...after 1992, Kenan published several excellent nonfiction books but no more fiction—until last month, when a new collection, If I Had Two Wings, appeared. I don’t know why Kenan didn’t write more ...The 10 stories in the new collection are as rich and provocative and funny as the ones that came before. And one story in particular caught my eye. It doesn’t seem autobiographical, exactly, but it does feature a narrator named Randall who came back to North Carolina from a life in New York publishing to launch a regional cooking magazine...Randall’s 200-year-old restored farmhouse turns out to have once been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and soon the man comes face to face with, yes, ghosts. Some are horrifying and some are mystifying and some are friendly, and though the haunting drives his boyfriend away, Randall takes it in stride. 'Do ghosts eat?' he wonders, and, just in case, he makes breakfast for two
As with Gloria Naylor’s Brewster Place and Edward P. Jones’ Washington D.C., Kenan’s fictions are linked, their Black communities complex and vibrant. More than one story features a character named Randall Kenan, and these have a narrative intensity and interiority like Bryan Washington’s Lot, coupled with the declarative and insistent tone of Celie’s later letters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. These are linked stories about Black and queer identity rooted in universal themes: memory and regret, release and sorrow, insistence and independence ... Use of repetition, chorus-like at the sentence-level, suggests that the author builds his work aloud like church leaders practice their sermons ... These stories are accomplished and polished. The use of sensory detail is astute, pulling readers into vibrant scenes ranging from megacity streets to an assisted-living home, from a flooded basement to an eighteenth-century barn’s walls. Kenan also successfully strikes a balance between fancy and finesse, arranging stories so that characters connect naturally and easily, which builds credibility and secures readers’ engagement. But what makes this collection remarkable is its wings ... Although some people in Tims Creek can fly (identifying them would spoil the wonder), in this collection the sense of being surrounded by winged creatures and the potential for transformation is more significant than any single character’s capacity.
...Kenan's characters find the past rising up to meet them in even more gripping ways. They are haunted — by old romance, by actual ghosts, by knowledge, by burdens they never knew to name as such. They do not always achieve a full reckoning with these things ... Food has played a starring role in Kenan's previous work, and it shows up frequently and deliciously here ... While food is a constant in the book, the narratives themselves swerve and circle back masterfully through time, as if evoking the strange, circuitous pathways that memory often takes.