If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.
—Kiese Laymon, Long Division
Some authors write along the questions, Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? Long Division is true. More than ever, it is necessary. But is it kind? Rarely are things in this complicated world that are true and necessary also kind. Long Division does not shrink away from this dichotomy—instead, it rises to meet the challenge. The bravery of writing a story without shrinking away from the violence, the ugliness, the disappointments, and the sorrow of it, while still running full-tilt towards unabashed, unashamed love is itself a revelation and a revolution.
Long Division is one of those rare novels whose opening hook is so engaging, so vibrant, so off-the-page-and-walking-next-to-you-alive, that it’s almost less like reading a book with characters than it is like being pulled into a story with some people you just met—that’s how wholly formed and fully realized the characters feel. Much of that is attributable to Laymon’s gift for capturing the natural, authentic flow of speech, and the ways in which dialect and location work together to become a character in its own right. Rather than having the calculated sense of I AM A DISTINCT VOICE, the unique nuances of each character’s speech—from City and LaVander to Baize and Shalaya—are distinctive, rich, complex, and resonant. They are voices that are glaringly absent from the books comprising “The Canon.” They are the voices that readers need to hear. They are the voices that remind us of many truths that are inconvenient to white MFA students. That, in itself, is an inconvenient truth. Which is why Long Division is necessary.
There’s a lot of that kind of messy truth in Long Division. Not all of it is comfortable to sit with—in fact, most of it isn’t, and that’s precisely the point. A lot of these truths, and the subsequent questions they raise, are difficult issues to deal with in our realities—issues of race, of class, of location, intersectionality, and the “queering” of bodies—despite the difficulty of these topics, the way that social critique works inside Long Division is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Through City (both of him), Laymon truly allows his readers to lay down their defenses and honestly listen. But most importantly, through each twist and turn of the narrative, Laymon asks the reader a very important question—one that they will hopefully carry back out into the “real world” and keep in the forefront of their minds: What does is truly mean to make social or political “progress,” and if we buy into the popular political narrative, that we as a country have made so much progress over the past century, then Why does it still hurt?
Long Division is adept at sidestepping a classification—while reading it, you’re going to move through a series of questions: Just what is this novel, anyway? Is it literary fiction? Is it sci-fi, or does it live in that nebulous realm of slipstream? Is it magical realism? What am I reading and how am I supposed to feel about it? As in life, so is it in art: the genre lines are blurry, because human beings are blurry, and no matter how desperately we try to squeeze each other into neat little boxes, the truth of the matter is our stories just won’t fit. Which is why the metanarrative, the “story-within-a-story” format, works to the advantage of the novel and its three distinct timelines (1964, 1985, and 2013). In the novel Long Division that we are reading, the protagonist of our novel, City, is reading a different novel, also called Long Division, about a different character, also named City. All three timelines are fictional, but due to our reader suspension of disbelief, we are working under the assumption that the 2013 timeline is “true” and the 1964/1985 timelines may or may not be true, depending on whether we believe that (our) City’s Long Division is a journal [true] account of time travel, or if we believe that the second Long Division is just a novel. Were it not for Laymon’s name on the cover of the book, the suspension of disbelief would be wholly intact, and the reader alone would be in charge of deciding who was the “real narrator” of the book—Laymon’s structure places a lot of faith in the reader, a decision that is risky but pays off through the unifying message of love that is woven into the tapestry of the narrative arc of each unique timeline and the places where the different world collide. You can easily work Long Division into the same discussion you’d have about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—and you should—because this story has earned a place beside these authors.
“LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” but thankfully—Kiese Laymon does not. What he does care about, though, is love. The love that these characters have and build for each other. The questions about how these characters want to be loved, whether they think they deserve to be loved, and most importantly: How can a community love each other in the face of a dominant culture that does not love them? How can a community hang onto each other and become stronger, instead of climbing down into the hole alone? Many readers will see accurate reflections of their world, and rejoice in finding themselves in the pages, celebrated on their own terms, and subject to the same pivotal moments that define the world of a novel. Other readers may be invited into a world that exists right next to their own—like a trapdoor in the forest—close to their world, but still removed. They will be asked to be quiet in this world, because through that trapdoor is what’s most important: listening. Really, truly listening, and for once, hearing what is being said, without just waiting for their turn to speak.
