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Kiese Laymon Keeps it Real

Notes From Underground


  • Roy Gumpel

Kiese Laymon is in the zone. Agate Bolden Books just released his fireball essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and—fueled by the title essay's cult status on Gawker and a recent appearance on NPR's Morning Edition—it's climbing the charts. So is Laymon's debut novel, Long Division, which came out in June to glowing reviews. It's the kind of one-two punch writers dream of at night, and it's been a long time coming.

Laymon enters Julie's Restaurant, across Raymond Avenue from the Vassar campus, where he's immediately greeted by two smiling colleagues. They talk for awhile before he ambles over, introducing himself with a warm smile. (His first name is pronounced Key-Essay, which seems like a Joycean pun.) He's wearing an olive-drab hoodie over a T-shirt, mesh shorts, and untied sneakers with bright orange laces. With his shaved head and scruffy goatee, a camouflage backpack slung over one shoulder, he could easily pass for a student.

Laymon sits at a table which seems too small for his frame and orders a small stack of pancakes ("You mean a short stack?" asks the waitress, and he nods. "Yeah, that.") Then he kicks back and starts asking questions. He's not being pushy, just curious: This interview thing is a two-way street. So is teaching.

The first time Laymon saw Vassar College, he was fresh out of grad school and still in his 20s; he'd just driven 14 hours from Indiana for a job interview. "MapQuest sent me over the bridge on 84 and up Route 9, so I missed the city completely. I'm from Jackson, Mississippi, which is 85 percent black, so when I saw these towers and shit—the word I kept thinking was 'frou-frou.' Then I got to the gates." Laymon pauses. "Because of where I'm from, my experience with security and police, I turned around and went straight to Alumnae House. I'd never been in a hotel without a TV before, and it was March Madness, man! So my first impression of Poughkeepsie was strip malls and no game." He laughs. "The next morning I went for a run and saw there was more to it. It wasn't all just Route 9 and the castle."

Laymon landed the job. For the past decade, he's been teaching English and Africana Studies courses with titles like "Narratives of the Underground," "Writing the Diaspora," and "Shawn Carter: Autobiography of an Autobiographer." He's also been turning out essays and struggling to publish Long Division, which started as his MFA thesis at Indiana University. Like the novel itself, it's a twisty tale.

Narrator Citoyen "City" Coldson, an iconoclastic black teen, is cherry-picked to represent Mississippi on a televised sentence contest (think National Spelling Bee with a splash of the dozens). When the judges give him the word "niggardly," he launches into a Kanye-style rant that becomes a YouTube sensation. City's mother packs him off to his righteous grandmother in small-town Melahatchie, and he brings along a mysterious, authorless book called (wait for it) Long Division. The hero of this book-within-a-book is another City Coldson, living in 1985 and crushing on a girl named Shalaya Crump, who finds an underground portal into his future and back to 1964, uncovering—and possibly changing—the roots and branches of his own history.

In his autobiographical essay "You Are the Second Person," Laymon describes Long Division as "a post-Katrina, Afrofuturist, time-travel-ish, black Southern love story filled with adventure, metafiction, and mystery." It's also snortingly funny and packs an emotional wallop. Two things it isn't: familiar and safe.

That may be why it took three book deals to get it in print. The first was with "a prominent African-American imprint" Laymon prefers not to name. After acquiring the manuscript, his editor moved to a young adult imprint of industry giant Putnam Penguin, urging Laymon to follow.

Though he worried about retooling his complex book for a young-adult market, the editor assured him he wouldn't have to change much. "Not true," Laymon says bluntly. "They wanted me to rewrite to a fifth- or sixth-grade level, with 'less racial politics, and more about the adventure.' They mentioned Percy Jackson."

The headbutting took years. Pub dates came and went; Laymon's health and relationships nosedived. Vassar colleague Paul Russell, who's published with both large and small presses, said, "I can't tell you what to do, but if there's an independent press you respect, you'll have a much better chance of getting the book you want." Laymon did a final draft and turned in a book he felt proud of. When the editor told him it still wouldn't fly, he left.

