Evil and Joy and That Other Mushy Part In-Between: An Interview with Kiese Laymon

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Filed under: Blog, Creative Nonfiction Contest, Interview |

The deadline for our Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest is August 1st. The winner will receive a prize of $250 and publication in our Spring 2017 issue. Read below to get a sense of what contest judge Kiese Laymon is looking for. Click here to submit.

Your recent essays address Mississippi House Bill 1523, the conversation surrounding Bill Cosby and sexual assault, the hopes you have for your daughter, Mississippi football, and the church shootings in Charleston. In one essay you write that you are “concerned about any and all things relating to my body, your body, our feelings, power, sexual history, sexual imagination and intimacy.” What drives these concerns? What sets an essay in motion? How or why does the genre facilitate these conversations?

Thanks for having me. That quote is from the satirical piece I wrote in response to HB 1523.  At some point, as a writer, I have to ask myself not simply what have folk and politics and family and American evil done to my body, but what has my body done to actual people, politics, joy, and American evil. And why? I think the essay is one way to reckon and ultimately redress our complicity in evil and joy and that other mushy part in-between.

You write and publish in a variety of genres—Long Division is a novel and your most recent How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others is a tremendous collection of essays. How do you approach your subject matter differently depending upon genre? What does each offer to you as a writer, scholar, citizen?

Great question. In novels, I'm really trying to ask a series of "what-ifs" that I've never seen asked before. I don't want to write the same novel anyone else has written. In essay writing, I want to sometimes answer really old questions with different forms in the hopes of getting different answers. The readers of essays are so much closer to the process, too. With fiction, they're years away.

What essays and nonfiction writers make their ways onto your syllabi? Why?

Lately, I've just been obsessed with Jesmyn Ward and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah because they're so good at what I'm so terrible at. And I love it. Thankfully, we have the same editor and publisher, too, so they're not far away when I have questions.

What kind of submission interests you as an editor? What stories and styles, forms and perspectives make you pay closer attention? What voices stand out from many submissions? 

I'm interested in essays that are brave in form and content. I love essays that imagine a reader different than the reader we are taught to imagine in so-called literary essays. If you imagine a different reader, you produce a different piece with different rhythms, conclusions and questions. I'm also tired of the essay where we black and brown writers try to educate white readers about the consequences of their whiteness. I guarantee you that Baldwin already wrote that essay better than you so let's use our words to actually serve ourselves and our communities.

What projects or journals are you excited about right now? What voices should our readers note? What journals should they (re)discover?

Aziza Barnes and Nabi Lovelace are revolutionizing lit art with something called The Conversation. Please please check it out. It's all I can think about and it's going to be greater than the best peanut butter cookie you've ever eaten. 

Finally, you have two new books on the way–your memoir Heavy and your novel And So On. Can you speak a bit more about these projects? Which aspects of the writing process have been struggles, which surprises?

Heavy is the hardest thing I've ever written times a hundred trillion. I'm writing about my families experiences with sexual violence, food, racial terror and language. Every time I think I have it, I don't. The novel, And So On, is going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.