Interview: Kiese Laymon

"All Things Considered": An Interview with Kiese Laymon

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Specter Magazine

“I don’t want to read about time traveling when I am on the plane,” my mom said as we wandered around Strand bookstore in Manhattan this summer. I was trying to convince my mother, a voracious and highly selective reader, to make Kiese Laymon’s Long Division her coveted plane reading text, but she just wasn’t interested in the title or the premise or this Mississippi author with a first name she stumbled over.

She reluctantly picked up the book and read the first few pages before excitedly going to the register to shell out twelve bucks. She devoured the book in a few short days and texted me during her lunch breaks at work with spoilers and questions. It was her transition from reluctant reader to eager champion that made me want to interview Laymon.

In this time-traveling narrative, the cast traverses the temporal terrains of 1964, 1985 and 2013 while exploring the precariousness of black lives, agency, and the ghosts, figurative and otherwise, that haunt us. Intentionally or not, Long Division, conjures up some of Avery Gordon’s ideas in Some Thoughts on Haunts and Futurity, where ghosts are not these floating translucent figures, but the imperative — the past showing up in the present as a reminder for “the something to be done.” In Long Division, these teens are haunted by the unfulfilled realities of the people they encounter during their time travel.

In this interview (where my mother peppers in a few of her questions), we talk about chopping and screwing time in Long Division, queerness and gender politics, Kendrick Lamar’s album Good Kid M.A.A.D City, as well as building artistic communities through collective visions.

– Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Senior Editor

 

Rasheed

You open How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America with a quote from James Baldwin that reads, “Morally, there has been no change at all, and a moral change is the only real one.” Why did you begin this collection of essays with this quote?

 

Laymon

I was really interested in the connection, if any, between moral change and structural change. Baldwin was so sure that there could no real structural change without individual and communal moral change. I didn’t understand what he meant really until I finished the book. We conflate hard work with good work, and honesty with transformation in this country. You can rarely have good work without hard work and there really is not meaningful transformation without honesty. But hard work is not good work and honesty is not transformation. When we conflate them, we opt out of moral change. Moral change is the only real change, the only change that lasts.

 

Rasheed

As I read How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, particularly “Letters to Uncle Jimmy,” I kept thinking about soldier survivor’s guilt and the rituals (and politics) of confession. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like you are yearning to confess, but do what with that confession? Can you talk about survivor’s guilt and confession as it relates to Black men who for lack of better phrasing “survive” or “make it out”? Or maybe comment on this idea of surviving and making it out as it relates to how your mother raised you to never forget that you were on parole.

 

Laymon

This is a great question. I forced myself to write these essays really because I wasn’t yearning to confess. I wanted to talk about change without naming or reckoning with who I was in the dark. I don’t believe people or institutions can change without naming who and how they came to be. It’s so easy to conflate survival with success when lots of your people die too soon. I know, in a whole lot of ways, I was lucky. A lot of my friends coming up had access to way more money, way more familial stability, way more smarts. I had a big imagination, a loving grandma and hard head. I’m still amazed that I’m alive and not all the way crazy. That sounds so cliche but it’s true.

 

Rasheed

Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City approaches some of these themes. I am thinking about “Black Boy Fly” and how it connects to your work. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Los Angeles Review of Books article on Kendrick Lamar, she thinks about the album as literary — a memoir of sorts. Curious to hear your thoughts on that.

 

Laymon

I’m teaching Good Kid M.A.A.D City right now. I taught it after showing my students Menace II SocietyBoyz N’ the HoodSet it OffPoetic JusticeFriday and Baby Boy. I think it’s literary inasmuch as it’s firmly rooted in what Wright calls the Blues. He wrote “the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” So if the blues is literary, Good Kid M.A.A.D City is literary.

 

Before I heard the entire album, I had “Black Boy Fly.” I listened to that song only for a week and a half straight. I don’t think I’d hear a song, read a piece that so wonderfully explored the fear of another black boy being the last one to have options. That’s what flying is to us, you know? It’s the option for mobility, for community, for alone time. It’s still my favorite song of the last 3 years.

 

Rasheed

Yes. Yes, It was “Black Boy Fly” and “Sing About Me, I am Dying of Thirst” that I listened to on repeat for weeks on end. The way he was able to tell this story of different men and women with such empathy and vulnerability anchored me to his work. I am curious, how has teaching his album been received in your class?

 

Laymon

“Sing About Me, I am Dying of Thirst” is my other favorite song of the last few years. The second verse of that song is magic.

 

The students adore it. I have some students, mostly black women, who love it but really want to see him do more with explorations of black women in this endangered black boy in Compton story. They’re fulfilled just by second verse in “Sing About Me…” and Maya Angelou giving his crew a prayer. I agree with that, too. He’s working it but I don’t think he’s done the work of really thinking about the consequences of black men constantly dissing and destroying the only group of people we have been able to consistently lean on. I don’t think our art does enough at all to think of perspectives and point of view of black women at all.