"I was walking away into nothing," he says, acknowledging he couldn't have taken that risk if he'd had kids to support. He chose Agate because National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, a friend and fellow Mississippian, had published her first novel there. "I thought they'd get me," he says.

They did. Agate offered him a two-book contract.

Meanwhile, Laymon posted "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America," a blistering personal essay on race, guns, and "being born a black boy on parole in Central Mississippi," on his blog Cold Drank. Emma Carmichael, a former student and Gawker editor, asked if she could reprint it. Before the weekend was out, it had racked up more than 100,000 hits and a trail of passionate comments. "I am guilty of being too much like my kind, which means I am one mistaken moment from being a justifiable homicide, or a few planted rocks from being incarcerated," Laymon wrote; Gawker reran the piece during George Zimmerman's trial, and his words spread like wildfire.

"The thing that feels best to me is after 'How to Kill Yourself' went viral, so many editors and agents who wouldn't touch me before came back. And I was like, 'No, man, I've got my publisher,'" Laymon says gratefully.

Both his parents were undergrads at Jackson State when he was born; his mother was 19 years old. "She was dealing with college and money and everything else. When it got to be too much, she'd send me to stay with my grandmother," Laymon says. "She worked at a chicken plant. She had to get up at 4:30am, and she'd come home really irritated and just want to take her shoes off. It was a shotgun house up on cinderblocks, a supersmall house. She'd say, "Ki, go outside and don't come back smelling like outside."

He and the other kids on the block were obsessed with an underground hole where a "humongous tree" had been uprooted. "We thought there were kids living down in that hole. Whenever we saw someone in the woods, we'd say they came out of the hole," he recalls. "That image kept haunting me, in the best way, all my life." There was also a work shed behind his grandmother's house, where he wasn't allowed to set foot; both locations are crucial to Long Division.

If real life provides jumping-off points for fiction, Laymon's essays get up close and personal. How To opens with a letter to a crack-addict uncle, "a lanky, living, breathing warning" of what could happen if young Kiese kept breaking rules and his mother's heart. The title essay details the racist provocations and gadfly responses that got him suspended from Millsaps College on trumped-up charges, and the cutting edge of his mother's tough love: At one point, she pulled a gun on her son and ordered him out of her house. Later, he turned the same gun on himself. Basketball helped. So did "telling and listening to each other's odd-shaped truths" with his best friend, and a scholarship offer from Oberlin.

"Too many people my age didn't make it out of Jackson," Laymon explains; his mother, who finished college on her own and became a political science professor, wanted to make sure he did. Throughout his childhood, she insisted he read "white classics: Treasure Island, Silas Marner, Hemingway, Faulkner, Jane Austen. This is when I'm 10 or 12. Before I could go outside, or read what I wanted to read, I had to read the book she gave me and write about it. If I didn't, I got a whupping."

Though his mother is now "really proud of me," Laymon asserts, "she and my aunt wish my writing was different—you don't have to show everyone your insides. For me, it's just a way of starting that dialogue." One of How To's most striking pieces, "Echo," is a conversation in letters, written by Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Laymon, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. Examining identity politics through a deeply personal lens, it ends with an exhortation to "keep the flow going."

Laymon lives that advice, writing "two hours in the morning and two hours at night, every day of my life." One of his teachers told him that writing needs to be like running. "Nobody wants to go running, but you get better at it if you have that discipline. And then sometimes you get that runner's high and write more than you have to, just because you're in the zone."

Current projects include "another kind of funky nonfiction book" and a novel that doesn't take place in Mississippi. "Actually, it's set in upstate New York," he admits. Anything readers might recognize from Raymond Avenue?

"Yup." Kiese Laymon laughs. "I think you gonna recognize everything on Raymond Avenue. If you don't, I messed up."

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