Interview conducted and transcribed by Kathy Bates
The University of Central Arkansas’s Spring 2021 artist-in-residence, Kiese Laymon, sat down with Arkana editor, Kathy Bates, to discuss identity, writing, and the importance of community.
Kathy Bates: All writers have the potential to cause harm. In writing nonfiction, can you talk a little bit about some of the complexities and perhaps ethical dilemmas you face when you write about the real people in your life?
Kiese Laymon: I think the important thing about nonfiction and reporting is that it has to be done ethically. It’s true of other genres, but much more explicitly in nonfiction. The writing starts long before you start writing anything. It starts when you craft the question and when you react to the person you’re asking. Try to talk to everybody you write about. I did this for Heavy, and some people didn’t want certain things in the book or wanted parts removed. I think you have to assess that some people have the right to be like that, and others don’t. What’s interesting, if my mother’s boyfriend would have told me to take something out, I wouldn’t have listened. It would have made me want to put more fucked up shit about him in the book, you know what I mean? You need to assess it, person by person.
As writers, we have to trust ourselves enough to write it. Grant yourself enough grace to write through that process, and then decide if you want the words to be in there. Don’t prevent the writing of the memory because you think somebody’s not gonna want it in the book. Writing it and publishing it are two different things, and I just think we should write damn near everything. That’s not the same as editing and not the same as publishing it.
KMB: In Heavy, you write about food and family, your body, and cycles of abuse. There are so many complicated patterns that are uncomfortable for many readers for good reasons. There’s a larger message. Can you talk a little bit about that bigger story?
KL: There’s a lot of bigger stories being told in Heavy, and some of my other work, too. There are some of us who kind of grew up mothering our mother. What does it mean to be a mother? I want to talk about that. I want to talk about my mother’s experience of mothering while being mothered by me and my granny. I’m gonna talk about my Granny’s experience of being mothered by my mom, and me to a different degree. A lot of that is just about relationships, and at the end of the day, Heavy is trying to expose questions about progress narratives. Progress narratives are so sexy, and they’re so attractive, but we don’t really live in that world. We don’t live in a world where if you do all these good things, at the end of the day everything is solved. That’s why at the end of Heavy, we walk out of that casino hand in hand. That’s where people want the book to stop, like in a film. In reality, we felt delivered walking out of a casino together, and then fifteen minutes later, I drove my ass right back into that casino. I know a lot of people for whom that is life. So, I wanted to talk about that desire to see progress. We need to walk backward together and understand who we have been to each other before we can start talking about these cardboard notions of progress. Heavy, beyond all that other shit, is really about obliterating this idea that American progress is what we should be looking for.
KMB: Understandably, Heavy and many of your essays speak to facets of America and Black communities that readers may find uncomfortable. It comes with a level of risk and takes a lot of courage and vulnerability. What’s that emotional exposure like?
KL: I wrote a book that wasn’t interested in the protection of myself or my relationship with my mom. It was an interesting exploration. But when the book went out in the world, all these people were reading our guts. When I was on tour, people would come up and touch me on my stomach. They would say things like, “you’re not as fat as I thought,” and I’m a big black boy so I can’t respond the way I want to. Also, I wasn’t ready for my relationship with my mama to be a product. That’s the truth. I’m writing a piece of art and people don’t treat it like art that means something to them. A lot of people just treat it like salacious shit. Everywhere I go, people ask if I talk to my mama. Who is your mom? Do you know why your mama beat you like that?
KMB: There are other writers in similar circumstances, trying to get their story out without it being branded as salacious. What advice do you have for the writers that are looking to make a similar journey in their writing?
KL: I think you have to be honest with yourself about what you’re afraid to write. I’m a writer who believes that fear is not just there to be conquered; that’s one of the fallacies of masculinity. I think some of us know those things that we shouldn’t go close to, and some of us don’t. Writing Heavy, I was trying to explore. First, I said, I’m not sure if this book should be written. Then I said, a new book should be written, but I’m not sure if this book should be published. I’m still not sure that it should have been published, but it’s out there now.