–Allie Marini Batts, Lunch Ticket Managing Editor
Kiese Laymon is the author of the novel, Long Division, and the essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was named one of the Best of 2013 by a number of publications, including Buzzfeed, The Believer, Salon, Guernica, Mosaic Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and the Crunk Feminist Collective. Laymon has written essays and stories for numerous publications including Esquire, ESPN.com, Colorlines, NPR, Gawker, Truthout.com, Longman’s Hip Hop Reader, The Best American Non-required Reading, Guernica, Mythium, and Politics and Culture. Laymon is currently a Professor of English at Vassar College. He proudly calls himself a black, southern writer, and unabashedly addresses racism and cultural issues in his work. His outspoken and honest approach to conversations about social justice evidence his leadership in the literary and activist communities.
Antioch alumni Daniel José Older and Jamie Moore spoke with Laymon about writing, language, cultural standards, and love in our communities.
Daniel José Older: One of the things that we love about Long Division is that it tells a great story while guiding us through so many layers of power, history, and pain. Complex in both theme and narrative structure, but City’s voice and honesty carry us along lovingly. How did you set out structuring the novel?
Kiese Laymon: Hmm. Man, real interview, huh?
DJO: Bwahaha. Sorry, brother.
KL: No, that’s great. That’s great. I feel like you kind of have to scrap three or four structures—or three or four or fourteen structures before you find one, and for me, the primary structure initially was—I wanted to think about this in terms of days—like, over how many days actually did the novel take place? And the first big draft, it was about seven days. And then structurally, that didn’t make too much sense because really, the meant of a lot of this stuff happened on a Sunday, and so then I just thought I needed only two, three, four days. And then, I was like, “I can have the equivalent of seven days if I break it up into three different time periods.” So I was kind of stuck on this idea of seven or eight days, somehow, some way. And I just ended up still having seven or eight days, but just in three different time periods instead of having it just consecutively one time period. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but that’s true.
DJO: Once you had that structure, did you find freedom within that structure? Did everything take off from that?
KL: Yeah. You know, that’s how I feel. I feel like once you find the structure, then you can kind of really play, and you can actually create the flow and resonance, you know? So that’s what I felt. But you know, this book is kind of tricky because for the longest, I didn’t—we didn’t know if it was going to be sold as two different books. I wanted it to be like, a book where if you read it like this, and then you could flip it and read the other one like this, but the publisher decided they wanted to do interspersed chapters, so that—when they made that decision, that dictated a lot of how the structure actually changed, because you know, you needed to be kind of thoughtful about how certain chapters ended and how other chapters began, because sometimes chapters would end and begin in different time periods. Yeah, so I don’t feel like I nailed the structure at all. But I’m working on this new thing, and I feel like I got it. I feel like I got it now.
DJO: Hmm. Would you do something different?
KL: If I could do it over again?
KL: Oh, yeah! Most definitely.
I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom?
DJO: Structurally, specifically?
KL: Yeah. Structurally, if I could do it over again, I—I mean, what I really want to try to do is I want to try to start that book in 1985. Yeah. Structurally, I would start it in 1985, and I think that the interspersed chapters—I mean, you know—I don’t think I would do it. Now I think that I’ve sold the book, I’d have a bigger say. I actually would try to like, yeah, do what I wanted to do with it. First of all, not have any author’s name on the book, start the book in 1985, have the flip book start in 2013 and have a middle section that was 1954. That’s what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have enough pull to pull it off.
JM: Yeah, definitely the way that the reader interacts with the text physically, too. I think that definitely would change the reader’s experience.
KL: Yeah. I mean,absolutely. I think there’s something to say about, you know—first book coming from a person of color being this kind of difficult—structurally difficult book. Which I keep hearing people say. And I think that’s important but, you know, I’m all about revision, and if I could do it over again, I’d definitely try to do something different. But the main thing I want to do, is I just really wanted my name nowhere on the book.
