Built of Voices: Kiese Laymon and Leigh Stein

photo by Jason WhittakerKiese Laymon and Leigh Stein do not appear to share much in the way of common experience. Laymon is a black man from Mississippi; Stein is a white half-Jewish woman from the Midwest. But what they lack in common geography and race, they make up for in uncommonly adept critical analyses of oppression. Laymon examines racism in his essays, and Stein sexism in her poems, through a synthesis of individual experience, compelling language, and the lens of mass media. For each, an amalgamation of voices—teachers, parents, TV shows, and literature—shaped their identities, and each now uses those voices to explore that identity through art.

“Don’t…you…know…white…folks…don’t…care…if…you…die,” cautioned Kiese Laymon’s mother, spoken as she whips her son with a switch. Laymon recounts the incident in the title essay of How to Kill Yourself and Others in America as one example of the way his mother instilled in her son a fear of “the worst of white folks.” Now in his thirties, the author catalogues his experiences from his Southern childhood through the professional success he found in academia. Despite his current stature, Laymon still imagines himself in the context of his mother’s words, the way society values a person that looks like him. “I am one mistaken movement from being a justifiable homicide, or a few planted rocks from being incarcerated,” he writes. But it isn’t just others people’s prejudices that threaten him; his own self-perception, forged inside a society hostile to his very being, could also prove fatal.

From an early age, Laymon has lived in racial and geographic spaces barricaded from outsiders. In “Hip-Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy,” he describes his middle-school friends, the B-Boys, spouting rap lyrics in the boys’ bathroom: “You had to be a B-Boy to enter our space. No black girls, Asians, or white folks stepped foot in the B-Boy bathroom when we rocked it.” No one else could cross the threshold, but they were allowed to stand at the cracked-open door. “As the beat box-accompanied boasts, confessionals, and critiques moved from between urinals and stalls out the door of the bathroom and 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.”

Laymon and his friends are living symbols of the closed doors of fragile egos, barely cracked open to release their music, and he sees analogies in the egos of men like Tupak Shakur, Bernie Mac, and Michael Jackson. He watched each of these men lose their lives through bravado, self-deprecation, and fear, and is anxious that he’ll meet a similar fate by exposing his work to an American audience. Could he end up like his crackhead Uncle Jimmy, “getting his ass whupped by white supremacy and quaint multiculturalism over and over again”?

Laymon’s mother encouraged and shaped his powerful intellect, but she also made it clear that he was never to openly oppose white people in power. From a young age, Laymon understood that “black American ambition, unchecked by healthy doses of fear, would lead to slow, painful death.” His essays confront this prohibition directly. Having made it from Jackson, Mississippi to tenure at Vassar, How to Kill Yourself and Others in America is the professor’s reckoning with the effect of oppression on his psyche. Through the lyrics, passages, and human voices that inspired him to seek identity through language, he explores the destructive edge of his biography—for him, the essay is a contained, exploratory space, like the B-Boys’s bathroom.

Self-destruction as a component of self-discovery pervades Dispatch from the Future as well, Leigh Stein’s collection of persona poems. Just as Laymon does, Stein explores her identity through the voices of her experience as a woman. Some of her speakers seek agency by pleasing the men around them. Some act against their self-interest because they believe (or at least hope) that if they gain favor with the powerful, they will survive against patriarchy. They often end up isolated and depressed. The speaker in “You’re Mispronouncing My Name Again” is even denied her own name. She takes a job as a department store display window model and, dressed as an astronaut, she attempts to assert her independence in her mute station. She tries to communicate with passers-by, but no one can hear her inside the astronaut’s helmet, behind the glass, merely the object of their gaze.

It would be easy for Stein’s poems to become mortified in self-pity. Instead, the poet plays a bait-and-switch. Through humor, she flaunts the false romance of pity that so often eats away at female identity. In “How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance,” she writes,

They say there was once a rusalka
who wished to be human so badly she gave up
her voice to be with her beloved and of course
he loved her because who wouldn’t love a girl

who can’t talk back

With the wry and incisive last line, Stein’s humor reveals women’s tenuous place inside the mythology a man’s narrative. The “rusalka” is another speaker isolated inside someone else’s story. Many of Stein’s speakers are given to violent ends or tenuous escapes. Following T.S. Eliot’s cadences, she writes.

