In his novel Long Division, Kiese Laymon writes that if you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened to it.
He’s been on the Reckon Interview podcast twice now. So one more should do the trick.
This week, Laymon and I discuss his decision to buy back the rights to his first two books and release new revised editions.
“How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, a revelatory collection of essays,” and “Long Division,” a mind-bending novel about a “City” Coldson a 14-year-old Mississippian who stumbles across a novel named “Long Division” that is also about a child named “City” Coldson, and an a story that will take him on a journey through Mississippi’s past with the potential to change the future.
Revision is a common theme throughout our discussion. Why dedicate yourself to rewriting books that are already beloved? How does the changing of our collective understanding of history through things like the 1619 project affect our present and future? And how do you update works to reflect changing social norms while staying true to the original work and original characters?We’ve talked a lot about story this season. And the story of the South is one that is constantly being revised. Kiese Laymon talks about his role in that, what’s next for him, and if he’s really leaving Mississippi.
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Below is a transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: You’ve spent the last couple of years, securing the rights to your early work, and then are now publishing new and revised versions. And for a lot of us who aren’t writers or in that industry, we’re wondering, why dedicate yourself to that task of revisiting and reworking old work rather than working on something new?
Kiese Laymon: I love that question. I feel like people all think that question, but nobody asks it. You know the good thing about revision is that you can revise while creating new stuff, you know what I’m saying? So, last few years, I’ve been working on some TV. I’ve been working on his novel, that I’m actually turning in today. But I also, you know, got a better publishing relationship with Scribner. They wanted to publish my first two books.
And you know, it was hard to get those books back from Agate. When I eventually paid the money to get the books back, I was like, I want to make the books better. I want to make the books, books that like I’m more proud of.
And I have been revising “Long Division” since it came out the first time, because it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. “How to Slowly,” I just had written all these essays. I just wanted to take some of those other essays out that I’m going to do some new with, and put some other essays in. So really it’s like I put essays in there from my time in Mississippi between 2015-2020. And then I took out five essays, put those in and told a story backwards.
But mainly, it’s just like, I was coming to a new publisher and I really wanted those pieces in the world the way I wanted them to be in the world. And I could do it. So I did it.
Hammontree: And you had to buy back the rights to your own words?
Laymon: Yeah, bruh. That dude bought “How to Slowly”… I mean, I’m saying that guy, but you know, to get to a point where I’m selling “How to Slowly Kill Yourself” for $1,000, the entire industry has to tell you no. You know what I’m saying? So I can talk about what what the people at Agate did. One thing you can say is they gave me a chance.
But you know, I’m like that big-eyed boy from Mississippi no matter what. And like, I thought, “Oh, we a team.” I’m like, “yo, you bought a book for a g. We sold like 40,000 copies, you made a killing.” And then I was like, “Well, can we revise?” That’s my first thing. I didn’t want to take the books back. I was like, “I have these ideas about revision.” And the guy was like, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” And I was like, “well alright, give me my books back.” He was like, “Well, you’re gonna have to make an offer.” And I’m like, “Make you an offer? That made you about $250,000, bruh.” He was like, “Yeah, what’s the offer?”
And initially, the offer was like high, you know, mid six figures. He bought “How to Slowly” for $1,000. There’re essays in that “How to Slowly Kill Yourself” that I got paid $15,000 to write. And this dude bought it for one G. Alright, fine. He bought Long Division for three. And at the end of the day, you know, thanks to my lawyers and my agents, we got the price down, I might say thanks to Agate too, from $300,000 to $50,000.
So I had to pay $50,000 to get my books back to publish them the way I wanted to. Shitty but I’m glad it happened.
Hammontree: This is not necessarily a natural comparison. But you know, we’re seeing Taylor Swift do the same thing with her music right now where she had to buy her music back and is now releasing it her way. And even like beyond that, you know, it’s common to hear rereleased versions of music. It doesn’t seem as common in literature or maybe it’s just not as easily well known. I mean, definitely with like nonfiction, you will see updated versions with new material. But with novels, did you have any anxiety about revisiting these books that were already critically praised and kind of beloved that you might have a polarizing effect on your audiences?
Laymon: I think from Scribner’s point of view, they’re like “Heavy” sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And I think from their point If you’d like, we got these other two books from Kiese that just a lot of readers don’t know about.
