Interview with Kiese Laymon by Symone Mann and Adrian Burr

Kiese Laymon is a Black Southern writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. His writing has been featured in a plethora of major publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, ESPN The Magazine, Oxford American, and Ebony. Laymon is the author of Long Division, a novel that explores the persistence of racism, violence, sexual repression, and inequity in American society, and a collection of essays entitled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. His memoir, Heavy, was named a Best Book of 2018 by The New York TimesPublishers Weekly, NPR, Buzzfeed, Library Journal The Washington PostSouthern Living, and Entertainment Weekly. During his October 2018 visit to Ohio Wesleyan, Laymon joined Prof. Butcher’s ENG 496: Literary Editing class for an interview about his experiences as an essayist, novelist, and memoirist.

In Literary Editing we talk a lot about “our room of writers”–the writers we see ourselves in conversation with or who we would like to appreciate our work.  Who would be in your room of writers?

When I hear that question I think: “Who do I want to think I’m cool?” It can change day to day for me. Today it would be James Baldwin, Amy Butcher, Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison, and Eve Ewing. I’m someone who needs models or needs permission, so when I see writers that do shit I didn’t think was possible I’m like, “Oh, that’s possible!” Toni Cade Bambara is another that comes to mind.

The majority of the topics in your writing are considered sensitive within American society. How do you balance the need to be honest, politically correct, respectful, and sufficiently “confrontational” to challenge your readers’ opinions of themselves, others, and of these issues? What are a few insights you have on writing on topics such as racism, feminism, gender, etc.?

I just want to try to be honest in my rendering of whatever I’m doing, because the truth is elusive. Political correctness as a term is kinda interesting. Toni Cade Bambara invented the notion of political correctness. She said you can’t be a chauvinist and be politically correct at the same time–like, you can’t talk about how black people need to rise, and then be chauvinist. That is not politically correct.  We somehow took that to mean if you’re being dishonest you’re not being politically correct. Now what we mean when we say “political correctness” is a way to shut down the margins. I do want to be politically correct, but that to me does not mean beatin’ around the bush like people think; it means I want an honest portrayal of how power works.

In order for some of your essays to have the most impact it is important to release them in a timely manner–for example, your essays on Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, and some of your personal experiences. What is your journalistic process for writing about these time-sensitive topics? Is writing your way of emotionally processing events?

I write every day regardless, so I always have material. I’m thankfully at a point in my career where I don’t have to pitch or propose anymore; people come to me if they want me to write about something. My habit of writing every day makes it so when people do ask me for a piece I can say, “No, I don’t want to do it” or “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and then see if I have anything that I’ve already written that I want to flesh out. That being said, I still miss deadlines. And when a piece gets turned in, it doesn’t mean the process is over; it means it’s time to collaborate with the editors.

In your essay “How They Do in Oxford,” you mention feeling conflicted about whether you had a right to “speak” for Mississippi and Oxford. It’s been a little while since that essay came out. How have your ideas about this evolved?

Nobody has ever asked that question. Let’s just back up and say that the reason I ended up leaving Mississippi was because I got kicked out of school for taking a book out of the library. I knew that if I was going to come back to Mississippi I needed to have something, like some money or a career, because people like me who don’t have those things don’t last long in Mississippi. Mississippi just eats its own. And I never said this out loud, but after living in New York and turning down a job at Berkeley in favor of comin’ home, I was thinking people were going to be praisin’ me for comin’ back, that they would be like, “Bruh, thank you!” And I didn’t come back to help anyone. I came back because soulfully I was depleted in New York and I really needed the best of my state. And I needed to be closer to my grandma. But when I got back to Mississippi I would run into people and they’d just be like, “What’s up, man?” They didn’t even know I’d left! And that’s the thing, everyone’s lives keep going, not just yours. Like my best friend had a fifteen year old daughter. I should have been more enamored to meet his daughter than he was with my coming back.

