Future Tense: An Interview with Kiese Laymon
October 3, 2013 | by Whitney Mallett
Right across the street from my apartment in Bedford Stuyvesant, there’s a bookstore, True South Books. BOOKS ARE BETTER THAN TV, reads a sign in the window, in bold, black, hand-drawn letters. Another one reminds, DO THE READING. From open to close there’s a stereo that sits on a stool out front. The sounds of Boyz II Men or Nina Simone or Bob Marley often drift across the street and through my window. A few weeks ago, there was a reading there to celebrate two books published this year by Kiese Laymon: his first novel, Long Division, and a book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself in America. The bookstore was packed that night. (Bookstore/barber shop, I should say; there was a haircut in progress well into the reading.) In spite of all the questions directed at Laymon, he did his best to make the night about community rather than himself, sharing the stage with several other young writers.
Laymon was born and raised in Mississippi, but now lives upstate, teaching at Vassar College, where he’s an associate professor of English and Africana studies. He’s also a contributing editor at Gawker and writes regularly for ESPN. He has a lot to say about race, gender, sexuality, love, and how to survive as a young black man in America.
Long Division tells the story of fourteen-year-old City. After telling off the judges at a sentence competition (like a spelling bee) for asking him to use the word niggardly in a sentence, he finds himself a viral video sensation and arouses the ire of his mother, who dumps him at his grandmother’s in rural Mississippi. There he starts reading a paperback novel about a fourteen-year-old boy also named City, set in 1985. And through the book and a hole in the ground in the woods, both Cities travel in time between 1964, 1985, and 2013. Laymon notes this isn’t The Invisible Man. Neither City is in this hole alone—Shaylala Crump (City loves the way she smells) and a couple of other teenagers jump back and forth in time with him.
When I called Laymon to talk about Long Division, he remembered me. I was the one sitting cross-legged in the front row, wasn’t I? He was genuinely interested in asking me about me, where I’m from, what I do. Finally we got around to talking about him.
Ever since that event, I’ve been reading your novel and everything you’ve written for ESPN.
It’s just weird when anyone reads anything that you write. It’s crazy. Don’t you think so? Any time you think about people sitting alone or in moving spaces like trains reading some shit that you wrote? It’s weird.
When you’re writing, are you thinking about an audience?
When I think about audience, it’s strange. I think about people in a theater. In my mind, I’m always thinking about what groups of people are going to take turns sitting in the front row. Who is going to be at the front? Who is going to be at the back? Who is going to be on the balcony? Things like that. Even though reading is not like that. It’s so personal and individualized, but in my mind when I’m creating, I think about all these different people in a theater. So when I hear about people reading or when people take pictures of people reading—which is what my friends have been doing, taking pictures of people reading the book that they see different places—it’s beautiful and wonderful, but it’s really disorienting because people are just spending time with themselves and this book. That’s weird.
When you were writing Long Division, who were you thinking was in the front row of that audience?
It changes. The people in the front row the most often are the characters in the book, the kids like City and Shaylala. They are the primary audience. They are in the front the most. But sometimes they’re in the back and I’m thinking about people who have written shit that I’ve read that has inspired me. Those people are in the audience. And then I’m thinking about people like fucked-up English teachers who told me I’d never be shit. They’re in the audience. All these people occupy part of my imagination. It’s really like you’re writing to different parts of your imagination, but they’re dressed up in the form of characters or memories or whatever. Different sections have different audiences, are differently audience specific, but the characters are always really close to being at the front.
Did you talk to kids while writing the book?
I would talk to kids about it a lot, kids between ninth grade and twelfth grade. And even when they didn’t know I was talking about it, I’d be talking about it. You have to listen to kids nowadays and see you know how they are talking, how they are using verbs. I definitely had to talk to a lot of kids for the 2013 part. Because of the Internet, they just know so much language. Right? They just know so much language. You ask them a question, and sometimes you get these wonderful, thoughtful answers, but sometimes when you ask a kid a question, you get answers that they pull from things that they’ve seen or they’ve watched or whatever. With the Internet and all these channels on cable TV, you get so much that older people don’t have. I’m kind of obsessed with how kids talk and think and feel and treat each other now, given the Internet.
I guess that’s what the time travel in your book is a metaphor for, that kids have access to multiple times at the same time because of the Internet.