 

Rasheed

That’s an excellent point, because there is “Sing About Me, I am Dying of Thirst”, then we get to “Recipe” where I pause a bit. I think women are inserted into his discourse, but are definitely secondary if not tertiary characters. He is still writing the script.

 

Also, this idea of endangered black men and by some degree of extension, black folks, is interesting to me because I think about this idea of endangered bodies — yes, but more so, endangered possibilities. What does it mean when bodies disappear, but more so what does it mean when possibilities become extinct?

 

I want to write more about this, but I struggle with putting it out in the world. I am a perfectionist and edit into oblivion.

 

Laymon

That’s my problem. I don’t know how to let anything go. I mean, I have to. But, I never really do. I have revised Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself three times after they’re published. I got issues. I just want dope black community pushing and pulling us into health and choices.

 

Rasheed

And one of these intentional communities you’ve created is your collective, Black Men Writing to Live which I learned about when I ran into Mychal Denzel Smith in D.C. a few months ago. Can you talk a little about the intention and urgency of a collective like this? I am considering this question within overlapping contexts such as the racial constructs and gender normative constructs around when men, particularly Black men, can be vulnerable with one another.

 

Laymon

We all know that it’s actually reasonable to be homophobic, transphobic, misogynist in a nation devoted to death, destruction, and deception. Our crew is committed to using honest writing and community to work our way through suffocation. I love those dudes so much. And I felt loved by their work before I met them. They push me to be better to my family, my students, my people. It’s one of the only crews I’ve been a part of that is dedicated to honesty, love, and change. And comedy too. Whenever we get together, we be laughing our asses off.

 

Rasheed

What’s next for Black Men Writing to Survive?

 

Laymon

Oh yeah. We’ve done a lot of stuff this year actually. We just did an event for about 100 black boys up here in Poughkeepsie. Mychal, Darnell and Marlon just did an incredible offering in New York. We did the Marissa Alexander 31 campaign. We’re definitely connecting with more youth group, and more groups of women interested in doing honest, healing, generative work. Some of the brothers are talking about a book. I know that I’m getting the brothers and some sisters to write about intimacy and shame for my next project.

 

Rasheed

I love the way you talk about the mothers and other women in your life. In “Echo: Mychal, Darnell, Kiese, Kai, and Marlon”, you wrote, “Femiphobic diatribes and other bad books have gassed us with this ideas that black boys need the presence of black father figures in our lives…Black children need waves of present, multi-faceted love, not simply present fathers.”

 

The reigning logic has been black boys shoot other black boys because they don’t have fathers in their homes. Obama said it. Countless sociologically studies since the 70s have recycled this narrative. In writing this in the letter to Darnell and Mychal, what shift in understanding black fatherhood were you hoping for?

 

Laymon

Love is what saves people. Love is what saves people. That love need not come from a father and/or a mother. We know this. Community love has saved a lot of folks. Community and national indifference has killed a lot folks. We’re so fixated on black fathers being present that we don’t talk about the possibility of having these present black fathers being unloving. I don’t ever simply want presence in anything. I want love. I want to share love. That’s what we’re missing. Love is what’s hard. If we moved the conversation from being present to being loving of yourself, your child, your partner, we could change a lot.

 

Rasheed

So I know there were some issues around the publishing of Long Division. In an NPR interview and the introduction to How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, you discussed how your editors thought Long Division was “too racial” leading you to eventually walk away with your original text. This got me thinking of when I started doing research in college on how slave narratives were edited and ghost-written by white abolitionists. I am really interested in what it means to WRITE a novel and all the hands involved with the original manuscript and what ends up on the shelf. How close is the current Long Division text to what you originally intended? You said that it was a privilege to walk away when you were asked to change your script. What needs to happen in literary institutions and marketplaces that would allow authors to maintain integrity of their narratives without fears that their text is “too black” or “too queer”?

 

Laymon

That’s a tough tough question. Well, I initially wanted to publish the stories in Long Division as two separate consecutive stories, as opposed to overlapping stories. They weren’t feeling much of what I wanted to do with the book structurally or racially. I have no ill feeling toward Putnam/Penguin, though. The crazy thing is that so many other New York publishers passed on the book, yet I’ve outsold so many of their titles in just half a year. We need more folks in those corporations that actually understand black and brown reading possibilities. That means we need more folks from our communities who aren’t scared of white people and white power. And/Or we need our own publishing platforms. There are tons of potential readers who just want to be written to. Tons. I knew I had an audience. They just didn’t believe. I knew I was a beast at this writing thing. It’s just true. You don’t find many folks in the history of American literature who can imaginatively and effectively create fiction and nonfiction. That’s what I do. I did stuff in both of those books that readers have never seen, and folks wanted to read me doing that crazy shit. In the end, when it comes to those New York publishing folks, I was better at their job than they were. At least, this time. We’ll meet again though.

