A Conversation With Kiese Laymon

A Conversation With Kiese Laymon

Roxane Gay talks with the author about his writing and the work that writing does. 


Kiese Laymon. (Courtesy of Kiese Laymon)

I first encountered Kiese Laymon’s writing when I read “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance.” I was stunned into stillness. For a long while I simply sat with Laymon’s words and tried to absorb what he had done. Then I reread the essay and was stunned into stillness again. I’m not going to lie. I was jealous—straight up, green-eyed, how can someone write this damn well, jealous. That passed quickly, though, because Laymon’s writing was too important and too necessary for me to be trifling.

Laymon’s writing has reminded me that I read to better know the world and how it shapes us. As I’ve gotten to know Laymon’s work through his essays, collected in a book also titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and his debut novel, Long Division, I’ve been better able to appreciate how complex and varied the black experience in America can be.

His fiction, in particular, thrills me. Long Division is am ambitious novel, and though it is raw and flawed, it is the most exciting book I’ve read all year. There’s nothing like it, both in terms of the scope of what the book tackles and the writing’s Afro Surrealist energy. There’s time travel and a story within the story. From the first page to the last, something bigger than the story is happening.

Long Division is, in its gutsy heart, a novel about how a young black boy grapples with coming into manhood in the South. I knew I would love this book from the first chapter when Citoyen “City” Coldson is competing against LaVandar Peeler in a “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence” competition. “The Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest was started in the spring of 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.” The novel is full of such seductively clever bits.

And then City is trying to explain the word nigga. He explains to his friend MyMy:

“Damn girl. Didn’t I just tell you not to say that word? Look. I know that I’m a nigga. I mean…I know I’m black… but ‘nigga’ means below human to some folks and it means superhuman to some other folks. Do you even know what I’m saying? And sometimes it means both to the same person at different times. And, I don’t know. I think ‘nigga’ can be like the word ‘bad.’ You know how bad mean a lot of things? And sometimes, ‘bad’ means ‘super good.’ Well, sometimes being called a ‘nigga’ by another person who gets treated like a ‘nigga’ is one of the top seven or eight feelings in the world. And other times, it’s in the top two or three worst feelings. Or, maybe… shoot. I don’t know. I couldn’t even use the word in a sentence, MyMy. Ask Someone else. Shoot. I don’t even know.”

In one exchange, Laymon captures the fraught nuance of the N-word and its implications, in ways that are organic to the fictional world he is creating. The prose consistently offers incisive commentary, intriguing storytelling and so much promise for Laymon’s future work. Laymon and I recently talked, via e-mail, about race, his writing and what words can make possible.

Is blackness a burden? If so, how do we carry it without breaking our backs?
Blackness, in and of itself, isn’t a burden at all. In this nation, we all carry the immense burden of being human, but our backs are sore as hell because white Americans have failed to compassionately reckon with the worst of white folks. They tried to destroy us intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, economically, and we helped them out quite a bit. When people with more access to healthy choices and second chances obsessively want, and really need, you to have even less access to healthy choices and second chances, your back and your heart will tend to break. The wonder is that we’re not broken. We’re not broken. The wonder is that we’re still here creating, still willing ourselves into generative kinds of human being even though we’re really, really, really, tired.

You wrote about how your mother raised you never to forget you were born on parole. How are young black children supposed to thrive under such conditions? Do you try to answer such an impossible question in your writing?
I think you thrive partially through milking your senses and your imagination, and placing yourself within a larger community of tough sensitive workers. My mother conflated survival with joy. She wanted me to be happy if I simply survived. I get it. I really get it. When a nation is implicitly and explicitly intent on destroying you and your son, survival feels like a win. But fuck that. As all-consuming and destructive as white supremacy is, it won’t win. When I read your stuff, for example, I see that white supremacy hasn’t won. I guess I’m dumb, but I believe in us and I believe that even though the game is rigged, we can actually win with love, tenacity, compassion, community and the will to fight and strategize when we have to. The alternative is death.

You write both fiction and nonfiction. Which is your first love?
My first love was fiction. My grandma would give me these notebooks she wanted me to take notes in while we were in church and Sunday school. Sometimes I’d write these stories about this hole in the ground across the road from her house. Most of the time, I’d write these stories that ended with the sexy deaconesses in church telling me how sexy I was for an 8-year-old. In eleventh grade, I fell in love with the essay.

There’s a real elegance to Long Division, particularly in how you balance telling a story, with really incisive racial commentary. What did it take to achieve that balance?
It takes a devotion to character, place and black American literary tradition. And lots and lots of revision.

