The Fucked-Up Thing Is You Don’t Know You’re Burning: A Conversation with Kiese Laymon

By Aisha Sabatini SloanDecember 7, 2017

The Fucked-Up Thing Is You Don’t Know You’re Burning: A Conversation with Kiese Laymon
THREE YEARS AGO, I stood in front of a classroom of bright, smiling faces. I was sweating with the flu. It was my dream gig — teaching African American Lit at my alma mater — and I wanted to do everything right. No sick days! Not when I’m standing exactly where Professor Cho stood 15 years ago when I was a hungover freshman first learning about tequila and critical race theory. There was nothing I could do to fend off the putrid adrenaline sweat that poured out of me every time I walked into the classroom, so I was basically a trash heap with a temperature of 102 degrees standing in front of these sweet students. “Listen,” I said, practically shaking. “You can’t fuck this up. Next week I need you to be on your best behavior.” I was trying to drum up some dramatic tension. I told them my surprise: Kiese Laymon had just agreed to do a Skype conversation with us. We went nuts.

Up until this point, they had read Zadie Smith, Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Fred Moten, and watched Fruitvale Station; we were just soaking in a bunch of genius and crying a lot. But when they read Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America it was over. Fan favorite. We had our Skype conversation with him during what ended up being Family Week and every single parent, child, and sweaty-ass teacher in that room was in love with that guy by the end of the hour.

If you don’t know Kiese Laymon’s work — which also includes Long Division and the upcoming memoir, Heavy — if you don’t follow him on Facebook, you simply don’t understand. Suffice it to say: He embodies something that we direly need right now. Let’s just take a moment to close our eyes and send him a few beams of love and light. 

When I found out that I was going to get to have a conversation with him again, the first thing I wanted to talk about was this very painful conversation that I watched online between Laymon and the essayist Phillip Lopate at Columbia University. I kept watching the moment (25:40) when Laymon says that James Baldwin may have made a mistake by extending so much love to a white male reader. Lopate looks out at the audience and smirks, then says, “I don’t agree.” “Let’s go,” Laymon responds.


AISHA SABATINI SLOAN: I just started to rewatch that interview you did with Phillip Lopate about James Baldwin. It makes my joints ache. I’m fascinated by the way he keeps shifting the conversation as soon as it begins to implicate him personally by, for instance, calling the idea that we’re living in the fire next time “melodrama.” And then you say: “The fucked-up thing is you don’t know you’re burning.” And he finds a way to wiggle out of the spotlight, partly because you’ve made it feel like both a hypothetical assertion and a direct accusation all at the same time.

Would you be up for talking about this conversation at all? The subtext is just … explosive.

KIESE LAYMON: That conversation was wonderful and brutal. Lopate means a lot to so many of us essayists and/but it means a lot when Lopate doesn’t or can’t take seriously Baldwin’s plea or critique because he’s exactly who Baldwin, for better and worse, was writing to. You know what I mean? That’s not Trump up there on that stage with me. That’s Lopate. So yeah, I was happy we had the conversation but it was also really sad.

AISHA: That balancing act you’re up to with Lopate, between reverence and critique, is part of what I am so curious about in terms of how you approach your work and how you articulate your values around aesthetic and audience.

Recently, I’ve been grieving the grad school experience that I could have had if my professors were more like, well, you. I still feel unschooled in a way. I get really sad about this when I think about how much I could have learned about what I was up to if my very white, Southwestern professor hadn’t told me in a pretty explicitly colonial posture: “I can’t read this” and “I’m not interested in this stuff.” But the other day I was with a friend from grad school and we saw a photograph of that professor and I said to my friend, “The thing is, I love him.” I’d watched him keep it together through the hospitalization of his wife. When I see him around town, in his old age now, I feel mostly affection. And my friend said, “It’s almost biblical.” And it’s true. It’s spiritual work. But it’s frustrating to see the other person in this dynamic avoid it. Which of course is so much of Baldwin’s point.

So what is this relationship like for you? How do you make sense of this particular kind of literary forebear, or make peace with him? What is your relationship to the straight white cis male reader, if you are not addressing him?