That’s one of the things the book was trying to do. The section of the book when the kid goes to 2013, he’s talking about Baize’s relationship with so many channels but the fact that with her, her main form of time travel is the Internet. And she can’t access the Internet because he stole her device. And not only is her device the way for her to move back and forth in time through the Internet, but also writing. The whole big metaphor is that writing and reading can be forms of time travel. But the question is, what can we do with the time we can travel? We can go back, so what do you do with that?
Did you answer that question in writing the book? Did you work through what you can do with that access to different times?
I definitely think I have a better sense of what I should be doing with it, personally. What I should be doing with time is always being present, and come to an acceptance of the fact that people fought and died for me to be here. And in terms of going forward, what am I going to do to make sure people, particularly black folks in the South, have more options and more choices? How am I going to make the future better?
It’s kind of overwhelming when you think of it in that way, when you think of all of the choices you make in the moment affecting more choices for people in the future. But I think it really does come down to that—whatever we do today is going to not only impact how we live tomorrow, but also how other people live tomorrow, and if they live tomorrow. All of that is really clichéd, but it’s kind of just true.
People end up in these unhealthy relationships with everything, from food to alcohol to sex to whatever, because it’s overwhelming. Thinking about tomorrow is kind of overwhelming and the only thing more overwhelming than thinking about tomorrow is thinking about the fucked-up shit we’ve done in the past. You’re fucked on both ends. What are we going to do? I think that most of us try to opt out in some way. But you can’t really, because whatever you do, you’re affecting the future.
You’re obviously interested in doing progressive work in your writing, but you’re also careful to call out artificial progress. In one of your pieces for ESPN, you used the phrase “hollowing someone out and turning them into a symbol of progress.”
We just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. And that was a lot of things, and a lot of great things. But it was also this hollowed-out pep rally where people attempted to make a complicated, sweaty human being into a mascot. Martin Luther King Jr., we hollow him out for our wishes and desires. We can sit here and talk about “I have a dream” and make a big deal about it, but if we look–we don’t even have to look hard–we see that a few years later the cat literally was like, I’m pessimistic about the dream, everything that the nation got in regards to civil rights, we got without giving up anything, which means it hasn’t really done anything. We’re not being held accountable to that “I have a dream.” That’s the thing about that “I have a dream” speech—it doesn’t really hold people, real people, accountable. But he says some other things, a lot of other things, that do. And the point is that you can just hollow people out and you infuse them with reflections of innocence, which is what most of us do to get through the day. And then you can’t be surprised when shit ends up the way it ends up.
And what also happens when people celebrate progress in that way, like it’s over, like it’s happened, is that no one thinks about the work to do for the future.
That’s what I’m trying to show in the book, the whole metaphor of work. That’s the thing about long division—the work is always shown. Going backwards, the work is there. In the present, the work is there. Going forward, the work has to be there. And we can’t ever think that we are delivered—not in this country. But a lot of people want to feel like we are delivered. And if people fail in this country, it’s their fault, because we have all been delivered to this postrace, multicultural society. If you fail, it’s all on you. But that’s bullshit. No, we haven’t all been delivered.
There’s still mad work to do, and, most worryingly, what I’m seeing is people doing a lot of work to make sure that some people don’t have healthy choices and second chances. That’s the bedrock of celebratory, productive, revolutionary citizenship—healthy choices and second chances, and progressive education. And we’re doing everything we can to not grant certain people healthy choices and not grant certain people second chances. So we’re losing, but we’re telling ourselves we’re winning, or we’re telling ourselves we’re better than other countries. I haven’t even been to other countries, so maybe we are. I just got a passport.
Did you have an early editor at a different publishing house that asked you to tone down the racial politics of the novel?
I had the book at Penguin. (It was at two different places before this, but the last place it was at was Penguin.) And one of the things the editor said was that the racial politics were way too explicit and I needed to do something different with Katrina. And then she was saying things that I thought were just disrespectful to the characters, and people in Mississippi generally. She said, Nobody’s going to believe these kids talking about this stuff, you need to focus more on the apparatus of time travel. And I was like, Well, I’m kind of trying to do something different here. I don’t want to make it more science fiction–y. So I took the book away and I told her I wasn’t going to do it. And so, they kept the name. Initially it was called My Name Is City. And so if I ever want to use that name, I have to pay them a certain amount of money. So I placed it with this independent press, Agate Bolden, because they had worked with Jesmyn Ward, who wrote Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, which won a National Book Award. And she’s from Mississippi. And I just figured, if they got her, they’re gonna get me. And it’s been pretty amazing how it’s worked out so far.