Those two books were like cult classics, right? Like the people who rocked with them, they rocked with them hard. But then the hard part is like, how do I go in there and tinker and not fuck it up for the people who loved it. You know what I mean? Because the people who loved those books, that’s the reason I’m here with you now. Like if the people who loved those books didn’t love those books with the intensity that they did, I wouldn’t’ve had the reputation that I started to have literarily. I wouldn’t have anything.
So I don’t want to tinker too much to, like, throw those people out. But I still want to see if I can go in there and move some shit substantially and still keep that audience but also widen the audience that I’m actually looking to reach. And a lot of that audience is young people, like, I really want this book taught more in high schools and middle schools and in jails, and it already was, but it wasn’t like I wanted to.
You know, it’s not like how “Heavy’s” taught in tons of high schools, tons of colleges, tons of jails. I just wanted that book to be something I was much more proud of, actually. And also, I just wanted to collaborate with people that I trust. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t trust those people after I asked them if we could do something different. And they were like, no. You know, I lost my trust and those people. It’s hard to collaborate with people you don’t trust.
Hammontree: In some ways, “Long Division” was a book, itself, about revision. One of your characters has the line repeatedly, “you’ve never really read, written or listened to something, until you’ve read, written or listened to something three times.” And I know for a lot of people, the editing process is a lot harder than writing. I hate editing my own work. Revision is clearly something that you think about a lot. You just wrote a New York Magazine piece about revision. What is it that draws you to that idea as a concept?
Kiese Laymon: I wrote that piece for the New York Magazine and Vox from a hospital room man. Somebody I’m really close to was going through something really bad and was having a number of surgeries. And it was the first time I was just like, “I want to just state plainly what revision is to me.”
And I think I describe it as like a dynamic system of revisitation, like, premised on ethically reconceiving the ingredients, the audience, and the shape and the scope. So like, revision for me is religion. Like, I’m not saying it is God, but, like, I don’t know what the fuck education is if you don’t look at what revision is. And so, I live that shit. I want to live it more.
And “Long Division,” it is all about revision. I’m kind of working on this whole meta thing that I don’t want to give away. But like, yeah, like, I mean, if there was ever a book that was gonna have another version of itself, it was going to be “Long Division,” because that’s what that book is all about. Right? There’s going to be many different versions of Long Division out in this world, hopefully, by the time I’m dead. I don’t know if I can pull that off or not.
But I just always want to be able to look back at things that I’ve done, especially things that I think I’ve done well, and see how I could do them not just better but more ethically. For example, “Long Division,” a lot of language I used in that book was ablist. The characters were saying ableist shit. They’re still saying ableist shit, but the book now is aware of it and you can’t come away from that book… Well, you shouldn’t come… it’d be harder to come away from that book and be like, “that’s an ableist book,” you know what I’m saying? Because now I did some changes in there where like, the book is critiquing the ableist slurs.
That wasn’t there before.
Like the book was participating in ableist culture, I didn’t go back to just quote, unquote, like wash it clean of that shit. But things change. Our sensibilities change. And if I’m able to, I want to go back in there and make sure the book changes with the best parts of our nation, as a nation changes. I was able to do it, luckily.
Hammontree: Well, and you said, you know, you want this book to continue to be and to be taught more in schools now than it even has been. You know, I’m an adult man, fairly well read, who’s reading these books and can parse through some of that language, but how do you make that language, and that distinction, accessible to children who aren’t necessarily equipped with that emotional maturity?
Laymon: You know, the real answer to that is you just, I mean, you write the book you need to write and then you just pray that the teacher who is shepherding that shit into spaces, is doing it with some ability and care and integrity. Because, I mean, that’s what we know. I mean, that’s the sad thing about what we do in these schools, is like a teacher can make or break a book which in turn can make or break a kid. You know what I’m saying? So I tried to give language. I tried by the end of that book to make everybody understand the critiques that the book is making about anti-semitism and definitely about misogyny and about all the things that I think are fucked up.
But there’s a way I could be too didactic, you know what I mean? Like if you finish that book you’d be like this book is about how we shouldn’t be anti-immigrant and we shouldn’t be anti- you know, like, that ain’t what I want to write. But I also don’t want to write shit that encourages that. But it’s risky. If you stopped reading that book after 20 pages, where City is like, “Lavender Peeler says being racist is fun. He’s kind of right.” Then you’re gonna think this is a racist-ass book that’s encouraging people to be racist. And it’s not. It’s a risk.
