Because I need to write
Kiese Laymon on his understanding of the world and his message for young black men
Kiese Laymon is the author of the critically acclaimed novel “Long Division” and a collection of essays entitled “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” He has written for numerous publications, including Esquire, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Ebony, and NPR. He is also a contributing editor at Oxford American and a professor of English at the University of Mississippi. After being kicked out of Millsaps College (ostensibly for not returning a library book) he was awarded the prestigious Benjamin Brown award, named after an unarmed black truck driver who was shot in the back by police in Jackson, Miss., in 1967.
Damion Shade: When did you become serious about writing?
Kiese Laymon: My mother made me write my whole life. At Millsaps … I think that’s when I really started trying to hone my craft and take it seriously, but even then I didn’t really know what it meant to live as a writer. I remember telling myself it wasn’t until I could pay for my own computer with money I made from writing that I thought I was a writer. The truth is, I’m a writer because I just really need and I love to write. That doesn’t mean I’m a good writer, but that’s what I do. It’s how I see. It’s how I understand the world. It’s how I become a better teacher, a better person, a better partner. That’s how I breathe, really, but I know a lot of people have different relationships to writing. They call themselves writers too, and I’m cool with that. I’ve grown out of that phase where, like, so-and-so is a real writer and so-and-so is not.
Shade: The essay you wrote in college—the real reason you got kicked out—was about communal masturbation, right? What’s the story there?
Laymon: Oh man. That was supposed to be satire. There were just all kinds of friction on our campus with fraternity systems, and then there was a lot of sexual violence on campus. College Republicans, College Democrats, folks with money versus folks who didn’t have money. So I was really trying to answer the question, if anything could bring people together. I was 19. Nowadays I think how about fucking crazy it was that I wrote that, but back then I was like, I wonder what would happen if everybody got together and pleasured themselves and talked about it. I was actually trying to make the point that we all would not allow anything to bring us together. But it was a different era, man. That was when everyone was talking about commonalities and healing and stuff and I was just trying to be funny, and it wasn’t funny. Honestly, I think I got the Benjamin Brown award for fighting white supremacy at Millsaps College, but ultimately I got it because I got kicked out of school for something that nobody in the history of that school [had] ever gotten kicked out for, for taking a book from the library and not bringing it back.
Shade: In one of your essays you describe a situation where your mom kicked you out of the house while holding a gun on you. Would you feel OK talking about that and how you two rebuilt your relationship?
Laymon: It wasn’t even a relationship that needed to be rebuilt, necessarily. I was going through a lot of stuff in Jackson at the time with my schooling. Whenever you go through things—if your parents are close to you—they go through them, too. My mom was watching what was happening with me, but she was also going through her own life. She had other things that were kind of giving her the blues, and one night she was just, like, at her wit’s end. She didn’t know what to do with me. It was actually about my transfer application to Oberlin. She was like, “You need to type that up,” and I was just like, “It doesn’t matter if I type it up because they’re not gonna admit me.” Because I’d been admitted to schools and then they’d get these Dean’s reports from Millsaps and they’d kick me out. So she pulled a gun out on me, and she regrets that for sure. And I also regret doing things that would encourage her to pull a gun on me. But you know, we’ve talked about it. She was young when she had me. So we were mother and son. We were also, at different times, like best friends. There was never a time, really, that we weren’t talking to each other. We’ve always talked at least once or twice a day every day of my life.
Shade: Is there any message you’d like to give the next generation?
Laymon: I think my message to young black men would be that it’s OK to admit that we’re afraid and we’re scared, and it’s OK to regret. I think men, regardless of race, in this country are often told we shouldn’t regret anything, because if we regret things we wouldn’t be who we are today. And most of us need to regret. We need to revise. It’s impossible to be better today if you don’t actually assess who and what [you] are and what you did yesterday. So I would just be like, brothers, it’s OK to admit when we fail. It’s OK to admit when we’ve harmed people. Because we want to fail less, and we want to harm people less. We need to be honest about the way we’ve harmed people and harmed ourselves and failed in the past. I think that’s crucial.
An American Memoir: Kiese Laymon
Sat., April 21, 12 p.m.
Greenwood Cultural Center, 322 N. Greenwood Ave.