AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The typical summer reading list is escapist. But given that there's been so much interest in books that embrace some of the most troubled parts of American history, we wanted to offer you some suggestions that don't shy away from those things. And our guide - Kiese Layman. His 2013 novel, "Long Division," was a satire set in post-Hurricane Katrina Mississippi about teenagers, time travel and, yes, race. It's been revised and reissued. And we asked him here to talk about that process and the books and authors he wants us to discover. Kiese Layman is here with us now. Welcome to the program.
KIESE LAYMON: Thank you so much for having me, Audie. I am so happy to be here with you.
CORNISH: So we brought you here to talk about books that sort of have to do with social justice, which I feel like is fraught (laughter) in this last year in what I call...
CORNISH: ...The Great Awokening (ph). Trademark...
CORNISH: ...That. But it means there are a lot of books that could sort of fit under this label. How do you think about it?
LAYMON: I think that last year, the nation was obsessed with how-to books and sort of, like, instructive books. You know, I think a lot of the nation, lots of white people specifically, were like, I should have learned this in school. Can you teach me? I understand why instructive books were so popular. But as a writer, you know, I'm more interested in incisive and innovative books. And so I think some of the most incisive, innovative books have come out since June last year. And I'm just excited to talk about some of them.
CORNISH: You've brought us a really interesting mix. And I want to start with one which is actually a memoir. It's by Marlon Peterson, and it's called "Bird Uncaged." What is it about this that struck you? And why does a memoir work for a sort of social justice conversation?
LAYMON: Yeah. "Bird Uncaged" is a special book to me. I was an editor at Gawker maybe seven years ago, and I published this essay by this young writer named Marlon Peterson about his time inside a prison and his relationships with the young people from his community who he met through letters. Seven years later, Marlon has turned this essay into a book that explores, among other things, like, his experience coming here as a kid of a Trinidadian immigrant. And, you know, he really throws the traditional carcerality narrative on its head.
And the thing that I really love about this book, and all the other books I'm going to talk about today, are that the sentences are so beautiful. You know, last year, we kept talking a lot about, like, what folks of color deserve, what Black folks deserve. And I think sometimes we don't necessarily, like, state that Black people deserve, among other things, like, beautiful sentences and innovative art.
And Marlon Peterson uses beautiful sentences to explore something that, on the surface, is not so beautiful. But I think what he shows us is that the interior - and if we use our interiors to, like, really kind of etch around what we see and explore and have been told is inevitable, we can find something not just, like, socially just, but something socially revelatory.
CORNISH: I want to talk about a novel that you've brought to this list as well. This is by Robert Jones Jr., and it's called "The Prophets." And this is a book that does touch on slavery, right? It's sort of rooted in that history. How are you thinking about adding a book like this to this list? Because I know I'm one of those people that - I get fatigued from trauma.
LAYMON: Right, right.
CORNISH: You know what I mean?
LAYMON: Right, right.
CORNISH: I get exhausted from it. And sometimes, that's not what I want to pick up for, like, my summer reading.
LAYMON: No doubt. And I think if we're going to be honest, like, not only do some of us get fatigued by trauma, I think some of us also get fatigued by watching people unsuccessfully, like, deal with the trauma. But what Robert Jones is doing here is he is setting us in Mississippi, and we are in the loving relationship between Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved queer Black man. The book does not slowly walk you into your relationship. Robert Jones places us in the throes of their love, of their desire, of their fear from Chapter 1.
But he also does this thing where he challenges us to understand our origin narratives in this world are Black and queer. I'm not going to try to convince you. I'm going to accept that. And I want you to accept that. And in accepting that, like, our origin narratives are and our gods are and our understandings of catastrophe are necessarily not just Black, but also queer, he's saying that, like, our revolutions, our consequences, are going to be different if we understand that.
CORNISH: What it doesn't sound like is homework, which I appreciate.
CORNISH: Because sometimes...
CORNISH: ...These lists feel like homework. You should read X because it is good...
CORNISH: ...For you. And it makes work around progressive issues sound like vegetables.
LAYMON: Absolutely. All of these books, if you give yourself an opportunity, will make you feel good about the work that we have to do, which can sound oxymoronic, but I think that's what these books do. We want to feel like we're being taken care of artistically, and I think these books do that.
CORNISH: One last selection you brought for us is actually a book of short stories, and it's called "The Secret Life (ph) Of Church Ladies."
CORNISH: I wasn't familiar with this author, Deesha Philyaw. What can you tell us about her?
LAYMON: Deesha Philyaw - I read this book maybe over a year ago on my computer as a draft. And I literally said out loud that whatever we call the new American short story, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it. Deesha writes through these Black women's lives and their relationships to food and desire and church and secrets and secrets and secrets.
CORNISH: And all of this over a collection of - what? - nine stories that are interconnected...
LAYMON: Over nine stories.
CORNISH: ...But are essentially short stories.
LAYMON: Absolutely. It's a short story collection that, again, reads like an evocative novel. And one feels, when they leave this book, as if they have been immersed in the lives, the secrets, the church and most importantly, the sort of intimacy that Deesha Philyaw, like, writes so beautifully.
CORNISH: Your book, "Long Division," as we said, is being reissued with some revisions, I understand.
LAYMON: Yes, indeed.
CORNISH: Are these revisions that were happening in the last year or - I'm wondering how both the pandemic and the racial reckoning and all...
CORNISH: ...These things have affected your creativity.
LAYMON: What I think the pandemic and the awakening have done is they made me reconsider what narrative responsibility looks like from an author. So for instance, in "Long Division," I had characters saying pejorative words that I don't say. They were spelled out. And I don't know that the book did a good job of critiquing, like, the characters' investments in, like, anti-Blackness or anti-Semitism or misogyny. Like, the characters were there, and I was trying to make the book critique that. But in revision, I made sure that the characters are still lush, flawed kids who are, you know, all of those isms that we talk about, but the book is more aware of it.
CORNISH: That's fascinating because there are a lot of creatives out there who kind of rebuff or are defensive of the idea that they need to do that kind of thinking about their work, right? And it's interesting to hear you say that because your book is from 2013. You could argue, hey, this is the time capsule, this is the story that it was back then. That's the context for it. It doesn't need to change.
LAYMON: Absolutely. You know, I understand when artists say that. But, you know, I have the responsibility to evolve as I want my readers and my characters to. And if I can go back into a text and not just make it better, make it more breathable, but also make it more ethical, I would be a fool not to do that. I don't think that we can ask our students to buy into revision if we don't buy into revision as published authors. It just doesn't make sense to me.
CORNISH: Kiese Laymon, there is so much to talk to you about.
CORNISH: This was such a good conversation. Thank you so much for sharing this list and also sharing your thoughts on your own writing. It was really, really amazing.
LAYMON: Thank you so much, Audie, for making space for us and for all the incredible work that you do. I appreciate this.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKIE WILSON SONG, "(YOUR LOVE KEEPS LIFTING ME) HIGHER AND HIGHER")
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