A Conversation with Kiese Laymon
Kiese Laymon does not dissemble. By turns raw, real, fantastical, and funny, his memoirs and fiction articulate the slow death of living amidst state violence and the poetic transcendence of managing to keep on keeping on nonetheless. Personal but public, his writing speaks to and for all of us.
While Kiese Laymon visited Kenan as part of our Ethics of Now Series, we had the opportunity to sit down with him in the West Duke Building’s Pickus Library. We talked about the process of writing a memoir, vulnerability, discovery, and of course – ethics.
What is your primary objective as an author?
My primary objective in my work is to discover things I don’t understand, discover different ways into things I do understand. The secondary objective I have is to communicate that discovery to people with some sort of profundity. Ultimately, I’m also interested in innovation. I want people to feel like they are reading something they maybe never read before, but they need it. I think it’s hard to be innovative and soulful. I think innovation and soulfulness sort of kind of run counter to one another, so I want to be innovative, and I want to be discoverable, but I also want to be … I want to hit people in the chest.
Does that discovery happen in your planning process or does that happen as you’re writing?
Writing is my planning process. I’m a rabid reviser, I’m one of those people. My first 15 drafts are terrible, but they’re useful to me because they get me to places I couldn’t have gotten to without them. I know some people who do a lot of writing and revision in their head before they write. I know brilliant writers who do that. I kind of have to think as I write as opposed to mulling it over in my head. When I’m in a project I’m using my phone, I’m typing, I’m using pad and pencil, so the writing process is the discovery process for me.
How did you decide on the memoir format for Heavy?
I’ve written a book called Long Division, I’ve written a book of essays called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I think when I was writing those two books, I was trying to write through what I was writing through in Heavy, I just didn’t have the skill, I did not have the will. I was a judge for the National Book Award and I just had to read 700 non-fiction books, most of which were memoirs. At that point I was like, “Oh wow, this is a form that consumers tend to like because they feel like it’s a tell-all.” But I think a lot of times memoirs are not artistically rendered. I think some people call a memoir a memoir, but really those memoirs are autobiographies, meaning that people are like, “I’m going to tell you about where I was born, what my mother did.” And I just wanted to use a lot of my fictive tools, my essayistic tools, to create a memoir piece of art as opposed to a tell-all.
And so, for me, that’s what I really wanted to do. I like reading memoirs, but I think a lot of times memoirists forget the importance of the artistry of it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote it to my mom, because I hadn’t seen any memoirs do that at the time. The name of the book is Heavy, letting people know that every chapter and almost every word in that book should be read at least three different ways. I think that word plays with misdirection in a way that I’m really interested in. So I just wanted to do a little bit more artful stuff that you might see in poetry or non-fiction in a memoir form, where sometimes people, again, read as being straightforward autobiography. Which I don’t think it is. I don’t think it should be.
There’s a struggle in Heavy over whose stories get to be remembered. Can you talk about memory and the role that it plays in the book and even further, how does that play in today’s political landscape?
I’ll go with the first part. So the first part is that when I first started doing this I was like, “I’m trying to find the truth,” you know? But I think, as most of us know, the truth is so elusive, right? I just spent 45 minutes talking to some brilliant students, and I think if they all were to write truthfully about what happened, hopefully we would get, however many kids were in there, 12 different renderings of that truth, right? Which means that there cannot be an essential truth. But I think we do know when we’re trying to avoid a truth. I’m more interested in honesty than truth, and the way sometimes we know we are attempting to be dishonest. And politically, I wish I could say that Trump started this, I mean, just sick desire to never look back and never regret what one has done poorly or to harm people. I wish that I could say that.
