Interview: Author Kiese Laymon on his return to Mississippi and the struggles that come with writing honestly

Author Kiese Laymon

The Mill — Saturday, April 4 at 5 p.m. (Free)

Mission Creek’s Writer in Residence this year is author and professor Kiese Laymon. During the week of the festival, he will work on a variety of community outreach projects in Iowa City and will present a reading of his own work. The event takes place on Saturday, April 4 at the Mill at 5 p.m., and includes authors Amelia Gray, Patricia Lockwood and Sarah Gerard.

Illustration by Cheryl Graham
Illustration by Cheryl Graham

Kiese Laymon is a black Southern writer. He is the the author of a novel, Long Division, and an essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Laymon is a prolific essayist whose work can be found in Guernica, and Gawker, where he curates an essay series. He is also an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College. We discussed via email black love, self-care and Laymon’s social media presence.

Little Village: I want to discuss your writing, but I want to start somewhere a little different—with your social media presence. Your Facebook posts give me so much life.

Back in February, you gave a birthday shoutout to Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, women you christened “two loving geniuses who have fought for us, through us, wherever they were and no matter where we are.” You continue, “They remind us that no matter what gutless coward folks think, the work and the potential to love better and transform is everywhere we are.”

That speaks to me for a number for reasons. In a cultural landscape where black women writers are often the targets of “idea theft,” I love both that you consistently praise black people, living and dead, whose work you love, and that a lot of those black people are women. You seem to be very purposefully rejecting the myth of the lone male artist whose genius springs solely from within.

Kiese Laymon: Yeah, that myth of the black lone male artist whose genius springs from a slab of concrete is as wack as the myth of the black lone male artist who creates dopeness right off the top of his genius head, with little to no revision. My black Mississippi family and community are responsible for me, and I am responsible to them. Most of that community is comprised of incredible, loving, sad, scared, willful black women. I think I stopped wanting to be a strong man at 19, and I just wanted to be better than my grandma, the greatest person I’d ever met.

You often speak publicly about love, its relationship to being “healthy,” and the ways oppressive structures “want us dead, or alive but unwilling to fight and love.” One of the most affecting essays about black love I’ve ever read was “Hey Mama,” the March 2014 interview you conducted for Guernica with your mother.

In speaking about your home state of Mississippi, she says “There’s so much love and history of black excellence in our state, but the state’s structural commitment to black death is unparalleled.” She then explicitly says that she wouldn’t be in favor of you moving back there. This fall, you’ll be the 2015-16 Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. While, yes, every state in the U.S. has a deep structural commitment to white supremacist violence against black people, what prompted your decision to return to a state where that violence is, as your mother says, unparalleled?

Damn, Alea. This one is tough. It’s complicated. Because while I’m from Mississippi, I’m not from Oxford. I’m born and raised in Jackson. I felt sorta fucked up about going back to Mississippi and not going home-home. So they offered me this incredible fellowship, and it gave me the opportunity to be closer to my grandma, closer to Jackson, and to confront a fear of Oxford. With all that said, I’m looking forward to being surprised while I’m there. And, truth be told, I’m working on this new novel about a northeastern liberal arts college and all the superbly fucked up shit that happens there, and I needed to finish it in a place as far away from that as possible.

One of your recent posts—in which you said “I spend most of my time really tired, really shocked and honestly, sad”—came at a time when I was feeling the same sort of fatigue. Whether one is working independently or within the confines of an institution, being the target of and doing the work of fighting white supremacist, sexist, heterosexist, classist structures is really fucking exhausting. You’ve spoken candidly about your own experiences of those emotional and physical tolls. Has self-care gotten any easier for you? What does loving yourself enough to be healthy look like?

Honestly, self-care is harder than ever right now. I’m terrible at it. I don’t know how to feel satisfied with my thinking, my writing, my decisions. I also find more and more ways to punish myself for things I should have reckoned with. It also has to do with the food I put in my body. When you’re celebrating your novel winning an award with a birthday cake and medicating the sadness of a lost relationship with the same kind of birthday cake, you’re kinda not so healthy. That’s me. When I am healthiest, though, I’m quietly listening to my friends and students, sweating a lot and sharing with my family.

Many public figures talk about social media in terms of having a “brand” or “strategy,” and—even though using the medium for “self-promotion” often feels inauthentic—having a “social media presence” is pretty much required for emerging artists right now. Your posts feel organic, community-oriented and subversive. This question likely sounds much more mercenary than I mean it to be, but do you have a guiding principle for the cultivation of your Facebook feed? Or any advice for folks who want to keep it 100?

I guess my advice for folks who want to keep it 100 is to try to keep a group of friends who will also lovingly keep it 100. I use Facebook in a way to get rid of honest, but bad, essay ideas and to ask for opinions. Sometimes, I forget I have a job, and a mama, and a grandmama, and students, and I say shit that I immediately regret. If I don’t delete those kinds of posts, one of my “loving keep it 100” friends will hit me and be like, “Nah, Kie.” And then I’m like, “Nah?” and then we both know I crossed a line and I should delete.

As the Writer in Residence for Mission Creek 2015, you’re going to be working with Tate High School students through the Iowa Youth Writing Project, undergraduates at the University of Iowa and fathers and youth through the Dream Center. What might attendees of your respective events look forward to from your visits?

That’s a great question. They can look forward to exploring questions they might have never been asked, and imagining different audiences for their writing. I’m really excited to be in Iowa. I’m infatuated with the middles of things. Thanks for asking these tough questions.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 174