Hammontree: For our audience who hasn’t read “Long Division,” yet, either version, just a quick kind of synopsis. You have a character, City, who finds a book called “Long Division,” that includes a character named City who is in, at least in one version, is in 1985. And then there are several copies of this unauthored “Long Division,” book in this novel that take people throughout time. It’s a time travel story that has some ramifications similar to Back to the Future where if you change the past, does it change the future?
Right now we’re having that conversation kind of as a broader culture, maybe not more than we’ve ever had it but certainly it’s very heated and omnipresent. The idea of revising history, and sometimes revisionist history is thrown around as like a weird conservative attack term, but we’re seeing this fight over things like the 1619 Project, over things like Confederate monuments and Harriet Tubman on the 20. Our approach to understanding our history, it seems like liberals, conservatives, leftists, recognize that the past shapes who we might become in the future. Where do you see yourself and these books in this conversation?
Laymon: I’m in that 1619 Project. And they asked me to write about Jesse Jackson’s speech, I think his 1984 speech, and for the longest I was just like, “Man, these conservatives are so silly.” But I didn’t realize they were gonna make a movement about getting this shit taken out.
Because, let me tell you why, John, I am friends and collaborators with a lot of like really cutting-edge radical people. Those cutting-edge radical people think the 1619 Project is tame. So like the people I was talking to were like, “I’m glad you contributed to it. But do you feel like it did enough?”
So then to hear like the conservative people come out and be like, “it’s doing way too much.” I don’t know why it shocked me, but it did shock me.
But yeah, like, I’m always trying to create art that encourages us to rethink the ways we’ve been taught. And there’s no doubt, growing up in Mississippi, we were taught lessons that benefit white supremacy. I never read a book my entire life in Mississippi, in high school, or middle school or elementary, where there was a Black protagonist. In Black-ass Jackson. Never.
Like we read a snippet of “Black Boy,” but we didn’t read that entire book. I’m saying, why do we need a 1619 Project? Because education in this country has failed children. So 1619 is one of the, hopefully many, correctives that we’re gonna put in there. But you know, 1619, hopefully, will be corrected 10 years from now as well. Like, if you believe in revision, we have to also long and hope for, like, all of this stuff to be revised.
What the worst parts of those people are doing, they’re saying, “the way that we taught y’all, the way we were taught, should not be revised.” Like whether I agree with that politically or not, like we have to revise shit. We have to look at something and look at what it has created and produced and ask ourselves how we can ethically be better than that. So 1619 Project, generously, is an attempt at American revision. And like most American revision, the worst of fucking Americans are gonna be like, “we don’t want to revise.”
Fuck you, you know, we gonna do this shit anyway.
Hammontree: Coming up after the break, more from Kiese Laymon about how we are revising our understanding of Southern history and about his complicated relationship with the University of Mississippi.
In “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” I’m just gonna call it “How to Slowly Kill Yourself,” for the rest of the conversation, you have an essay at the very beginning that you wrote during the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe both of these books came out, originally, during Obama’s second term. So before Trump, before Covid-19, before George Floyd. In retrospect, it was maybe a naively optimistic time in America, but it was certainly a more optimistic time than the last few years have been. Did it change the tenor of “Long Division,” as well?
Laymon: You know, what’s so crazy about “Long Division,” is that the first draft of it was drafted during the Bush presidency. And real talk, you know, when Bush was like… people were like what’s he gonna do with torture? Guantanamo Bay. And I just kept imagining, like what I would do to George Bush, if I had him in a work shed. Like what would I do to make him not be like George Bush?
Because the best thing about Trump for people like Bush is that, for ignorant people, you know, they forgot what Bush did, I guess conveniently, to fucking millions of Muslim people. They forgot what Bush did to Iraq. Forgot what Bush did in fucking Katrina in New Orleans. How fucked up must we be, for this nation to elect a Black president? You have to know, it had to be so fucked up, man.
I was thinking, I don’t want to torture anybody. But if I had someone locked up in a work shed, who was the most despicable person in the history of the nation because they had the most power. What would I do? And that’s one of the things that got me to that part in “Long Division,” which is about like this dude who has hurt this Black kid and maybe hurt a few others, and he’s locked in that shit. And he doesn’t realize at first that his grandmama, his uncle, and the community members are coming up in there and taking out years of frustration on this dude.