But Trump took it to another level, right? Trump never takes responsibility, but most of our American Presidents don’t take responsibility for things they’ve done wrong. And as an educator, I just don’t know how you get better if you don’t revise. Revision is rooted in, “I’m going to look back at what I did, see the holes in it, see the gaps in it, accept the gaps, articulate the gaps, so the gaps are no longer gaps. Or, so readers can see that I am a fractured person.” I think we’d be in a better place if we wanted to elect people who were woefully looking backward at mistakes. I don’t think we want to do that. I actually think political workers get punished for doing it, so I get why they don’t do it, but I think we need that. I still think we look to the Presidency for some sort of leadership, and I think we look to politicians for some sort of leadership, and I think we need, and I sound like my grandma, but I think we need rhetorical leadership as much as we need moral leadership, and you can’t have either if you don’t ask, “What do you most regret in your political life? What have you contributed to most that has harmed people?” And those are the questions I think that matter most, not as gotcha moments, but so these people won’t repeat these things that they’ve done. And nobody asks that question of them, so they never answer that question, and that’s scary. It’s really frightening to be led by groups of people who we don’t even want to ask to honestly assess themselves and do better. Since I’m not a politician, I want to use the page to do some of that work, so in my real life I can be a lot less harmful, a lot more rooted in tender relationships than con relationships, but if you’re not willing to look back and accept and admit your faults and mistakes, I mean I’m not sure what we’re doing. It’s really scary to me where we are. But we didn’t just get here, that’s what I have to keep telling myself. Trump didn’t invent cowardice. He perfected it, but he didn’t invent it. Yeah.
I played sports in high school, I played basketball and football in college, and I have lots of faults, but I was never one of those dudes where if I knocked the ball out in basketball, I wasn’t going to be like, “It didn’t go off me,” which is what most people do, right? They lie, because they just want to win. I think that desire to just win when you’re talking about something like the quality of people’s lives, the quantity of people who get to share in the spoils of this country, I think that’s scary. I think we got to get beyond winning. Winning can’t be the end. I mean, that’s where we are, people just want to win at all costs. I don’t think anything good comes to us as a society or world, but definitely not vulnerable, vulnerable people who don’t have a pot to piss in, who don’t have adequate insurance. Just trying to win doesn’t really help those folks at all. Just trying to win doesn’t help people that are just trying to eat or just trying to f-ing go get a shot that they can afford for their children, or people who work. I don’t know who cleans this building, but in my institution, people who clean buildings don’t get living wages at all, and just trying to win is not helping the people who deserve to be helped most. I hope we get beyond this idea of just trying to win.
And the sad thing is that one way you win now, if you’re a particular kind of person, is that you tell people that these vulnerable people are leeches, right? You tell people that the vulnerable people who actually don’t have much, and I don’t care if those people are undocumented folks, if they’re Black people working on the Delta, if you make certain Americans believe that those people are asking for more than they deserve, that’s a way to win, that’s scary. And that to me has little to do with the Presidential candidate, it has everything to do with often who we are as people, and definitely as Americans. It’s not a sport, it’s not a sport. I’m not out there rooting for my team. Because if you root for your team the way I think most of us know how to be fans, we’re going to clap for calls that are categorically wrong. But the only reason we think they’re wrong calls is if they go against us. And growing up where I grew up, where lots of people purport to be Christian, it runs counter to every kind of Christianity you could ever imagine.
My grandmother is, I think, the most die-hard radical Christian I’ve ever met, and she’s not about winning, she’s about reckoning. She’s not about just trying to win, she’s just about, “We got to reckon, and we got to do right by the least of these. Do right by the folks who have been done the most wrong to.” That’s my opinion. I mean, I don’t get on the soapbox much, but you all kind of asked me to.
How should universities (like Duke) reckon with black suffering and embrace black abundance?
Presidents, boards of trustees, tenured faculty members, among others, first of all have to get together and assess the wrong, the harm the institutions have invested in that has led to an abundance of financial whatever. Right? We have to be honest about how these institutions got their wealth. And then once we’re honest, and I think it’s hard to be honest about that, I think once we’re honest about that we have to talk about whether or not we have the will to repair that theft. I think that conversation might lead to people being like, “No, we don’t have the will.” But at least have on the record that all these people who are the power of these institutions have looked honestly and assessed and been like, “You know what, we don’t have the will to do right by the folks who have made so many parts of these institutions and were never treated fairly.”
And then I think any educational institution that’s run by a board of trustees that doesn’t have robust education as part of what the board of trustees’ mission is, is a suspect institution. You can’t call yourself an educational institution and then you don’t a requisite for the board of trustees to read any book. They don’t have to read books by faculty, they don’t have to read the newest non-fiction out, they have to go and make these decisions. I just question ultimately how much we value education when we don’t make our most powerful people invest in education. I’m not talking about book clubs, I’m talking about sustained investment in education. Ultimately, I think what that does is it models a kind of radical sharing that we would say we want all of our students to have. We want our students to be educationally robust, we want our students to be abundant. We say we want them to be really good at creating and sharing, but I don’t think we give them a model for that. And thankfully they come to things on their own, they push these institutions to do incremental changes, but it would be great if we gave them a model for actual radical sharing of resources, and/or a model of talking about why we don’t have the will to do right. And that’s not something I see in any institution actually. I mean, Georgetown is trying to do some of this stuff, but I don’t see that anywhere else.