Let us go then, you and I, to where the yellow
sagebrush lights the sand. Let us go and hide

from ghosts. Make me forget my name.
Make me forget the touch of other hands

In this case, the speaker destroys herself through the loss of her memories. Stein’s poems carry readers through familiar narratives with her critical eye trained on the dehumanized, second-tier characters that populate them—usually women. From domestic fantasies to fantastic dreams and terrors, she pursues each scene to discover the “haunt I cannot kill.”

Leigh Stein’s poems occupy another restricted space: the women’s stories in them are limited in movement, agency, or imagination. As with Laymon, it is a  place where freedom is nearly attainable, but circumscribed. Her critical point of view certainly broadens the audience’s understanding of each persona she presents, and each paradigm it embodies—but consciousness of oppression only frees each woman enough to recognize their own trapped state. Each is stuck in a world haunted by tales of what happens to the women who stray. Each character represents their own complex reality, an existence punctuated by betrayal or disappointment at the hands of others.

In the midst of such unraveling moments, Stein layers her tentative perceptions with allusion, flashing images that recall the relation of gender to fates like those of Ariadne or Thisbe. She employs elements of 1990s millennial kitsch with the same irreverence, often within campy choose-your-own-adventure plotlines. Whether recent pop culture or Ovid’s mythologies, these references all serve the same purpose: to assist the reader (and the writer) in relating to and ordering a disorganized, unjust world. Stein’s speakers espouse autobiographies informed by the media they have consumed. Her poems overflow with the books and pop culture she’s assimilated over the years. The TV shows she watched as a kid are the same that now haunt her with sexism.

Laymon is equally haunted. He addresses his essays directly to these ghosts: “We Will Never Ever Know” is for his drug-addicted uncle; “Hip Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” is for his peers of the crack epidemic. Each essay dissects the public identity and art of the black American male. He writes that “our experiences and imaginations almost became indistinguishable from the actual musical work itself” in the same way Stein’s references to young adult literature and canonized classics rewrite those texts and allow the texts to revise experience. Laymon confronts his own modern mythologists: Kanye West, Michael Jackson, Tupak Shakur. Through their music and their humanity, Laymon uses his cultural imagination to plumb his own hidden weaknesses.

In his own voice, speaking directly from his experience, Laymon reaches into himself through the rhetorical tradition of call and response—Laymon and his ghosts, communicating back and forth. He adopts hip-hop postures against the echo of matriarchal warnings. Just as Stein examines characters who exist in the peripheries of villains’ stories, Laymon uses his author’s note to place his essays in a land of “American monsters and American murderers.” Laymon writes about white supremacy because it’s the only way he can keep that oppression from destroying him. He deconstructs the posturing of 90s gangsta rap to address the echoes of love and understanding he learns from the women who raised him. To his own aims, he writes,

one of the responsibilities of American writers is to broaden the confines, sensibilities, and generative capacity of American literature by broadening the audience to whom we write, and hoping that broadened audience writes back with brutal imagination, magic, and brilliance.

While Laymon accomplishes this expansion through autobiography, Leigh Stein does so with the fragmented identities of her personae. Both reach the vulnerable emotional edges of literature. Laymon struggles to give black characters their full humanity in order to preserve himself against internalized self-destructive forces of oppression. After being stopped by the police and then humiliated in front of his white girlfriend and her friends, Laymon describes filtering the experience through literature:

I scribbled away at a chapter before getting stuck on these two sentences one of the characters sees written in sawdust in a workshed around 1964:

We are real black characters with real character, not the stars
of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.

After what happened that day, all that really mattered was making it to those two clunky sentences. Everything else, including Kurt’s intentions, Nicole’s nervous friend, and my shame at getting niggered by two perverted police officers, was as light as the paper airplanes I threw past Kurt’s apartment.

Both Laymon and Stein seek to unravel the oppressive forces they face through the literary expansion of our public imagination. Laymon uses soaring prose that echoes within the past and present, creating space for a future that is, in its fictional reality, still full of possibility. With a similarly bold spirit, Leigh Stein’s poems reveal sexism throughout American culture and media, finding their truth in that liminal imaginative space between essays and fiction. Combating oppression with righteous self-examination, these two works create a remarkable pairing.

About Rachel Edelman

Rachel Edelman writes essays and poems. Follow her on Twitter @rachelsedelman.