“For me the blues is the perpetual reckoning with what should be agony, but finding ways of making that reckoning pleasurable. The agony and the pleasure exist right up next to one another. The question is how do we most effectively hold ourselves together through the pain, through the suffering, and through the agony? My history in this country teaches me that you have to do it through art. That doesn’t mean the art that gets sold. But the art of talking. The art of listening. The art of making sounds. The art of rhythmically manipulating repetition, which I think was really at the core of the blues.” – Kiese Laymon
Interview conducted by Josh-Wade Ferguson
In the summer of 2015, I had the privilege of being a student youth mentor for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation’s Summer Youth Institute in Oxford, Mississippi. The Youth Institute is a nine-day camp for sophomore and junior high schoolers, and the students learned about civil rights history, activism, community service work, and public speaking. We took them on field excursions to notable sites of the Civil Rights Movement, including Money, MS, where Emmett Till was stolen from his family and brutally murdered. His mother’s bravery led to the Civil Rights Movement as we know it.
That particular year at William Winter, we were lucky to provide Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America(2013), to each student. They read the title essay the same day we traveled to Philadelphia, MS. It is a true testament to the powerful and engaging writing that it was able to silence twenty-eight teenagers, on a bus and on summer vacation. Here are two key sentences:
“I’ve had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies—once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I’ve helped many folks say yes to life but I’ve definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.”
As they read Laymon, these kind and intelligent young people encountered themselves, reckoned with their state, and considered the ways they’ve been hurt and, in turn, hurt others. These students were asked to encounter the way a history of racism on personal and systemic levels continued into contemporary America and to remember the premature murders of young black people, as Laymon names those taken too soon through police violence: Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Edward Evans, and too many more.
On June 21, 1964, the Freedom Summer murders were committed in Philadelphia, MS. As a group, we stood at the site where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner stared down the barrel of a gun under central Mississippi skies. Between reading Laymon’s work and confronting the crushing weight of the past, it became clear to these young people that this state and this country might ask more of them than they could humanly give. They were being asked to survive in a place that will kill them for registering black citizens to vote, that will expel them for returning a stolen library book, that will push them, back against the wall, to hurt themselves and others, leaving them to echo Laymon’s words: “I don’t know what is wrong with me.”
And here, I think, is the power of Kiese Laymon’s work. He takes the time and energy to reckon with the ways in which the past, both personal and historical, continues to inform his and our daily lives. He does this in his essays about Michelle Obama, Bill Cosby, his grandmother’s labor at the chicken slaughterhouse, hip hop, and University of Mississippi football.
In his recent and widely acclaimed book, Heavy (2018), Laymon unearths the ways he abused his body and the ways it was abused by others. He asks what it means to love responsibly. He wrestles with a past that, for better and for worse, created who he is in the present and will affect who he becomes in the future. And, within all of that, Heavy celebrates the abundance of black southern life. It revels in the ways words are “deformed” from the “Queen’s English” and become something more. More expressive. More familiar. More dynamic. Words and sentences, in Laymon’s deft hands, become something powerful. He strikes a rhythm and hits notes that can either leave you laughing, gasping for air, or devastated on the floor.
Kiese Laymon and I spoke over the phone on February 12, 2019. After his lecture and reading at the Spring Literary Festival, hosted by the Ohio University’s English Department on April 4, I contacted him with a few more questions that germinated from his rich and stimulating appearance. We talked about the success of Heavy, the inextricability of art from capitalism, black southern representation, place, and the blues.
Josh-Wade: Heavy has done so well. It won the 2019 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. It is a Kirkus Prize Finalist, and it was named Best Book by almost everybody. And it is such an abundant and “happysad” book. What has the experience been like for you, compared to your previous books but also as its own object?
Kiese: Oh wow, yeah. That’s a great question, man. I’m just like a thankful person, maybe too thankful. I just don’t ever think anybody should, or have to, read anything I write. If one or two people read something I write, I am just so thankful. But to have so many people invest in this particular art object was super gratifying but also super scary. Because, when I wrote it, I was really writing to my mom, to my region, and I just didn’t know people would find value in it so fast. I knew that people would find value in it, but I didn’t think it would happen immediately. Also, I’m just a little more public now. And, even though I write about really intimate shit, I’m not a very public type of dude. I like to lay in the cut. So, it has kind of pushed me to be in the public in ways that I’m not super comfortable with.
JW: Did you see that Ibram X. Kendi wrote an essay in The Atlantic called “A Reading List for Ralph Northam”? He created an anti-racist syllabus, and he named your book.
K: No, I didn’t see that at all.
