Conjuring Love: A Conversation with Kiese Laymon




I FIRST “MET” Kiese Laymon when I messaged him after reading his tender, grief-sodden, yet doggedly hopeful 2018 memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir. I shared that, while our lives were quite different, I somehow found my story within his. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone in this experience: Heavy won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal, was named a Best Book of 2018 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, among others, and went on to become a best seller. Such is the magic of Laymon’s words. He wrote back, “The same ingredients are a part of all of us. They’re just shaped and distributed differently.”

This magic — this investigation of the various shapes and distributions of humanness — is in full bloom in his new novel, Long Division. The story begins in 2013, with ninth-grader Citoyen “City” Coldson and his schoolmate competing in the contest “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence?” The only two Black participants, they have been brought in to “decorate” the traditionally white event. Bright, eager, and sensitive, City gloriously refuses to use the word “niggardly” in a sentence and winds up an internet sensation. Before being sent to stay with his grandma, City is given an authorless book, entitled Long Division, that takes place in 1985 and features a narrator uncannily like himself, also named City Coldson. This City learns to time travel via a hole in the woods, visiting 2013 before setting off to 1964 to save the grandaddy he never met from the Klan, but complications arise.

This is a story of bone-deep love, enduring racism, a missing girl, the Holy Ghost, loss, sexuality, family (chosen and blood), sacrifice, hope, horror, tenderness, a talking cat, staggering grief, and ridiculous amounts of humor. Long Division was originally published in 2013, though Scribner in June brought out a beautiful new edition. After a disheartening experience with his editor, Laymon bought back his first two books (including also the 2013 essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America) and reissued them in the manner he had always envisioned. Which in the case of Long Division meant rejiggering some of the language and publishing it as a flipbook, or what Laymon calls an “adult workbook.” He says, “I’m glad I could give the characters what they deserve.” 

Laymon is an advocate for healing through love; he’s anti-prisons, anti-violence, pro-family (blood and chosen). He’s seemingly trying to leave as gentle and heartening a mark as possible on the planet and her animals, and to help as many folks as possible along the way. Which isn’t to say he’s not outraged by what’s happening in America; indeed, a wondrous combination of love and outrage is what drives his writing. Laymon is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Oxford American, and he has recently joined the faculty at Rice University.

We chatted over Zoom on Easter Sunday.

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JANE RATCLIFFE: How difficult it is for you to write about racism?

KIESE LAYMON: Nobody ever asked that question. I need to write about it so I can feel stable. But it’s sort of terrifying to write through what we have done with this idea of race in this world, but definitely in this nation. I try to sometimes lean into the absurdity of it because that’s how I can get through it. I need to laugh through parts of it. But I’m always crying through it. Because it’s all just sort of terrifying.

In keeping with this, your characters tend to speak very plainly, very frankly, and by doing so the truth of the world is revealed. And sometimes that truth is simultaneously horrifying and ridiculous. For instance, when describing Klansmen, City says, “I didn’t know if Mama Lara had ever been beaten by a man in a sheet.” You have so many sentences like this that just state the basic facts. This is a grown man walking around with a sheet over him …

… with a sheet and two eye-holes …

… which is ridiculous, but he’s also very dangerous.

Mississippi is just packed with absurdity. Starting with the colors: you have this big field of beautiful white cotton. And then you have these Black human beings initially that have to pick it. That’s fucking weird. Visually, that’s weird. And then you have these groups of people over here who might be land-owning who decide at night that they’re going to put on fucking sheets and ride horses and terrorize people who don’t have a fraction of what the fuck they have. If you don’t find the absurdity in it, you go crazy, because it’s so brutal, it’s so terrifying, but it’s also just nuts. They’re wearing motherfucking sheets and they’re burning crosses for people who would never do that to them. Sometimes we forget to just describe the shit in front of us. We can’t get lost in the grinding absurdity of it all. But it’s absurd. It’s absurd that my grandmama couldn’t piss in the same bathroom as your mom. It doesn’t matter if they’re great people or shitty people. They can’t piss in the same bathroom. It’s absurd and terrifying. And I’m not going to let these people not allow me to laugh at shit. Just because they’re so fucking cruel. I’m going to have to laugh at it to write through it, because if I don’t, I don’t know how to get into it.

Agreed. City becomes an internet sensation for shouting “And fuck white folks!” when given the word “niggardly” in the contest “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence?” Later he reflects on not knowing “if there was a difference between being right and doing wrong.” Is there a “right” way to fight white supremacy? 

