many, many others.
You live in San Leandro now and have been in the Bay Area for years. What do you miss about Southern California, and what are you writing about now?
I miss its space. I miss winter in the desert, which renders the most beautiful scenes. I swear, the mountains look like they are etched from glass in those months. I miss vacant lots, open spaces, friends still there.
I have three books under contract right now: a novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane (2021), that’s about a young brother, 18 years old, his formative experiences of a future world, but also his legacy as the fifth generation in his family who bears that name and the destiny that it’s bequeathed him in Oakland, California, circa 2030; a novella, Lustre (2022), about an ex-convict come back home to the I.E. to start his life again; and a not-yet-titled nonfiction book about the life cycle of two generations of men on my father’s side of the family.