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Randall Kenan, Southern Writer of Magical Realism, Dies at 57


Mr. Kenan recalled thinking for a long time about how to bring the eccentric Hughes to Tims Creek, the type of odd juxtaposition that he reveled in.

“I couldn’t have him come looking for the love of his life,” Mr. Kenan told the interviewer Jason Jefferies on his “Bookin’” podcast last month. But he felt that an “old and dotty” Hughes would seek out the old woman whose cooking had long ago ignited his taste buds.

“That idea made sense to me,” he added. “Even the most coldhearted person eats.”

Randall Garrett Kenan was born on March 12, 1963, in Brooklyn to Harry Lee Kenan and Clara Dunn. As an infant, he was taken in by his paternal grandparents in Wallace, N.C., about 40 miles north of Wilmington, but their dry cleaning business gave them little time for him. His great-aunt, Mary Kenan Hall, a teacher who had doted on him at her home in nearby Chinquapin on weekends, raised him.

“One weekend, she just didn’t bring me back,” Mr. Kenan told James A. Crank, author of “Understanding Randall Kenan,” a study of his work published in 2019.

(His parents, with whom he did not develop a relationship, are his only immediate survivors.)

Ms. Hall kept young Randall reading books like “Peter Cottontail,” “Robinson Crusoe and “The Swiss Family Robinson.” In high school he studied engineering but also had a fascination with science fiction. At the University of North Carolina he focused on physics but was increasingly drawn to writing fiction because of the guidance of a teacher, Max Steele. When he was a senior, the writer James Baldwin and Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” spoke to one of his classes.

Mr. Kenan graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.

He worked in publishing at Random House, where he rose to assistant editor at Alfred A. Knopf, while working on “A Visitation of Spirits.” He later told Image, an art and literature journal, in its 2005-2006 issue that the novel’s central theme was “how hard it can be to reconcile a rational view of the world with the irrational reality of lived, hands-on experience, where a lot of things don’t make sense.”

He then began teaching at various schools, including Vassar College, Duke University, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Mississippi, Oxford, before he was hired in 2003 at Chapel Hill, where he taught creative writing and food writing.

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