I would just encourage writers to just be honest about that thing that they’re afraid to write through and to, and when they are ready, commit to a practice of writing to and through that thing that they’re afraid of. But be kind to yourself when you’re doing it. There’s a way you can self-flagellate and beat yourself up that I don’t think is healthy, either. I did some of that and have regrets.
KMB: Our communities have changed over the past year with the concern of the global pandemic. How important is community, especially for artists?
KL: We need a vibrant community, especially during the pandemic. One of the things I’ve been doing during this pandemic is not just creating art and talking to new people and creating new communities, but I’ve also been talking to those first communities that I’m most indebted to and asking them, in my own way, about the importance of community to their art practice. My grandma is ninety-one but a big part of my community. If you talk, she considers that art. She’s trying to balance the art of staying alive during a pandemic. She can tell you all these specific ways that she tries to stay alive during a pandemic, and I’m asking her about that. I’m asking her about the recipes that she never wrote down. I’m asking her about that gumption she passed down to all of us, and then I’m asking her these hard questions that grandmama doesn’t really want to answer, but I think as artists, the point is to ask questions. The point is not necessarily to get the answer; the process is more important than the product.
The utility of our communities is not just there for support. Sometimes it’s like-mindedness. When I’m writing something and can’t decide how to write about it, sometimes I ask myself how I would shift the sentences if I were writing to a particular member of that community. When we create art, I don’t care if it’s poetry, nonfiction, or fiction, I think we have to get a little bit better at directly addressing our communities. I wrote this book called Heavy. I wrote a direct address to my mother. There are a lot of ways to directly address people without actually saying, you this, you that, but I think it’s important for us, and especially those of us who have been written out of American literature, to find people in our community who have also been written out of our communities, and write to them. So, I tried to do that with my mom, and I try to do that with my grandma and my friends.
KMB: How has the past year changed your writing? Changed your connections with other writers, peers, and students?
KL: The truth is, during the pandemic, I’ve been dying for community. I feel like my body is atrophying, and so I have been trying to use different ways to communicate, to reach out: trying to use the internet, to write letters, trying to ask people to write me letters, all of these kinds of things that I would never have done before the pandemic. We need to lean on community, and what that looks like is changing during these times to get us through and look for support where we can.
The part of community I think is much harder than finding it is maintaining it. I get that this part is an intellectual exercise in some way, to hearken to yesterday and memory and holding on to community in this sort of, like, meta way. But we need to keep in touch.
KMB: Your writing spans across genres with your fiction release, Long Division, numerous essays, and the essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and memoir Heavy. Is there a particular genre you like writing more than others or find more challenging?
KL: Everything I write starts as poetry and I’m terrified of showing that to people. I published this piece in Vanity Fair earlier this year and the editor called it a poem. I was so mad because the poets are here doing it! By calling that piece a poem it stated, I’ve got some poetry and I want to put it out there in the world. I get what she was thinking, Vanity Fair hadn’t published a poem, but that’s not how I wanted my first poem to be. Poetry is the hardest, most necessary for me to get my engine going. I feel ashamed of showing that to people because I can’t write like some of those poets out there. But I try to get into my work and then I justify it all left and into paragraphs. One day, I’ll maybe publish it for real.
KMB: What are you working on next?
KL: A revision of Long Division is coming out in June. It’s gonna be real dope since it’s finally published the way I wanted it to be. It’s a flipbook, with the cover as a part of the book, in two different covers. Lots of different stuff going on in there. Then, I’m working on a new novel, And So On. Then, Good Guy, which is another book and the hardest thing I’m working on right now. It’s a long poem and it’s hard because the long poem form is just tough to write anyway, but it’s really hard for me because I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I love it! I love not knowing what I’m doing. I love being able to play with it.
KMB: Thank you so much again for meeting and speaking with us!
Author, essayist, and social critic, Kiese Laymon is an award-winning, Black Southern writer from Jackson, Mississippi. He is the Hubert H. McAlexander Chair of English at the University of Mississippi and founder of “The Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative.” More information about Kiese Laymon can be found by visiting his website.
Image Credit: “caughtupinitall” by Edward Supranowicz