KIESE: I feel you here so much, Aisha. This might seem extra but your words made me think about the importance of geography in our constitution. I don’t know Phillip Lopate and have never been really moved by his work. I appreciated his work, but I was not moved by it. But I’m a black Southern boy raised by a village of black Southern women. They taught me to love, to listen and have a lot of home-training. But they also taught me to slice fools up when they start trippin’. So, my home-training taught me to come into that thing at Columbia with my ears and heart open, and lead with kindness. When I saw that that kindness wasn’t being extended my way, I wanted to slice the dude up.

Sadly, I think that’s how I approach most important literary white dudes. I have no reverence at all. But I do have care and respect for their work. I don’t really have any white dude literary mentors. I haven’t written specifically to white dudes since I was 19. And I ultimately got kicked out of school for writing to them. But even though I don’t write to them, I care because I’m black and Southern. I want them to be kind and healthy. But when they show that they don’t give a fuck, I’m slicing. I wish I had the love you seem to have for your teacher for the white dude teachers who didn’t really respect where I was from. I don’t. I don’t even remember their names.

How does gender inflect what you’re saying? Have you had the same experiences with other non-black women?

AISHA: Absolutely. But a lot of this difficulty had less to do with identity than with influence. A lot of my professors in grad school were pretty steeped in the straight white male canon. Our textbook was Lopate’s anthology. Geography came into it in the sense that, this is the Southwest, I felt like I was being taught by someone who identified as a cowboy, but conversely, geography meant, in the case of those who were awake to it, humbling ourselves to the influence of Gloria Anzaldúa and Leslie Marmon Silko. So, even though the environment was mostly white, the community I eventually gravitated toward was somewhat diverse and pretty queer and politically radical, and I was able to work with writers who read widely and voraciously outside of the straight white male canon. And that community remains quite important to me.

The heteronormativity piece is something I’m especially glad to see disrupted in the nonfiction world right now. There was a moment there when it seemed to me that a lot of the female essayists I saw being celebrated were not just white and cis but super straight. And maybe they talked about race or sexuality but in a way that, although they go on an adventure into these realms, “at the end of the day, dear reader, I came home.”

The other night, a friend of mine said that you were on a panel in Atlanta and your talk about masculinity was one of the best he’d ever seen, and this was coming from a queer writer. What is your relationship to queer writers beyond Baldwin? How does queerness influence your writing?

KIESE: I hear all this, especially the heteronormativity piece. My relationship to queer writers, and especially queer black writers, is thankfully intimate. Most of my closest writer friends call themselves black queer writers. Like most of them, I remember the smell and sound of the world the first time I read Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill. My brain changed that day, but my memory changed that day too. I remember the day I had words to think about the question you see running through Long Division.

I wondered, from the time I was probably 12, what the similarities and differences were between homosocial love and homoerotic love. When I was 11 or 12, I remember my body reacting differently to touch from boys and girls. Before that, I fell in love with anyone who wanted to touch me. And I don’t even mean sexually. I just mean I fell hard for anyone who thought I wasn’t gross. Of course, I wanted girls to touch me but if we played “Hide and Go Get It” in a dark house or closet and I couldn’t tell who was touching me, I just didn’t care. But by 11 or 12, something weird happened to the way my body responded to girls and women wanting to touch my body. I felt not just super loved; I felt sexy and crazy abundant and super mannish, too. The idea that a girl or woman would want to touch me was beyond imagination. I still loved being touched by my boys when we played sports or when we dapped each other up, but that absolutely insane feeling I got when girls and women wanted to touch me, I never felt from a man or boy’s touch. And I wondered why. So when I wrote that novel, I wanted to explore some of that in the head and heart of young black boys and girls deep in Mississippi.

And as a grown man, I’m quick to tell other dudes that it’s okay to admit that we really like being loved and touched by other men, even if it’s not sexually, even if you don’t want to fuck or kiss some other man. It’s more than okay to talk about how specific touches make us feel, you know? It’s probably even more important to talk about how specific raced and gendered touch to specific parts of our body make us feel. Anyway, I wouldn’t have language or permission to think about any of this if it weren’t for Lorde, Hemphill, and the slew of black queer writers pushing us today. And I love that there are still so many intimate and intellectually rigorous questions to ask. It’s still fucked that I wait for someone to give me permission to publicly explore some of my questions and experiences.