That was when I realized: this state, it’s where I was born, it’s what I write about, but I kinda gotta ease up on that “claim” to Mississippi, because I literally ran away. I didn’t feel like I could speak for my state because I left for fifteen years. And I definitely still feel that way, now more than ever. Like, a week from today my city, Jackson, is giving me a key to the city, and I feel really weird about that, because there are people who dealt with the same shit I did who did not run away, who stayed, who fought. And when I say “fought” I mean created amazing city initiatives. One of my best friends even became mayor.  So I just feel weird now that I am getting some love from my city; I feel like it probably should go to someone else.

In your essay “What I Pledge Allegiance To,” you mention masculinity, both good and bad. In your opinion, what is “good” masculinity?

I don’t know if masculinity is good, but I know that it doesn’t have to be harmful. I want masculinity to be able to hold tenderness, gentleness, and compassion, but we don’t make space for that kind of masculinity, because people attribute that behavior to femininity. I want people to have the imagination to think about how they are impacting others.

This question is also interesting for me because, growing up around all Black women, I think what people conventionally call masculine and feminine gets thrown on its head. For example, when I was a kid, my friend Shirley and I were hanging out in a ditch, just throwing rocks and shit. I happened to throw a rock when this big semi-truck was driving by, and it broke a window. The dude stopped his big truck and he came up to my grandmama’s door and he was like, “Your kids busted my window.” Now, when my grandmama’s outside of the house, she makes herself very small and meek, but when you confront her on her property you better have a gun, ’cause she’s gonna have a gun. So when he said that and she was like, “Hold on, hold on.” She went and got her shit and she said, “Who did what now?” And I knew I did it, I knew I had broken his window, but my grandma was like, “He did not do that!” while holding her gun. As soon as he left she ran my ass around the house with a switch. So to me that’s feminine, but some of that performance we would attribute to masculinity, so I always get confused. What I do know is that what we call masculinity doesn’t really make room for tenderness or honesty.

Your grandma seems to be a common source of inspiration in your writing. In your essay “Da Art of Storytellin’” you describe her as having “Black Southern Woman Magic.” Can you expand on this idea? What does her magic look like? How has this magic influenced you and your writing?

My grandmother was the only person I knew growing up who was good at loving people, and that doesn’t mean she was perfect. She’s not great to herself. She has diabetes, and she’s hell on the care providers I pay for–like, we’ve gone through eight. Part of it is that she grew up taking care of people and cleaning, so she feels like things can never be clean enough. She’ll call me and I’ll be like “Hey, grandmama,” and she’ll be like, “Yeah, she don’t know how to clean Kie.” She spent her entire life working at the chicken plant. It was different back then, she was the person who had to throw live chickens in boiling water and then she’d slice open the chickens and take the guts out. After work she’d come home and have to clean up white people’s clothes and their houses. Long story short, I’m here in front of y’all today because my grandmama loved me and she’s really good at work. I feel like I’m bad at a lot of things, but I am really good at work, and I try to be good at loving people the way she was.

We read in your intro to Margaret Walker’s poem “An Elegiac Valedictory” that your favorite part of Nikki Giovanni’s book Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day are the lines,

I strangle my words as easily as I do my tears
I stifle my screams as frequently as I flash my smile
It means nothing
I am cotton candy on a rainy day
The unrealized dream of an idea unborn

I share with painters the desire

To put a three-dimensional picture 
On a one-dimensional surface

Why were these lines your favorite? What similarities do they share with your own experience of writing?

I love that book and I love that poem, and I love that part of the poem. In tenth grade I loved it because there were particular parts that showed not just who I was, but who we are as people. There were things in that poem that I just didn’t see in other works of art, except for maybe in some hip-hop music. I can’t paint as she describes, but I wanted to be able to write a particular kind of interiority onto the page that keep readers moving, and turning the page. I feel like that’s what Nikki Giovanni does in that piece and in some of her other work. I also think about essay writing and novel writing differently. When I’m writing fiction I’m thinking in images, and if I’m rendering a scene I ask myself, if I could take a picture of this scene, would it make a dull painting? I just wanted to be able to bring to the page those interior parts of myself that I didn’t see rendered in literature. That’s what the Giovanni poem inspired me to do.

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