That is a great question. I’m scared to answer that either way. I don’t know if there’s a right way, but I think that, if you fight white supremacy by yourself, you’re going to die brutally. If we fight white supremacy collectively, we give ourselves more of a chance. But the problem is that we don’t walk through as collectives, right? At some point, you got to go to sleep and you got to wake up, you got to use the bathroom. So that’s the hard part. The wrong way to fight this shit is individually; the right way to fight it is collectively, with folks who love you. But you can’t always be with your people. And white supremacy never fucking stops. That’s the thing. It gets you when you sleep. It gets you right when you wake up. It gets you right before you go to sleep. I feel for anyone who has to fight that shit alone. And at different times we all do. And that’s the scary part.

Long Division takes place in Mississippi. I know you have deep affection for Mississippi, but given the state of America, do you ever fanaticize about living elsewhere? 

I think about leaving Mississippi every single day. Right now, what I’m thinking about is how you can be of the most use and service to a space and place. I’m not sure if that necessarily means you have to live there. It might. I used to think it definitely meant that you needed to be there. But I don’t know if I can be there and be healthy. So, it might mean that I go live somewhere else and just find ways to be of most use to Mississippi. There’s no way I’m going to be living in Mississippi for the rest of my life.

It can be hard to find a balance when you want to do what’s right and good, but then what toll does that take on you? Where do you put yourself on the care spectrum?

I thought a lot about that this year with COVID-19. Because, early in it, I was just like, “Oh my lord, I wish I had a kid; I wish I had a pet; I wish I had something.” I was like, “Oh, this is one of the reasons people have all of these markers of adulthood because it’s sort of hard to keep living sometimes when you don’t have a partner, a kid, someone that depends on you.” I thought a lot about what it meant to live in Mississippi as a Black man, alone, at 46. That’s some shit I never read about. That Black guy who lives in Mississippi, who can live anywhere in the world, who lives in Mississippi, alone. I was like, “Oh fuck, I have to write this because nobody else has written it.” But I’m too weak to write this right now. I’m trying to do that now. But that’s a hard, sad thing. Right?

Yes, loneliness can be staggering. Sadness also seems to be a problem for your characters. City’s base essence is sorrow, though he does his best to keep it hidden. In fact, all your characters carry tremendous sorrow. Do you think at our base, we’re all sad?

I do believe that. I don’t like to be that person who says blanket shit about all humans, because there’s going to be outliers, but I don’t know how our base essences can’t be sadness, given what we’ve done.

Whether or not we consciously are taking inventory, we know what we’ve done. And we know what we’re doing. Like, I know what our being on this computer using electricity is doing for other parts of the world. And I love communicating like this. But the things that we love in this culture, the things that bring us pleasure, often are being done at the expense of other people. And that shit is not good.

I think some part of us knows that and wants to remedy it. Just because sadness might be a baseline, it doesn’t mean that it’s forever. We can play that baseline a whole lot of different ways. That’s one of the reasons that keeps me believing and loving people generally. I think, at the core, none of us have been given a fair shot. None of us. Look at Trump. People think you’re supposed to have two parents, you’re supposed to go to Ivy League schools and go to the private schools and all that bullshit and have all the money. Look at that fucking dude, that motherfucker’s burning from the inside out. Right? All of us have been given a fucked-up hand. Some people have been given worse hands and are kinder, in spite of that. Some people aren’t.

I first started writing Long Division when Bush was doing all the war crimes and people were talking about torture and I was like, “What the fuck would I do to George Bush?” I wrote this long piece that was all about how I would rehabilitate George Bush. Long Division, in part, is about, how do you rehabilitate people who harm you? And should you? What happens when there’s years and centuries and decades of what the grandmother goes through in that book? And I’m not sure. I don’t want this fucking Trump to go to prison, because I don’t believe in prison. But what do I want? What would happen if he had to drink cranberry juice and listen to Toni Morrison’s short stories? But that’s how that book was actually born. I was starting to think about alternatives to incarceration. What do you do to rehabilitate people? Or can you?

Did you come to a conclusion?

I think you can. That’s what I’m saying, that book is all about education. When those Freedom Rider folks came to Mississippi, they had the right idea. There’s a critique from Mississippians that some of them were patronizing, but they had the right idea pedagogically. Everything from cops to militarism, to all of that shit, is rooted in education. A radical upheaval in education in this world changes everything. That means we have to change the way teachers are not just paid but also taught. We have to destroy prisons and make schools that really take care and love the people that need it the most. I think it’s there. But so much has to be extracted now, because it’s tied up in so much money. But there’s a way to be better. There’s a way to be kinder, there’s a way to be more tender.

In part, this book is about City trying to save his grandfather. Yet he also questions: “In real life, do we really need our granddaddies?” And he is surrounded by women, as are most of your characters. What role do you see men playing in a healthy, thriving society? How about women? 

