6 books that inspired author Kiese Laymon

The essayist recommends works by James Baldwin, Jesmyn Ward, and more

Kiese Laymon.
(Image credit: Courtesy image)

When you make a purchase through links on our site, we may earn a commission

Kiese Laymon's Heavy has been recognized by The New York Times as one of the 50 best memoirs of the past half-century. His new book is a revised and expanded version of his essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.

Prophets of the Hood by Imani Perry (2004).

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is indebted to at least six books. Perry's survey of hip-hop gave me critical language to talk about Black art and the profits taken by the culture cradling, and often crucifying, Black art. Her riffs on the profane, the sacred, and the "reunion" of the two are the bricks of HSKY, especially HSKY's pieces about music and power.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955).

This will always be the O.G. essay collection. It is the standard I will always unsuccessfully try to meet with my own essay books. Some of the essays in Baldwin's book aren't great; they're more like useful exposition to get us to the next monument. And the great ones are some of the greatest essays ever written. The book blows my mind.

Conversations With Toni Morrison edited by Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie (1994).

This collection of interviews informed HSKY's way of addressing itself to a village. The good thing about not having an editor for the original version of my first book was that I wrote the essays directly to the people the essays are about. Toni Morrison made that desire possible.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987).

Morrison's great novel inspired me to embrace multiple interpretations of what it means to die.

All About Love by Bell Hooks (1999).

A deeply underrated book, All About Love gave me permission to ask scary questions of myself before asking scary questions of other folks.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013).

My cousin's memoir is really a tutorial on the overwhelming love among Black Southerners and an indictment of the state-sanctioned destruction of our bodies. We're all dying, but in Mississippi, it seems like some of us can't afford to believe in tomorrow. Re-reading Men We Reaped made me know I needed to buy back the rights to my first book so that I could leave my people a version that we owned and shaped completely. Men We Reaped helped me love myself enough to take back what should never have been shared with folks who didn't love us. That, sometimes, feels like everything.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.