And you talk about, like, slipperiness. It’s like, again, I don’t believe in jails. I don’t believe in punishment. I don’t believe in bullets. But I do know that the people I grew up with if they had a white boy who they could torture, given all the shit white boys have done to them. And they believed that white boy hurt a young person in their community or, worse, killed. There’s no telling what they would do to that man. For me, I’m just saying, that is a lot of what sort of made that plot point possible.
The book started during the Bush presidency.
And then in revisions, I went back and you know, had to place it 2012-2013. On one hand, the book is… yes, Obama is this like shining light. But there’s also lines in there where City is like, “Damn, bruh, like, you see why you shouldn’t be calling us thugs?” You know what I’m saying? Like, yeah, that shit hurts, you calling us fucking thugs? Like, what do white people have to do to be called thugs? You know, City wonders that. I wonder that. What happens if Obama calls the people who treated him and his family like shit, thugs, much less the police officers who are brutalizing these young people.
So I started writing that book during the during the Bush regime. And then I wanted to talk and think about how the Obama presidency would impact these specific Black children.
Hammontree: Well and you just went over some of the most serious themes throughout the book. But I mean, the book is also just really laugh out loud funny, a lot of the book. But the satirical element. I’m thinking about this scene at the very beginning. It’s not a spelling bee, it’s a can you use this word in a sentence bee. The game is rigged. And it’s very reminiscent of this scene at the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” where they’re fighting over this briefcase and the chance to get out. And it’s clearly all rigged for the entertainment of white people. And so it does have that kind of touchstone of Southern literature and Black literature. What are some other references that you were thinking through, as you were working on your novels?
Laymon: The Battle Royale scene in Invisible Man, it’s completely a remix of that. But also, it’s just like, I grew up… I’m not sure how old you are, but people my age, we grew up like right before hip hop blows up. And so we were that generation where we didn’t know what the fuck hip hop is. And then we are immersed with it, right?
And hip hop at its root, I understand, it’s breaking, it’s DJing, it’s graffiti-writing, it’s MC-ing. But a lot of it is really like sentence contests, right? Like rhyming sentence contests.
I didn’t want to make the protagonists engage in, like, battle rap, because that already exists. I did want them to do something like that which is like freestyle with these words. I’m gonna give you these words, y’all gonna freestyle, and then these white judges are gonna decide if they like the freestyle or not.
It’s a crazy premise, but I just wanted to take the Battle Royale and take, I guess, like a hallmark of battle rap and make it like the conceit of the book. That book doesn’t exist if that contest doesn’t exist. And then he becomes internet famous because of the way he performed after losing, which is another thing you know, which some young people have to deal with now. It started with Ellison and wanting to mesh the Battle Royale and hip hop.
Hammontree: Earlier on this season, we talked with Regina Bradley about her book Chronicling Stankonia and kind of the rise of Outkast and the hip hop South. And you have an essay in “How to Slowly Kill Yourself” about your first exposure to Outkast, and kind of what that meant to you. And you just talked about kind of coming up where suddenly hip hop was everywhere. I mean, did that shape your thoughts about how you could succeed as a writer?
Laymon: It made me want to be a rapper, because that’s like, this is just the hard part. It’s just like, man, like we were baptized into it. Like we baptized ourselves into hip hop. Like, it dictated the kind of shoes we wore, how we talked to ourselves, how we dreamt, what we dreamt about, it gave us language, it made us feel seen in a mass way. And then you go to school, and in none of your classes, your teachers don’t give a fuck about any of that.
So growing up, it’s just like, I didn’t really think rhyming and hip hop had anything to do with writing. I mean, writing that could make you like a journalist or book writer, I wrote a lot of rhymes. And we spit a lot of rhymes in the bathroom. And we had a lot of rhymes on a bus going to basketball games and whatnot. And so I was, like, man, I feel free when I’m writing rhymes. Matter of fact, when I first started writing for the newspaper in high school, my writing was completely antithetical to the music that I liked. My writing was like, I thought, I’m a writer, like, I need to be tight. You know, I need to say hitherto, and hence and all that kind of shit.
And real talk, it wasn’t till I got up to Oberlin College, I got kicked out of Millsaps, I get to Oberlin in 1995 and I started reading this dude name Rob Marriott. He was writing for The Source. I think writing a little bit for XXL. He was one of people who started XXL magazine. But he was also a student at Oberlin. I was like, “Oh shit, like, he’s doing this sort of thinking that I’m doing on the page. But he’s doing it in a language that I actually like, not language that I’m like visiting.”
