Revisiting, Revising, Reimagining Home in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

the book cover for How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

In the original How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, published in 2013, Kiese Makeba Laymon wrote essays to his home, to his family, and to his ghosts, despite being away from all of them. A lot has happened since then, including Laymon moving back to Mississippi and completing and publishing his book Heavy: An American Memoir. In the intervening time, he also bought back the rights to How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and began revising and reimagining the pieces within. Revisiting his work has strengthened his voice—his voice that is a call to those he writes for, that allows them to respond, to echo, in turn enabling him to revise his work, and his construction of home and community, even further. Revisiting, revising, and reimagining his writing is thus a way for Laymon to truly build a home in the space he keeps.

The second edition of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, out this month, is still about home and family and ghosts, but from the perspective of a more experienced Laymon, writing from a place he has more experiences in—his home state of Mississippi. “Writing the first edition of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” Laymon says, “brought me back to Mississippi, literally and literarily. Coming home to Mississippi had given me the space to finish Heavy: An American Memoir. In the revision of this book, I write from Mississippi about our current awakening.” In revisiting these essays, Laymon responds to the voice he had nearly a decade ago, and to the echo of his own work speaking to his ghosts, and the echo of the people he wrote to in his home, which he can now more clearly hear. Laymon often talks about how he “had to write to be a decent human being.” How the act of not-writing is stagnation, how that stagnation leads to him slowly killing himself and those he loves. Writing is movement, and movement is needed for peoples that don’t always have a physical space that is a welcoming home. And revision is how you keep the conversation going with yourself, and your readers. Revision is how you improve your work, your home, yourself. It is how you build yourself a home with your writing, even if just in words and art, as home is not always afforded to us in physical spaces in this world.

Laymon starts the second edition of this collection with a new, and the most recent, essay, “Mississippi: A Poem, in Days.” It talks about the first days of COVID-19, and dealing with touring and being in white spaces while thinking about Mississippi, and his grandmother. At one point Laymon writes, “I am terrified of sleeping because my body no longer knows how to dream. I know that people die in their dreams. I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of being killed while dreaming.” He wonders “if movement, mobility, love are the features of Black life the worst of white Americans most despise.” Writing, like speaking, is movement, and making your dream into something solid, building a home for your voice to be strong in. But the systemic pressures facing Laymon and other writers of marginalized communities make mobility, whether physical or through economic class, whether through dreams or writing, dangerous. Laymon, though, has to keep writing—to not-write, to not-revise, is to be silent, is to quiet the echoes, is to slowly kill himself and others.

Within “Mississippi: A Poem, in Days,” Laymon talks about monuments and memorials. He states that he and many others in Mississippi aren’t afforded physical monuments that resonate with their community, despite the state being about 38% Black. But Laymon also talks about how writings and songs have been his monuments, his memorials. He writes, “Mama knows that in my dreams, we soar, bulletproof. And often, we crash. In my actual dreams, I run like Ahmaud. I shoot midrange jumpers like George. I heal like Breonna. I rap every lyric to ‘Fuck tha Police’ in a Monte Carlo packed to the brim with them and Mignon and Tim and Henry and David fiending for new ways to love each other.” Living and loving back home, revising the dreams that make them bulletproof—this lets him add new ghosts to his old ghosts, lets him write about the Monte Carlo that holds all of his love, his ghosts, his home in his head. As they practice new love, they build better monuments through song and word, and strengthen their voice and love for each other through revision, through echoing off each other. He revises the idea of “Fuck tha Police” as a monument: it built and memorialized pain and oppression to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, pain and oppression that had no place in a home that we build for ourselves, for our radical love and friendships. He had to tear that monument down, and work on what he had memorialized in his head, and what he held true in himself; what hurts one of us hurts all of us. The whole world would be a better place if we properly revisited and revised what we memorialized, and the whole world would be a better place if we revised the monuments we uphold.

Writing also helps Laymon build his home by strengthening his voice. In “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel),” he writes, “Literary voices are built and shaped—and not just by words, punctuation, and sentences, but by the author’s intended audience and a composition’s form.” It’s so important for Laymon to write directly to his peoples—he has no voice without writing to them. This is why Laymon bought back his book: to harness his voice, that strength, and to revisit and revise and reimagine his writings back to his peoples today. When he originally wrote this book, he was writing about a home he wasn’t living in. Now, he gets to revise within his home, back with his peoples. His voice has been strengthened by the familiarity, by the walls and peoples he surrounds himself with, by the responses to his work.

This idea of revisiting and revising work, and how it affects the audience, is in conversation with his essay “You are the Second Person,” in which Laymon talks about his struggles with a book publisher early on in his career. The publisher had said to him, “The success of your book will be partially dependent on readers who have a different sensibility than your intended audience.” That line of thought is an erasure of Laymon’s voice, of the people that could and would echo back to him. It is an erasure of Laymon’s chance to properly revise and reimagine his own work based off his peoples’ echo. For without an audience or his voice, he wouldn’t be really writing, revising, or reimagining himself or his home—he’d just be killing himself and others slowly in America. These struggles led Laymon to write the titular line of his book for the first time. A line that he revisits, revises, reimagines.

In “Our Kind of Ridiculous,” Laymon revisits some lines he wrote in the first edition: “We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause. We are real black characters.” He repeats the lines over and over again, trying to understand what they mean to him, to his peoples. He talks about how he wrote those lines after a traumatic experience with the cops, one where (while the cops were harassing some of his friends) he stared out into the neighboring fields, imagining that beyond those fields was home, reimagining in his mind a world where his home was not further than a field away. He talks about how the only thing that mattered to him that day (after they all got home safe) was being able to conjure those lines. Those lines were a revision of the real world around him. Writing, revising, “making it to that point, as quiet as it’s kept, felt like the most that one of my kind could ask for, a few minutes from some invisible crack, not that many miles from Mississippi.” He needed to get to a place where he could make a home and revise his world, a place where he could crack open his book and revisit and revise the home he needs to feel. Returning to the land where he’s from was never the end goal, but it’s the place where he got to revisit and revise his voice, hear the echo that came back from the peoples he wrote to, and reimagine the better home and world they wanted to create for themselves and each other.

Laymon ends the second edition of his collection with “We Will Never Ever Know,” a letter to his dead uncle. While in the first edition the collection starts with this essay—an essay that in many ways births the collection—he mentions in “Author’s Note #2” how he always wanted to end the collection with this piece. This rerelease was his to revise, to make more his own, to make more his monument, his home. Laymon says that he wrote this letter, these essays, to his uncle. He “was in desperate need of echo, and I’d convinced myself that the only way to live was to write through what was helping me kill myself. I don’t only wish you could have read this book, Uncle Jimmy; I wish you could have written back to us.” Now, Laymon’s back home, in a place he can build memorials and monuments, a place where he can reconstruct a personal and physical home. And while his uncle can’t write back, Laymon can revisit and revise, for that’s what’s gotten him through. Living is the best revision, living is what we owe each other, and there is no living without our voice, our writing, our love.

So he will continue to use his love, his voice, to write to his peoples, and he will continue to revise off the echo of his own writing, off his own personal ghosts, off the ghosts of the peoples that came before him, off the written monuments they memorialized. And he can continue to revise and use his voice for his peoples, for his home, for those of us that follow him, and our responses can echo back, as we all examine what is wrong with us, as we all examine how we slowly kill ourselves and those we love in America, as we build homes for ourselves.

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