Monterica Sade Neil interviewed Kiese Laymon virtually in November 2018.
– – –
Monterica Sade Neil: Before Heavy: An American Memoir was published on October 16, 2018, when asked about your third book, you talked a lot about fear. You were afraid for your family. Could you talk about how that might have changed since publishing the book?
Kiese Laymon: I’m still scared every day they’re going to be challenged or confronted or punished for something I wrote in that book. Thankfully, nothing like that has happened. Or at least, they haven’t told me. I get fucked up messages every day primarily from white readers calling me racist, threatening me, but no one has attempted to really harm me since the book came out. Not saying it won’t happen. But I’m from Jackson, Mississippi. We all got goons. And my goons have magnificent smiles and contentious demeanors.
MSN: I am writing what I am no longer calling a memoir. For now, I am writing a conjuring of memory. I often worry about what readers will and will not find believable. What advice would you give emerging Southern writers writing about ancestral memory and the presence of Spirit in their lives?
KL: I was just talking to Jesmyn about this. She writes so well about the ways Spirit guides us and really shape our imaginations. You gotta write what you hear. A lot of us hear, see and feel Spirits. Not writing about the presence of Spirit in our lives feels really dishonest. We gotta write what we hear.
MSN: In “Part I: Boy Man,” you write to your mother, “Y’all didn’t think black children should watch shows, listen to music, or read books with violence, nudity, adult situations, or cussing because violence, nudity, adult situations, and cussing lacked redeeming value. I always thought that was funny.” I wondered why was that funny to you. Do you believe a reader can ever be too young to read about “adult” situations they have already lived through?
KL: I thought it was funny because all I saw and heard in my house and neighborhood were adult situations. And if they wanted us to not experience that stuff, I wonder why they didn’t do a better job of not creating violent “adult” situations in the house. It was like they thought consuming violent art was worse than consuming violent experiences.
MSN: In earlier drafts of Heavy, you wanted to write to a section to your imaginary daughter. You wrote to your mother instead. In writing to your mother, do you feel you have said everything you wanted to say to your imaginary daughter?
KL: That’s a great question. Nah. The book I wrote to my daughter was really different. Because she doesn’t really exist, I had to imagine a lot about her personality, a lot about what she heard, what she saw. There was a lot less in that version about my professional life, and more about the kind of father I wanted to be.
MSN: When writing Heavy, were there times when remembering made you sad or sadder? Did you ever question why you were writing? Did you ever feel like giving up?
KL: Hell yes, I wanted to give up. I did give up. Then I started again. I mean, the first version of the book was kinda my giving up. I think it’s important for me to say that I wasn’t ready to write this book. I had to come back to Mississippi to finish it. Had I not come home, that book would have been so bad. I think people might have read it, but it would have been so so so bad.
MSN: Have your dreams for Heavy come to fruition? Is it too early to ask?
KL: My main dream was I wanted my Mama and me to talk and really listen for the first time in our lives. That happened. I only wanted writers to value what I did and broaden our conceptions of what’s possible in the American memoir. Not sure I did that. I hope though.
MSN: What advice would you give young writers writing about Southern violence, shame, addiction, and families?
KL: Take care of yourself with the writing. And take care of yourself before and after you write. We come from the greatest cultural workers on earth. So figure that great mix of patience and persistence when writing and revising. Never ever stop loving our people on and off the page. And please be weird as fuck.
Kiese Laymon is a Black southern writer, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. Laymon earned an MFA in Fiction from Indiana University. He is the author of the novel, Long Division and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and Heavy: An American Memoir. Heavy, shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal and the Kirkus Prize. Laymon has written essays, stories and reviews for publications including Esquire, McSweeneys, New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, ESPN the Magazine, Colorlines, NPR, LitHub, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, PEN Journal, Fader, Oxford American, Vanity Fair, The Best American Series, Ebony, Travel and Leisure, Paris Review, Guernica and more.
Monterica Sade Neil is a third-year MFA student in Fiction and Nonfiction at Louisiana State University. Monterica writes from the margins. Set in the district of North Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee, her work explores the dynamic lives of Black people in the inner-city, especially little Black girls and queer Black women. She explores the courage and resolve Black people employ as they live life in the South in communities where privileges are few and freedom of choice can often be precarious. Presently, she is writing a conjuring of memory and a collection of short stories. She is a 2018 Tin House Scholar and a 2018 NY State Summer Writers Institute Scholarship Recipient.