Randall Garrett Kenan, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus, master storyteller and professor of creative writing in the department of English and comparative literature, passed away at his home the week of Aug. 24.
Storytelling had been central to Kenan’s life since his childhood in the small Duplin County town of Chinquapin, where he was raised by a great-aunt who taught kindergarten.
“I can’t remember a time when reading and writing weren’t a part of my life,” Kenan once shared in a fall 2018 Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine feature profile. “Growing up in rural North Carolina before television had taken over our lives, people would sit on the porch and spin yarns.”
Kenan graduated from UNC in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in English and began his career on the editorial staff of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., publishers, in New York. He would later go on to teach fiction, nonfiction and food writing at Carolina, which he called “an enchanted place.” He served as a visiting professor at UNC in 1995 and joined the faculty full time in 2003. He had also taught at numerous universities, including Duke, Columbia and Mississippi.
When he first learned that he would be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in fall 2018, his reaction was, “You must be kidding.”
But Kenan was, in fact, recognized with multiple awards throughout his distinguished career. He was a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His 1992 collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, set in the fictional community of Tims Creek, North Carolina, won a Lambda Literary Award in 1993. The collection was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and among The New York Times Notable Books. Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century was nominated for the Southern Book Award in 1999.
Kenan is also the author of The Fire This Time (2007) and the just-published If I Had Two Wings: Stories. A piece from that collection, “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water or, Where is Marisol?” was recently published in O, The Oprah Magazine. He also wrote for the Oxford American and Ploughshares literary journal.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, wrote this of Kenan’s newest short story collection: “Randall Kenan is an American master, and If I Had Two Wings is his latest gift to us. These unforgettable characters cannot be confined to a page. They are real; they are flawed; they are beautifully human. Each gorgeous story contains a world in miniature and a human spirit in full flower.”
Kenan is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Award and was the 1997 Rome Prize winner from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is former chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
In 2005, Kenan won a North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.
The North Carolina Awards, coordinated by the department of cultural resources, recognize outstanding lifetime achievements in fine arts, science, literature and public service.
“Randall was that rarest of people, blessed with a great mind and an even greater heart,” said Daniel Wallace, director of the creative writing program. “His dedication to his art and to his profession came second only to his devotion to his family and to the friends he made and sustained over decades and across the world. This is an almost unendurable loss. The creative writing program, the department of English and comparative literature and the whole UNC community is in mourning, along with his family, to whom we send all our love.”
In 2017, Kenan received the Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award for Fine Arts from St. Andrews University.
“Anyone who knew Randall also knew his kind, brilliant and generous spirit,” added Mary Floyd-Wilson, chair of the department of English and comparative literature. “This is an extremely sad and difficult time for our English and comparative literature community. We are all connected by our love for Randall.”
In 2016, Kenan edited The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food, a collection of food-related stories set in North Carolina.
“I had the honor of being edited by Randall as he invited me to be among the authors in the Carolina Table book he put together,” said Elizabeth Engelhardt, senior associate dean of fine arts and humanities in the College of Arts & Sciences. “We became friends through the world of food studies, and through Randall I learned again how much North Carolinians from small mountain towns have in common with people from small towns down east.”
Kenan once shared that helping creative writing students pen stories was energizing as well as gratifying. College of Arts & Sciences Dean Terry Rhodes said Kenan was “one of the leading lights at Carolina” and beloved by many students.
“He was a Tar Heel alumnus, a native North Carolinian who loved writing about his roots, a mentor to younger writers and a master craftsman and storyteller,” she said. “We will miss him greatly.”
College of Arts & Sciences