And when I saw that, I was like, Okay. My entire style changed, man. Like, that was also the era where you would go buy The Source, because the writers who were writing about hip hop were like heroic as the MCs. I mean, maybe I wanted to be Dream Hampton, or Cheo Coker, or Akiba Solomon, somebody like that. Or Charlie Braxton. But I never thought I can write novels influenced by this music and culture. I never thought that.
Hammontree: You know, because of people like you and Jesmyn Ward, who have become kind of the new faces of Southern literature. I don’t know if that’s a distinction you carry yourself. But like, I see your blurb on almost every book that ever comes out of Mississippi now. And almost every book that comes out of the South. Do you feel some sort of responsibility to grow that movement in Mississippi?
Laymon: Absolutely. No question, brother. Like that’s forever. That’s a forever thing. For one reason.
One is, to begin, I had to sell these books for $1,000 or $3,000. Because I ain’t have nobody who was really like, “let me put a blurb on your book, or, you know, let me put you in touch with this person.” I’m not knocking it, I just didn’t have it. And so once I worked my way into a position of influence, I was never gonna not influence people if they wanted it. You know, I’m not, I’m not the person who’s gonna like try to dictate your career.
But if you are from Mississippi, and I don’t care, really, who you are, I mean, you’ve got to have politics that we sort of… I got to sort of agree with some of your politics, I can’t just put my name on nobody’s shit. But I’m gonna do everything I can to encourage this world to give your work a chance.
Because Jesmyn, like people don’t realize Jesmyn went with the same fucking publisher that I went with first. I followed her to Agate because nobody was fucking with us. Like Jesmyn’s first book, “Where the Line Bleeds,” comes out with Agate. My book comes out with Agate like a year or so later. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. But one is because nobody believed that there was an audience for the stuff we were writing. And sometimes people still believe that.
So, yeah, if you for whatever reason, think that my name, you know, means quality or something, I’m going to do it. That’s the thing about what I’ve done, man. Like, I think about my work on the page and I want to get better. But, as a writer, like the thing I’m most satisfied with is my work off of the page. You know what I mean? And that can be getting our people agents, getting our people book deals, getting our people spots inmagazines. And all that does is it broadens, and I always tell folks, “I’m gonna do whatever the fuck I can do. And I’m encouraging you to do the same thing.” Like we have to collectively push Mississippi writing any way we can. And you can do it without trying to dictate That’s what I’m trying to say you can do it without trying to be like a puppet master. That’s foul, too.
If I can help people, bruh. Like, I’m always gonna help our people in Mississippi.
Hammontree: So much of “How to Kill Yourself, and to some extent, “Heavy,” was about your journey to get back to Mississippi. Growing up there in Mississippi, going to Oberlin, teaching at Vassar, making your way back to Oxford and the University of Mississippi. There’s some talk now that you might be leaving to go to Rice in January of 2022. Was that a tough decision, especially, when so many people do associate you as somebody who’s gonna put on for Mississippi all the time, to make that decision to possibly leave that state?
Kiese Laymon: It was a real tough decision to even… At this stage of my life and career thankfully, like, people who want me to work for them, ask me to come. I don’t apply to anything that people don’t ask. So when they asked me, you know, frankly, there was just some terrible things happening at the University of Mississippi, particularly in my department and program, so then I was like, yeah, I’ll apply.
But you know, a lot of things happen, bruh, like Covid happened, the awakening happened. And I’m just torn because I’m from Jackson. And where I’m from, Houston is much closer to where I’m from than Oxford, if you can understand what I’m saying.
Like the part of Jackson that I’m from looked to Houston for like artistic inspiration. Be it, you know, whether it’s UGK or Scarface, or even back, back, back, Ganksta N-I-P, or Beyonce. So like when I tell people in Jackson, I’m moving to Houston. They’re like, that’s what’s up. Like, they think I’m coming home. When I told people I’m moving to Oxford, they like, I mean, real talk, it was a thing for my friends and they were like, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why would you do that?”
And I made it work and I had a good reason for doing it. And I’m not sure where I’m gonna end up next year, you know? My job at Rice starts in January. Yeah, as we know, with Covid a whole lot of different things can happen in the next few months.
But I do not think I’ll be at University of Mississippi because there’s just things in my department and things, institutionally, I just can’t be on board with. And they’re not going to change. Like they’ve showed me and told me they’re not going to change. And then it’s just like, you know, life is kind of short, it’s just a job. But I want to be at a job where I’m respected and a job where I respect the people I work with. I just can’t keep on.
