Keenan Norris’ “The Confession of Copeland Cane” Wins the 2022 Northern California Book Award for Fiction
SJSU Associate Professor of Creative Writing Keenan Norris is a novelist, essayist and academic. Photo by Akubundu Amazu-Lott.
San José State University Associate Professor of Creative Writing Keenan Norris’ latest novel, “The Confession of Copeland Cane,” has won the 2022 Northern California Book Award for Fiction, an honor bestowed by the Northern California Book Reviewers association.
“The Confession of Copeland Cane” follows the journey of a Black teenage boy navigating the Insurgency Alert Desk that surveils and harrasses his East Oakland neighborhood in the name of anti-terrorism. Set between 2020 and 2030, the novel explores environmental injustice and structural disadvantage and was inspired, in part, by a conversation Norris had with Olympic Project for Human Rights leader John Carlos, ’05 Honorary Doctorate.
“The book was inspired by the police killings of unarmed Black people in different parts of the country, and spurred on by stories I heard from John Carlos,” said Norris, who saw Carlos speak at California State University, East Bay after his autobiography was published.
“His story inspired the creative line I took. I was interested in a character whose trajectory followed some of the established dramatic tensions of past protests and social activism, but set in a near future, where many of these problems have become exponentially worse.”
“That Keenan Norris’ superb dystopian novel has been selected for the Northern California Book Award is a marvelous confirmation of Keenan’s singular talent,” said Alan Soldofsky, director of SJSU’s creative writing program. “‘The Confession of Copeland Cane’ is bound to become a California fiction classic.”
Norris’ interest in Carlos’ story goes beyond fiction. During the 1960s, his father, Calvin Norris, ran track and field at Fresno State University and competed against Carlos’s contemporary, Tommie Smith, ’69 Social Science, ’05 Honorary Doctorate.
An accomplished novelist, essayist and scholar, Norris’ debut novel “Brother and the Dancer” won the 2012 James D. Houston Award and his essay “One Coyote” received a 2021 Folio: Eddie Award for Best Overall/Special Interest Article and was a finalist for a National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award. In addition to teaching creative writing, he serves as the coordinator of San José State’s Steinbeck Fellows Program and is California guest editor for the Oxford African-American Studies Center.
Norris explores African-American migration across the U.S. in his forthcoming book, “Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings.” A collection of essays, “Chi Boy” follows the writer Richard Wright’s move to Chicago after World War I, journalist and Black Chicago Renaissance writer Frank Marshall Davis’ movements across the country, as well as Norris’ grandparents and father’s journey out of the deep South during the 1950s and later to California, where his father participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
Much of Norris’ work explores the importance of place — geography as well as history.
“I see the places I’ve written about as microcosms of America,” he added. “Whether I’m writing about communities in California like East Oakland or the Inland Empire, or Chicago, all of these places are really unique and highly developed culturally and economically, and they have their own stories. They deserve their particular exploration beyond stereotypical notions. It’s important to look beyond and not be bound as a creative by the popular imagination of a place.”