Profile: Kiese Laymon(1974-)

Kiese Laymon (born August 15, 1974) is an American writer, editor and a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of three full-length books: a novel, Long Division (2013), and two memoirs, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (2013) and Heavy (2018). Laymon’s work deals with American racism, feminism, family, masculinity, geography, Hip-hop and Southern black life.

Born and raised in Mississippi, Laymon earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Oberlin College, and his Master’s in Fine Arts at Indiana University. He also attended Jackson State University, where his mother worked as a political science professor, and Millsaps College, where he was suspended for a year after taking a library book without checking it out. His suspension followed ongoing criticism from the administration, including president George Harmon, who believed his controversial pieces on race in the school newspaper adversely affected campus and alumni relations. Laymon detailed his experience of racism at Millsaps, and as a coming-of-age black man in Mississippi, in his essay for Gawker, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” The essay was widely read and attracted both positive and negative comments on his portrayal of his racial experiences. “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others” was eventually included in his book of autobiographical essays by the same name.

 

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His 2018 memoir, Heavy, deals with his difficult relationship with his mother—who instilled in him a love of reading and discipline and skill in writing, but who was in an abusive relationship and lived on very little money, and who beat Laymon with the justification that he needed to be tough enough for a white world that would treat him even more harshly—as well as his subsequent unhealthy relationships with food and gambling. Heavy won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

While he was living and writing in upstate New York, as a professor at Vassar College, Laymon’s refusal to omit explicit aspects of Long Division that explore racial politics prolonged negotiations with a major publishing group. His books were eventually picked up by the independent publisher Agate Publishing, which released his debut novel in June 2013.

In addition to Laymon’s satirical time-travel novel Long Division, his book of autobiographical essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, was published by Agate in August 2013.

Laymon was an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College, before being recruited as a professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi.

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