You mentioned you wrote Heavy for your mother. What is it like having other people read this raw, almost private work?
Honestly when I wrote it, there’s so much that is taken out, and that I just hope people see and feel in the subtext of the book. But writing a book and putting a book out was hard, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as going across the country talking to people who have read the book. I don’t know about most writers, but I didn’t think people were going to read the book. I didn’t think I was going to win the Carnegie, and LA Times Award, and all these other awards. And since that, I go into some places with people who have seen my insides before I even know how they are on the outside. What that often means is they want me to know about their insides, and they want me to tell them what they should do. And because I’m from Mississippi, my inclination is to try to help — but I’m not trained to do that. I’m not trying to be like, “Whoa is me.” But it makes it harder in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t anticipate hearing the stories that I hear from people everywhere I go, and having to go to sleep with those stories in weird hotel rooms.
That’s a lot of weight to carry. All of a sudden people assume they have this personal relationship with you because they read your life?
They think because you wrote it, you’ve reckoned — you’re solid now. A lot of times people think because it’s a product that you must be okay. Again, it’s hard to complain about this, but I’m only answering the question. Yeah, we’re human beings, and human beings, particularly America human beings, the human beings I know the best, we’re carrying a lot of stuff. Stuff we’ve done to people, stuff that’s been done to us. Sometimes when you see people who appear to be trying to talk about that, it makes you think you want to talk to those people about what you’ve done. I have parents sometimes that want to talk to me about surviving sexual abuse, but also sexually abusing a child.
That’s above my pay-grade, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know how to talk to a parent, but I know how to listen. Or what happens often in cisgender men who appear to be in really great shape will come and talk to me about their eating disorders, and how close to death they’ve been. And Lord knows, lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of women have come to talk to me about their relationships with sexual assault. Sometimes I just wish people could also look at the parts of the book that I think are about beauty, and wonder, and the awesomeness of language. But I think that when you write a book this way also because of the way we’re taught to read memoirs, it’s harder to talk about the joyful stuff than it is to talk about the super painful things.
Why do you think people latch onto the painful things so willingly? And why don’t you think people talk more about their issues?
I think we latch on to what sounds familiar to our heart, but also when it appears that someone else has done work we also want to do some. We are f-ed up people. And I say that gleefully, we are f-ed up people who have the ability to talk about and work through that sh-t for ourselves, for the children coming after us, sometimes for our parents who definitely did not have the language to talk about a lot of the things that they were suffering with. And so, when people see a model of someone attempting to do that, there can be an attraction. But also, sometimes people just want answers. The most traumatic things that brought this book into the world are not textually in the book — they’re sub-textually in the book. The sexually violent relationships, familiar relationships that brought this book into the world for example, are not explicitly written about, but they’re there. The concrete ways I have failed in my students and succeeded in loving them are not in that book. They’re in the subtext of the book. I think sometimes, and this is maybe a little bit too artsy or literary, but sometimes I feel like people, without even having the language, can feel subtext. And I think when you create a piece of art with a lot of subtext, people just want to get closer to it. Definitely when I’m going across the country, people are like, “I feel like something else is happening in this paragraph. Could you tell me?” And I have to be like, “No. No, I told you what I want to tell you.” And I told you a lot. You know way more about me than I know about you.
People will ask anything. People will be like, “Did your mom sexually assault you? What did she do to your body?” Literally, that’s a common question for people who read the book, who have read Heavy. “Can you tell me what she did and when she did it? What time of day? Because I had similar experiences.” Well, you can talk to me about those experiences if you want to, but I have given you what I’m going to give you about that. And I think I’ve given you a lot, but it’s not a tell-all. I can’t be doing the tell-all thing that a lot of people want. I think people just forget sometimes that it’s the artful rendering of experience. It’s the artful attempt to reckon. Art-full, right? Like artificial, right? It’s art. I think people just want to see it as being real. I get it, because I’m trying to make them see it as real. You write a book like this, people just think they have access to every part of you, you know? “How come you ain’t married? How come you don’t have no kids? Have you tried?” “What the f-k? Damn.”
