Mississippi is steeped in a long and rich literary tradition, but for Jackson native Kiese Laymon it was hard growing up to find depictions of the lives he and his family had lived in the canonical novels from and about the area. His recent literary accomplishments (and great acclaim) have been a testament to his abilities to successfully carry on that tradition on his own distinctive terms. In recent years, the young writer has earned a number of awards and plaudits for his novel "Long Division" and his essay collection "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America." Ahead of his appearance at this year's Arkansas Literary Festival, I spoke with Laymon about his influences, growing up in Mississippi, racism and his forthcoming projects.
I recently finished reading your collection of essays. In the book's author's note, you said that you put everything into your first novel, originally titled, "My Name Is City," because you couldn't see yourself living past the age of 32. What exactly was going on in your life that led you to think that way?
Well, a lot of my friends had died. I talk a lot about that in my book. Half of the boys that I was in seventh grade with didn't make it to 32. Another part of it was that there were no men in my family other than my uncle Jimmy. He had been unhealthy his whole life, dealing with all kinds of addictions. You know, life was just starting to weigh in on me a little bit, man. I just wasn't sure that I was gonna make it; I hoped that I was gonna make it, but a lot of people who I considered friends and family didn't make it, so I just worried about it a little bit.
I'm interested in hearing your response to this as a Southerner myself, growing up here in Arkansas: What exactly was it about your background in Mississippi that helped cultivate your writing?
Well, that one is pretty easy. My mother had me when she was 19. She was a student at Jackson State and went on to graduate school. She had been a teacher ever since I was 3 or 4. She was just one of those moms that like, I had to read before I could do anything — anything I wanted to do. I had to read when I woke up. I had to read before went to bed. I had to read before I could go outside. I had to read the books she wanted to me to read before I could read what I wanted to read, so I kinda sorta resented her for all of that, but in the long run it helped me not be intimidated by books at all. And a lot of those books I didn't really like, but it just let me know that writing wasn't this mysterious thing that only a few people in the world could do. And coming from the South, coming from Mississippi, too, because I had to read so much, I realized that I came from a home of American literature.
Faulkner and folks like that?
Yeah, Faulkner, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Margaret Walker Alexander. Alice Walker spent some time down there, Eudora Welty. I just knew that I was from a place where a lot was expected of you if you chose to be a writer.
What were some of the books your mom had you read when you were younger?
See my mom, she only wanted me to read "classics." We had a ton of books in our house and in her office, but mom wanted me to read stuff like, "Treasure Island," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Silas Marner," she wanted me to read Shakespeare. She was of the belief that you needed to read these white canonical books.
The Western canon, right?
Yeah, the Western canon. Because she thought that would protect me somehow. And whatever, I read those books, but real talk: Those books didn't interest me in the same way as the other books she had in the house, like "The Bluest Eye," "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," this book called "For My People" by Margaret Walker Alexander. Those were the books where I felt like the authors were imagining my life and the life of grandmother and my mom.
What did your mom think these books or a particular education would shield you from?
She thought that kind of education, growing up in Mississippi, would make white people less likely to target me. She thought it would make me less likely to end up in bad situations, whether that be prison or jail.
In your essays, there seems to be conflict between you and your mom. Your mom was concerned about your survival and you wanted not only to merely survive, but to construct a life for yourself. Speaking for yourself, how does a young black male find the will to live in an environment of white supremacy?
One way you find will is by listening to will, and reading the will of other people who've done it before you, right? So that's why reading was so important to me. You can see and hear and imagine the lives of people who were sort of like you and survived long enough to write it down; music is kinda that way, too. Our history has shown that you have to organize; you often have to get with communities of people who are interested in more than surviving, too. You find communities in the world somehow that are committed to life. I think that's hard, but it's not impossible. And it's really the only reason a lot of us are still here: We weren't brought here to survive and love and have vitality. We were brought here to be machines — machines that work for a particular class of white folks. We've made it this far, and you know, some people question how far we've made it, but I know we've made it further than people thought we would. You connect with people and you fight and you love each other. That fight and love can be manifested in the civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and local movements.
When did you realize that you had some kind of gift for writing?
I realized that I really loved to write in high school when I was writing for my newspaper. The stuff I was writing felt good and then I won some kind of Mississippi journalism award, and that was so unexpected. And that made me think maybe I could make this into some kind of career. But when I started winning shit and getting into programs and stuff, I thought I could actually eat off of this.
How important is that external validation for you?
I wish the answer was that it's not that important, but when you're doing something like writing and you're black, black families are often trying to tell you to get a real job. And people don't see writing as a real job, so that external validation validates you in the eyes of your family, so it means a lot.
Which genre do you prefer, fiction or nonfiction?
Man, they're just different. When you're writing a novel, you never know if anybody is ever gonna read it. The audience is so far away. But when you're writing nonfiction, especially for me now because I do a lot of stuff online, I just know people are gonna read it. Sometimes that immediate pressure from writing stuff that people are gonna read immediately is overwhelming, but most of the time it makes it easier, because I'm writing to a specific group of people and I know some people in the world care about this. Yeah, novels are harder for me to write.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
I would encourage them to never stop revising. And the other thing is, it's more important to be a better person. I think you can you use your writing to help yourself be a better person, to be better at relationships, loving yourself and loving your people. So, I think I would just encourage them to use their writing to make them and their communities better, but also: Never stop revising.
What's your next project?
I'm working on this memoir called "Heavy," and I'm working on this novel called "And So On."
Laymon and author Jose Orduna will speak at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 16, in room 124 of the Arkansas Studies Institute.