Literary Experiments and Black Southern Time Travel with Kiese Laymon

“My reckoning with the Black South was an attempt to give integrity and texture to my belief that I was an Afrikan with a ‘k.’”

In December 2013, I sent a college friend a message about Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: Essays. I thanked him for posting on Facebook about the 2013 release, and I said, “It’s stunning.” At that point, I hadn’t even read Laymon’s novel Long Division, also first published that year. It is now one of my favorite novels. I am regularly at pains to explain to people why they should read it even if they’re not a Black Jewish theoretical physicist who feels incredibly seen by the book, like I do every single time I pick it up. I’m almost breathless each time. It’s a book within a book about time-traveling Black kids and white Jewish kids. In Mississippi. YOU HAVE TO READ IT. It’s the kind of book that makes you go all caps in people’s faces and blow up their text messages. I keep a stack in my house (of the Scribner re-release) because I’m constantly giving copies away. Kiese’s memoir Heavy is the same. There’s an army of people who are all caps about it, all the time.

Trying to explain how I feel about Kiese’s writing makes me feel like the worst writer in the world because I know my words will not successfully capture what I want to say. I can hear Kiese in my head telling me to keep trying because I am not good enough not to practice four hours a day, as he says in my favorite craft essay. In the 10 years since that mutual friend introduced me to Kiese, I have been astonished and inspired not just by his literary brilliance but also by his enormous generosity, compassion, and fierce commitment to honesty, transformation, and love. In that decade he has collected accolade after accolade—a Carnegie Medal, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and many others—but he has never strayed from the path of centering grassroots Black love, Black liberation, and Black brilliance in his work.

In January 2023, I spent 90 minutes in conversation with my friend Kiese Laymon, the Rice University Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of Creative Writing. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CP): What is giving you joy currently? And if nothing is giving you joy—because that is an allowable option—what is a person or a group that you are feeling really proud of right now?


Kiese Laymon (KL): I saw this film by Raven Jackson two days ago. A24 screened it for me here in Houston; I got to see it in a theater by myself. It’s called All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. I just never … I can’t wait for you to see it. I’ve never experienced anything like that in a movie theater. That film not just made me joyful but motivated me to try to do a little bit more with natural sound.

There is this one shot where it is water—Raven shot it in Mississippi—and they are shooting the water, but it is dirty water, like in a creek. And I always saw water like this growing up, but when you get close enough to it, it starts to look like clouds. I’ve never seen a movie that followed Mississippi childhood wonder, not in a fetishizing or sentimental way. It made me really want to experiment with different art forms.


CP: This reminds me of something I’ve been wondering about. As I was rereading Long Division before our conversation, I was thinking a lot about Haile Gerima’s Pan-Africanist film about slavery, Sankofa, which also has a spiritual/time travel element to it. Was that film on your mind while you were working on that novel?


KL: I saw Sankofa three years after it came out. The teacher who introduced me to it also taught me how to write fiction, this dude named Calvin Hernton. It is so hard to find the tones that you want, and Sankofa is perfectly toned. That shit is perfect.

That play Dutchman, by Amiri Baraka, was also strangely in my mind, but on the surface it has nothing to do with Long Division. I was just trying to think about how we can get people to talk in small spaces, and that play occurs mostly on a train with two people talking.


CP: I’m going to talk about Long Division a lot because I am passionate about it. This is one of the most genius novels that anybody has ever written. That is how I feel about it.


KL: That is a wild thing to say.


CP: You have to deal with the fact I said it!


KL: I appreciate you saying it!


CP: But I want to understand how the fuck someone comes up with this book? How did you arrive at this story? The idea of putting these characters into conversation with one another in the ways that you did?


KL: I’m from Mississippi, and a lot of our stories are about people who move to the Midwest and to the West, some to the Northeast, but this notion of running away from the narrative that was prescribed for you is just always in my lineage. A lot of our lineage is runaway characters, runaway enslaved folks.

When I first started writing fiction, honestly where it came from is I just felt like a master. Not a master of craft; I felt like I was these characters’ master, and then they only got interesting when they started to go places that I didn’t think the narrative could go. I could talk about the art I was watching and consuming at the time, but really I was writing these stories about these characters, and I thought, Yo, these motherfuckers do not want to be confined by this narrative! They want to go outside of it. They want to talk about it. They actually want to get at you and ask you to leave them alone so they can do their thing. And then I thought, Well, how do you create a book that way?