I think kids just need waves of multifaceted love, and that I don’t think it matters what package that love comes in. So, I don’t think we need men or women, we need people who are willing to ask themselves questions with the intent to grow and grow backward accounting for things that we’ve done. And that way, I don’t think it matters if they’re genderqueer, if they’re men, if they’re women, but in my state, in my family, it was just all women. My grandfather drowned. My uncle was around, he died in 2007, and I didn’t grow up with my father. Most of the families I know down south, the women are carrying an unfair burden in those relationships. But at the same time, I’m not one of those people who’s going be like, we need present Black men. I think we need loving people.

What are some of the questions that you would encourage people to ask?

We always have to be asking ourselves, when do we most want to be a man? And when do we least want to be a man? What parts of masculinity do we not want to be true about us that actually are true? Masculinity encourages a perpetual deception, that once you break it, everything breaks. Which is why people don’t want to break it. I think the question of, what do you not want to be true but is likely true about yourself, is a question we should all ask ourselves, every day, more than once. And how does that thing that you don’t want to be true impact the way you treat other people?

You write a lot about the body in this book, and in all your work, in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and also as a carrier of often unbearable emotions such as grief, anger, longing. Can you speak about bodies? What is your relationship like with your body these days? 

I was in the emergency room two weekends ago because I had some weird growth in the right part of my ribs. Whenever I go, it’s just terrible, and I have insurance. I’m a big Black person and I have money, but I don’t dress like I have money. So, they just don’t treat you right. But I also just feel so good that I’ve given my health over to another person, even if I don’t think that person is going to treat me fairly. There’s something, sadly, peaceful about that sort of submission. And I find it more so when my body’s bigger. When I was really small, and had a six-pack and was very compact, I didn’t even go to the doctor. I didn’t want anybody to see me then. But now, as a much bigger person, it’s definitely more terrifying. But also, I feel like, once they stick a needle in my arm or once they do anything, weigh me, I’m just like, alright, fuck it. I’m here. I’m getting help. And there’s something freeing in asking for help even if it’s from people you don’t trust.

Are you okay now? Has the growth gotten smaller?

Yeah, it got smaller. I’ve gone to the doctor more times in this past year than I’ve gone probably in my entire life. I feel like I’m psychologically healthier than I’ve been. But I’ve got really terrible hip arthritis and that makes it hard for me to do the things I want to. But in a lot of ways, that saves me, too. Because if my hips work, I just never stop running. I’m just going be that fool who runs himself into the dirt, like every time.

If you didn’t have the arthritis, do you think you would still be working out?

Yeah. I was down to 149 with hardly any body fat and I was not going to stop. Then my body just broke. And it stopped me. It doesn’t hurt too bad, I can deal with the pain, it’s the mobility. When you have arthritis, you get to a point where you can’t even make a stride. But I also realize that my writing life kind of picked up when I was able to stop running. I’ve not talked about that before, but I literally had to sit down and not run from that shit on that page. I could tell myself I was running to think through it and work through it, but I was running away from a lot of that stuff. Because I could pat myself on the back for running 15, 16 miles. And then I didn’t have to do the writing that I needed to do.

City closes out Book One by saying, “[A]ll we needed to know about how to love better in Mississippi was in our hands.” And later, Baize says: “My Klan would go town to town with coloring books asking folks who didn’t get along to color together.” Is this possible? Is love enough to solve all of this?

My problem is, I believe it really is. But I think conjuring love is harder than passing some shit in the fucked-up US Senate. It’s harder than getting your community to do whatever the fuck might be best for it in the future. Really putting the needs of yourself in this world and your neighbor ahead of wants that could be destructive. I don’t know if that’s love, but that’s hard. We don’t do it. What we do now is we try to do public policy, we try to do activism, we try to do all of these things. We have to do all these things. Love, as Baldwin and Morrison and all these others explored it, is nowhere near as rich … We’re nowhere near as loving as we think we are. But I do believe it.

How do you define love?

I think love is that force that individuals, families, communities, groups of people can create. I think love is an energy that we must create to keep us healthy and alive. This is tough. It’s too hard a question for Easter.

At one point, Coach is admonishing City to manage the freedom that white people have “allowed” Black people. In response, City says, “They can only do as much harm as you let them, and all y’all oldheads are letting them do way too much.” That got me thinking about who is responsible for change. Because older generations keep looking to the younger generation to fix everything. But you know, because you teach, that young folks are riddled with anxiety and depression, especially now. Are we putting too much pressure on them when they’re already under pressure?

I love that question because I think we can be of use. A lot of professional, political-class people of older generations, they want younger people to follow them. And often that means following the same rules or strategies and tactics that didn’t necessarily work. So, I do think it’s okay to let the younger people lead. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to do. It might mean we have more work to do. But we might have to be collaborative and ask them how we can be of service. Because, yes, they are riddled with anxiety, depression, and all of that, but also, writ large, their ideas for a more just world are better than ours. And ours were better than our parents’. The younger generation of people now are presenting a lot of ideas that are out of the box, but a lot of them much more just oriented. So, I’m saying we can let them lead. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to also be out there working.

