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.”