But I was very young. In retrospect, I was trying to queer that shit. I felt guilty about writing a novel and the characters were trying to run away, so finally I thought, Let me write a book about the characters who are trying to run away from me. And then I was listening to a lot of Outkast and I had taught Kindred in grad school and I was teaching Invisible Man. I taught The Bluest Eye. All of those books influenced Long Division, but at the root, I was a master narrator and these kids were trying to run away from me. I wanted to see what would happen if I just went with them and didn’t confine them.

It is sad that our dynamism is often judged by white cis people who don’t really give a fuck about or know where we are from.

CP: Part of what is great about the book is it doubles as a discussion of literary craft. The first two characters we meet, City and LaVander Peeler, are competing in spelling bees. Their conversations are often about the rules of craft, and they place a high premium on a good sentence, even as “what is a good sentence” according to them is different from what we are taught at school.

Tell me about that meta process of writing about good sentences while also crafting good sentences. What does it even mean to craft a good sentence?


KL: When we put these books out in the world, they are being judged by people who do not look like us, who do not come from where we come from, and judges were telling me that sentences that I put out in Long Division weren’t dynamic or worthy. I just want to say it is about those sentences, but it is also about the judging of our sentences, right? We in the academy know that a lot of what we do involves having our sentences judged by white people. And a lot of times we are just saying, Well, can you tell us the rules? And they say, “The rule is you have to be excellent, and the rule is dynamism.” But can that those judges even tell what is dynamic?

It is sad that our dynamism is often judged by white cis people who don’t really give a fuck about or know where we are from. We fight back with sentences, even though the sentences are often the thing that they use to sentence us. I sound like a rapper when I say that shit, but that is what I think.


CP: The changes that you made when you rereleased your books, particularly to Long Division, but also to How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, were those things that you always wanted to be there? With Long Division especially, was this how you always wanted the book to be?


KL: Long Division was initially three books, so if it wasn’t going to be three books—


CP: Whoa.


KL: I wanted it to be a flip book, and I initially wanted to not have my name on the cover. I just wanted the title and ellipses. But I didn’t have any control over that stuff.

That book, that version is my heart. I was able to change the font; the font for 1985 looks older to me, but they didn’t even want to do that. And I wanted to narrate the audiobook and they wouldn’t let me do that either, and that really fucked a lot of sales up because I could have read that book in an effective way.


CP: You have a great voice. I loved listening to Heavy.


KL: The other thing is that ethically, there are just some things I wish I hadn’t done in that first book. A lot of us are starting to think about ableist language. I did a lot of that, and I still do some of that in the book. I never felt comfortable putting those words in a book spelled out, but I thought you had to do it.

It is fucked up that you have to sell a lot of books to be able to take some words out of your own book. But that was my experience. One of the reasons I had to get the book back was that that dude had all the rights for the TV and film versions. So if I wanted to do anything with TV and film, that dude would have got all the money.


CP: Let’s talk about the TV series. How does it feel to adapt Long Division for TV?


KL: I’ve been working on it for a long time, but it feels good now. It is an adaptation, but really it is just another version of Long Division. There is a graphic novel coming out too. So there’s going to be three or four versions of Long Division.


CP: Yes!


KL: And John Jennings and Regina Bradley are going to do the graphic novel. So the show is an adaptation, but also I needed to create a world where these characters, and particularly the grandmothers of these characters, come alive more. When the book starts Baize has disappeared, but when the Long Division TV show starts, Baize hasn’t disappeared yet. So we see Baize perform at the regionals; we see Baize arrive at the regionals with her best friend, Shay, who we learn later is Shalaya Crump. Baize and Shay/Shalaya start the show and go to this fucked-up town called Oxford, Mississippi, where the regionals are being held. I can’t talk about what happens next, but it was just great to go back in there, into that world.


CP: I love the way that this is a literary remixing. It is a musical in that sense.


KL: I hope so. I feel so lucky that I can remix it and more importantly, create a televisual experience that also is in relation to the three different versions of itself.


CP: As a scientist, what I like about it is that it feels like a series of experiments.


