Review: Kiese Laymon revisits 2013 essay collection

Author Kiese Laymon has revised his first collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America."
Author Kiese Laymon has revised his first collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America."

Credit: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Credit: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

In writing, the goal of revision is to improve earlier drafts of a work, sharpen arguments, refine scope, make the prose clear and lyrical.

Despite the fact revision means being ruthless and checking one’s ego, it might seem as though the only hurdle to clear is will. You open your laptop, pull up the file and get to work. In the case of Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” originally published in 2013 and reissued this month by Simon and Schuster/Scribner, revision hinged on ownership.

As he writes in the foreword to this latest edition, he knew what kind of book he wanted to write when he began the first version of this collection nearly a decade ago. As it was then, it is now a slim volume of ache and longing, of confession and secrets, of what it is to be a Black Generation X artist forged by the joy and love, horror and racism of his Mississippi homeland.

“I wanted to create a book with a self-reflective musty Mississippi blues ethos … I wanted readers to generate art in response to this text while working with the essays at being better lovers of those we profess to love. The hardest part, of course, is that I wanted to become a person, not just an author, worthy of forgiveness and risk from literary and literal friends,” Laymon writes.

He was a work in progress a decade ago, and he knew it. To his mind, so was the first iteration of the 147-page book. Even so, it was no less his testament. When published, the essays were arranged in a way, presumably by his then editor, that didn’t feel right to Laymon. His blues, remixed.

Four years ago, after the success of his first novel “Long Division,” and despite the acclaim given the first version of “How to Slowly Kill Yourself,” Laymon knew it was time to return to that collection and revise it, not just to his artistic liking and ambitions, but to his present intentions.

He bought back the rights to “How to Slowly Kill Yourself” at far more than what he was paid for the first manuscript, by his account. Then he set about writing a new foreword, adding six new essays, removing four old ones, keeping seven and revising their order. The new 159-page volume is still infused with “a self-reflective Mississippi blues ethos.” But is it better for it?

What is certain is that it reflects the current moment. And in so doing it also reflects the bitter past.

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster/Scribner
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster/Scribner

Credit: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Credit: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

When Laymon wrote the title essay — which first appeared in Gawker in 2012 — George Zimmerman was accused of killing Trayvon Martin. The piece is both a reflection on how gun violence and the threat of it are the silent, unearned companions of Black children, especially boys. Year by year as boys like Laymon grow into men, the companions get louder and more ominous until they show themselves. Laymon has seen the specters four times in his life. He survived. Martin did not. It is the litany of Black boys, girls, men and women felled by guns, from Martin to the present, that makes this essay sadly durable and resonant.

So too is the essay, “Our Kind of Ridiculous,” where Laymon recounts being profiled and stopped by police while his girlfriend is driving them back from the Lilith Fair in Hershey, Pennsylvania. To that infamous list that begins with driving while Black, Black people can now add birding while Black, using a laptop in a park while Black, staying at an Airbnb while Black. The possibilities are heartbreaking and exhausting and endless. “Our Kind of Ridiculous” reminds us of that.

An essay on Kanye West has been removed and, perhaps “replaced” is not the right word, but substituted with “Da Art of Storytellin' (A prequel),” an ode to the distinctly Southern genius of OutKast. This is an author deeply proud of the Black South, our ways of being, talking, creating. Laymon knows what “stank” is, both in its literal sense, as something rank and malodorous, but also as something fierce and bold, all elements Andre 3000 and Big Boi used in creating a groundbreaking sound. Kanye may not have proved durable, but OutKast spoke to and nurtured Laymon’s central Mississippi blues.

“Echo: Mycal, Darnell, Kiese, Kai and Marlon” — a series of letters between the author and four Black male friends, one gay, one formerly incarcerated, one trans, and one struggling to thrive — reappears in the new book. The piece, “Hey Mama: An Essay in Emails,” echoes that format. Laymon shares the stage with the woman who reared him. In their exchange, we see where his intellectual ambitions were forged. And we get a nod to Black progress. Laymon’s grandmother worked her entire career gutting chickens at a Mississippi slaughterhouse. His mother became a college professor. As documented in his 2018 memoir “Heavy,” which cemented his literary fame, Laymon’s relationship with his mother was not an easy one. But in “Hey Mama,” all the pride, all the yearning, and yes, all the love rises in those emails.

Other essays reference this current moment: the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump, the summer of protest borne of the police killing of George Floyd. And perhaps this is why this volume was reissued at this time. Laymon writes that it took courage for him to face himself, the truth of who he is, who he was. Necessary steps to get to the man he wants to be. The same can be said of the nation, he writes. It takes courage to face things down, call them out and then to act on them. It takes fearless revision.

NONFICTION

‘How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America’

by Kiese Laymon

Simon and Schuster/Scribner

159 pages, $16

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