Call and Response in ‘How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America’

In the author’s note at the beginning of the expanded collection of essays, How to Kill Yourself and Others in America, (previously released under a different publisher) Kiese Laymon says he “wanted a book that could be read, and really heard, front to back, back to front, in one sitting.” I’m here to tell you that while you might successfully read every page in one sitting (and you’ll want to), it will take days to fully absorb their richness. When you read Laymon’s writing, you are engaging in a conversation that takes place both on and off the page. This is a book you will find yourself revisiting and discussing, with yourself and others, over and over.

The first essay, which is new to the collection, “Mississippi: An Awakening in Days,” records fourteen days starting in early March and spanning the summer of this tempestuous year. Each entry opens with the national COVID-19 death toll for that day — a grim marker without the need for date stamps. Following a work dinner Laymon attends at the start of the pandemic, he reflects, “I’m scared. I’m tired. … I don’t want to be treated like a Black person by white people while trying to dodge coronavirus.” On Day 9 Laymon is confused about the number of white people contacting him, “Half are asking if I’m okay. Half are telling me they are ready to learn.” The mounting anxiety and frustration captured in the progression of the days, the growing death toll, political strife, and additional worries and risks Laymon faces as a Black man speak to the historical significance of this year, but they are the result of a much longer story he is telling.

Laymon approaches issues of race with a wide lens, encompassing both personal and social aspects, revealing that they are irreversibly intertwined — what happens socially shapes our personal lives, and vice versa. His narrative is unapologetic and fierce but never without a distinct lyricism and intentionality, even tenderness. Even as he discusses his own history of depression and suicidal thoughts, there is no disclaimer of separation between the person he was then and who he is now. He comes alongside his past-self gently, guiding us to consider with him the many elements that led to those moments. Laymon artfully leaves room for you to respond within the narrative, not just at the end, creating a reflective atmosphere of discussion, of echo, as he puts it, in every line.

The influence of love — familial, romantic, fraternal, and particularly self-love — appears even in the most heated and despairing moments of the essays. Laymon probes the relationship with the self, often arriving at the conclusion that the absence of love leads to physical, emotional, and mental violence both suffered and inflicted on others – often in the form of racial and gender violence.

Black male feminism resounds throughout this collection. He steps outside of himself often to imagine the struggles of Black women with disarming candor and characteristic tenderness. The way he talks about his grandmother in “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” shows his adoration for her, but goes beyond mere soliloquizing; he condemns the injustice of the system she was forced to live under. After he and his college girlfriend have a violent encounter with a fraternity in the title story, he admits in hindsight to failing to “[reckon] with what she experienced as the only Black woman in a quad of drunk white men and one obsessed Black man.” He avoids sweeping conclusions about the experience of Black women while inviting a shift in perspective – and leaving room for response.

In “Hey Mama: An Essay in Emails,” Laymon talks with his mother in a candid email exchange possessing all of the intangible familiarity and soreness of interactions between adult children and their parents. Toward the end of their conversation, he asks her, “Would you whip me as much as you did if you could do it over again?” This is the type of question most of us would avoid asking our parents, and yet it sparks his mother’s heartbreaking admission, “Loving you is not hard. I wish I showed you that more,” which feels like both a punishment and reward for his persistence.

Similar to love and relationships, collaboration and revision are recurring themes in Laymon’s essays. In an interview he gave on the The Stacks podcast back in July, Laymon says “I just truly believe that this whole living/writing process…[is] collaborative. …I love the editorial process.” In the essay “You Are the Second Person,” we see Laymon’s dedication to this idea can sometimes mean breaking off unhealthy relationships. A writer struggles to bend to his editor’s demands, ultimately to the detriment of the writing and his health. The essay ends with a sort of break-up letter, declaring a new direction and vision for his writing. The story is remarkably similar to how Laymon broke away from his first publisher, eventually buying back his first two books to publish them “the way they wanted to be published.” Though painful and costly, the process of revising and republishing his work is what Laymon describes as “the most loving [act] I could do for my work, my body, and my Mississippi.”

The final essay uses the form of letter writing, like other essays in the book, but with the distinct absence of a reply. “[One] of the responsibilities of American writers is to broaden the confines, sensibilities, and generative capacity of American literature by broadening the audience to whom we write, and hoping that broadened audience writes back with brutal imagination, magic, and brilliance. Echo.”

And so, the discussion goes on, with Laymon inviting us to lean into the messiness of collaboration, to embrace the potential of revision with one another as well as ourselves — to keep the conversation going.

NONFICTION
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
By Kiese Laymon
Scribner
November 10, 2020