I love conversations, but those kinds of conversations where people just want a catalog of more harmful sh-t, I’m not interested in that. I can’t. But when I first went out on the road, and this is sort of interesting — I’m from Mississippi, I think our predispositions are really kind, meaning that if you buy my book, in my heart I think I owe you. That’s what I feel. Even though you’re buying it partially because I gave you so much, but there’s a part of me that feels like if you buy the book that I’m responsible to tell you whatever you want. But I had to get away from that, because that wasn’t healthy for me. But at first, any question people asked, I tried to give them the honest answer, which was not a good idea for lots of reasons.
What’s the relationship between masculinity and vulnerability in your writing?
The easy answer is masculine presenting people in this country are not taught to talk honestly about vulnerability, about the way we’ve been harmed, about the intricacies of how we harm. I think all of that’s true. But I also wanted to talk about in that book, the ways that when I was young and didn’t have the language. I don’t even know if I ever used the word harm as a kid. Definitely didn’t use the word white supremacy as a kid, had no idea what patriarchy meant. But I knew my friends and I loved each other, and I knew we couldn’t wait to find excuses to hug. We loved to hug each other. Sports, I mean sports is not homo-social, it is homo-erotic. And I’m not saying people want to f-k their teammates, but I’m saying I loved hugging my teammates, but that was one of the only times we could hug. I loved my boy telling me, “Man, I love you.” But it was only on the sports field.
But I’m also trying to say, it’s not like we weren’t intimate. It’s not like we weren’t expressing intimacy. We were allowing masculinity in a lot of ways to prohibit us from going deeper. But I saw my friends cry a lot, and I saw my friends ridicule my other friends who were boys for falling in love. Like, “Man, you falling in love.” That was the worst thing you could do was fall in love. “Where Derek at?” “Man, he fell in love.” Anyway, I’m trying to do two things. One, be like, “Yes, we need to be better.” But two, I just think we did show love, and care, and vulnerability to each other. And as Black boys particularly, became Black men, I think it’s important to not act like that was completely absent. It was there, but we never talked about it. I never talked to my friends about how good it felt sometimes to just hug them. How good it felt to just spend the night at their houses. We didn’t talk about that stuff, but we know it felt good. We know that sustained us.
Where there parts of this story that didn’t make it in the final version of Heavy that you’re open to share?
All throughout Heavy I use white space. There will be text, and then sometimes there’ll be a sort of potentially provocative sentence, then there’ll be a gap, and then there will be a sentence to start another section. An example of that is in the section where I talk about my mother’s boyfriend. She picked me up from my friend’s house, she was in the driver’s seat, I was in the passenger seat. She wouldn’t turn toward me. She finally turned to me, I saw that her eye was bleeding. She didn’t have to tell me what happened, I knew that the guy she was with had beat her up. And when we get to the house I talk about going to get the gun, give a little bit more description, and then I say … He comes over to the house that night while she’s asleep and I say, “I tried to kill the radical Black man from Mississippi that night,” because that’s what he called himself. There’s a gap. In real life, right? In real life I got the gun and I literally tried to kill. It reads metaphoric, right? “I tried to kill somebody.” It doesn’t read as if I had a gun, tried to shoot him. It just reads, “Oh, maybe he tried to fight him.” I don’t think that the concrete details of what actually happened in there are going to serve me, him, or my momma, so I took it out. But there are also lots of other examples that just weren’t my stories to tell at all that have to do with my grandmother’s romantic relationships. I took that out of the book, didn’t need to tell those stories. Students who talked to me a lot about all kinds of stuff, I took all of that out of the book and then just summarized it in a paragraph talking about the ways that I failed my students, but also wanted to be there for them in every way. But I failed. I took that out completely because that’s not mine to tell. There’s a ton of stuff that I just took out for art. Part of it is because it wasn’t mine to tell, but also it was because I had an idea of how I wanted the art to move. I think sometimes, if I did some of what I just said, it would’ve bogged the art down and it would’ve appeared to be a little bit more salacious than I wanted it to be.
