Writer and professor Kiese Laymon is awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Kiese Laymon on campus
Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation

Acclaimed author and Rice professor Kiese Laymon has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the prestigious honor popularly known as the “genius grant.” A Black Southern writer from Jackson, Mississippi, Laymon’s work bears witness to the forms of violence that mark the Black experience. His writing across multiple forms — including essays, memoirs and fiction — is rooted in his perspective as a Black Southern man.

“I’m not big into awards and recognition, but this one feels special,” Laymon said of the fellowship. “Revision and Mississippi did this. I’m just thankful. Some really incredible people thought my work was OK. That’s a big deal to me.”

His first two books, the novel “Long Division” and the essay collection “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” were originally published in 2013. Years later, he acquired the rights to both works and published revised editions in 2020 and 2021. Laymon’s bestselling “Heavy: An American Memoir” was published in 2018 and was also named one of Time magazine’s 25 Greatest Works of the Black Renaissance, as well as one of The New York Times’ 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and, among other publications.

Laymon has taught creative writing at Rice since he joined the School of Humanities in January 2022 as the Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of Creative Writing and English. Laymon earned his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and a Master of Fine Arts from Indiana University. Before joining Rice, he was a member of the faculty at Vassar College and the University of Mississippi. In his native Mississippi, Laymon founded the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative, which seeks to inspire youth and their parents to read, write and share their life stories.

“I’m really happy that this happened while I’m at Rice,” Laymon said. “The MacArthur means a ton to my Jackson family, especially now. I hope it might mean a lot to Rice and Houston.”

Awarded annually by the MacArthur Foundation since 1981, the grants are typically received by upwards of 20 people each year who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits. Each of the 2022 MacArthur Fellows will receive an $800,000 stipend, bestowed with no conditions, that awardees can use as they see fit.

Laymon said he plans to use some of the grant money “to work on artful connections between middle school students in Houston and Jackson.” He added, “I’m really thankful my mama encouraged me to keep making daring — or she would say, ‘excellent’ — art, no matter what.”

— Schaefer Edwards ’13

Watch a video about how Kiese Laymon learned he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship this year — and how he checked to make sure the news was real.