Shank of the Song
Jeffrey Renard Allen, 2014
A contemporary American masterpiece about music, race, an unforgettable man, and an unreal America during the Civil War era...
At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.
Song of the Shank opens in 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere—inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots—who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.
As the novel ranges from Tom’s boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Chicago, Illinois, USA
• Education—B.A., Ph.D., University of Illinois, Chicago
• Awards—PEN Discovery Prize; Whiting Writer’s Award (see more below)
• Currently—New York, New York
Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of the novels Rails Under My Back (2000) and Song of the Shank (2014), and the story collection Holding Pattern (2008), as well as two collections of poetry, Harbors and Spirits (1999) and Stellar Places (2007).
In writing about his fiction, reviewers often note his lyrical use of language and his playful use of form to write about African American life. His poems tend to focus on music, mythology, history, film, and other sources, rather than narrative or autobiographical experiences.
Allen was born in 1962 in Chicago and raised on the Southside of Chicago, a neighborhood that he says informs the setting of his first novel Rails Under My Back and the stories in his collection Holding Pattern. For Allen, the 1980s in Chicago and other black communities across American represented an “apocalyptic moment“ with the introduction of crack cocaine and the violence and other forms of destruction and devastation it brought, experiences that he feels have been underrepresented in literary fiction. (Source: interview with Michael Antonucci)
Allen attended public schools in Chicago, then completed all of his university education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he holds a Ph.D. in English (Creative Writing). He is married to Zawadi Kagoma, who is originally from native Tanzania, and is the father of three children. He resides in Bronx, New York.
Allen is currently Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and a faculty member in the writing program at the New School and in the low residency MFA writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
In addition, he has taught in the writing program at Columbia University and in many distinguished writers’ conferences and programs around the world including: Cave Canem, the Summer Literary Seminars Program in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Kwani? LitFest in Kenya, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, North Country Retreat for Writers of Color, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Farafina Trust Workshop in Lagos, the American Writers Festival in Singapore, and VONA.
He is the fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony. He is the co-founder and president of the Pan African Literary Forum, an international, non-profit literary organization that aids to help writers on the African continent.
In recent years, Allen has worked with developing writers around the African Continent. In 2006, he taught for the Kwani? Literary festival in Nairobi, Kenya. With fellow author Arthur Flowers, he founded the Pan African Literary Forum, which held an international writers’ conference in Accra, Ghana in July 2008 that featured more than one hundred participants. The following fall he became deathly ill with malaria (and resulting complications) he had contracted while in West Africa, and spent more than six weeks in the hospital.
In August 2012, Allen taught for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Farafina Trust Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria. That same year, he also served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literary and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar. And in his work with the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers’ Colony, he has worked with a number of emerging writers from the African continent, including A. Igoni Barrett, Yewande Omotoso, Samuel Kolawole, and Victor Ehikhmamenor.
Under the auspices of the Pan African Literary Forum, in 2012 Allen organized a national reading tour for South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile. The Pan African Literary Forum has also collaborated on readings and panel discussions at the New School and for the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College.
In the essay “Water Brought Us“ published in Callaloo in 2007, Allen examines how his travels on the African continent were reshaping his thoughts about race, slavery, and place. In subsequent interviews, he has talked about how the time he spent on the Swahili islands of Lamu (off the Kenyan coast) and Zanzibar in East Africa helped shape his creation of the fictional island called Edgemere in his 2014 novel Song of the Shank.
His essays, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, Bomb, Hambone, The Antioch Review, StoryQuarterly, African Voices, St. Petersburg Review, African American Review, Callaloo, Arkansas Review, Other Voices, Black Renaissance Noire, Writer's Digest, and XCP:Cross Cultural Poetics. His work has also appeared in several anthologies, including 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, Rainbow Darkness: An Anthology of African American Poetry, Chicago Noir, Homeground: Language for an American Landscape, and Best African American Fiction 2010. He is presently at work on a collection of stories and novellas called Radar Country that in part uses his travels on the African continent to frame an exploration of subjects such as place, race, religion and faith, music and culture, identity, and family.
Allen is an advisory editor for the journal Black Renaissance Noire, which is published under the auspices of New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs. He was the guest editor for the Spring 2014 issue of Kweli Literary Magazine, as well as the Winter 2009 issue of Literary Review, which focused on emerging writers from the African continent. He was also the guest poetry editor for the Spring 2014 issue of Fifth Wednesday, a special section honoring the work of blues poet Sterling Plumpp.
Awards and fellowships
Allen was awarded The P.E.N. Discovery Prize in 1989. His widely celebrated novel, Rails Under My Back won Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction. His story collection Holding Pattern won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He has also been awarded a Whiting Writer’s Award, a support grant in Innovative Literature from Creative Capital, Chicago Public Library’s Twenty First Century Award, Recognition for Pioneering Achievements in Fiction from the African American Literature and Culture Association, the 2003 Charles Angoff Award for Fiction from The Literary Review, and special citations from the Society for Midlands Authors and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. He has been a fellow at The Dorothy L. and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, a John Farrar Fellow in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and a Walter E Dakins Fellow in Fiction at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/21/2014 .)
The novel...sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism (mermaids and mermen appear, as does a man who is inexplicably healed of short leg syndrome), resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.... Song of the Shank brilliantly portrays the story of Blind Tom while providing keen insight into the history of Reconstruction. But at its heart, it also reminds us denizens of never-will-be postracial America of one simple but everlasting essential truth: “Them chains is hard on a man. Hard.“
Mitchell S. Jackson - New York Times Book Review
[A]mbitious but unwieldy.... Both the conception and the underlying history behind this story will leave readers with a profound understanding of the inhumanity of slavery and 19th century racial attitudes. This is a dense and admirable book that invites an important excavation of the past, yet ultimately provides neither intimacy nor perspective.
This long and obscure novel by the PEN Discovery Prize winner of Rails Under My Back.... Verdict: There is no reason to doubt this highly regarded author's seriousness of purpose, but this remains a challenging work: long, dense, uncompromising, and mysterious. For sophisticated readers. —James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
(Starred review.) In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure.... Amid the larger drama of slavery and its injustices, Allen offers the more intimate drama of one young boy’s life and the financial and emotional investments involved in the question of what’s to be done with his exceptional talent. A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. —Vanessa Bush
(Starred review.) One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.... Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life.... Allen’s visionary work...should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.
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