I tell my students the most important writing I did for Heavy, nobody ever saw. My momma saw. But other than my momma, nobody ever saw that, nobody ever will see it. But I needed to write it to get to other parts of the book, but also I needed to write it to get to other projects that I’m doing now. Some of that stuff might come up fictively in something else. I just believe everything we write we might be able to use somewhere else, so that makes me cool with taking out stuff. Whereas when I was a younger writer I was like, “Oh, if I delete it it’s gone.” That’s why a lot of times the stuff I wrote as a young person was just terrible, because I was like, “I’m only going to write one book, and I got to put everything in there.” My graduate thesis was 700 pages of bullsh-t, because … I mean, it wasn’t bullshit, but it was 700 pages that didn’t cohere because I literally did not ever think I would get a chance to do a second book. And I just think you have to trust, even if it’s not true, you got to trust that you’ll get a chance to do a second project, because you can overwhelm a first project with all that mess.
What books are on your bedside table?
Again, I was a National Book Award judge this year, so we had to read 700 books. I gave away 200 or so of them, but I got like 500 books all on my table, all on my counters in my kitchen. But I see the book Yellow House by Sarah Broom right there [on the Pickus Library shelf], that’s the book that won the National Book Award, that book is amazing. Sarah wrote at least four books in one and it feels like one book as opposed to four separate books. Say Nothing was another book that made … [That’s weird, you all got all the books]. Say Nothing is another book that made our short list, which is just absolutely incredible. Midnight in Chernobyl, that was one of the books that we loved. I’m teaching this book called Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, which is just great. I’m teaching Friday Black, which is like a satire. Damon Young has this incredible book, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker. He’s doing amazing stuff with the essay form. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. I reread a lot of books, so The Color Purple now is the book that I’m just still obsessed with how she pulled that off. I don’t know if you all read that book, but that book is a monster man. I don’t know how she did that thing. Jasmine Ward. I feel lucky enough to come from Mississippi, I feel lucky enough to be writing at the same time that Jasmine’s writing. Jasmine, I think she’s the greatest fiction writer. To me, she’s one of the top five fiction writers of all time, and I’ve been reading a lot more and more since she passed. Trying to reread and understand some of the stuff I didn’t understand before. I don’t feel like you can ever reread Beloved enough times, but it’s a scary book, so I understand why people don’t.
Who is your favorite fictional character and why?
That is a great question. I’m going to sound like a complete narcissist, but I don’t care this is my honest to God answer. When I wrote this book called Long Division, it was the first book I wrote. There’s a long story behind that, but anyway, the book came out and it wasn’t ever edited. If that book could’ve been edited it could’ve been a monster. But there’s a character I write about in there, her name is Baize, and to me she actually is the writer of the book, but she’s just this massively complicated young Black girl from Mississippi who lost her parents in Katrina. She’s a writer, she’s a rapper, her tongue is real quick. She’s trying to figure out what to do with trauma, how to use trauma to make art. She honestly … She haunts me, I dream about this character. I’m doing this new novel, she comes up in it. She to me is … Oh man, I hate saying some character I wrote, but she’s just the most interesting character that I’ve ever read. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but if you’ve ever read pieces of your work and you’re like, “Damn, did I write that?” And sometimes like, “Aw sh-t, did I write that? That’s terrible.” But for her, every time I read her I just feel like there was something else guiding the writing of it. I knew I had to write it, but it just feels like she wrote herself onto the page. So Baize, Baize Shephard would be my favorite literary character.
What does ethics in today’s world mean to you?
It’s tough, right? Because you want to be like, “What should it mean? What could it mean?” But your question is What does it mean? I don’t know why, but ethics feels like the opportunity to actually put ourselves in relationship to big moral ideas. And to whole-heartedly wrestle with how we actually think about big ideas, as opposed to just the regurgitation of the big idea. I think an ethic, and ethics, necessitate individuals considering who they are, how they are, what they can be in relationship to morality, anti-Blackness, environmental degradation. It’s not just what those things mean, it’s actually who you are. I was talking to students today, they had a lot of critiques of Duke, and my question was, “Ethically though, do you want Duke to fundamentally change the way you want it to change if that change means that Duke then becomes less of a passport to power for you, or less salient?” I’m interested in how the individual and the idea honestly, not truthfully, but honestly reckon and tangle. And for me, ethics is that. That’s a big ole’ question.