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An Interview with Distinguished Visiting Professor Kiese Laymon
This year, acclaimed writer Kiese Laymon joined the NWP as the program’s annual Bedell Distinguished Visiting Professor. Hailed as “a sharply original and supremely powerful voice, an angry yet oddly poetic voice,” Laymon speaks to the precariousness of black life, and the complexities of race, sexuality, and gender, in a country still haunted by violence. We sat down with him to talk about his thoughts on art, politics, the internet, and why he believes the essay will never go away.
This semester you’re teaching a class called “Autobio-graphical Narrative Writing in the Age of Obama, Trump, the Internet, the 24-Hour News Cycle, and You.” Can you tell us more about it?
I wanted to teach a class about the way presidential power can inflict our writing, or maybe should. In the past, I had students who had a lot of political opinions but they weren’t sure how to fit those political opinions seamlessly, artfully, into the work they were doing. We’re workshopping 800-1000 word pieces and they have to let us know before workshop where they want to place the piece. It’s about getting students to think about the politics of audience, and the role that capital-P politics plays in their art. Sometimes we dissuade people from writing through politics because it’s easy to write clunkily through politics.
In the first few weeks, we talked about this distinction between what some critics call the whisper and a proclamation. I went into the class with the assumption that a lot of these writers were really good at the whisper, writing essays about the mundane or their family’s history, but not tying that mundane to larger political proclamations. We believe that artfulness and proclamations run counter to each other, but last week the students were just proclaiming huge things. The wonder of a proclamation is that if it’s big enough and bold enough, people are going to push back. That’s the wonder of a proclamation, and that’s the usefulness of it. When the students started telling the rest of the class emphatically what they thought or believed about these big things, the proclamations just started gushing out. And then the person who makes a proclamation of the beginning of class will by the end of class come back with something completely antithetical to what they said, but that’s the point--you want to revise big thoughts and see how we can craft them into specific, sharp, big thoughts.
It definitely goes against the old “show don’t tell” maxim.
You tell a lot by what you refuse to show, and you show a lot about what you definitely refuse to tell.
You were talking before about the politics of audience, and we know you’ve written a lot for the internet. Can you say something about the incredibly large topic of the Essay and the Internet?
I think the internet thankfully destroyed lots of suppositions about the essay. Black women and black people, specifically, have not just taken to the internet but taken to the essay in ways you could not do before. For me personally, I have little to no desire to write to what people would call a “heteronormative white male gaze,” but before the internet, I had to. After the internet, different kinds of people could show their appreciation for my essays in the form of likes or retweets or clicks. Then multinational corporations, in the form of publishing companies, now come to me and say “we want to publish you.” And they want to publish me not just because they see the art is good but because they see there's an audience for it. Before that, you didn’t write an essay for whatever magazine with the thought that tons of black folks, tons of queer folks, were going to be engaging with it. I know essayists now who write directly to that very rich audience of folk. That has expanded the essay, it has expanded the audience for the essays, and ultimately it's made the art more elastic. There’s lots of critique of internet writing, but there’s no doubt it’s broadened who writes and who reads. Some of what I try to do is just push back against my students’ desire to see internet writing as less than. The wonderful thing about the internet is that you can find an audience, you can find a reader. And as a reader, you can find a writer. It was a lot harder when there was a lot less places to distribute, now you can distribute on your own. Every now and then, I read great essays on Facebook, on Twitter, or on some blog.
Thinking about the Facebook essay, or how the digital might give rise to new forms—where do you think the essay is going?
The wonderful thing is I have no clue where the essay is going. That’s what I think is so corny is when people talk about the death of the essay. Yes, there were a lot of websites that were committed to personal essays that have gone under. It’s like hip hop, people are always talking about the death of hip hop, but if you can write a personal essay about the death of the essay then something tells me that the personal essay might not be going away. Why? Because people will always have an interest in exploring, if you write that exploration with care and soulfulness and love. If readers can not just learn something new but feel and see something new. But I do think because we are inundated with more and more personal essays, if you want to be interesting you have to make formal changes.
The thing about the essay is that, for better or maybe worse, it's so attached to other specific cultural productions on the Internet. There's always going to be a need for personal essays because we as humans are going to continue to consume cultural product on the internet—and literally cultural product means that stupid stuff Donald Trump is saying, whoever becomes the Democratic candidate, whatever weird ass car comes out next week, whatever joke, whatever movie. There’s always going to be personal essays that respond to these things unless we stop being enamored with stupid stuff. But what would ever make that happen? I don’t know where the essay is going because I can’t imagine the next thing that people are going to care about, but I know that thing is going to have all these personal essays wrapped around it. If you could put stock in it, I would buy into the personal essay.
Tell us about your new books coming out.
The first book is a memoir called Heavy. I started writing it awhile ago, and when I finished that version it was a book about my family and their relationship to food, weight, and sexual violence. But in revising it, I thought it was in some ways too clean. It was my mother and grandmother primarily talking to me about their relationships, and I didn’t talk back much. I thought about the dishonesty in that, so the version the world is going to see is my writing back to them about the language I often use to evade my relationships to sexual violence, food, weight, different kinds of trauma. And also different kinds of cultural celebration. It’s written to my mother, and it’s just a tough book. I hope it’s the hardest thing I’ll ever write. My other book, And so on, is an Afrosurrealist exploration of these five black folks who change the world.