BY HALEY HODGES
Author Kiese Laymon visited Drake University on the evening of Oct. 26 to read a piece from his book and to talk with his audience about some of the issues his work addresses.
Laymon is the author of the novel “Long Division” and essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.”
Knowing that he was coming to Drake, many professors from a variety of disciplines encouraged their students to read Laymon’s work and attend the event.
Laymon’s talk drew a crowd nearing 100 people. So much so, that additional chairs had to be brought in to Cowles Library Reading Room to accomodate the audience.
“It’s a big room of folks. I’m real happy to see you,” Laymon began. “When you come to Iowa, I just thought ,‘You know, I’m not gonna see any black folk.’ But you all out tonight, I do appreciate it.”
Laymon’s visit was part of the Susan Glaspell Writers and Critics Series sponsored by the Drake English Department with the help of the Center for the Humanities.
“Over the past semester, Laymon’s work has been shared and discussed across many varied disciplines. It’s a testament, I think, to the resonance of his work,” Yasmina Madden said in her introduction for Laymon.
Madden is an English professor and is a coordinator for the Writers and Critics Series She also attended graduate school with Laymon.
“Indeed, there is no dearth of critical appraise that I could quote … But instead of listing Kiese’s awards and critical praise, I’d like to tell you instead about the effect I’ve seen his writing have on my students,” Madden said. “I’ve been teaching Kiese’s writing for a few years now and I see the way that students are ignited by the language, imagery, tone and subject matter of his writing. From the point of view of a teacher, it’s impossible not to notice when a student who has been quiet through much of the semester becomes really active in discussion of Kiese’s writing … Likewise, it’s thrilling to see a student who, inspired by Kiese’s work, writes an essay that engages in stylistic risk and political discourse previously unexplored in their writing. Or have a student tell you, during office hours no less, how much Kiese’s work has resonated with them.”
Laymon shared his essay “Our Kind of Ridiculous” from the collection “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” because he said he felt it was not his best work.
“Before I start, I want to encourage all of you writing students, and just students in general, to embrace failure,” Laymon said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of stuff in the country right now but I think what we’re seeing, on both sides of the aisle, is an inability to accept and embrace failure. I think that’s partially why we are where we are as a country and as a writer I want to put it out in the world and hear about how good it is and, like most writers, most of the stuff I put out is not good. And that helps me create because I know it’s probably not going to be good and even after it’s published it’s still not going to be.”
The essay talked about an experience Laymon had getting pulled over by two white police officers because they thought he threw crack out the window. He talked about the power dynamic and struggle of being a black man against white cops because “Blackness is a probable cause,” that made even him believe he could have thrown crack out of the window.
After sharing the piece, Laymon said that he regretted not reflecting on how his girlfriend felt during the experience or taking note of people other than himself in that instance.
“I want to talk about the importance of failure and revision in this particular essay,” Laymon said.
He then opened up to questions from the audience and talked about racial and politically charged issues he has faced in his life.
Questions ranged from discussing his work to his thoughts on current events or politics that aligned with what some of his essays deal with.
High attendance and praise with bursts of snapping, clapping or laughter from the audience marked his essay and discussion at Drake.