Kiese Laymon, the award-winning author of the best-selling memoir Heavy: An American Memoir, recently released a revised edition of his first work of nonfiction, a collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. In order to do that, he had to pay the original publisher of the collection three times what they initially paid him to regain the rights to the book. The revised collection came out from Scribner in November 2020 and includes six new essays ranging in subject from hip-hop and Ole Miss football to the labor of Black women. The revised collection feels more intimate and tender, and at their core, all the essays revolve around the author and his family, specifically Catherine Coleman, Kiese Laymon’s grandmama. He credits his grandmother with teaching him how to be loved responsibly, and how to “listen, remember, and imagine when [he] never wanted to listen, remember, or imagine again.”
I read the revised collection while caring for my own grandmother as she recovered from surgery, which is perhaps why Grandmama’s strength and wisdom on the page, and Laymon’s connection with her, felt like such a balm to the isolation and anxiety I was experiencing. I had the opportunity to sit down with Laymon over Zoom to discuss How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others, the pandemic raging around us, and, most importantly, our grandmamas.
The Rumpus: You write so beautifully in the new introduction to How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and in “You Are the Second Person” about the painful experience with the initial predatory publisher of the book. In some ways, it feels like all the essays speak to that process. What drove that decision, and was there healing for you in revision?
Kiese Laymon: There is a desperation in that book. I was desperately trying to find someone to collaborate on art with. That’s it. I needed help. And publishing in this nation mostly said no. So, all the pieces are sort of rooted in that experience of asking folks who actually need your help more than you need theirs to help you. It messed with my head, and revising the book helped me begin healing from all of those publishing experiences. It also reminded me that though my experience is specifically shaped, it’s consistency is the same as what happens to humans. We beg for help from folks who need our help more than we need theirs.
Rumpus: Reading through the book, I noticed an interesting language choice. You write, “This is our book,” or “this is our house.” There’s a very communal idea of ownership that runs through your work and seems to apply to your entire family.
Laymon: Yeah, I do that intentionally. I mean because one, it’s what I feel. And that “our” is so rooted in my grandmother. Anytime I use “our” I’m talking about her. Sometimes I use “our” when I’m trying to make big claims about the nation or just people, and it’s hard to make those proclamations in writing and have them land. Usually when I say “our,” I’m talking about the family my grandma built. I think it’s important for those of us who write and use the “I” so much to remember we are still a part of a family.
Rumpus: It is so important. I feel like there’s all this attention to individualism. We’re losing what it means to be a part of a collective and a collective identity.
Laymon: Stuff like this pandemic is supposed to be what helps us remember just on a basic level. Like, I didn’t really understand school spirit. I mean, I did coming up in Jackson because we had Jackson State, but that was city spirit, and we were hype about our city. But I went to Indiana for grad school and there is school spirit, but it’s really all about how much Indiana hates Michigan and Purdue. Theoretically, this pandemic should have connected everyone because we’re all literally in the world, to varying degrees because of power and negligence, we’re all trying to fight something we’ve never fought before. We’ve all been affected by this. Somebody we know, somebody we love, somebody we taught, somebody who taught us. If there’s any time for communal anything, it’s now, right? We can love one another, hold ourselves accountable, be tender, and try to make it better, try to examine what led us to this place and make it better going forward. That’s what should bring us together.
Rumpus: From what I’ve read of your work, our lives have a number of parallels. There have to be more people like us who got a lot of their raising from their grandmamas. Nobody really ever talks about that, or talks about the work women of that generation have done.
Laymon: Oh yeah. I love talking about grandmamas. Probably too much. I’m writing my next book about my grandmama.
Rumpus: That’s awesome. What are you working on?
Laymon: It’s a book called Good God, and it’s about intimacy and forgiveness which I’ve been thinking a lot about during this pandemic. My great-grandfather abandoned my grandmother and his family when my grandmother was four and came back to her when she was fifty-two. I was staying with her at the time. He was there for seven days and at the end of those seven days, he died. He came back to her to die. I didn’t know that at the time. I had never known about him. I just remember that I had never seen her look at anyone with, it’s more than hate. It’s more than resentment. There was obviously so much sadness, but she was so mad at him. When he knocked on the screen door, I had never seen her look like that at someone, just disgusted. But she took him in, and ultimately, she forgave him. She forgave him, but she also picked on him. My grandma is virtuous and all that, but she can also be a little raw. A little rough.