DJO: Why’s that?
KL: I think authorship is crucial, right? I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom? And I think when you see my name on the book, like, I understand why it might have to be there, but—you know, at the end of that book, I’m still interested in who’s writing Long Division? You know what I’m saying? Like, which City is writing Long Division? Is Baize writing Long Division? I just think the way to—I think the way you have to push it out to the market is just—you know, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. But that’s all good. We can’t always do what we want to do, but next time I’m gon’ do what I want to do.
DJO: I mean, for me, the structure, you could’ve done that, or you could’ve done the other way, and the book still would’ve sung to me, because at the core of it, what I took from it was: yes, an amazing story, yes, characters that I both loved and believed in deeply, but also that it spoke to what it means to be an artist of color on an emotional and intellectual level at the same time. And no essay I’ve ever read has done that, and no book I’ve ever read has done that the way that Long Division did. Because it’s fucked up out here, and Long Division—
KL: It’s fucked up out here.
DJO: It’s fucked up out here, and Long Division knew that. And so my question is like, did you go in—in your head, were you like, “It’s fucked up out here, and I’m gonna write a book about it”? Or were you like, “I’ma write a book.” And during the course of it, you’re like, “Damn, it’s fucked up out here.” Like—[Laughs]—you know what I mean?
KL: Yeah. You know, I wrote—I knew it was fucked up out here when I wrote, when I started it, and I wanted to see if I could propel a flat while kind of constantly talking about how fucked up it is—
KL:—and how beautiful it is out here because have a lot of—because we have to rely on one another and need like—
KL:—you know, sometimes intimate, sometimes terrible ways, and ultimately, you know, I just think—I think the people are trying to write us off the face of the Earth.
KL: And I just wanted to write a book that was unafraid of actually talking about being written off the face of the Earth—
KL:—so that’s what I tried to do.
DJO: You did it, brother.
KL: Thank you.
JM: I have a question about language, and I think this is a conversation, Daniel, that you and I have had before when I was preparing for this lecture about reclaiming voices for our MFA program. Whenever we have characters that are speaking any type of slang or any kind of urbanly-identifiable language, we are questioned about the authenticity of our characters. I know that you have ongoing conversations about the necessity of having your characters speak a certain way that reflects the region, so I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit.
KL: Yeah. I mean,—[Laughs]—I don’t want it to be a doom and gloom interview, but you know, this American literary enterprise—it doesn’t just attack our bodies—the major attack is on our language, and I think that is the fucking craziest attack, because like, we, black and brown folk, have like, broken and bended and breathed life into this bullshit-ass language that we were given, and then people see our language often, and they’re like—literarily they’re like, “No,” you know, “So-and-so’s not gon’ get it. Middle America’s not gon’ get it. Blah blah blah blah blah.” And the book literally is about how we navigate being present in our language and growing in our language. So the first sentence, “LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” I’m thinking about—that’s an important sentence to start the book. It’s important that another black boy is talking about how another black boy presents himself to white folk.
And at the end of that sentence, it’s, you know—he’s acknowledging—he knows he’s talking to a lot of different people, but he also knows white folk are listening, and even at fourteen he knows what he’s not supposed to say to white folk, so I just think—I’m trying to say like, we’re not like, all super rhetorically flexible, but I think we’re—I think most of us are kinda sorta like, rhetorically flexible by necessity. And I just wanted a book that was aware of that. But at the same time, I feel like Paul Beatty already wrote a book of like, some you know, super hyper-literate, fucking, “read everything in the world” kind of narrator. And I like that book. I love that book. But I didn’t want them to be like, super literate, you know? I wanted them to be literate, but not super literate.
DJO: Were there moments for you, when you were writing this book, that you just stopped in your tracks and had to take a moment, either literally, right then and there on the page, like, “Holy shit,” or like, you just had to step away from the process, either out of awe or frustration?