In Long Division, the book moves back and forth through time and also is quite coy about genre. I really enjoyed that playfulness and the nod to Afro Surrealism. Why don’t we see more of such work from black writers? Both Afro Futurism and Afro Surrealism seem ripe with opportunity for writers of color.
It’s weird that we don’t see it in literature. I wanna blame the publishers, but I’m not sure that’s fair. I know that we see tons of Afro Surrealism in our music. Tons. Hip Hop, for all the true and dishonest shit that people talk about it, is our most explicit example of Afro Surrealism and Afro Futurism. I mean, my favorite rapper and writer calls himself André 3000. He has works called ATLiens, Stankonia, Aquemini. We don’t have to look far for popularized versions of Afro Surrealism of Afro Futurism. We just need more writers willing to engage with our best storytellers, whether those storytellers are literary storytellers or not.

Though I enjoyed the book, I struggled with the end of Long Division. I wanted the book, as a whole, to deliver more fully on its immense promise. Were you happy with how Long Division turned out?
People who love the book tend to love the last few chapters, while a number of readers I trust, like you, have said that they wanted it to deliver more. I’m not sure that those readers who loved the book “get the ending,” but I think they might understand some of what I’m trying to do at the end with metafiction, the idea of runaway characters, the consequences of being young, black and Southern in a crazy-making nation filled with crazy-making characters and narratives. The ending literally is asking readers to reread the book and consider all the sentences, considers who’s writing whom, consider all that that led all these kids underground. At the end, we see the beginnings (maybe) of a community of young black kids sweating, crying, laughing, wondering, wandering and creating under the ground in rural Mississippi. Together. It’s pretty daring and I’m sure I could get it “closer to right” with a few more revisions.

Why, do you think, publishing, even in 2013, remains so resistant to welcoming new voices to the literary table?
Most mainstream publishers don’t understand our work or our communities. But they understand clicks. So I think we’re seeing a change in what folks are willing to publish recently because they see that a lot of shit that they don’t understand is getting thousands and thousands of clicks.

The South figures heavily in both your fiction and nonfiction. What does it mean to represent the South in writing as a black man? What is the South to you?
I try hard as I can to never “represent” the South. I want to explore my South, honor my South, extend the traditions of my South, but I don’t want to represent it, translate it or synthesize it for folks unwilling to love or imagine our people. The South, generally, and Mississippi, specifically is home. It’s home. It’s why I read, why I write, why I try to love, and why it’s hard as hell to beat me. We have been and can a model of transformation for the rest of the nation and world. But we gotta stop being so devoted to death and destruction.

Memory seems so critical to your writing. How do you preserve memory?
I preserve memory through writing. I have to write to remember, to reckon with my memories. I write a lot of hours everyday because I’m not good enough not to. When I’m not remembering and reckoning, I’m a terrible person.

Who have been some of your influences, and how do you acknowledge those influences in your work?
Jesmyn Ward, Margaret Walker Alexander, Charlie Braxton, André 3000, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Eve Dunbar, Toni Cade Bambara, Imani Perry, the Brothers Writing to Live crew, hip hop journalism in the ’90s, dream hampton, Hua Hsu, my mother, grandmother, auntie, students and the part of me that wants to be one of the greatest literary workers ever are the only reasons I’m able to write a decent paragraph every now and then. That’s just the truth. I write to these folks in everything I create and I hope they can see and feel their inspiration in my sentences.

Is it possible for you to write without race, in some way, shaping what you do?
I think it’s possible for me to write without race shaping what I do because “shaping” is primarily a tool of revision, right? But it’s impossible for race not to, in some way, mingle with my prose. That mingling should happen in a way that explores intersections of sexuality, gender, money and geography. Race and sexuality and gender and class and geography and history are always ingredients in everything ever written. Most writers are too lame to accept this as absolute truth.

I don’t think enough writers, and particularly writers of color, talk about ambition. Where do you want your writing to take you?
I want my writing to help create a community of writers and workers committed to honesty and brilliance. I want my work to help people work on becoming better at loving themselves, their partners, their communities, their people. I want my writing to help me make a lot of money so I can continue to help out a lot of the poor-as-fuck folks who inspired me. I want to create some of the best paragraphs, chapters, sentences and books in the history of the world. And then I want to go to sleep.

What do you like most about your writing?
Structurally, every now and then, I do some things that haven’t really been done before like in Long Division and the essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” I like that sometimes it’s really unafraid of the truth. Mostly, I love that the work I’ve created since July 2012 is going to last long after I’m gone.

Roxane Gay explores the possibilities for more inclusive science fiction and fantasy literature.

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