Kiese Laymon’s debut novel, Long Division, is about 14-year-old City Coldson, an outspoken, slightly chubby, black boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother. Readers will love his frank, hilarious take on life in Mississippi in 2013, 1985, and 1964. City is like the child who cries out that the emperor has no clothes, as he witnesses racism enacted over time. Writing with intelligence, grace, and humor, Laymon delivers a powerhouse of a novel that leaves readers alternately rolling with laughter and stunned with realization, often within the course of one sentence. Laymon has taught English and Africana studies at Vassar College for ten years. He can also be found at his blog, Cold Drank.
The literary structure of Long Division is so daring! You begin with 14-year-old City Coldson living in 2013. He starts reading a book called Long Division, which features a narrator also called City Coldson, but is set in 1985. That City travels in time to 1964. Can you tell us how you developed this brilliant book-within-a-book (plus time travel) artifice?
No one [has] ever asks how I developed it. Well, I knew I wanted a book within a book. The question was how much of the embedded book would I show, which initially meant how much would I write. In order to really understand what City was reading/writing, I needed to write the entire thing. Then I cut a bit out to make the whole narrative a bit more inviting.
In a Q&A section at the end of Long Division, you say that the most difficult part about writing the book was “…finding the right way to distinguish the 1985 City from the 2013 City.” You achieve this so well. How did you research the slang and cultural references that make each version of City authentic?
I went back and listened to a lot of my old records and tapes and read a lot of books published in the mid-80’s. Holding the tapes and albums actually triggered all these specific memories of words and word structures. In this strange way, the mid-80s were an era of almost absolute belief. We wanted to believe in good, wanted to believe in bad, and a lot of our word choices follow suit.
Long Division has got to be one of the funniest books that addresses a gravely serious topic, namely, the “long division” of racism in America. In the book, racism manifests itself differently in 2013, 1985, and 1964. Can you comment on this?
I worried that people would get, or buy into, the humor. It’s really important for me to not only have three different time periods explored but three different time periods in the same place. In 2013, at least as it’s explored at the Can You Use This in a Sentence contest, is home to a strange white neoliberalism that encourages multiculturalism at the expense of cultural respect. The judges assume City and LaVander couldn’t compete and want to feel good about themselves for letting them win. The kids are also anxious, and aware of all that their parents and grandparents have told them about black performance. The racial anxiety exists in every era in the book, but there are different touchstones and consequences for different periods.
Near the end of the book, City recommends reading Long Division because, “It’s really short and it’s more of a young-adult book for adults, so even if you aren’t the best reader in the world, you can still get a lot out of it.” I would say that’s one of City’s famous understatements, but it does make me wonder if you had a reading audience in mind as you wrote the book.
I definitely imagined the City, Shalaya Crump, LaVander Peeler, Baize Shephard, Grandma, Uncle Relle, Evan Alshutler and Rozier as the primary audience. But I’m really invested in literature that dares to talk directly to different audiences in the same piece.
I love the story you tell of your mother’s insistence that you read “classics” and then write essays on them before you were allowed to go out and play. Do you now look back and say, “Thanks, Mom”?
That’s a super hard question. I think I look back and say, “I see why you made me read the classics, but I wish you would have encouraged me to rethink what constitutes a classic. Books like A Tale of Two Cities and Silas Mariner were given to me as classics and I had to almost write short essays about why they were classic. It was useful, but it also made me a bit resentful, because I didn’t think being ‘classic’ or ‘canonical’ should mean any work is beyond critique.
Can you tell us about your new book, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (Agate Bolden, 2013)?
Absolutely! It’s a literary nonfictive exploration of the burdens and benefits of growing up black, male, and curious in Mississippi. There are a few essays placed in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, but most of the book explores how my family and I dealt with the sadness and strangeness of growing up.
LAYMON, Kiese. Long Division. Agate Bolden, 2013. pap. $10.99. 276 p. ISBN 978-1932841725.
Please visit the Adult Books 4 Teens blog for Colson’s review of Long Division.
Diane Colson is a Library Associate at the Nashville (TN) Public Library.
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