Lineage is vitally important to City. And I believe it is to you, too. Why? What do you perceive our ancestors hold that we need? Or is it more a matter of honoring them? If so, why? Some of them were awful people. 

That’s true. Some of them are awful people, but when I’m looking at Black Americans from the South, you know, awful people galore. But they didn’t want to come here. They got stolen. They didn’t want to get exploited and then they got exploited. And they didn’t want to have children with people that they didn’t want to have children with, but that’s what happened. And they didn’t want to not be able to be married or fucking vote or live wherever the fuck they couldn’t live freely. People kept themselves alive partially so you could have a life that was not theirs. People died so I could write, so I’m not going to waste my writing. And people died trying to keep me from writing. White folks killed people because they didn’t want me to be able to read and write. So, yes, lots of awful people in our ancestral past. But at least, when you talk about Black folks, they weren’t given fair access to healthy choices, second chances. That means something to me.

Beautifully put. After Sooo Sad and his buddies attack City and City’s Grandma retaliates, Sooo Sad says, “Y’all mad at something more than me. I ain’t do it. […] Y’all making this personal.” I was struck by the bone-deep truth of this. How do we assess the individual when we each also carry the communal?

We have to want to see the individual and the communal in every person who does us good or harm. So the hardest part of that book was putting shit that actually makes sense in the mouth of that character. Obviously, that character does some things that are terrible. But for that book to work, you have to sort of feel some sympathy for him. I think when that character is like, “You’re blaming me for some shit that I didn’t do,” the book is saying, “I’m blaming you for some shit you didn’t stop.” And that’s very different. Once you look at it that way, that’s when you see how all of us have our foot on somebody’s neck.

City’s mom drills into him that his actions not only affect him but “those yet to be born.”

This is the conceit of the book: what we’re doing today is going to impact tomorrow in some form or fashion. So maybe we should live today in a way that gives people tomorrow the best chance. That’s all. Because I’m talking to you for lots of reasons, but one is because people of Mississippi organized and fought and gave me a chance that other people said I wasn’t deserving of. And I think we have to do that going forward. And when we fail, this is as important as any of it, we have to be honest about the failure. Sometimes we fail because we don’t give a fuck — not just because we tried hard and it didn’t work. We’ve got to give ourselves a chance to revise by being honest about what we did yesterday. And that’s the hardest shit in the world for some reason.

You’re often asked about your willingness to be vulnerable, but I’m curious about your willingness to speak well of yourself. Is that something you had to teach yourself or does it come naturally?

I’ve definitely had to teach myself to do that. When the pandemic hit, I don’t think any of us knew what Zoom was going to mean in our lives. A lot of people would ask, “Kiese, can you come do this?” And then I had a lot of friends that asked me to do their book launches. So, once you start doing so much shit on camera, you don’t want to fall into the same thought and talk patterns. One thing that’s just hard for me is to big up myself. So, to make all of this shit bearable, sometimes I’m like, “All right, I want to boast a little bit. I want to talk about myself in ways that I might not believe, but I want to say it anyway, just to add some spice to the conversation.” But that’s real hard.

I get it. But it’s not that you’re boasting, you just speak kindly of yourself.

I’ve been doing this publicly for eight years, but I’ve been writing for people’s eyes since I was 15. I’ve spent literally two-thirds of my life doing this art. When I was coming up, I didn’t see Black people ever talking about themselves in literary form in very generous ways. I saw a lot of rappers do it. And I love them MCs, but I didn’t see many people and I still don’t. And honestly, whenever I talk about myself kindly, I always regret it. I ain’t going to lie to you.

It’s a shame how so many of us are raised to not speak well of ourselves.

Some days I just need somebody to say something nice about me, so I need to say it myself.

You are so hopeful. But what are you like when you’re alone and not writing? I feel like when we write or teach or speak about writing, something inside us lights up. A more optimistic part of ourselves. Can you sustain that hope when you’re not intentionally engaging it?

That’s a brilliant question. I’m going to change the word — I think I’m much more faithful off the page than I am on it. Because on it I do want readers to understand that I do have a faith that we can undo this shit. Do we want to? Nope. Can we want to? Yup. But when I’m off the page, I’m very faithful. I believe what people say to me. It’s one of my problems. I believe anybody the first time, second time, which means you have to in some way have some sort of faith that people mean what they say, and that people are good. And when I’m on the page, I feel like I owe myself and people more than blind loyalty. But off the page, I believe people until I don’t, and when I don’t, I don’t ever believe, you know.

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Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O: The Oprah MagazineThe SunLongreadsTin House, and Narratively, among others publications. She has just finished a novel about the peace movement and women’s movement in London during World War II.

 

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