Kiese Laymon, an IU alumnus and author of multiple works including a personal memoir called “Heavy,” was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship on Oct. 12. Laymon graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in 2002.
According to the MacArthur Foundation’s senior program officer Chris Lovely, the five-year fellowship, which includes an $800,000 grant, is given to individuals who have achieved significant milestones with their creative work. Laymon is one of only 19 individuals in the U.S. to be named a MacArthur fellow. The foundation requires fellows to uphold certain traits: exceptional creativity, a promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and the potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
“The MacArthur Fellowship is a no-strings-attached award designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual and professional activities without reporting requirements or specific expectations,” Lovely said.
Laymon’s MacArthur Fellows profile said he writes about the bystander perspective of the violence that marks the Black experience. Laymon’s writing covers topics surrounding radical honesty and aims to achieve revision and self-reflection as a Black southern man.
“Laymon’s work provides a powerful meditation on how compassion, accountability and forgiveness can engender a more humane society and future,” Lovely said. “We hope that the funding and visibility of the Fellowship will enable Laymon to further build on his already impressive body of work and that more readers will be exposed to his work.”
He currently teaches at Rice University as the Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of English and Creative Writing.
“I was absolutely delighted that he won this prestigious award,” Rick Van Kooten, the College of Arts and Sciences executive dean, said. “It is just a fantastic demonstration of what an alumnus can do, in this case from our Department of English in the Creative Writing program, in terms of societal impact.”
Laymon also wrote a novel called “Long Division” and an essay collection called “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” which was named as “a notable book of 2021” by New York Times critics. He received the 2020-2021 Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard and is the founder of the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative, named after his grandmother, which strives to guide young people to comfortably read, write and revise on their own terms in their communities.
New York Times named Laymon’s memoir, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” as one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the past 50 years. It received numerous awards including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, the Barnes & Noble Discovery Award, and the Austen Riggs Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media.
“’‘Heavy’ really had the biggest public impact of my life,” Laymon said. “I had to write my other books to braid so many threads in Heavy.”
Laymon says during his time at IU, he learned the most when he was a teaching assistant for a fiction lecture course. He enjoyed unpacking what the class learned with a smaller set of students.
“I hope students learn to make revision the most important part of their art and life practices,” Laymon said.
Laymon plans to release two additional books near the end of 2023 and is currently working on two TV shows which he plans to share with the public soon.