The B&N Podcast: Kiese Laymon and Shane Bauer on Writing with a Mission

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

Today’s episode is a fascinating and timely conversation that comes to us courtesy of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program, featuring Kiese Laymon, the author of Heavy: an American Memoir, and Shane Bauer, the author of American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. Heavy and American Prison were, respectively, the first and second place recipients of the 2018 Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction, and both are works that urgently grapple with the state of America today, winning deep praise from critics and readers alike. In Heavy, Laymon takes readers with him on an unforgettable journey from his Mississippi childhood to life as a university professor and acclaimed writer – an odyssey in which racism, sexual violence, trauma and other monstrosities of 21st-century America are challenged by love and a spirit of questing intelligence. And in American Prison, investigative journalist Shane Bauer sought out the real experience of Americans living in incarceration by taking an entry-level job in a private Louisiana prison – and bringing what he found onto the page with eloquence and painstaking care. In a moment when the issues that these books address seems more urgent in our nation’s life than ever, we asked the authors to sit down with Miwa Messer, director of B&N’s Discover Great New Writers program, to talk about their work, and how they see its meaning against the backdrop of America in 2019.

In this powerful, provocative, and universally lauded memoir—winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal and finalist for the Kirkus Prize—genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon “provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot” (Entertainment Weekly).

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to time in New York as a college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. Heavy is a “gorgeous, gutting…generous” (The New York Times) memoir that combines personal stories with piercing intellect to reflect both on the strife of American society and on Laymon’s experiences with abuse. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, he asks us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

“A book for people who appreciated Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family through years of haunting implosions and long reverberations. “You won’t be able to put [this memoir] down…It is packed with reminders of how black dreams get skewed and deferred, yet are also pregnant with the possibility that a kind of redemption may lie in intimate grappling with black realities” (The Atlantic).

Winner of the 2018 B&N Discover Award for Nonfiction

*Named a Best Book of 2018 by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, Buzzfeed (Nonfiction), The Undefeated, Library Journal (Biography/Memoirs), The Washington Post (Nonfiction), Southern Living (Southern), Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Times Critics*

A ground-breaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America: in one Louisiana prison and over the course of our country’s history.

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can’t understand the cruelty of our current system and its place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.

The private prison system is deliberately unaccountable to public scrutiny. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly-trained prison staff. Though Bauer befriends some of his colleagues and sympathizes with their plight, the chronic dysfunction of their lives only adds to the prison’s sense of chaos. To his horror, Bauer finds himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he works in the prison, and he is far from alone.

A blistering indictment of the private prison system, and the powerful forces that drive it, American Prison is a necessary human document about the true face of justice in America.

Winner of the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize 
Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism
Winner of the 2019 RFK Book and Journalism Award

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