You know, I sold hundreds of thousands of copies of “Heavy.” Everywhere that book goes, it says University of Mississippi Professor Kiese Laymon. Long Division is coming out. Like that shit is shipping like 50,000. Everywhere it says University of Mississippi, Professor Kiese Laymon. So, everywhere I go, I’m a commercial for this institution that won’t do right. And I just want to stop being a commercial for them.
Hammontree: How do you balance that feeling for university, even for the students, with some of the institutional decisions they’re making? I’m asking right now to be completely blunt, because we’re having this big conversation about how UNC offered Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. And then the board got a backlash because conservatives were upset over the 1619 Project. And now they have revoked her tenure offer. I think the way it’s working is they’re just offering her basically a five year professorship rather than a tenured title. You know, the Board of Trustees at some of these public universities in the South are maybe more conservative than the faculty or even the students are.
Laymon: And you know, at the University of Mississippi, I’m just not sure if that’s true. Do you know what I mean? Like, I mean, there are a lot of loving progressive people that I’ve met. But you know, Trump won the county that I live in. And Trump didn’t win that county just because of those people who voted to keep that Confederate statue up there. He didn’t win that county just because of the headhunter who became the president, blah, blah, blah.
Like, there are a lot of people there who want the old Oxford back. And my thing is, I feel you. And really, I’m like, you can have that shit back. The thing that breaks us is when the people who you trust to be different than institutions act just like the institutions.
And what I’m trying to say is this, when I got my job offer to go to Rice, that was a personal private thing, right? I get a job offer, Ole Miss makes me a counteroffer that is, let’s say, $40,000 less than what the offer I got from Rice. That’s between me and this person. I’m telling you now that’s my information. You don’t go and tell everybody on campus that Kiese got the highest retention offer in the history of the college. Let’s say that’s true. But the other thing is true is Kiese is thinking about turning down $40,000 more to go somewhere else.
You can present it that way.
So when people who you trust, do this thing where they think Black people don’t have any private information that shouldn’t be ours and you gon’ tell everybody on campus, which is going to breed more contempt, especially at an institution like that that doesn’t pay anybody what they’re worth, I got to get the fuck up outta there. Not simply because of the administration but because the people I thought I trusted are doing shit that I would only think the administration would do.
I’m not telling anybody on that campus, if I knew how much they made, if I knew what kind of retention offer, I’m not telling nobody about that, brother. That’s private information. When they went and told everybody, and people started being all resentful and shit. I’m like, nah, this cannot be the place for me.
Hammontree: Do you think Mississippi as a whole is taking steps back right now?
Laymon: Yes, bruh. Like, I wrote about this in that thing. The backlash.
We know, in our state, any perceived victory by Black people is going to be met with absolute terror, and Tate is going to make sure of it. That Supreme Court is gonna make sure of it. We’re gonna counter that backlash with like, more shit, more organized stuff, more direct action.
The thing about our state is, like, all of those people who were fighting to get that flag down, fighting for medical marijuana, they’re fighting to make the state better. They’re fighting to make the state open. They’re fighting to make it so like children will stop leaving the state and more people might want to come in.
And some people are like, “Nah, we don’t want that. We want the same shit we’ve always had.” And so that’s the thing about a job. Like, I’m not ceding Mississippi to those people, but I can be better to Mississippi, if I work somewhere where I’m respected. And when I respect the people I work with. I can be better. I’m not 26, I’m 46. If I work at a job and it’s bad on my heart, I might not be alive tomorrow.
And like that job just got too worrisome for me, particularly now with the backlash. You know, every time I write something, these motherfuckers are like, you know, threatening my life or trying to write shit to that institution to get me fired. And you know, I’m not running away from those motherfuckers at all. It’s just, like, I’m just doing what my family really wanted me to do, which is to do my work, do what I could do. And now be around some people that I feel a little bit more comfortable. I feel much more comfortable with Mississippians than any other group of people in the world, but that specific institution and that specific department is not something that I can be healthy in.
Hammontree: Do you want to be in academia long term?
Laymon: Imma always have a toe. I’m a teacher. Imma always have a toe but that’s not the majority of my working life. I have many jobs and, you know, everybody wants to talk about my pay like the academic part of my job is the least well paying part. It doesn’t mean it gets the least amount of my time. But it’s not all consuming.