JW: Do you think of your book as an anti-racist text or as a rethinking of ways of being in America? I know you do, but it is interesting that he put it on that list.
K: Yeah, I think the book has given us a different way to actually look at who we’ve been as individuals and as a nation. And part of who we’ve all been is invested in white supremacy. Everybody is invested deeply in that shit. I’m not saying it makes sense that he would put that on the list, cause that’s super kind. But, I definitely think that if my book were taught to high schools by really loving caring teachers, the nation and definitely my state would be different.
K: You know what I’m saying? The craziest thing is, you know, you have people writing amazing fucking books about really complicated shit and we still having conversations, sort of, not even really, about black face. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t even line up. So in the moment that people are calling this black literary renaissance, whether it is true or not, we are having fucking conversations about motherfuckers in black face? Something there doesn’t add up. So, yeah, I mean I want the book to do anti-racist work, but I also think it is super sad that we need books to do anti-racist work.
JW: Talking about anti-racist work and black face makes me think about what Perry A. Hall, a cultural critic who talks about cultural appropriation, said about how folks love black people’s voices but despise their faces. It is so much easier to make an Elvis than it is to think about Chuck Berry. Thinking about your book and your love of a black idiom, where you talk about how your grandmother has a “stank” when she gets back from work but these guys in front of your house are “musty,” and you talk about the word “nan” in Heavy, reminds me about this small moment on Chapelle Showwhere Chappelle says “we still got skeet, don’t tell white folks what that means.” [Laughter]. The question is, what happens to your art when it isn’t being read as an anti-racist text but is instead being consumed in ways that you never expected and maybe being emptied of its necessary value?
K: Are you asking if I think the book can be used that way?
JW: I’m wondering if you’re worried about your art being separated from you as a black man?
K: It’s a paradox, man. The thing about this country is that so much black labor hasn’t been valued ever. Like, stolen. Literally stolen labor. Whether it is entertainment or the literal making of the country. People stole that. Stole us, and then stole our labor. So, it starts there. Obviously, there is a fascination with black labor in this country.
To tie this to your first question, when white people want to consume our shit I just worry. I’m very worried in a way. I try not to think about this too much when I am creating, but I don’t want to be fetishized. I don’t want to be commodified. But we are all commodities in this culture, and we are all fetishizers. I want to win awards and shit because that puts me and my family and other people that I know in a better economic standing. I actually do know that black people encourage a lot of black folks to win awards, whether they are on the committees or not. But I still get a little antsy sometimes when, I mean there were tons of reviews about my book that were like on the surface super positive, but they didn’t understand the book. They saw it as equating black with lack. That book [Heavy] is about words, as much as anything else, and education, and of course race. But sometimes I’m like, “is it worse for white folks to like your shit or to dislike your shit?” Some of the critiques I got—while I’m so thankful I got positive critiques—just reduced that text to shit they were familiar with. And so many white people just aren’t familiar with us at all. It was like, you like my book sometimes because it reifies certain tropes you have as opposed to pushing you to question your tropes, which I think the book should do too. So, I don’t know if that answers your question.
JW: It is interesting to think about your art as consumable object and once it gets out of your hands who knows what will happen.
K: Yeah! That’s it. I’m thinking about that all the time. You know that’s why in that book [Heavy], in the first chapter, I’m saying “books.” I’m writing to my mama and I’m talking about booksfor better or worse is how we got here. But a book is a commodity. I don’t want to drown this shit in Marxist theory or anything, but that book is very much about labor. Race labor. Gender labor. Fucking American labor. Academic labor. I don’t know. If you don’t get that the labor of creating sentences is to make yourself feel good. You know, if you don’t get that shit, if you don’t get the “black abundance” part of that book then I don’t feel like you get the book, you know?
JW: Yeah. Yeah. You actually quoted a part of Heavy I wanted to talk with you about. In the beginning you write, “I am writing a different book to you because books, for better and worse, are how we got here, and I am afraid of speaking any of this to your face.” You are referring to your mom here. You also just had that essay come out with Scalawagabout your experience recording the audiobook. Congratulations, by the way, on winning Audible’s 2018 Best Audible Audiobook of the year. What was it like then, in that space, to read those words aloud to your mother, the act of actually having to say them?
