Jackson, Miss., native Kiese Laymon is the first-time author of not one but two books: “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” an essay collection released this week, and a satirical time-travel novel, “Long Division,” which came out in June. His work, which deals with American racism, feminism, family, hip-hop and Southern black life, has been described by author William Henry Lewis as “[flowing] on frequencies that both honor and extend the traditions” of Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Toni Cade Bambara. Laymon, who is also an associate professor of English at Vassar College and a contributing editor for Gawker, discusses family drama, the magic of Octavia Butler and the kind of characters he’s afraid to write.
In the introduction to “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” you talk about your struggle to get your novel, “Long Division” out. What happened there?
I sold the novel to a large New York publisher and they had it for three or four years but they wanted me to take out the racial politics. We had a publication date and they kept pushing it back. After awhile I started to get angry. So at some point—and major publishing companies don’t expect you to do this—I pulled the book. This is seen as kind of career suicide, but I had a job and I didn’t have kids so I was able to do it. …[Overall] it took a really long time to get the books out. I don’t think they thought there was an audience.
In “Long Division” you have characters moving between 2013, 1985 and 1964. Why time travel?
Because I’m obsessed with Octavia Butler and I’m particularly obsessed with “Kindred.” Instead of writing an essay about all of the wonderful things she’s written I decided to do a meta fiction. [The central question] is, “What happens if we allow young black characters to go from 2013 to ‘85 to right before Freedom Summer?” Also, because I’m a teacher, there’s something pedagogical about what I do. I wanted young people and newer readers to know that the act of writing can be a form of time travel.
Your high-school age protagonist Citoyen “City” Coldson and his classmate LaVander Peeler participate in a televised sentence-building contest called “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence.” Why did you create a sentence contest rather than have your characters participate in a spelling bee?
In the history of African-American literature, the breaking and bending of words is important. I wanted to create an opportunity for my characters to play the dozens yet somehow be seen and embraced by the nation. When they’re really going at it, really it’s really dynamic; it’s a way to expand and explore what’s at the root of African-American rhetorical tradition.
City is obsessed with brushing the waves in his hair and he carries his brush everywhere he goes. What does this brush represent?
City is a young character and young black boys in general are obsessed with presentation. He doesn’t just want his waves to look tight he wants his waves to look tight so that the other little n***as want waves, too. He’s representing himself beyond race—He says something like ‘I’m trying to rep for chubby n***as with contentious demeanors and waves.’ … The brush is also a nemonic device. He needs to be brushing his waves to function at the sentence contest.
In the essay collection you share a lot of details about your family. For instance, you write an open letter to your deceased uncle Jimmy who was addicted to crack. In another instance you talk about how your mom once pulled a gun on you and put you out of the house. Were you concerned about how your family would react to your disclosures?
I was worried that my mom was going to be upset. … But they love what I did. They know that what I wrote is honest and they love that I included a letter from my Aunt Sue and how I rendered my uncle. They’re still worried; we’re talking about black women from Mississippi who are super Christian. They’re really worried about how white people are going to respond to the book. But I have pictures where they’re dressed up and posing with the book in different ways.
Do you and your mom talk about gun-pulling incident?
Oh yeah, we talk about it all the time. I don’t say my mother’s name in the book because she has a job and doesn’t want people to think she walks around with guns. I think retrospectively what I was trying to say in the book was that she was reacting to how I was living in this nation. She didn’t want to do it, but that she needed to do it.
One thing I like about about your essays is how you deal with the women in your family. You’re able to achieve a level of nuance we don’t often see in black female characters.
Well I’m trying to push the form, just on the writerly tip. On a human tip I’m trying to tell the truth. One of the things that writers who happen to be male do is not tell the truth [about women characters]. I’m not saying I’m 100 percent successful at it but I do it fairly well. Female characters are often portrayed as super pitiful, super sexual, or super strong. I wanted to make a space for the women in my work to be all of those things and to be regretful. The women in my family taught me how to be empathetic, but also they also taught me how to fight. They’re incredibly committed to their understanding of God, but they’re also regretful, and not just about mistakes that involve men. One thing I haven’t been able to do as a writer is to express the character of black women my age. I have a hard time writing those characters [honestly]. Those characters hardly ever have any flaws or they’re too flawed. But I’ll write myself out of it, just like any sort of problem. I’m working on it.
In an essay about the presidential election, you stop midstream and insert a comedic, fictional debate between candidates Obama and Romney. You even have them saying the Chief Keef line “That’s that s**t I don’t like” when they don’t want to answer questions. It’s pretty risky to switch forms and journey into the absurd like that.
It’s scary right? You know it’s not going to work for most of the people who read it. But one of the critiques of that book is that it doesn’t take the structural into consideration, that I’m seeing all these problems that are national and structural as interpersonal. By writing their responses in a speculative way, I can write to and through a heavy structural critique about issues like drones and mass incarceration in a [creative] way.