You know, you grow up in this academia shit, it becomes all consuming. All you talk about is tenure this and blah blah blah, but like nah, like, this is where I teach. This is where I learn. This is where I collaborate. But I do that also now with TV. I do it with film. I do it with books. I do it with lots of other things.
So I’ve reached a point. I realized early on, really at Millsaps, though I couldn’t really understand it. But I realized that Vassar that like, the only way somebody like me can be healthy in academia, is if I don’t have both feet in it. I mean, because I have both feet in it, the contradictions and paradoxes are gonna be too much for me and I’m gonna get sick. But I can put one foot in it, but they don’t like that. They actually have rules against you, they call it moonlighting, and they actually have rules saying you can’t make more money at other places than you make in academia. But at the same time, they want you to do the things that are gonna make you more money so they can reap the benefit of having your name associated with them across the world.
I’m never going to be like that professor I used to be which was like academia hat, academia outfit, academia shoes. I’m gonna have an academia like sleeve on my left leg. That’s that’s about it, bruh. That’s about it.
Hammontree: You said you’re working on TV and movies right now. We’re also seeing a conversation, a lot right now about Black trauma on film and on TV. There’s so much rich storytelling in Black history. You know, how do you write about that without feeling like it’s teetering into exploitation?
Laymon: I feel like sometimes when we’re talking about Black art, there’re these rules that get developed. And I don’t think we take enough time to consider the rulemakers. I think a lot of people who talk about trauma don’t know what they’re talking about, like, I’m not just dissing, I’m saying when we use that word ad nauseum, I don’t think we know what we’re saying. Are we saying pain? Are you saying Black pain? Are you saying like reverberation of Black pain?
And one way I try to deal with it as a writer is like, you know, it’s the same shit and Heavy, right? Like, you know, I’m writing about being sexually molested by my mother’s student. And what literally happened was like, you know, she put her breast of my mouth and I remember she had made pork chops, rice and gravy. And I remember thinking, “Oh shit, she not gonna like me cuz her breasts gonna be smelling like pork chops, rice and gravy.” Like that happened. So the question is for me, do you necessarily add the comic to what people want to call the traumatic? But for me like the traumatic and the comic and the absurd go hand in hand, do you know what I’m trying to say?
And so I don’t like watching a lot of death. period. No matter what the fuck the shit is. Like, I don’t like a lot of video games cause of death shit. I just can’t get into like the body dismemberment and shit like that. I’m sure there’s lots of theoretical arguments to talk about like the beauty in that shit. I can’t see it. But what I’m not going to do is hold Black artists to a higher standard or a different standard, to be like, “you can’t write about Black death when this country brought us motherfucking here to work and die.” Like they brought us here literally to work and die. And we can’t write about suffering and Black death? Nah. I want people to write about it with a little bit more skill and like dynamism. But I’m not on that Black death train. Like I do think corporations will like just titillate everybody, but I just think we need to be sure we know what terms we’re using before we use those terms.
Hammontree: So after these two books, what can you tell us about what’s next for you?
Kiese Laymon: Well, you know, Issa Rae, got the “Heavy” book. So you know, that film is going to start going into production soon. We’re getting the script right. More right. Righter than it was at first. Super excited about that film. It’s “Heavy,” a film, but you know, I didn’t write the film. So it’s different than, you know, I’m one of the producers and all that but I didn’t craft that film. So it’s somebody else’s adaption of that and I’m really excited about that.
Um, you know, I’m also doing some TV and stuff that I hope I can talk about publicly in the near future. And I got another novel, I got a novel to turn into my editor tonight. And I got a picture book coming out next June, called “City Summer, Country Summer.”
And I’m just at that point where I’m just collaborating with a lot of people and it’s just happy. It makes my insides happy to do that kind of work.
Hammontree: Can we expect you to make a cameo in “Heavy,” the movie? Are you going to be on screen at all?
Laymon: Oh, hell naw. I mean, that’d be interesting. What would I? Idon’t know what the fucking cameo? That’d be… maybe, Yoooooo, maybe the character can be at a blackjack table. And I can be there, you know, losing all my money next to the character, which would be like playing myself, you know, right next to myself. So if I make a cameo, it’s gonna be someone in a casino losing all their money because I can play that well. I can kill that role.
Learn more about Kiese Laymon and purchase his books at www.kieselaymon.com.