KL: In Mississippi we weren’t allowed to experiment, and I understand parents would say, Yes, you can get killed for experimenting. You know what I’m saying? And so that book is an experiment. For me as a writer, at the time a young Black writer, I’m fucking experimenting, but those kids, they are experimenting with all of that shit—love, touch, racism. They are experimenting with anti-Semitism while being guided by anti-Black racism. They are experimenting with all of that shit, and there are consequences.


CP: This is a book where there is no centering of whiteness or white people. But there is still a major white character in the book—who is distinctly Jewish. That by itself was an interesting decision. “If I’m going to have a white character, it is going to be a Jew.”


KL: Right, who thinks, I’m not white. That is one thing that changed when I moved north, I met a lot of Jewish people who looked white to me, who said, No, I’m Jewish. I would meet brothers who were involved with Jewish white women who would refer to them as “my Jewish partner.” They wouldn’t say “white.” And vice versa. Sisters who would say, “You’ve got to meet my boyfriend, Seth, you would love him.” And they never described Seth as white, they described Seth as Jewish. I just thought, Yes, there is going to be a white boy in my book; he going to be different.


CP: I remember the first time I read the book, for me as a Black Jew this was a revelation. This is probably something that you didn’t know, but around the time that the book came out, for the first time in my life actually, I was putting down roots and joining a synagogue, as opposed to being someone who did Passover and would occasionally go to temple but had never formally been a member of a community. I was for the first time in my life navigating what it meant to be a Black Jew in formal Jewish spaces.


KL: Wow, yes. The real Evan Altschuler gave me permission.


CP: There is a real one?


KL: Oh yes, my RA was this kid named Evan Altschuler. Jewish, incredible musician, like John Mayer without all the fucked-up shit.


CP: A question I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else ask you: Why was it important for you to reckon with whiteness and Jewish whiteness and Jewish participation in whiteness?


KL: Yes. Isn’t it strange that nobody asked that question in the last ten years?


CP: It should be a very obvious question because it is such a huge plot point. But also, as a Black Jew I’m not surprised that Black people who are not Jewish would stay away from it and that white people would think it was immaterial. I’m not surprised by that.


KL: Both my parents were Black Power people. My family viewed Jewish white people—this is fucked up—but they viewed them as the good ones. Their guard was a lot less up. Part of that was because of what white Christian nationalists did to both Black people and Jewish people, and part was that my people worked with Jewish people to help free Mississippi. I started revising Long Division, and with these young kids there is so much misunderstanding, so much anti-Blackness, so much anti-Semitism, but also so much sincerity.

CP: Part of the impact that you have had culturally is amplifying, as André Benjamin put it, “The South got something to say.” How do you navigate repping the Black South, Black Mississippi in particular, maybe Jackson if we want to get really specific, and also being part of a global diaspora?


KL: For me it is all about hip hop and age. I graduated from college in ’98, so I was in high school in the late ’80s, early ’90s. We called ourselves Afrikans with a k. We wore the continent: red, black, and green. For most of my life, being Pan-African was what you were supposed to be. But the thing about the Pan-Africans that I grew up with, I’m talking as a young person at the time, was that they did not acknowledge the Black South. That is something people don’t talk about when they talk about Pan-Africanism. For me, yes, let’s please talk about the diaspora. But can we also talk about this thing called the Black South?

And my reckoning with the Black South was an attempt to give integrity and texture to my belief that I was an Afrikan with a k. We are all part of this diaspora. And what I love about diasporic Black Afrikan shit is that it is all made up of local stories. One of the reasons we fell in love with NWA was because they rapped the place. Nobody was talking about Compton outside of LA before then, right? I just want to remind myself that our diaspora is made of local art, but sometimes we don’t do enough to connect it all together.


CP: Okay, I was going to save this for later, but speaking of rappers that rep a specific geography, I am so obsessed with Mississippi artist Big K.R.I.T.’s Cadillactica that I actually mentioned it on the first problem set for my graduate quantum mechanics class this semester.


KL: Of course you would love that album. But it is a concept album that people don’t fucking really get.


CP: At the end of the song “Life,” the narrator says, “The planet Cadillactica was created within the history of the big bang, or what we like to call the 808.” And he is declaring Southern Blackness as cosmic, Mississippi Blackness as cosmic. Black Mississippi as cosmic.


KL: That is right.


CP: My question was going to be, which Big K.R.I.T. album is the best Big K.R.I.T. album?


