A meeting with the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence
By Taylor Shelley
The John and Renee Grisham residence is just one mile west on Highway 6 in Oxford. The residence, funded by the University of Mississippi’s English Department, was built to house the University Of Mississippi’s John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence.
Since 1993, the program has hosted an emerging writer who lives in the residence while they teach undergraduate creative writing courses at the University of Mississippi. The selected writer or professor lives within walking distance from campus and teaches one class each semester during the program.
This year, the chosen author is Jackson native Kiese Laymon.
Laymon is the author of “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” and “Long Division.” He is also a professor of English and African studies at Vassar College, a liberal arts school located in New York state.
His most recent work, “Long Division,” was named one of the best books of 2013 by The Chicago Tribune. His collection of essays in “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” has also been acclaimed by the Best of Net award, Best American Series, and others.
Laymon attended Millsaps College in Jackson and Jackson State, before graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, where he studied English, sociology and racial studies. He later earned a MFA from Indiana University. Laymon’s works focus on Southern writing, feminism, hip-hop and themes regarding black life.
“I’m currently working on finishing two books, so having all this space to myself to think freely is really giving me the opportunity to grow as a writer,” Laymon said. “I’ve never had this much space all to myself.”
Laymon arrived in a red Ford Explorer to open the gates of the private property, then walked down a narrow gravel pathway surrounded by seemingly endless greenery and open land.
The winding gravel road continued a couple of feet before it changed to a smooth driveway, and he reached a grotto of flowers before a modest yellow house emerged from the trees. He pulled into the empty four-car space driveway.
The Grisham residence released a glow, as the bright Mississippi sun reflected off its peachy, yellow color. Laymon walked onto the front deck of the house. He apologized that he couldn’t allow anyone into the residence, but the living room was visible through one of the glass doors.
This is Laymon’s second time in Oxford. The first was his “Long Divison” book tour in 2013. Prior to that, Laymon’s family discouraged him from visiting Oxford because of their knowledge of town’s historic racial tensions.
“Oxford is so close, yet, so different from where I’m from,” he said, leaning back in his chair on the back patio. “My family was so worried about the reaction, from the historical perspective. To them, Oxford isn’t a family-oriented place.”
Laymon remained in the Grisham residence after his first semester, during Christmas break, and he invited his family to live with him for the holiday season. Initially reluctant, his mother, cousins and aunt spent Christmas in the residence.
“I just wanted them to see that I was living safely here in Oxford,” he said. “I get why they worry, because I’m an only child. My grandmother would not budge though. She’s 76, but she still thinks of Oxford as the ‘Middle of the Confederacy.’”