Dear Books,

From the moment my father gave me Go Tell It on the Mountain and told me,

“Read this and you’ll know more about who I am,” 

I knew one thing was inescapable: 

I would need to read that book, get back to him about it, and keep on reading and reading—

I couldn’t have shed you if I had wanted to.

Did I fall in love with you?

Your role in my life was more organic and natural and interconnected

Than a promise of love penned in teenage infatuation.

As a small child, from my origins,
You surrounded me.

You were there in the morning, in the day, at night, in morning newspapers and bedtime stories, on floors, on shelves, in school, on tests, on tapes.

You even issued from the speakers of our Nissan Sentra,

Which somehow possessed you, while air conditioning

It did not, and its windows stuck higher and higher on each family trip back to Fresno in the dead of summer.

You were both required and desired,

Vocation, avocation and passion, by turns.
I saw you and I saw myself.

And so I did not choose you any more than I chose my birth. But here we are together,

and here we have always been.

I became not only your receiver and container,

but your creator as well.

Not because challenge called me, disembodied, abstract,

Not pride, not dream of greatness or immortality,
But because you called me,

From floors, from shelves, from libraries, from summers, from schools, from bedtime stories, from tombs, from the dead.
And, like that artist of other forms, I did do so much for you—
Not because you came to me at six or sixteen

And announced yourself my muse, my demon,

But because you were always there, like the moon, waxing and waning, slivers and circles.

You gave me words, metaphors, symbols, stories, statistics, scholarship, history, perspective,

To understand a father who would not be with me forever, his roughneck upbringing and fortress body which cased his truth, his gentle thoughtful nature.

And you gave me more besides: You were my first connection with my mother once out from her amniotic deep, she who had vowed before I was born, before I was even conceived, that her child could be anybody, anything, anywhere, with anyone,

Just so long as he or she was a reader.

You gave me my family, heritage, history, all the history of all the peoples that I am heir to, which is not African, not American, but is as much of the world as I, in my limitation, can grasp:

You gave me Shabine on the sea, the Bard on the Brooklyn bridge, Hemingway and Faulkner, Morrison and Hartmann, the Dark Lady and her lover, Ivan and Alyosha and the Inquisitor, and Raskolnikov headed to America, I beheld the Invisible, and Sula with her sparrows and Nel with her bottomless sorrow, Father Compson and Quentin and all things shadowy paradoxical, and Saidiya trodding her ancestors’ and her own shadow’s bones.

And I love you for it.


But I have learned along the way not to love you so, oh, obsessively,

Unlike the artist from whom I’ve stolen this form.

You have turned from my companion, to my interlocutor,

to my muse, to my livelihood.

And you have also been my rejector,

You were my first real reckoning with my talent and my limitation,

and with my fate.

I do not know what season I am in,

Whether summer, fall or winter.

But I am no longer a child.

This season is all I promise you— not that it much matters,

as you are a part of my fate, entwined with ancestry and imagination—

My heart, my mind, my body, the famed champion of two realms wrote.

Still, I have resolved that you will not be the demon that I wake and that I sleep with,

As I did when I was young and heedless and did not know myself, even as you, among others,

taught me about myself.

I want you to know now, I am teaching you now,
The angel and the obsession
That you are.

That you are portal, talisman and interlocutor with the dead,

And you are demon, too,

God-Spirit timeless, possessing centuries, millennia, humanity, all knowledge, all dreams—

We have given each other all that we have. 

And we both know,

That you are inescapable.

Ars longa, vita brevis.

Dear Books,
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Keenan Norris’s novel Brother and the Dancer is the winner of the James D. Houston Award and was also nominated for the inaugural John Leonard Prize for first books. Keenan’s work has appeared in numerous forums, including recent pieces on blacks in tech and college student-athlete ethics at popmatters.com, his essay on Oscar Grant’s murder in BOOM: A Journal of California, and “Ben Carson, Thug Life and Malcolm X” in the Los Angeles Review of Books. His short stories have appeared in Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California’s Inland Empire, New California Writing 2013, Eleven-Eleven, and the Santa Monica, Evansville and Green Mountains Reviews. He has also published peer-reviewed scholarship, most recently his essay “Coal, Charcoal and Chocolate Comedy: On the Satire of Mat Johnson and John O. Killens” in Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity After Civil Rights. He is the editor of the seminal critical work Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. His commentaries on that anthology and issues related to it have been featured in the Financial Times, Huffington Post and New York Observer. Keenan is a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow and think tank member and also serves on the editorial board for Literature for Life, a Los Angeles-based online literary journal, salon, and resource for educators K-12 designed to spark a love of reading and writing. Keenan serves as guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center. He is an English professor at Evergreen Valley College and is also a lecturer, teaching Black Lit and Creative Writing, at California State University, East Bay.

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