Kiese Laymon ’98 Earns MacArthur Foundation Honor for 2022

Author and educator elevates nuances of the Black experience—and his own experience—through acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction.

October 31, 2022

Erich Burnett

Kiese Laymon seated outdoors.
Photo credit: MacArthur Foundation

Kiese Laymon ’98, a writer and educator whose works chronicle the Black experience through the lens of his Mississippi upbringing, was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow for 2022, one of the nation’s most prestigious and lucrative honors.

An English major at Oberlin, Laymon is best known for authoring a pair of books initially published in 2013: the satirical novel Long Division, about Black teenagers growing up in post-Katrina Mississippi, and the collection of essays How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Laymon revised both books for later editions and was honored with a 2022 NAACP Image Award for fiction for Long Division. (Revision is a hallmark of the writer’s creative process, and a topic he discussed in a video created with the MacArthur Foundation.)

In 2018, Laymon published the bestselling memoir Heavy, a response to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother and an examination of the numerous struggles—with eating, addiction, depression—he faced earlier in his life. That book won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and was named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by The New York Times, among other accolades.

Laymon is the Libby Shearn Moody Professor of English and Creative Writing at Rice University. He previously served on the faculties of Vassar College and the University of Mississippi. He founded the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food and Justice Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding children’s access to literary arts in his native Mississippi. Based at Jackson State University, the initiative is named in honor of Laymon’s grandmother.

One of 25 individuals honored by MacArthur this year, Laymon will receive a grant of $800,000 with no stipulations on its use. In an interview with NPR, he has hinted that his grandmother’s foundation will be among the key recipients of his windfall. He also vowed to tend to himself and his health in ways he previously has set aside.

Widely known as the “Genius Grant,” the MacArthur recognizes the creative contributions and potential of individuals of wildly varying backgrounds spanning a boundless array of disciplines.

Laymon becomes the 13th graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory to be honored with a MacArthur Fellowship. The most recent alum to win was musician Rhiannon Giddens ’00 in 2017.

Laymon’s website includes a tab of thank-you’s to the people and places who have shaped his existence. Among them is this message to his undergraduate alma mater:

Thank you, Oberlin College, for accepting me, for introducing me to hummus, tofu and new ways of using narrative voice, for introducing me to a black arts community, for really giving me the belief that I could make a life out of reading, writing, teaching and learning, for forgiving me when I failed, for loving me even when I did everything I could to hide from you.

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