Kenan was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 12, 1963. Initially raised by his grandparents, Kenan soon went to live with a great-aunt in Chinquapin, North Carolina, a rural community of fewer than a thousand people. The community later became the basis of the fictional Tims Creek, where all of Kenan's fiction is set.
Kenan attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 1985 with degrees in English and Creative Writing. He studied with the author Doris Betts. Based on an instructor's recommendation, and the help of novelist and editor Toni Morrison, he was hired for a job with Random House in New York City.
Kenan eventually transferred to the editorial staff of Alfred A. Knopf, where he worked until 1989. That same year he began teaching writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. Currently, an Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he has served as a visiting writer or writing in residence at a number of other universities, including the University of Mississippi, the University of Memphis, Duke University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Kenan's first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, was published in 1989. While a few critics praised the book, it did not receive much attention. This changed with the publication in 1992 of Kenan's second book, a collection of short stories titled Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. The stories, based in the fictional community of Tims Creek, focused on (among other things) what it meant to be poor, black, and gay in the southern United States. The book was hailed as a revival of classic southern literature and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named a New York Times Notable Book. The short story collection also brought renewed attention to his first novel, which was likewise set in Tims Creek.
In 1993, Kenan published a young adult biography of gay African American novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Kenan has frequently stated that Baldwin is one of his idols. He then spent several years traveling across America and Canada collecting oral histories of African Americans, which he published in Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (1999).
Kenan has won a number of writing awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Award, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 2007 Kenan published The Fire This Time, a book whose title was taken from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. It is a work of nonfiction.
Kenan's book in progress, "Only The Dead Know Chapel Hill," tells the tale of an abduction of African-American boys from Chapel Hill.
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