It doesn’t surprise me that someone would be concerned with how explicit the racial politics are. But does anyone talk about the gender politics and the politics around sexuality that are so much in the book too? Do people focus more on race than these other things?
Well, it’s interesting because most of the people who talk to me about this book, they don’t talk to me about race and they don’t talk about gender; they don’t talk really about identity at all. Which is weird. All these interviews are about to come out, and that’s not what people ever want to talk about, so when people do want to talk about it, I get excited. To me there is so much about bodies and sexual politics and gender politics in that book–so much. I’m a child of what people called intersectionality in the eighties and nineties, so I learned from that. I’m trying to be wholly aware of the way that sexuality, gender, race, geography are consistently mingling all the time. There is no scene in the book that’s not raced. There’s no scene in the book that’s not overtly gendered, you know? But the people who end up wanting to do these interviews rarely want to talk about that. I wonder, why y’all even talking to me?
People want to talk about literacy. People want to talk about what the book is commenting on in terms of kids writing themselves into a space that they’ve been written out of. And yeah, that’s there too. But there’s a lot of gender and sexuality stuff in that book that I’m surprised no one’s talking about. But then, I’m shocked anybody’s talking about the book at all.
There’s so much social media in this book. When City is writing a will, he decides who gets his Twitter password. Social media obviously has been really revolutionary, especially so for people who have felt like they’ve been written out of mainstream media. I think I read in Harper’s Index that black Americans are on Twitter at a much higher percentage than white Americans.
That’s a great statistic, dude. Can I steal that?
I know you’re Canadian, but what do you think that means?
I think it has to do with people feeling unrepresented. Last night I was waiting for the subway and I looked at the magazine rack, and the top two rows, the only face that wasn’t white was Oprah. And then they have other magazines smushed at the bottom. It’s Brooklyn, so they do have the black women’s magazines with Kerry Washington on the cover, but they’re on the bottom rows. I imagine if I was a young black woman and I looked at that magazine rack and didn’t see myself, I might be more enthusiastic about using Twitter and Instagram because you can make your own media that you actually feel a part of.
It’s something that I always thought but I never had numbers to corroborate what I assumed. I don’t really do Twitter yet. I got on Twitter probably a month ago, but I’m on Facebook—that’s old now—and most of my friends on Facebook are black and they are posting shit like every minute of the day in a way that my white Facebook friends don’t. So, I assumed black Twitter was proportionately bigger, but I didn’t know.
What the effect of growing up with a lot of books in the house? Your mom was a professor, right?
The primary effect was just a healthy relationship with books. I didn’t have this blind reverence and I didn’t have this “oh, I’m so intimidated” feeling that I had to read a whole lot of before I was allowed to go do whatever I wanted to do, and I was mad critical of the stuff I was reading, and I was encouraged to be. I always knew if I wanted to write a book, I’d write a book, because there are so many books, man. And then you start thinking about how books are constructed—there’s so many chapters, and there’s so many paragraphs, and there’s so many sentences. I always knew I could write some sentences, I knew I could write some paragraphs, so I knew I could write a book. I didn’t know I would write books that people who inspired me would be inspired by. And that’s a thing that’s been shocking to me—specific creators who have inspired me have reached out to me, and said, Man, that shit inspired me. That sort of reciprocal relationship was not something I thought I would experience, but I knew I could write books if I wanted to. Because most books aren’t good books.
I gave a reading in Miami and people were already waiting for Justin Bieber’s mom to come—the next day—because she wrote a book. I’m not dissing that book because I haven’t read it. But, Justin Bieber’s mom has a book. You know what I’m saying? That guy who invented, like, Tae Bo or like Hip Hop Abs, he could come out with a book tomorrow. And more importantly, people who write literary stuff for a living, they’re writing books and they’re not thinking at all about my little cousin, maybe your little cousin. They’re not thinking at all about important readers in the world. You just see so many whack-ass books and so many whack paragraphs and you just know, this shit ain’t even that hard. You could do it. But the question is, do you do it in a way that builds on the traditions that came before you? Do you do it in a way that inspires other people to create going forward? Those to me are the questions.
You have said you have disdain for American literature.