 

Rasheed

I want to talk more about the publishing world and what it means to submit our work to others for review and acceptance. Your June piece in Guernica, You Are the Second Person got me thinking about mental health and how the publishing world is literally driving folks crazy. I am curious about how you keep your sanity and what mental health for artists of color looks like.

 

I ask all of this while conjuring up Dave Chappelle and his exit from Comedy Central.

 

Laymon

That’s the question. The question. I keep my sanity by writing. That’s what I was saying at the end. When I was like, “that’s what black writers do,” I was talking about the work of staying sane in a crazy-making word and industry. I write and I listen and I call my grandma and I read lots of dope shit from other black folks. That’s what keeps me alive and creating and hoping and only slightly crazy. We’re all watching this shit shatter Kanye West right now from the inside out.

 

Rasheed

Okay! So I was going to ask you about Kanye but wasn’t sure if I should. I was telling a friend the other day that folks continue to write all these pieces about West but no one has stopped to ask if he needs a hug. Do you see any parallels between him and Dave Chapelle?

 

Laymon

That’s exactly it. I see parallels in the consumption. But Dave got to steppin, you know? He knew what this strange white world that works to destroy you, own you, be titillated by you, has to be stiff armed at some point. You can’t ever ever forget the black communities that make you. Literally. And Kanye kinda has done that. Why is he talking about being the next Walt Disney? Zuckerberg? David Stern? Why does he never want to be as great or greater than anyone black? When they get you talking and thinking like that, they got you. They got him and I just think he needs to know that we love him.

 

Rasheed

That’s what I have been whispering at a low frequency. Jessica Ann Mitchell wrote about Kanye within the context of the Frantz Fanon complex and the idea of the colonized man as an envious man.

 

My mama read Long Division. Actually, what happened was that she visited me in NYC from the Bay Area and wanted a book to read on the plane. We were at Strand and I kept trying to sell her onLong Division, but she fought me on it. She eventually bought it and read it within a few days during which time she texted me from work after every chapter. She had a bunch of questions for you, but I will limit it:

  • “Kiese, loved the book. Nice nod to Alice in Wonderland and Invisible Man. I wanted to know why the title ‘Long Division’?”
  • “I am upset that the book is over because I felt like something was lingering at the end. Why does the text end in this way? What is next for City? Will we see him again?”
  • “It seems like City always goes to reading as a form of therapy or relaxation. Am I reading this wrong? What is the relationship you see between reading/writing and healing?

 

Laymon

Wow. Thank your mother. Reading is definitely a way of healing, moving, remembering and imaging in the text. Writing is how these characters solve problems. The word, “division” actually has an embedded ellipsis on top of it. I needed the ellipsis to be central to the title without being explicit. The last chapter doesn’t end with a period. I want to remind folks that history and futures are fluid. They aren’t simply place designations. As far as City, you will definitely see City again, but I hope you get everything he gave you this time around. He might look and sound different but it’ll be City. Something is definitely “lingering” at the end … and the beginning. The sentences in the last two chapters are so important to understanding the consequences of growing up black, country in a crazy-making nation.

 

Rasheed

City and LaVander Peeler compete in “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence.” Why a sentence contest and not a spelling bee? Also, can you talk a bit about this contest in the context of other spectacles and competitions for inclusion? I am most fascinated by what it means to compete for inclusion and what it means to be as LaVander Peeler is, “an exceptional African American.”

 

Laymon

I wanted a contest that gave the kids an opportunity to flip sentences since sentences are so important to the narrative, so important to our being, and because I needed to show readers early on that this world wasn’t wholly realistic. It’s real, but it’s not realistic. Rap music made sentences competitions the most important musical form in the world. It’s what we do.

 

Rasheed

Long Division has this wonderfully detailed descriptions of City exploring his body, the bodies of his friends, and attempts to explore Baize’s body who seems wholly disinterested. Can you talk about the importance of the the Black body, gender, and sexuality in this text, but also in your growing body of work?

