DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Writer Kiese Laymon has had the kind of year every first-time author dreams of. He's had two books published to critical acclaim - not that any of that came easily. The young African-American writer's most recent book, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America," was released today, and that title gives us a little hint of how tough the road was. A collection of essays, it touches on themes of families, race, violence and coming-of-age in Mississippi. Let's hear more about Kiese Laymon from NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: This is a story with a happy ending that had a grim beginning. At one point in his life, Kiese Laymon went through a bad patch that had him essentially expelled from college. He had to move back home with his mother, and they were fighting. In an essay called "The Worst of White Folks," he recalls finally getting why they were at loggerheads.
KIESE LAYMON: (Reading) Really, we're fighting because she raised me to never, ever forget I was born on parole, which means no black hoodies in wrong neighborhoods, no jogging at night, hands in plain sight at all time in public, no intimate relationships with white women, never driving over the speed limit or doing those rolling stops at stop signs, always speaking the King's English in the presence of white folks, never being outperformed in school or in public by white students, and most importantly, always remembering that no matter what, the worst of white folks will do anything to get you.
BATES: Looking back on it, Laymon says the insistence on perfection in grades and behavior and everything else was a kind of armor. He said the worst of white folks don't come with hoods or ropes or shaved heads, as he'd initially believed. They come with a conviction that their privilege as white people is immutable, and he finally comprehended his mother's worry.
LAYMON: This is what I understand now: Everything my mother did - and I'm still critical of some of it - was an attempt to not just keep me safe, but to make me survive.
BATES: But as time went on, he began to question his mother's basic thesis.
LAYMON: As I got older, I think I started to understand that there's something really troubling and problematic about centering whiteness as your center of excellence.
BATES: For one thing, he reasoned, what if all white people aren't excellent?
LAYMON: If you're telling me I need to be better than white people, and I'm surrounded by mediocre white people, I'm only going to be a little bit better than mediocre.
BATES: So he decided to raise the bar. When Kiese Laymon was still pretty young, he read the classic canon that his mother insisted he read, "Treasure Island," "Silas Marner," "A Tale of Two Cities." Then, on his own, he devoured work by black authors: Malcolm X's autobiography, "Native Son," Margaret Walker Alexander's biography of "Native Son's" author, Richard Wright. His mother shouldn't have been surprised. Laymon grew up on the campus of historically black Jackson State University. His parents had him while they were still undergrads.
LAYMON: So I was raised pretty much on the same campus where I was, if not born, at least conceived.
BATES: To avoid having, as he says, everybody in his business, Laymon went to another nearby school, Millsaps College. He says basically, he was kicked out in an argument with the administration over race. Eventually, he earned a B.A. from Oberlin, and an MFA from Indiana University; and for the past 10 years, he's taught English and Africana studies at Vassar.
Laymon's novel, "Long Division," was released in June after a year's-long tug-of-war with his former publisher. Kirkus Reviews called it hilarious, moving and occasionally dizzying; and says it incorporates themes of prejudice, confusion and love rooted in an emphatically post-Katrina world. It was a world that almost didn't make it into print. As sometimes happens, Laymon says his previous publisher wanted one thing when she bought the book; then, something changed.
LAYMON: One of the things that my editor came back to me and said is that, you know, the racial - we want the racial - the racial politics in this is too explicit. And another thing she said is, like, I'm not sure what you're doing with Katrina, but I think it doesn't need to be in the book.
BATES: He believes his editor wanted a book, but not his book. So Kiese Laymon took a deep breath and walked. He admits that was a luxury.
LAYMON: And I think that, you know, had I had children, had I been married, had I not had a job, I would have had to change everything that the editor said.
BATES: Instead, a small press called Agate published "Long Division" in June, and released "How to Kill Yourself" today. It proves, says Laymon, that the literary world's gatekeepers can change if they want to. And he's hoping his own experience is an object lesson in why publishing should welcome different voices to the table when they come with good stories.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
GREENE: Karen covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team.
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