For real. That’s just the truth. One of the reasons I create novels is because I think American novel writing is whack. My problem is that I get mad that it’s so bad. Because one of the reasons it’s bad, just one of the reasons, is that a lot of the people who are hoisted up there as the carriers of American lit never conceived of other people–particularly of different races, geographies, genders, and classes–reading the shit they write. Which means they get a pass. They can create particular sentences and paragraphs that don’t have to be accountable to massive groups of people. And there’s a few problems with that. One is that I think if you want people to write, you have to, in some way, write to them.
So a lot of black kids I know don’t write, partially–and they’ll tell you this–because they feel like they’ve rarely been written to. And they didn’t have the luxury or the privilege of growing up with books in the house, so they don’t even know that they could be, like, Most American lit ain’t shit. They just think it’s boring.
I do have disdain for American literature. But it’s healthy, because I believe in creating alternative art as a mode of critiquing the art that came before. I think most writing is so terrible. I think television writing, for example, is so far ahead of what we’re creating in terms of literature. I think music across the board–I’m not just talking about pop music–is so far ahead of what we are creating in lit. One of the reasons I think that is because the creators in those genres and in those forms have had to democratize their art. And what writers think that means is, Dumb that shit down. Writers think, If you’re going to write a paragraph that’s going to take into consideration the life of fourteen-year-old girl who lives in Belzoni, Mississippi, right next to a creek, they think, Oh, I’m going to have to dumb down my writing. But that’s bullshit. The problem is, you don’t have to dumb it down. You have to do the reverse of dumb it down.
I also want to say that there are some people, especially some younger people, who are creating some incredible paragraphs and sentences and a lot of it is being shared through social media. I think people are really creating incredible stuff now–a lot of people who have been taken for granted by the American literary enterprise. But these people are still creating dope sentences–whether it’s in the form of a tweet or Tumblr, whether it’s in the form of fan fiction, or essays–people are creating incredible stuff right now. And that’s one of the best things about the Internet, you don’t have to wait for somebody to give you some magazine article or a book, you can find great writing about everything in the country.
How important is it to the alternative art you want to make to have a community?
To me that is one of the most important things ever. Because if you have a nation that has suspect elected officials, at the national level and the local level, one of the things you have to rely on is community. And I think this daring kind of art that inspired me and that I see other people creating, it’s really kind of sustained and created by one mind, but that mind is often fueled and nurtured by a community.
The reading you came to the other day was an example of that community. We were all writing in our own individual places before we got together. And we all got together via art, via activism. But I think the community has to be critical of everybody in it. It has to be loving, it has to be supportive, and it has to always be willing to learn from its mistakes. And luckily, I’ve found some artistic communities like that just in the past two or three years. Before that, I can’t say I actually had those communities. I teach at Vassar and I’ve got some colleagues that I trust, but I never would say I had an artistic or academic community there. But I found that online.
And this other book you’ve just come out with, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, it’s conversations, letters amongst this community of yours?
Yeah. My aunt writes letters to me and I’m writing to my uncle and my grandmother comes up in like every piece and my mum comes up. The book is about a lot, but it’s definitely about community.
How autobiographical is City?
My mother was young when she had me, and when she couldn’t deal with me, she’d send me to stay with my grandmother. I stayed with my grandmother a lot, and there were some woods across the street. There was a point when I was writing that I could say to myself that City, this character, he’s not me. And for me, that’s when the book just kind of took off. Some of the things I saw, felt, experienced, I wanted to write. Particularly the relationship he has with his grandmother. My grandmother was the first woman I remember seeing naked. And I remember saying, Damn, my gramama look good. You know what I’m saying? And I hadn’t read much where somebody was talking about their grandmother in these really wonderful, intimate ways. Like he loves the way he feels when his grandmother looks at him, and I felt that. But the plot, all the stuff those kids say in that book, that’s not me.
But was the idea of the time travel and the holes was that inspired by your childhood imagination?
I’ve been writing this story since I was like six. There were kids in these holes, and when I was a kid, I convinced myself that they were real, I convinced myself that I could see them in the forest when I was sitting on the porch. So from forever ago, the question was, How did they get there? Who are they? What are their personalities like? What would they think of me? And really Long Division is the story of those kids in that hole. How did they get there? What do they see? What do they feel? And why are they in those holes? That’s a story I’ve been writing since I was six, when I was convinced that there were kids living across the street in this hole in the ground. I don’t know if it’s autobiographical or not, but it’s definitely a story I’ve been writing for years, for decades.