K: Reading those words to my mom was much more comfortable than reading those words to a white engineer in his house. I imagined reading those words out loud to my mom because when I read and write I think about how my mama would hear it. But I didn’t imagine saying it to a white dude, who is an engineer, who lives in Oxford in the suburbs, whose house I was in. But the book, I think, is about that weird kind of situation where you’re talking to, literally, not just black people, but the black person who made you possible in the most essential way, but also the black person who made your reading and writing life possible. But, in order for my mom to hear it, this white engineer has to make sure the levels and shit are okay. That’s literally what happened, you know? And, to extend that to the editorial process, I’m writing to my mama, but my agent is white, my editor is white, the publicist is white. And I love those people. They are some dope, tough-loving people. All I’m trying to say is that the idea of trying to speak directly to one via art, once it’s commodified, is not pure. With capitalism nothing is pure. But I don’t think that makes it bad or worse, but I think we need to accept that. There are a lot of white hands in my thing. But also, there is just a ton of subtext that my mama got in that book that I know nobody else got, which is why I wanted to write it to her. I could rely on the subtext that she would understand and nobody else would. But other people would be able to understand that there’s something there too. For all that talk about how explicit that book is, the things that are the most fucked up to talk about or experience are all in the subtext. Like the really fucking horrific shit I didn’t write. It’s under there, and it is alluded to. But, to do that, I had to write that to my mama.
JW: There are these spaces in the book where it is clear that there is a lot not said. You conveyed them in these moments of really pure intimacies. There’s that scene where you’re at the grocery store with your mom and you see her face amongst the “Don’t accept checks from” posting. You tell your mom, Let’s just go, don’t worry about it. There is a moment—I don’t necessarily know if it is shame—but you just don’t want your mom to go through all of that. You’re in the car after and you just reach out and touch her behind her knee like she does when you’re upset. You seem to create these scenes that blend shame with intimacy throughout that say so much without really telling us anything. I don’t know. That’s just more of a comment on how masterfully you balance those levels. They really stood out to me.
K: I appreciate that man. I’m writing about shame and intimacy, but I didn’t want to say the words “shame” or “intimacy.” And it’s a shame that it is rooted in a lot ofAmericannesses. One, the desire to buy food that is quote unquote “above your pay grade.” And two, to be part of a lineage of people who’ve been asked to work, and work, and work, and work, and break their fucking backs. And for what? You know what I mean?
JW: For nothing.
K: For what? For what?
JW: The idea again that certain labors are valued more than others. Leaving one to ask why couldn’t y’all get more food? It makes me think about Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, where she talks about this enforced precarity that no matter how hard you try as a black person in America or in the diaspora there is something that’s going to knock you back down and make you vulnerable at any possible moment.
K: Yup. Yup.
JW: Sorry, this is getting real dark now [laughter]. I did want to talk to you about the blues. I found it really interesting that Zandria F. Robinson called you the “chief blues scribe of our time.” Our friend, Derrick Harriell, said that the characters in Heavy“speak a blues and poetry that is both nostalgic and familiar.” In your first novel, Long Division, you end your acknowledgements with the single word sentence, “Blues.” They seem to be all around. What are the blues for you? What do they mean, and how do you work with them?
K: Long Division, that’s so much blue. There is so much of the color blue in there and so many blues. Eve [Dunbar, Associate Professor at Vassar College and a mutual friend] and I use to have all these conversations about what a postmodern blues novel would look like in the twenty-first century. So, I was trying to answer that question with Long Division. For me the blues is the perpetual reckoning with what should be agony, but finding ways of making that reckoning pleasurable. The agony and the pleasure exist right up next to one another. The question is how do we most effectively hold ourselves together through the pain, through the suffering, and through the agony? My history in this country teaches me that you have to do it through art. That doesn’t mean the art that gets sold. But the art of talking. The art of listening. The art of making sounds. The art of rhythmically manipulating repetition, which I think was really at the core of the blues.
JW: Right, worrying the line.
K: Yeah, absolutely. You know as a kid I grew up in a gospel house. My mama, grandmama, aunties, all of them sang a lot. They all sang gospel. My mama and her boyfriend loved the blues. We used to go to these blues festivals. In Jackson, when we would go to blues places it would be all black. But when we actually went to the Delta and would go to blues festivals it would be all white people, for the most part. Except, there was black people right up at the front most often, which I always thought was interesting. I always wondered who the blues players, who the performers were actually performing for and to during different times. So, when I think about my writing, I think about those blues festivals where I want to perform for the people in the front with the understanding that the people in the back are there. And at different times I want to push them and make them feel different shit, the white folks, but the black folks are the people I really want to touch the most with the work. But, again, economies make that shit weird and hard because there are so many more white readers than black readers, so many more white people than black people. How do you not center those folks? But, more importantly, I’m not even interested in that question anymore. I’m interested in all the magnificent ways we can center blackness in spite of this empire. In spite of capitalistic systems that necessitate that we beg white people for blah, blah, blah, you know what I mean? And in that book, Heavy, you see it at its most raw. I’m talking to the person who I love more than anybody else in the world, who introduced me to blues but who also introduced my body to blue. You know what I’m saying? Who beat the fuck out of me sometimes, but also when I was beat the fuck up, who held me close. For me that’s the tension between the blues, that ecstasy and that suffering and that negotiation of both. That’s the blues to me.
