Monday, June 2, 2014

PBR Book Club Talks Long Division With Kiese Laymon: "I wanted to write a book that hadn't been written, a book that filled the gaps of my favorite books."


"Ya'll are the perfect readers in a way for this shit."  --Kiese Laymon

I discovered Kiese Laymon's funny, moving, weird, meta, mind-bending novel Long Division via The Believer's list of Best Books of 2013 and promptly convinced several book club readers to tackle it as well, even though it wasn't this month's official selection. Hopefully the following interview will convince you to do the same.  Thanks to Kiese for interacting with us on Twitter while we read his book and agreeing to answer some questions about it.  Please check out his website Cold Drank and enjoy the interview.


PBR Book Club:  Long Division is a weird book, man!   But the oddness feels pretty organic. For instance, the time traveling seems like a great way to advance some particular views about history and our relationship to it. Can you talk a little bit about the view of time and history that you present in the novel?  Also, what the hell is up with that talking cat??

Kiese:  Thanks so much for reading that book. In short, the book adheres to this idea that black Americans have made it wherever we've made it because of folks willing to time-travel. It's also playing with the age-old idea of writing being a way of stopping time, speeding it up, slowing it down, all as a way of making sense of the noise, or the chaos, the terror. The cat's name is LaVander spelled backwards. I'm trying to give the reader clues that one of our narrators is grabbing bits of his "real" life to tell a "surreal" story. But real, it's the same shit, man. Who knows what's real in our world? Do you?

PBR Book Club:  There’s certainly a postmodern and “meta” tradition in African-American literature, and much of the methodology seems well-suited to writing about the African-American experience,  yet it seems that these terms are more often associated with contemporary novels from hip young white dudes these days.   Can you talk a little about the various techniques and theories at work in Long Division and why they’re well-suited to your purposes?

Kiese:  That's a great question. Man, besides shit like Borges and DFW and White Boy Shuffle, that book is wholly inspired by Southern Hip Hop, and particularly the group Outkast. Besides being the dopest group of my lifetime, they play so effectively with what we call meta and postmodernism. They write rhymes about writing rhymes. They talk about the ways black folk are the mules and martians of this nation. The book begins with a quote from Andre 3000 from Outkast, "Twice upon a time, there was a boy who died and lived happily ever after, but that's another chapter." So yeah, before I read any of what you call hip white boy meta shit, I was listening to rappers rap about rapping and I'm such a mark for that shit.

PBR Book Club:  Our librarian friend Bananasuit is a rap fan, and she’s been having a blast stumbling upon some embedded (but not always acknowledged) lyrics in Long Division.   Tell us a little about the decision to do this, and maybe also talk a little about the importance of music in the novel and/or as an influence on your writing.

Kiese:  Oh wow. Maybe my favorite question ever. Well, there's so much music in the book, and so much musicality, but I also wanted to embed a lot of the influences in the text, in ways that only folk really invested in hop hop would see, hear, read, get. There's so much shit in there, man. There's a good amount of Kendrick Lamar, too, because that's really what I was listening to when I was revising. And again, his GKMC album is also one of those meta productions that doesn't run away from real real consequences, and the real discursive consequences, of the nation failing young black characters in this country.

PBR Book Club:  PBR Book Club has been known to make mixtapes featuring tracks that appear in books we’ve read or perhaps just tracks that seem to correspond with a book’s tone or themes.   What are a couple of tunes that should absolutely make it onto our Long Division mix?

Kiese:  Oh man, my friend Regina Bradley made the perfect Long Division mixtape. A lot of the songs are actually listed in the book: "Monsters in the Night," KRIT's "Something,"  Mahalia Jackson's "How I Got Over," Outkast's "The Art of Storytelling (Dre's verse)," Outkast's "Hey Ya," Maxwell's "Pretty Wings," and a lot of my Aunt Sue's long meter hymns. Great question, man. Thank you. Oh, also Cassandra Wilson's version of "Time After Time."

PBR Book Club:  I laughed out loud numerous times while reading the book, often at individual sentences that were simultaneously really lyrical and ultra-slangy/raunchy. I like this one: “I felt on Toni’s bra in a dark closet in Art and she twerked on my sack a few times after school.”  Do you have an absolute favorite laugh line from the novel?

Kiese:  Man, my favorite line is so boring. "That felt like love to me" is still my favorite line in the book. But as far as a series of sentences, I like when '85 city is in 2013 and he's talking about his queer friend Rozier. The 10 or 11 sentences he uses to describe that dude and his use of language make me the happiest, I think. I also like the first line a lot. "LaVander Peeler cares to much what what folks think about him." It lets you know, if you're listening, that you're about to read a story about the consequences of centering whiteness in our lives.

PBR Book Club:  I feel like there’s probably a lot of literary echoes in the book that I’m missing, and others that I’m maybe projecting onto it.  For instance, near the end, when Lavander Peeler pops back into the novel and Pot Belly is tied up in the shed, I was suddenly reminded of Tom Sawyer’s reappearance at the end of Huck Finn and the boys’ plan to free Jim.  Is this an intentional parallel?  And can you talk about a few others.

Kiese:  Oh my god! Dude! Dude! Ya'll are the perfect readers in a way for this shit. There was an overkill line where LaVander says that it reminds him of the end of Huck Finn, but I thankfully took that line out. So much of that book is bouncing around a number of novels. Jesmyn Ward alludes to a hole in the ground in her work. I'm playing with that. I'm, of course, vibing with Invisible Man and Bluest Eye a lot in that book. There's this book Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha that I'm messing around with too. Thematically, I wouldn't have a book without The White Boy Shuffle, Beloved and the Fire Next Time. But ultimately, I wanted to write a book that hadn't been written, a book that filled the gaps of my favorite books.

PBR Book Club:  As a former southerner myself (I grew up in Arkansas), I have to include at least one question about the South.  I’ve noticed that some writers distance themselves from the “Southern writer” label, but you seem to have absolutely embraced the designation, saying that you “write to and from a group of people that a lot of other American writers neglect.”  Despite the long tradition of great Southern literature, why do you think the region and its readers still get neglected?

Kiese:  I don't even know how to answer that other than to say northerners are kind of wack and small minded sometimes. They dance to our music, speak the language we broke, bended, and snared and then don't wanna give our region any credit because we're kinda terrible sometimes. But I am what I am, you know? I know that more southern kids will embrace the word and make that shit do some crazy shit if more of us stop running away from what made us. I don't know, man. I like words and I love stories but I have zero reverence from New York or anything Northeastern. Nothing. I'm not hating, but I just think I'm from the richest story-sharing place on earth. I'm responsible to that place and it's responsible for me.

PBR Book Club:  Long Division, for me, is a book that left me saying:  “I’ll read whatever this guy does next.”  So what’s next in terms of your fiction?  And do you see yourself as continuing to balance fiction and non-fiction publication in your career.

Kiese:  Aw man, I'm working this absolutely frightening novel called , "And So On" and a book called "309: A Fat Black Memoir." I'm just working and reading and trying to be an honest, compassionate, and effective person. That's pretty much all I got for now. Thank you so much for giving those characters and those places any of your time.


 

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