KL: I hate to be this person, because I know people always do this move, but for me it is the first one still. Live from the Underground.


CP: That is an amazing album. It is not cosmic-themed, so I personally have to choose Cadillactica, but that is an amazing fucking album.


KL: It is not cosmic-themed, but I’m just saying … I was at Vassar at the time it was released, deeply fucking depressed. My body had just broken down, and I’m scared to go home because I’ve gained a lot of weight. I know that will disappoint my grandmother; I hate disappointing her. Can’t get no books published. I’m teaching my ass off, but my other work ain’t getting out. And then I hear this motherfucker from right down the road from where I grew up in Forest. I grew up in Jackson, but we also, my grandma lived in Forest, so I was in Forest two, three times a week. That’s near Meridian, where K.R.I.T. is from. If you’d asked me, is there any way you are ever going to hear a rapper from Meridian? I would have said there is no way. At that point in my life, to hear his sound, and that dude loves his grandmom? That is a grandmama album for me.

CP: At various points over the years I’ve heard you talk about the genius of Black Mississippi writers. And in preparing for this interview, I was really hit over the head with that in all of the different ways, even just thinking about Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. I wanted to talk to you about Black masculinity and vulnerability in relation to how Walker is remembered and how Wright is remembered. Some critiques of the author Richard Wright don’t leave space for him to be a vulnerable man who used to be a vulnerable boy. He very clearly had all of these abandonment issues. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to Heavy and Long Division.


KL: I want to say two things. One, one thing that fuels Black Mississippi writers today is the fact that Margaret Walker lived probably three miles from Eudora Welty. But Eudora Welty was taught to me from fifth grade—fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, all the way through twelfth grade. Margaret Walker was never fucking taught in my school. Never.

And conversely, I think it is important to say that people at the time acknowledged Wright as a fucking beast. I just want to say, writerly Wright is a beast. This motherfucker wrote short stories. He wrote haikus. He tried to write these peace treaties. He did everything. He wrote so much, and I’m super critical of him. But he gets swallowed completely by Faulkner, right?

It’s weird that people talk about Faulkner and don’t talk about Richard Wright, given when Richard Wright was born, everything Richard Wright had to fucking go up against, and what this motherfucker created in the face of that. Richard Wright, in addition to being unfairly criticized sometimes, he did dish out a lot of unfair criticism too, particularly to Zora Neale Hurston, what I’m saying? And part of that unfair criticism is rooted in this masculine desire to always stunt on somebody and diminish people, particularly Black women, who might do something better than you or as well as you do.

There is this scene in Native Son where he is in the movie theater and he is experimenting with himself sexually. I want to talk about the wonder of a Black boy writing a scene where a Black child is in a public space touching himself, attempting to make himself feel good. I am not saying that that scene is great, but I’m saying when I’m writing what I’m writing, I’m thinking about that moment. I’m thinking about other moments that Wright doesn’t write about that are actually joyful, with his Black mother and Black sisters, and his Black boyfriends. We grow up and we can call them friends, but those friends are boys. All of us boys have boyfriends. We all have friends growing up who are boys, who we love, who we love touching, who we love affirmation by. We just call them friends, but they are boys. So in my work, I like to fucking explore boyfriend-ish-ness, and I’m not at all trying to take queerness as a political designation and plaster that shit on what I do.

I just think our kids should be able to play on the page and not fucking get gunned down or hurt for it. And I just think Black masculinity without play is … There are some forms of Black masculine play that are not harmful, and I want to explore that.

CP: I always read the acknowledgments sections, especially in nonfiction. I often read that first because I like to see who people think they are accountable to. It’s a Movement Baby habit. So many of the books that I am interested in and that ultimately I enjoy reading, you are in the acknowledgments section.


KL: Wow, that is so wild.


CP: I would say that you have transformed the literary landscape in a really big way just through the writers you have taught and promoted. Here I have to say openly that you were the first editor to pay me to write. Coming up, was this something you always planned to do? Sometimes it looks like you’re carrying a lot of people all at once.


KL: I don’t think about it that way. I don’t fuck with people in this literary shit who are not trying to carry some of us. The people I really, really fuck with are people who are beastly on that page, but who also just have a beastly desire to share.

This industry is as white supremacist as anything in the world. I’m just saying we ought to hold each other up. icon

This article was commissioned by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Featured Image of Kiese Laymon © The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation