Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon approaches each of his books as a way to celebrate and innovate the form, whether novel, memoir, or, in the case of this book, essay collection. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is thematically cohesive and intensely self-referential. It reckons with self-destruction, regret and revision, the worst of white folks, Mississippi, America, writing, truth, and lies. I read the 2021 revised edition, which contains seven essays from the 2013 edition and six new ones, as well as a revised author’s note. Another change is that the essays are sequenced in reverse chronological order, ending with the essay which opened the first edition.

The best way I can describe how these thirteen essays form a whole is to say that it feels like a well composed album. Themes recur and recur. Essays reference each other, and sometimes divulge the origins of each other. Specific phrases like “healthy choices,” “multiple dreamers,” and “the worst of white folks” stitch their way through the whole book. The book moves backwards in time, and meanders north from, then back around to, Mississippi.

That movement provides a structure for the book, a sweeping momentum which leaves you feeling like you’ve really gone somewhere by the end, though it is not the dominating logic of the book. That is, the essays are densely interconnected beyond just geographical or chronological ties. I think that’s what’s so album-like about it—the associative ties between essays, their dense inter- and intra-textuality, combined with the larger arc which gives the thing a simpler form you can hold in your mind. It is singular and plural, which is a hell of an accomplishment.

It’s also like an album because there’s features! Laymon’s mother, his aunt, and several friends lend their voices to a few essays; these sections are well written in their own right, and add depth and energy to the essays they appear in. And the choice to include them is thematically relevant too—in the final essay, “We Will Never Ever Know,” Laymon writes to his uncle, “We talked, but we didn’t reckon with each other.” (152) Bringing other voices into this book, voices in dialogue and disagreement with Laymon’s, is a demonstration of what that reckoning can look like.

This polyphony is most prominent in “Echo,” which features four writers in addition to Laymon: Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. Smith starts it off with a letter addressed “Peace Fam,” and then each writer responds, one after the other, like a posse cut. They each write about being black, being a man, and being both; while each essay builds on the last, and they all circle around similar themes, they somehow never repeat each other. The echo shifts pitch and volume each time.

And “Echo” is just one of many phenomenal pieces. All the essays here are great, and had me underlining sentences and writing in the margins. I’ll spotlight two more:

“Hip-Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” is probably the only essay to ever use bathrooms as a unifying motif—Laymon describes himself at three different moments in his life, in a bathroom each time, and his journey toward embracing southern artistry. The earliest bathroom is the school bathroom where, during lunch break, Kiese and his friends form a freestyle cipher. In this bathroom, a person’s cachet as an emcee is rooted in how New York (read: authentic hip-hop) you sound. Later, Laymon comes to love West Coast rap, an alternative to the dominant East Coast artists, and a step closer to loving the south. Finally, he concludes with a commitment to the Black Southern tradition—in hip-hop and in all art. Amid this story of self-discovery and the rise of southern hip-hop is an examination of audience: who is excluded, who is influenced, who is addressed? Laymon celebrates how much southern voices have, in embracing their own roots, enriched American literature; but he also criticizes the way that, just as New York hip-hop in the 90s had no interest in talking to the south, hip-hop as a whole “hasn’t come close to meaningfully loving, accepting, and disagreeing with Black women and girls …” (112) These ideas are vividly described in this brilliant passage:

“We cracked open the door of the bathroom just enough so the Black girls could hear. And what they heard, probably more than our actual rhymes, was our responses to our rhymes. As the beatbox-accompanied boasts, confessionals, and critiques moved from between urinals and stalls out the door of the bathroom into the hallway, the Black girls, white folks, Asians, and wack niggas could only consume and interrogate the sound, not the creative culture or experience from whence that sound sprang. Our cipher was off-limits to them, B. Dazzle told me. And quiet as it was kept, we wanted it that way. We wanted the Black girls, especially, to need to hear what we were up to from a distance, but we refused to conceive them as our primary audience. Conversely, they kept us out of their private rituals, too.” (104)

Again, that’s gotta be one of the only and best uses of a bathroom as a focal image in a piece. And it works so well with the idea of the South’s unique, irreducible essence being a “stank” or “dirt.” New York ciphers are happening at crowded street corners, in the noise and the smog, while these Mississippi rappers are freestyling in a school bathroom.

I’ve spent too long on this one essay already, but the final point I’ll make about it is that when I started writing this, I realized that in my head I’d actually merged it with another hip-hop essay earlier in the book, “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel),” and only just now am I realizing that that essay is “A Prequel” to this one. You see what I mean about connections and sequencing?

The other essay which I absolutely have to talk about is “You Are the Second Person.” Written in second-person, it describes your struggle with the publishing industry, and with one particular editor who is intent on making your novel palatable to a white audience. The essay is a bold critique of the publishing industry, the pressures on black editors and writers to compromise their work, and this alone is compelling. It’s also a virtuoso performance of 2nd-person perspective, and the combination of the two, the way the story perfectly suits the telling, makes the essay dynamite.

The 2nd-person narration has an alienating effect, distancing Laymon from his own experience and placing the reader in the middle of something that never happened to them. Laymon also flips the term “second person” itself, using it literally: your doctor informs you, “You’re the second person I’ve diagnosed with this today” (99); your editor writes “You’re the second person to complain to me this morning about how I do my job. The first person had a bit more tact.” (97) You overhear someone on their cell phone say “You‘re the second person who has done this to me.” (91) “You are the second person” means you are not the first person. You are subordinate, an afterthought, a copy. “You” is a way to accuse, to keep at arm’s length, and you are doing it to yourself—”You are the ‘I’ to no one in the world, not even yourself.” (101)

And this informs the reading of another essay, “Our Kind of Ridiculous,” where different forms of second-person, “youse,” “you’uns,” “your kind,” and “y’all” appear at critical moments. Honestly, it’s a toolkit for thinking about the second-person in any piece of writing, and I’d highly recommend it to writers.

It’s also the most meta essay in the book. Principally the essay describes the revision process of Long Division, but it also mentions that you want to “create an audience for this book with these essays [you’ve] been writing,” (97) and includes a scene of you beginning to write “You Are the Second Person” itself!

I could go on and on. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is a short book, and with its pastwards arc it encourages you to cycle right back to the beginning, which is the end, when you reach the last page. And when you do reread, the book rewards you with new depths, connections you didn’t see the first time, and brilliant sentences that never lose their luster.

I’ll conclude by not just recommending this book, but recommending all three of Laymon’s books together. They are all so much up in each other’s business, while also being profound worlds unto themselves. The different forms (novel, essay collection, and memoir) allow slantways connections rather than simple overlaps. Characters pair with real people, specific words and phrases echo throughout, and Mississippi undergirds all of them. Reading How to Slowly … especially felt like unlocking hidden pathways underneath Heavy and Long Division, which will aid me in rereading those. I reviewed Heavy here and Long Division here, if you want my thoughts on them, and if you need any more convincing, you can read “You Are the Second Person” online here. It’s the first essay I read by Laymon, and it knocked me on my ass and firmly solidified him in my mind as a phenomenal writer.

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