Kiese Laymon: An Appreciation

Our friends at The Porch, a Nashville-based literary arts nonprofit, are hosting their annual fundraiser on March 10, featuring award-winning author Kiese Laymon in conversation with author and speaker Danté Stewart, as well as a short performance by Allison Moorer. Laymon, one of the most important Black Southern voices of our time, is the author of three books: Heavy, a memoir; the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America; and Long Division, a novel. He’ll also be giving a reading in Nashville on March 10 at 5:30 pm, which is free and open to the public, and can be registered for here. In advance of Laymon’s visit to Nashville, Porch codirector Susannah Felts asked a few friends of The Porch to share thoughts about Laymon’s unique voice and vision. Here’s what they had to say:

Ciona Rouse, poet:

I lie less because of reading Kiese Laymon. At least, I try. I mean, I don’t have a habit of lying, but I’m fairly well practiced at euphemisms and avoiding hard truths on the page and in conversations. More often than not, I’m direct and speak from my most honest self, but sometimes lying’s just easier. See, look at me: even this whole paragraph attempts to clean up my initial confession and make it all more palatable.

But Kiese Laymon doesn’t do this.

I first encountered Long Division, his fiction—the genre in which he trained. Even then, he guides us through his fantastic tale of two Citys with the kind of truth Lucille Clifton said is essential to writing. The kind that has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with true humanity. And he executes these truths with such exquisite sentences. Laymon inspires me for more than his truth, however. It’s the way he’s willing to see and re-see, revise, constantly grow. It’s the way he’s generous with his knowledge. The way he writes into Black past, present and future. The way he gets giddy over reading Morrison, Baldwin, Natasha Trethewey and Robert Jones, Jr. It’s the way he speaks of the South, to the South and somehow still believes in the South. How lucky we are to be alive and witness his art at such a time as this when seeing, revision, generosity, joy and truth may be some of our deepest human needs.

Adia Victoria, songwriter, musician and writer:

Belonging to every Black Southerner, regardless of its claiming or otherwise, is the ability to hear meaning in the unsaid, infer from the repressed and stretch beyond intended meaning the form of American English. In the pure politics disguised as mere spirituals, our ancestors indicted the violence of their soul plunder. From under the exacting eye of whiteness, they passed unseen in field songs the very path to freedom.

The Blues of our foremothers took rhetorical knife to the twin oppressions of Jim Crow sadism and the echoing misogynoir of the Black Southern church. Should this sung renunciation of her oppressors be called into question, the Blueswoman’s miming-with-a-wink of “primitive” performance allowed for her plausible deniability. She knew the true power of the Blues was to expose as it embraced–expression of the Southern Black subjective subverting the dominant culture it runs alongside is the work of the Blues.

In works like Heavy and How to Kill Yourself and Others Slowly in America, Kiese Laymon does the blueswork of interrogating and fraying the pat definitions of Black Southern masculinity, maternal love, the church, belonging. Kiese’s writing is proof of the power and danger of Black private memory; his writing deconstructs it as it clarifies. In his hand, language becomes a system of inquiry into the unnumbered paradoxes existing just below the “resolved” and “absolute.” His writing gives to the passed over and long-denied the breadth and depth of Blues expression.

With the humor and skill of a true Blues scholar, Kiese explores the paradox of pain and pleasure in being young, gifted, Southern and Black.

Kashif Andrew Graham, writer:

I think that I am most enraptured by Kiese Laymon’s philosophy of revision. When he bought back the rights to Long Division, he was essentially saying to the publishing houses—you don’t have the final say. But this was not a diss. It was an expression of his core belief that we should never become ossified. And if we are thinking deeply about our lives and our work, we will disagree with our former selves. We will need to restate, omit, offer addenda. This doesn’t mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ with what we wrote or said; it just means that we desire to say something different now, with new information and time. Kiese Laymon talks about revision as humility. In like manner, I think about revision as bridging the gap between what you said, and what you wish to say, which requires humility. In the Black church, we often talk about ‘doing your first works over’. That is revision. Making edits to life. Sending a letter of apology. Telling someone that they were wrong. Admitting that you really don’t know.

Jessica Pearson, Porch board president and publishing professional:

I can say with absolute certainty that I have never read anything like Heavy by Kiese Laymon. It is tempting to put writers into a box of surrogate voices that help us make sense of who they are and what they might be trying to say. But mark my words, Kiese is Kiese. And there is no one else saying what he’s saying. This might be the bravest book I have ever read. It is brave because it centers itself in the tension, it is not afraid to confront the duality of life and experiences. It is hard to sit with Kiese’s unflinching honesty about what a lifetime of secrets, what an amoral national history, what addiction and shame, love and pain can do to a Black body. But it is necessary, it is vital, it should be required that we sit with Kiese and bear witness to his unflinching honesty. I beg you to read this book.

You can purchase Kiese’s books from Parnassus below:

Heavy: An American Memoir Cover ImageHeavy: An American Memoir


How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: Essays Cover ImageHow to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: Essays


Long Division: A Novel Cover ImageLong Division: A Novel