Rumpus: Yes. My grandmother will hold a grudge like it is her job. It’s both beautiful to behold and frightening.
Laymon: It is frightening because it shakes a familiar perception of my grandmama, of her kindness and generosity. And she is those things, but just like everybody, she can pick on people. I pay for her healthcare, and for the first five years, she just ran through healthcare providers, because she would say things to hurt their feelings. Like, “Kie, they over here trying to cook, but you can’t call that cooking.”
My granny is so interesting because she won’t ask for help, but she will accept it. But when she needs to ask for help, she is afraid to. Part of growing up in poverty in the South, you didn’t go to hospitals or doctors. Instead they’d come up with some old weird concoction at home. My granny has diabetes, and she got this big sore on her foot. She packed it with some home remedy, but it got infected. My mom kept smelling something, and Grandmama knew it was her foot, but she wouldn’t say anything because at that point she was ashamed. For me to see my grandmother feel ashamed is the hardest thing. That is one of the things that’s pushed me to try to be a decent writer and work is because I don’t want her to be ashamed of me. I think everybody needs someone that they don’t want to let down or shame. I feel for those people who don’t have anybody who loves them right, who they’re afraid to let down.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you bring that up. In “Hey Mama: An Essay in Emails,” there is a lot of indirect discussion about shame that seems to be absent from the writing you do about your grandmother.
Laymon: That’s true. Man, I never thought about that before. This new thing that I’m writing is all about that. You know, I feel closer to my grandmama but in reality I’m much more close to my mom. There’s an intimacy with my mother that is different with my grandma. I think I’m afraid to break a shrouded image I have of her, if I write too much about her relationship to shame.
Rumpus: You have written a lot about your grandmother and work. It seems like she has worked as a form of love. I want to hear about her art.
Laymon: She’s known for being a hard worker, but she’s really known for being a good seamstress. My grandmother was the only one in her family who stayed in Mississippi. She didn’t go up North like her sisters and brothers. When my grandmother was nine, she went to stay with a woman who was fifteen years old. She took my grandmother in and helped her. But then my grandma’s father ended up getting this woman pregnant. Anyway, my grandmother would ask her relatives in the Midwest for clothes they didn’t want anymore, and she would bring them back to Forest, Mississippi. And she would use the patterns to make clothes for her kids. They were always the best clothes. And to this day, I had to buy my grandma a shed just so she’d have a place to put all her church dresses because she never wants to wear a church dress twice. This woman has a whole country workshed filled with, to me, gaudy clothes. Lots of red, shiny black, and shiny white, and she’d have a matching hat, matching earrings, and matching shoes. She was always dressed to the T, but if somebody wore something like hers, she’d be so tight. She’d be so upset that she couldn’t be singularly stylish that day.
Rumpus: My grandmother is like that, too. Appearance has always been important to her, but also the appearance of not trying.
Laymon: Yes, yes. Grandmama extends that to everything. She’s a hard worker, but she’s much more interested in being a beautiful worker who appears not to work hard, not to try hard. But that’s the thing about appearance. You don’t just wake up like that. You know what I mean?
Rumpus: Right. I wonder where that pressure comes from.
Laymon: And how much of it is conventions of femininity or how much of it is regional. Yeah, because acting like it is natural is so cool. That’s the epitome of cool, right? That’s what cool actually is; I woke up like this. That’s the whole point: I want you to think I woke up like this, even though you know there’s no way. But also I think it’s something to be comfortable in those clothes. If you put nice clothes on me, I’m not going to look right. I think there’s something about just the comfort it takes to be adorned like that and look comfortable in that kind of outfit. Because all of us don’t have that.
Rumpus: That’s a good point. Speaking of that, I watched the book launch zoom for How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America that you did with your Aunt Sue. That was such a beautiful, beautiful moment to see the two of you together talking. I’m not personally a believer, but she made me believe.
