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Author Wed Oct 30 2013

Who to Read Next: Kiese Laymon, Essayist and Author of Long Division


Mississippi author Kiese Laymon walked away from the would-be publisher of his audacious debut novel, Long Division, because, according to his editor, its racial politics were too explicit.

"I felt like a failure," Laymon says of hearing her reaction. "And then I felt angry. And then I felt compelled to prove her wrong."

And prove her wrong he did. Evanston-based publisher Agate had published work by National Book Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward, a fellow Mississippi writer and inspiration to Laymon. "[Knowing that], I knew they'd at least partially get what I was trying to do," he said. This year Agate released not only Long Division, but also Laymon's essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, the title essay of which went viral after it was posted on Gawker last year.

"I think [Agate's] surprised the books are doing so well," Laymon said. "They believed, but I know they're shocked at some of what we've done. That's a good thing. I like shocking people who care for me."

A novel within a novel, Long Division chronicles 14-year-old City Coldson's life after a public meltdown on the nationally-televised "Can You Use this Word in a Sentence?" quiz show in 2013. (The cause of the meltdown: he's given the word "niggardly" to use in a sentence.) City is sent to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi, where a teenage girl named Baize Shepard has disappeared. In Melahatchie, City continues to read Long Division, a mysterious novel he picked up before the contest. In this Long Division, another City Coldson lives in the year 1985 and has a found a way to time travel--right onto the porch of Baize Shepard.

The interwoven stories, which jump from the '60s through the '80s to today, are an unflinching exploration of race, identity, love and faith. I was lucky to ask Kiese Laymon a few questions about the book, definitely one of the most exciting and generous works of fiction I've read this year.

Long Division is about so many things: race, identity, celebrity. But overall I think love--how it both fails and heals us--is its biggest theme. Was that your intention from the beginning, and how did the writing of this book change over time?
I wanted to write two new kinds of love stories that were wholly unafraid of confronting race, identity, celebrity. The book really changed when I realized I couldn't just allude to the book within the book. I realized one day that I actually had to write that entire book, and that really changed the framing book in fundamental ways.

City remarks that "you hardly ever read books that were written like you actually thought." Is that one of your goals as a writer--to write books how people actually think?
That's absolutely one my writerly goals. It's tough because writing like these kids think and talk often flies in the face on one of my other writerly goals, which is to build on the traditions of great American writing. So the first sentence in the novel is so necessary and it really goes to the heart of what these kids think, feel and write, but it's unlike any other first sentence I've read in American literature. (Author's note: the first sentence is "LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him.")

I read a review that called the novel young adult, which surprised me because I never thought of it that way. What's your reaction to the book being labeled this way? Do you hope kids City's age will read it?
I hope kids City's age will read it, but I really hope kids City's age with be taught the book in school or summer programs, and I want them to read it on their own, too. The book encourages rereading not only of itself but of other literature, and I think it's a book that will last. I think it's a book that can read and unravel every time it's read. I know I'm asking a lot of readers in that book. Maybe too much. But it's all there. It's all there if people really read it.

The book often illustrates the pressure on its characters to be "exceptional African Americans", especially in the case of LaVander Peeler who has "ways of using language to shield him from being just another black boy." Can you talk a little more about that, and the role of that pressure in your life? What advice would you give to individuals trying to function under that pressure?
I think we have to understand social and historical pressures, but I don't think people should ever allow white people or white power to be the traffic cops of our lives. We have to do all we can to de-center whiteness as the arbiter of who we are, what we feel, how we talk. It's okay for our community to be the center of our life. It's okay. Secondly, I want to argue that the uplift mentality that dictates we work twice as hard as white people or always present ourselves in a clean way so white people won't judge all of us poorly is absolutely crazy. We should try to be twice as good as the great people in our family and our community. And we shouldn't change the way we talk to make people who won't see us as textured more comfortable. We should get good at being human. That's the goal. Making white people feel okay about us often runs counter to being good at being human.

In the acknowledgements, you thank a lot of musicians like Big K.R.I.T., Joni Mitchell, Frank Ocean, Crooked Lettaz. What role does music play in your work?
Oh boy. Music, literally, is why I'm alive. I try to imitate different musical progressions a lot in my essay writing and I make a ton of musical allusions in my fiction. There are lines from Halona King, K.R.I.T, Kendrick, KRS, Mahalia in Long Division. Music, among other things, shows me what can happen, when you expand your imagined audience beyond hyperliterate Americans.

You've been interviewed a lot about your role as a Southern writer and what that means to you, indebting yourself to Jesmyn Ward, Margaret Walker Alexander, Faulkner. Do you have any advice for writers who want their work to speak for their communities?
Absolutely. Write to your communities. Ask tough questions of yourself and your communities.

Upon finishing Long Division, I got the message you wanted me to read it (and everything I've ever read) again (at least two more times). Why is that necessary?
Well, I think that love requires ritual and ritual requires revisitation, right? We often claim to love things that we don't revisit. I don't get that. The book literally is about love and the possibilities of ritualized love aiding in this healing process of being a young black American. We can't really ritualize if we don't revisit. So I just want readers to commit to rereading, rewriting and revision.

What was your emotional and intellectual response to your first publisher's assessment of Long Division as too racially explicit?
My emotional response was I felt so betrayed and absolutely worthless as a writer. Intellectually, I knew she was wrong. But I knew she thought she knew the industry. I get why she asked me to take the racial politics out. I get it. But I also knew that meant that my work had failed in some fundamental way. I felt like a failure. And then I felt angry. And then I felt compelled to prove her wrong. The book and my community of readers proved her wrong.

What's it been like working with Agate?
[It's] been wonderful. It's a family. I think they're surprised the books are doing so well, too. They believed but I know they're shocked at some of what we've done. That's a good thing. I like shocking people who care for me. A lot of other people are showing interest in my new projects. I'm not going anywhere unless they show me as much respect and care as Agate Bolden has.

What drives you to write?
Well, I'm a terrible person and writer when I don't write, and I want to be a good person and a dope writer. Also, I don't do therapy so I figure shit out on the page.

Do you read other books while you're writing? Why or why not?
I do. I mean, I'm kind of addicted to reading so I have to stop myself from using reading as a proxy for writing when I'm in a project. I'm always reading as a writer, though, you know? It's hard for me to just read stuff and get lost. I'm always reading for technique. That's kinda sad.

Have any writing rituals you're willing to share?
I just go for two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Everyday. No matter what. That's all I got.

Which novel, out of all the novels you've ever read, do you wish you had written?
Oh man, you're good at this. I wish I wrote The Bluest Eye.

What are you working on now?
Ha! Two crazy projects. One's a weird nonfiction book on fear and pleasure. The other is this nutso novel.

If you could choose any other profession (teaching doesn't count), no holds barred, what would it be and why?
I'd be a money and art deliverer. This profession doesn't exist. But it should. I'd go around sharing money and art with people and telling them that the only way they'd get more money and art is if they shared money and art with more communities. I want to be a money and art deliverer.

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Carolyn / November 13, 2014 11:53 AM

This is great!

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