 

Laymon

Thanks so much for seeing how important body was to that text. I wanted to make a book about love and intimacy without wholly buying into silly designations of straight, bi or gay. I have never found myself sexually attracted to men, but I’ve definitely been in love with some men in my life. I didn’t want to fuck them and didn’t want them to fuck me, but I cared so much for them and they cared for me. And though we didn’t touch sexually, we really appreciated touch. We were always hugging each other, giving each other knowing looks on the court or when motherfuckers started acting crazy in public. This is love. But we don’t call it love enough. Men can have those kind of relationships without a reliance on dissing women. I think a lot of men and a lot of emcees add the dissing of women to their care for men because they’re afraid of being seen as queer. But that’s bullshit. If you don’t wanna fuck men, you don’t wanna fuck men. It doesn’t mean that you can’t fall in love with men. I don’t know why but I never wanted to kiss my best friend, Ray Gunn. I don’t know why but curvy bodies excite parts of me. I don’t know why. But I know that I’ve been in love with some men and some women and while I’ve had sex with some of the women I was in love with, I’ve also not had sexual contact at all with other women I’ve fallen in love with. You see what I’m saying. So yeah, dissing women doesn’t need to be a part of loving men. That’s so fucking wack to me. The characters in Long Division are definitely queer, but they’re also really in search of love and touch, like most of us. Think about how many times I describe hips or eyebrows or smells or hands. I wanted kids who read the book to know that it’s more than okay to talk about love and its relationship to the touch.

 

Rasheed

We can’t leave this interview without talking about Afrofuturism and Afrosurrelism. Have you read Black to the Future by Mark Dery? In it he says that more African-Americans should be writing science fiction because “African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”

 

Laymon

I completely agree. We are the same. We are some Martians. We just are. And I love it. And I’d love to see folks create more with this in mind. I’m tired of the film and books that are wholly tied to “real” conceptions of history. That shit is boring. Everytime. Boring as hell, sentimental, and so not daring. I never get how we can be so daring in our music but so same song in our fiction and prose. It’s weird.

 

Rasheed

How important is the South in your writing? And I am referring to the South as both physical and psychological landscapes.

 

Laymon

The South is really the most important part of me and my work. I can’t think of race or gender or sexuality without thinking of place and the place I think about most often is the South. It is black America’s home. The South is our community. It just is. When I read work from black American writers who don’t understand the importance of the South in us, I get so frustrated. It’s our community. It’s where we’re from.

 

Rasheed

When I was reading Long Division, I vacillated between two relationships to how I understood the playful time travel. First, my mind went to music — chopped and screwed and when hip hop artists sample from my parents’ soul music collection. There is this generational dialogue, but it’s not linear; it can be a bit disorienting. Second, I was thinking about collage and assemblage art forms. Am I off here? Also, what is accomplished through a time traveling text that could not be accomplished in a more linear narrative?

 

Laymon

You’re completely not off. I literally tried to create a chopped and screwed narrative, not simply because that genre was humungous but because that genre really mimicked a part of Southern history and memory. We literally are the home of the trill, but we are also the home of chopped and screwed character and sound. I wanted to explore a sound in narrative form. This time traveling text is so tired to writing. I really want readers to see that writing is a form of time travel. The question is what we do with that time we’ve traveled in our writing. When we write forward or backwards, what are we troubling? Who are we taking with us? Who is in our writing portals with us? I was committed from day one of writing this book to not allow these characters to take those trips underground, backwards and forwards, alone. This ain’t invisible man. This book is about the importance of community and communal art in a crazy-making nation.

 

Rasheed

Around this question of time travel and traversing space, in our conversation with Victor LaValle, he mentioned that some aspects of Long Division reminded him of the playfulness and intelligence of Borges. He wanted to know if you were a lover of his writing and if so, are there any stories in particular he’d recommend?

 

Laymon

Hell yeah. That’s partially where I got the idea of a runaway characters. All of Labryrinths is must read TV. Literally. You’ve got read that book to see what a number of are doing with character, space and time.

 

Rasheed

When I think about Hurricane Katrina, I think about lost lives, but I think more so about lost generations and the violence of the erasure of histories — homes and pictures and other traces of Black existence that were washed away. City even asks, “what kind of storm could just make people disappear”. In what way does Long Division approach this issue of the archival impulse, this urgency to preserve and this persistence of invisibility?

 

Laymon

Creative persistence. That’s the word. That’s one of our superpowers. We created American music, which is the most important music in the world. We did that partially because we didn’t want to be invisibility and even if we vanished, we wanted our sound and fight and joy to persist. We wanted to be heard. There’s a lot of tension in that book between what’s heard and what’s written. They want to persist, but the narratives they’re apart of want them to disappear. They have no choice but the run away from the narrative and make stories you can hear and remember, even if you can’t really figure out what you’re hearing and remembering.

Rasheed

Which writerly (or not so writerly) spirits do you conjure up when you’re writing? Who are your influences?

 

Laymon

Toni Cade Bambara, Margaret Walker Alexander, Andre 3000, Charlie Braxton, Jesmyn Ward and JD Salinger mean a great deal to me.

 

Rasheed

What’s next for you?

 

Laymon

Oh. Folks are in trouble. I shocked the world this year with some lightweight stuff. The next work is honestly genre-changing. I think my writerly spirits are going to be proud of my next stuff. Thank you for reading any of the stuff I’ve written. I believed in our communities when folks said they were invisible. I’m really thankful.

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