JW: In your work you talk about this agony and pain, but quite a bit of your stuff is funny. There is a reveling and joy in the community and in the way people talk to each other and interact. How does humor work for you within that?
K: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say. Humor is so important in my life. I love music. I love rap music. Hip hop has been the force that might have shaped me more than any other invention of the last thirty or forty years. But, humor, bro, that’s how I stay alive. Laughing with people. Laughing at people. Smiling. Laughing to stop from crying. Laughing because I just want to laugh. I just want to create work that makes the reader decide what their body is going to do. And sometimes you can’t control what your body does. So, in the midst of talking about a sexually abusive scene that I experienced, I want to try to see what happens if I talk about the parts of it that were actually funny. Then you as the reader has to be like, “Oh shit, we are talking about a kid being molested, but this description is funny. What do I do?” Because, ultimately, I want readers and the people who fuck with my art to make decisions. I don’t want them to just watch. For me, the humor is keeping with the tradition that made me. But also, it is the way I can encourage people to make decisions when they might just want to watch, you know?
JW: Right, it is a really powerful way of creating an ironic tension. If we are going to follow this blues metaphor all the way through, it creates a “blues note.” How can we talk about sexual assault but laugh at the same time?
JW: I’ve noticed that you reckon not only with the weight of memory in your work but also the burden of history. As a black southern writer from Mississippi you’ve been given a lot of material to work with and a vibrant tradition to write into and out of. I’m thinking of folks like Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and Jesmyn Ward, but also William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty. What does it mean to you to be a “black” “southern” writer? How do those adjectives liberate and confine you?
K: That’s a dope, dope question. It makes me think of the connection between liberation and confinement. On one hand, being a black southern writer is the epitome of liberation. Reading the work of black southern writers helped me when I most wanted to harm myself or other people. That work has helped me laugh and conjure. But on the other hand, it’s the confinement that gives the work the possibility of echo. Your question makes me question whether confinement and rules are the same thing. I love black southern rules. I love seeing them broken and abided by. I love breaking and abiding by them too.
JW: I think about your essay “How They do in Oxford” often. As an outsider coming to Mississippi, I was shocked by how quickly I was swept up by the football, the spectacle of the tailgates in the Grove, and the fervor of the community. I thought you encompassed all of that in a single word when you catch yourself saying “we” when talking about the University of Mississippi football program. I also read it as a way of you coming to terms with coming back to Mississippi, feeling at home in a space that didn’t feel like home before. What has coming back to Mississippi meant for you and what has it meant for your work?
K: I left a home in New York to come back home to Mississippi and now I don’t know where I am. That’s the first time I’ve admitted that. Coming back to Mississippi is why Heavy was ultimately written like it was. The breath and blood of that book are Mississippi. But there’s a lot of New York in there too. And I hate to admit that. But there’s so much Raymond Ave, Poughkeepsie, NY, in that book because that, too, is home.
JW: What is the work of a black southern writer living in contemporary Mississippi, a state that delights and devastates all in the same day?
K: I think we have to interrogate the delight and devastation and accept that we, too, are necessarily delightful and devastating, you know? But that specific delight and specific devastation are very much a part of what makes the confines of this place so rich. But ultimately we have to realize that purely describing something is not liberation. It’s the beginning, but nowhere near the end.
Kiese Laymon has published a novel, Long Division (2013), a collection of personal essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and his recent memoir, Heavy, is the winner of the Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction, LA Times Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and Audible’s Audiobook of the Year. Heavywas also named one of the Best Books of 2018 by the TheNew York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, Library Journal, The Washington Post, Southern Living , Entertainment Weekly, San Francisco Chronicleand The New York Times Critics. Laymon is the nonfiction judge for this year’s New Ohio Review nonfiction contests.
Josh-Wade Ferguson is a PhD candidate at the University of Mississippi. His dissertation, “Rambling Blues: Mapping Contemporary North American Blues Literature,” locates how concerns about race, inequality, oppression, and culture migrate not only across aesthetic forms (from music to literature, for example) but through space and across borders. His written work can be found, or is forthcoming, in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Global South, Swamp Souths: Literary and Cultural Ecologies (LSU Press), and Approaches to Teaching Cormac McCarthy (MLA).
Artwork: “Sculpture,” by Jacob Hostetler