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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 306-331
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Gay Identity, Conjure, and the Uses of Postmodern Ethnography in the Fictions of Randall Kenan
Readers familiar with Randall Kenan's fictional works, A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), will recognize in them a prominent concern with community and familial relations that engages questions of difference, both racial and sexual. In the former work, Kenan foregrounds the small North Carolina community of Tims Creek that boasts a history of community survival that goes back to the days of slavery. Yet the trauma of its slave past appears to undermine the prosperity of its present inhabitants. Possessed of a world view that is basically fundamentalist and separatist, the community has attributed its survival to the rigid maintenance of patriarchal family structures, stable racial identities, and normative sexual desires. Yet, as Kenan is intent on showing, such control—often imaged in tropes of spatiality—is unrealistic, unworkable, and only serves to underscore the permeability of all borders, whether communal, bodily, or psychic. Centered on the Cross family, and especially on sixteen-year-old Horace, who is gay, A Visitation of Spirits details his suicide and raises troubling questions relative not only to the emergence of queer desire within the community's perimeters, but also to its own complicity in Horace's death. 1 However, as the Cross family situation exemplifies, racial identities tend to be [End Page 306] acted out in terms of religious and familial structures of power that introduce challenges to the stability of all boundaries—bodily, familial, communal, and racial; it is this instability that is the source of the novel's multiple visitations. Although these visitations appear to describe Horace's evocation of demons during his hallucinatory last hours, other members of the Cross family seem similarly troubled by incursions of an authority that also has its grounding in the abject. Neither the community, with its Christianized institutions, nor the Crosses, with their patriarchal and heterosexist forms of familial containment, can escape this particularly problematic visitation which, to use Kristeva's metaphoric language, always escapes "from its place of banishment" and "does not cease challenging its master" (2). 2
Beyond these issues, Kenan has also foregrounded a range of spatial problems that involves the processes of textual production. In A Visitation Kenan has chosen to enfold Horace's narrative into those of other family members so that the portion involving the consciousness of Horace constitutes only a third of the novel. A second strand is taken up with the pasts of two Cross elders, while the third, and possibly most important, introduces in a confessional mode the first person narrative of one James Malachi Green, or "Jimmy," an uncle who witnesses Horace's violent death. Yet Jimmy appears again in the title piece of Kenan's later work, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, no longer as the writer of confessions, but as the author of an ethnography. It would appear that Jimmy has abandoned his earlier "confessions" in order to undertake a rather ambitious work that explores the troubled spaces of the Cross family history, including its white members, a gay ancestor, and the legendary founder of the little known maroon community that existed on the Cross lands. The change in genre appears significant in light of the fact that in the earlier work the confessional mode that assumes a prohibitory frame allows Jimmy a series of personal evocations of guilt and loss. The more complex and ambitious ethnographic project offers Jimmy the chance to occupy a different subject position, not as a family member and witness to the death of Horace, but rather as an observer participant who studies a culture that is both bounded and removed in time. Nevertheless, the melancholic Jimmy does not escape the losses of the present so much as perform them through his study of the past. And as I will argue in these pages, ethnography itself, as a means of evocation rather than simple description...