KL: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I feel like—you know, that’s a really good question. Nobody ever asked that question before. There were three moments, I think, that fucked me up for a few days. The first was when I realized what LaVander Peeler was gonna have to do at that—at that contest. That got me. That got me misty for a while and just kind of—kind of broke my heart in this way that was good, but ultimately I was just like, “Fuck.” And later on in the book, when City is leaving Baize in the hole, that got me. A lot. That—that really got me. ‘Cause you know when you write a novel, these characters are real, and—to you. And that—that broke me. And then the last scene, which I wish I could write over, but—you know, when they’ve gone through all of this, and you know, he’s looking at his hands, and he’s thinking about what he’s been through, and his grandmother’s going down the street—you know, I just see the image of him walking into these woods with his grandmother’s car slow-crawling down the road, and they’re literally about to get in this hole together because they don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go. And I feel like the book starts with this question of like, what is love, and how does love look between like, two black boys? And I think that answer at the end is a really fucking sad, sad, sad, also slightly hopeful scene for me. So when I wrote that scene, I was like—I knew I was done with this book. This book is—I just—I didn’t know what to feel about that last scene. And ultimately, I didn’t—I just hated that I felt like I was telling the truth.
And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.
DJO: Yeah. I think what makes that book so real in part is that it asks the question that it takes an entire book to answer.
DJO: You know?
JM: But I feel like when you reach that truth, it’s harder to put your work out into the world. You’re almost afraid to share those things about culture—about black love that aren’t necessarily talked about. How do you deal with that personally, I guess? How do you deal with the fear of that conversation out in the world? Because once it’s out there, you know, people will talk about it and take it out of context and do whatever. Do you have fear about that?
KL: Oh yeah. I have, like, immense fear. Especially in this hyper-mediated world, where people can look and see what everybody is saying about your book or your article or your short story—I was really afraid. But I mean, that book is really about community, you know? Like, I didn’t want that boy—I didn’t want City to be in the hole by himself, the way Invisible Man was, because I just think that that’s not us, and I don’t want that to be us. We all have to navigate that state of aloneness, but I just think community is essential. And so putting this book out there, telling the kinds of truths I think I’m telling, or exploring the kinds of truths I think I’m exploring, was made a little easier when you just think that there are other folks out there who are kinda sorta dealing with the same shit, or dealing with differently intricate or differently and fucked up shit, and you just trust that there’s a community of people out there who want to read. And want to write. You know?
You know, what you—yeah. And so you just trust. And I just think about love, right? At some point, you just gotta be like, “Here. Here’s my heart. You can do whatever you want to it.”
KL: I mean, at some point!
KL: And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.
DJO: Whew. Shifting gears, although I just want to stay right there for a second—[Laughs]. Okay. How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: it was a revelation in voice storytellling and truth-telling. It feels like an almost spontaneous purge because the flow is so on point and unflinching. But like with Long Division, there is so much rigor in its construction and meaning. Did you sit down knowing that you were going to write like, “Oh my fucking god! Rah!” And just vomit it? Or were you like, “Hmm, let me be strategic about this. Let me do this with construction.”
KL: I was just in a really bad place in my life, man. And I was just kind of writing to try and stay alive and not hurt people. And initially, I would write all of those pieces to my uncle—when he was alive, actually. I was writing it to him, but I didn’t—you know, I didn’t have the—like, I was talking about in the book. I didn’t love him enough to like, show him these essays. And then ultimately, I had written all the essays—I mean, the book was a lot bigger. I had written a lot more essays, but I had never written that story, the actual piece called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America—I had written that. And then one day, my editor was like, “Yo, there’s like, a gap between seventeen and twenty that you don’t really talk about.” And then I said, “Alright.” So I just told myself, “I’m just gon’ sit down and try to remember.” So when I initially published it, it was called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: A Remembrance, ’cause it was—I hate when people say it wasn’t writing (___), because it was literally just like, I was just trying to remember. But that was the last piece that I’d written in the book, and—I don’t know how to say it other than just like, I was just trying to keep myself—keep the valuable part of myself alive, man, and I just—the only way I could do it was through writing.