Laymon: That’s what I really want to talk about because I’m not [a believer] either, in that traditional sense, but I believe in the practice. I believe that the practice can save people. Do you know what I mean? I think holy practices, and belief in something, can save people. The practices that sustained my grandmother were all rooted in sisterhood and the women in her community. I think that’s really important for me to remember.
Rumpus: Your aunt said, “We’re overcomers because of our testimonies. Your testimony is your life.” That’s so beautiful.
Laymon: Yeah, I believe that. I wouldn’t use that language, that we all witness. But to use my words, it means to write about it and to create art around what we witnessed. To use her words, it’d be to testify about what you witnessed. But to me, witnessing is about making art, talking, putting words together. It’s an attempt at art, at full assemblage to make meaning. So, I believe you got to testify, but what do we do with those things that we’re scared to talk about because we don’t want them to be true?
Rumpus: In “Quick Feet,” you write, “Grandmama and I love talking about words. She was better than anyone I’d ever known at bending, breaking, and building words that weren’t in the dictionary.” What were some of her words?
Laymon: There’s a tradition that she comes from, but also just the Bible. We don’t talk about the Bible a lot, but there’s just so many words and turns of phrase in that book. Like starnated fool. She’d say, “You acting like a starnated fool.” She also always talks about this phrase in the book, “You know, God gave you five senses for a reason. If you don’t use them, you the biggest fool in the world.” That one speaks to her warning personality. She’s always saying you got everything you need, if you just listen and you just accept. So, it’s almost a way of blaming yourself if it goes wrong.
Rumpus: I’ve seen my grandmother almost beat herself up about not knowing the future. Like it’s easier to tell yourself that you could have been prepared for something than to be upset about what’s happened.
Laymon: I think with that generation, and this could be reductive, but there’s a particular kind of toughness that the world required. And I’m not just saying that in a positive way. I think that toughness obviously led to people not being in tune with different emotional registers. But the thing about my grandmama, that’s so strange to me: she is no doubt the toughest person I have ever known, but the rituals that she created were tender rituals. Like when she had home mission and she had those women coming to the house and they would talk, they would try to be their own therapists, which is not healthy, but there weren’t many people welcoming working-class Black women into a therapist office back then. They didn’t have the money to go, anyway.
Sometimes it seems like the people who are most resilient have a hard time with the details, the finer points of love in life. One of the reasons I’m so indebted to her is because of her toughness and her tenderness. She modeled both.
Rumpus: You state in “Author’s Note #2”: “All the pieces in this book are differently shaped, paced, and greased with orange-red odes to my Grandmama and her generation of Black women in Mississippi.” Why is paying tribute to these women so important for you?
Laymon: Honestly, because they have never been given what they deserved from anyone other than themselves. I don’t want to emulate what this nation does to Black women of that generation. I want to serve and share with and build on the legacies of my grandmother and her generation of Black women.
Rumpus: So you started the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Program.
Laymon: Yeah, my grandmama didn’t finish school because she had my uncle so young and had to work. She worked at a chicken plant and as a domestic in white homes. She had to go back and get her GED, so reading and writing were always crucial to her. She couldn’t go to school, but all of her kids went and all of her kids became some kind of teacher. Even my Uncle Jimmy was a Sunday school teacher. I’m a teacher, my cousins, my aunt Linda, my mother.
Teachers are so overloaded that they can’t teach creative writing, so we created a mechanism where kids who are interested and their parents can take creative writing workshops taught by our current [University of Mississippi] students and have readings in the communities where these kids and their parents are. We would also invite the kids and their parents to come to the University of Mississippi because a lot of those kids have never been to the university, and a lot of our grad students haven’t been to different parts of the state. So, it was one way to connect people and encourage imagination and empathy through reading, writing, revising and sharing.
My grandmama, she never made no serious money ever, but she saved a lot, and she would give whatever she could, whether it was the kids from the trailer park next door or her own kids with graduate degrees who were in trouble. That’s what I’m saying in terms of responsible love. She gave us the best model of how to be and she never tried to hurt us.
Photograph of Kiese Laymon by Thomas Graning.