Can you tell me if titles like poet or essayist mean much to you? If so, are you an essayist and are you good with folks calling this a collection of essays?

AISHA: I love the word essayist. And I love the idea of writing a collection of essays. Something about the assortment of ideas, things that require a little bit of leaping, but are all of the same mind, take different forms — maybe because I love collage, this feels really good to me. I also love a construct that allows for failure, or for inconsistency: for some things to be kind of a mess, some to be tighter and maybe less vulnerable, but for there to be enough space to really see the thinker in different modes.

But I am often introduced as a poet, and I’ve even been asked to teach poetry workshops, even though I’ve never published any poetry and haven’t written a poem for about 15 years. At first I felt confused by this and wondered if people were just really loose with their language about genre, but then I realized that I might write essays for poets. Or: Because I don’t quite know how to write a poem I write an essay. My girlfriend is a poet, many of my friends from grad school were poets. My favorite teachers from grad school were poets. The essayists I like often started out as poets. And the work I was inspired by when I was in undergrad and immersing myself in questions of race and form were genre bending and maybe required the same kind of attention as poetry.

I am curious — I’ve heard you mention doing work with young people. How did you get into it?

KIESE: As far as kids, I don’t have any. But I really love them. I think they’re so much meaner, so much more loving, and so much more capable of sublime shit than we let on. I’m not talking about bullshit precociousness either. When I was a kid, there was so little lit that was written to us, so I always want to write to kids in everything I do. Kids from Jackson, Morrison, Baldwin, Dionne Farris, Jesmyn Ward. That’s the order of who I’m writing to every time. So I just finished this book with 11th graders from 9th Ward in New Orleans. They wrote the shit out of that book.

Are there people you don’t want to read your book? Are there places you don’t want your book to enter?

AISHA: Honestly, when I think of people I don’t want to read my work, I think of white supremacists. I just wrote something about neck-related violence in the history of violence against black bodies and the part of me that is superstitious is real agitated about it. I guess my fear in that case, though, isn’t that someone would “read” the book, but that someone would use it.

I also think of people reading my book and doing something with those gaps and white spaces that I didn’t realize was possible. Concocting something absent of the love or hope I infused into them.

Then there are the things I have missed. I fear that there are people who will read my book and see things about me that I don’t notice or mean to be or think myself capable of. But it’s not that I don’t want those eyes on it, if anything hearing that kind of perspective, if it’s deeply considered, can be a scary, good gift.

You’ve talked about being sober and being a vegetarian. Do these things or other aspects of how you live on a day-to-day basis influence your approach to the craft and practice of writing?

KIESE: I don’t drink, smoke, or eat meat. I did take some weed gummies lately though. They made me laugh and forget what I was laughing about. I kept saying the word “shivers” when I was high. The only really meaningful ritual in my writing life, though, is my writing. I do it twice a day, the same time every day, because I’m terrible when I don’t. For a long time, I was addicted to working out, running. The new book explores a bit of that. I’m just learning that even though I write every day, I don’t have to write to and through traumatic shit every day. That’s the importance of genre for me. Some days, I really can’t write through my experiences with violence. On those days, I’m learning to write sonnets or jokes or descriptions of black folks that have little to do with food. Anyway, I need to be healthier. I’m working on it. Just not fast enough.

AISHA: I hear you on wanting to be healthier. I lose a lot of time worrying about how if I were healthier — well mainly if I didn’t drink — I would write more, but maybe what I mean by “not drinking” is “having self-discipline.” I should just do like you and make my ritual my writing life. I think I would feel healthier if I did.

I seriously cannot wait to read your new book.


Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit.

LARB Contributor

Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s first essay collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her most recent essay collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest and published in 2017. A contributing editor for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics, her writing can be found in The Offing, EcotoneNinth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review,, Callaloo, The Southern ReviewSierra Nevada Review, Essay Daily, Tarpaulin Sky, Drunken Boat, Catapult, Sublevel, Autostraddle, and Guernica. This fall she will be a Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.


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