DJO: Mm. Mm.
KL: That just sounds mad, like—
DJO: No, that sounds real. Do you feel more at home writing fiction or non-fiction?
KL: Man, that’s a great question because—the best part of that question is “at home,” right? I feel most at home in fiction, but non-fiction is easier for me to do. In fiction, you know, I’m literally in a home. I can get—my job is to get lost in the home of these characters. My job is literally to be at home. You know what I’m saying? When I’m writing fiction. But non-fiction, because there’s an immediate audience, and you know, you’re dealing with a smaller unit of analysis, I feel like it’s easier, but I definitely feel more at home in fiction. But that shit is harder. I don’t care what nobody say—I mean, that shit is harder.
DJO: Wait, really? You find fiction harder?
KL: It’s harder for me, man, ’cause like—
DJO: That’s so interesting.
KL:—page 270 has to somehow reverberate with page 2. And you gotta let all kinda motherfuckers come through your brain, and you gotta try to like, let those people breathe and talk and fucking shit and do all that stuff—
KL:—in ways that people want to continue to read, and you can’t count on there being an audience. Like, this is the thing for me, right? With essay writing, it’s easier for me because—it’s easier for me to voice, because I can write to whom I know want to listen. I know there’s gonna be a group of people out there who’s gonna read the shit I write.
KL: So that audience propels what I’m doing. But with fiction, for me, it’s just harder. It’s just too many things to balance. I like it more, you know? I’m more at home. But it’s a lot harder. But for you, it’s easier, huh?
DJO: Man, when I tell you that I sit down to write a short story, and I’ll just be like, “[Rapid fire sound effect],”—I mean, I’ll stop and shit, but I just like—I see it, and I get excited, and I write it, and it’s smooth. When I sit down to write an essay, it’s like, “[Violent stomping sound effect]—[Groans].” I cannot do that shit!
KL: [Laughs] What about you, Jamie, what do you think?
JM: I feel like fiction is easier for me, too, as well. And that’s maybe, for me, because I’m allowed to not directly confront any emotions as my own and instead, I kind of put echoes of myself into other characters, and I’m allowed to let other people play out situations that I’m too afraid to confront.
I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?
DJO: That shit’s real.
KL: That makes sense.
DJO: I did want to ask if you have just a general—you know, like we’ve talked about. We all out here kind of trying to figure out our path, and the system is fucked up, and white supremacy is real in the publishing world and even saying that, you know, like, becomes a problem somehow for people. So fuck all that, but what are the conversations that we need to be having with each other that we’re not, and what are the—you know, what are the words that need to be spoken that aren’t being spoken amongst ourselves, not to white people?
KL: I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?
KL: And I think that’s a fucking—them’s three questions motherfuckers lifetimes avoiding.
KL: You know what I’m saying? How do you want to be loved? Like, how do you deserve to be loved, and do you have it in you? To love that way? And I think those questions go to the root of like, white supremacy, and they go to the root of like, black and brown love. I think they go to the root of—shit, everything that I value, but I just think we run away from that, man. And you know, I think we all run away from it, but men tend to run away from it in the most violent ways, I think.
DJO: That’s real.
KL: Or in differently violent ways. In ways that hurt people more, I think. But yeah, so—so that’s one of the questions. And I think another question I think we should be willing to ask each other—and this is real. This is real to think about writers. This is real about people who, you know, are janitors, who are administrators, who are teachers—I think the question has to be like, can somebody pay you enough to not love your people?
KL: You know what I’m saying?
KL: Can you get paid—’cause I think that’s what people trying to do. Can they like—and, and if the answer is yes, I think we need to be clear about: What’s your rate? You know what I’m saying? Like, what is your going rate? If motherfuckers can pay you enough to not love your people, how much is that? Is that eighteen dollars an hour? Is that a hundred thousand dollars? Like—ultimately, I think we need to get the point where the answer to that is no.
Daniel José Older is the author of the upcoming young adult novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015) and the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York, and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on Twitter.