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Writer Kiese Laymon receives a MacArthur Fellowship

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are honors and awards, and then there are the MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, the Genius Grants - no strings attached, big cash prize, $800,000 to pursue research or change careers or, really, do whatever you like. Writer Kiese Laymon is one of this year's 25 winners. The foundation said Laymon is, quote, "bearing witness to the myriad forms of violence that mark the Black experience in formally inventive fiction and nonfiction." Kiese Laymon, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and congratulations.

KIESE LAYMON: Oh, thank you so much. I'm happy to be here with y'all.

KELLY: That description I just read to you - they're trying to encapsulate your life's work so far in that phrase. Does that feel right? Did they capture it? Did you know that's what you were doing?

LAYMON: Well, I think they captured what they see in the work. And, you know, as an author, you have to be thankful any time people see anything in the work. I mean, I think I'm grappling with a lot more than violence. I think I'm definitely grappling with joy. I'm grappling with, like, you know, the paradoxes of intimacy.

KELLY: Aren't we all?

LAYMON: Yeah, I think so. And, you know, most of my work is about Black Southerners and definitely Mississippi. And so I like the part of the description that talks about form and inventive forms because I'm definitely trying to use different forms in what I do. But, you know, I appreciate that they saw that in my work. You know, if I look at my own work, I see that, and I maybe see a few other things.

KELLY: You tweeted right after this was announced, my impulse when I get anything is to hate on the folks who made that getting hard while pinpointing the folks who deserve the get more than me. And then you went on, and you wrote, not today. Why not?

LAYMON: Oh, I'm just sort of tired of undermining myself. You know, the world is hard enough for everybody. The world is out to sabotage enough of us often. I just didn't think I needed to partake in any more self-sabotage, which is something I often do. If I win anything, I'm always - you know, my thing is to be like, I don't deserve it. Somebody else deserves it more. And then my thing is to be like, let me talk about all the people who made it so hard for me. And I get why that is some my impulse and some other people's impulse. But I think that also, like, stops you from feeling the joy and, like, you know, revisiting the wonder of how you got there.

KELLY: You also wrote, I'm here because Mississippi loved me. What's that mean?

LAYMON: Yeah. You know, I think, you know, it's important, especially now and all the time, actually, but especially now with Mississippi being in the news for, you know, what Tate Reeves, the governor, is doing, what Brett Favre, former quarterback, is doing, you know, the water in my city, Jackson. I just think it's important to let people know that the Mississippi that they talk about sometimes, like, on the news or Twitter or just in casual conversations isn't the Mississippi that a lot of us who live in Mississippi experience. It's part of it. But I experience, like, you know, complicated love from a grandmother and an auntie and a mama and a community. And those people were Mississippi, and those people are Mississippi to me just as much as all of that other terrible stuff is Mississippi.

So, you know, Mississippi loved me. And the traditional Mississippi writers definitely loved me. And that's - there are a lot of - there are few reasons why I think I might have won that award, but hadn't I been loved by Mississippi, I mean, I wouldn't be on the phone with you today. That's for sure.

KELLY: You have talked about your work and said, I want people to create art in response to my art.

LAYMON: Yeah.

KELLY: And then I want people to create art in response to those people's art...

LAYMON: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Which prompts the question, whose art are you responding to?

LAYMON: Whoa, that's a beautiful question. Particularly in this new book I'm writing called "Good God," I'm trying to write back to Jesmyn Ward, who to me is, like, the greatest fiction writer that we have, living fiction writer. And, you know, Jesmyn does so much with what people call spirit and what people call hauntings. So literally today, when I do my writing practice, I'm going to be - continue to write back to her. I think in "How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others," I was writing back to Baldwin. You know, I was trying to write to Morrison in "Heavy," definitely writing back to Richard Wright.

And then I just write - I write back to a lot of people who don't write books. You know, I write back to - my grandmother didn't - you know, she's never written a book in her life. I write to her often. I write back to my mom. But artfully, I'm using a lot of Southern writers, Mississippi writers particularly. And, you know, when you write back to somebody - I write back to Faulkner. You know what I mean? Like, and I - you know, I contest a lot of what Faulkner does, but I think that is the mark of love, right? Like, that's what Baldwin told us - to get in there and sometimes messily, like, take apart the art that influences you so you can find yourself.

KELLY: Eight hundred thousand bucks - that's enough money to change a person's life.

LAYMON: Yeah, well, nobody said it - nobody said that to me.

KELLY: I'm just going to say it.

LAYMON: Nobody said the number out loud. Oh, God.

KELLY: Eight hundred thousand bucks. Sit with that for a second.

LAYMON: Whoa. Whoa.

KELLY: Any thoughts on what you might do?

LAYMON: Well, I want to be OK not knowing what I'm going to do for the first year. And I learned that from a few people who've gotten MacArthurs who've, you know, been nice enough to tell us how not to go nuts. But I want to fix my body and my head. I'm sort of addicted to work, and I sort of neglect the part of work that is sort of most essential, which is your body and, ironically, your head. So I want to find space. I don't know where it is. I want to find time to ask myself, what makes my feet, my hips, my neck feel better? And I think that'll help my head feel better. And I want to, like, you know, convince myself that I am worthy of that. And that takes a lot of work for some people.

I also know that a lot of that - or some of that money is going to the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food and Justice Initiative. Catherine Coleman's my grandmother. I started this initiative based on Revision, a workshop in Mississippi a few years ago. This - a few weeks ago we just moved the Catherine Coleman Initiative to the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University. So I know some of my money is going to go to that. I have a family of a very happy and happy to spend my money mamas and aunties and grandmamas and cousins. So I'm going to try to do some things for them to make them happy. And so I'm not really sure what I'm going to do, but I keep convincing myself that I'm going to use this money to make my body and my head happier. I just don't know what that looks like, honestly, yet.

KELLY: Yeah. One thing that jumps out every time I ask you about, you know, what matters to you or who you're talking to, you talk about women - your mama, your aunties, your grandma. It sounds like a lot of the people that you were talking to who are in your head as you write and figure out the next step - it's women.

LAYMON: Absolutely. I mean, I'm not under any illusion of who got me here. You know, it is Black women in Mississippi. And so when I think and talk about how I'm here, I have to talk about the women who made it possible. And I also just think, as cis men, you know, we also need to talk and think a lot more about fem and about the feminine inside of us, inside the women and men and genderqueer people in our lives. And especially as a Black boy coming from Mississippi, you know, you can't do that thing where you feel like, you know, you made yourself out of red clay, and I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. No. You know, Black women made me.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, Kiese Laymon, we wish you luck with all this. It has been a pleasure. Congratulations again.

LAYMON: This was so kind and wonderful and probing. I thank you for this conversation. Thank you so much.

KELLY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "GROOVE HOLMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.