By Chris Herrington, Daily Memphian
Elizabeth Gilbert and Kiese Laymon have their differences.
She’s a white woman who’s lived primarily in the east and west, her closest connection to Memphis not particularly close: A semester spent teaching at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
He’s a Black man from Jackson, Mississippi, currently on faculty down the road at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and someone for whom Memphis looms large. (“Memphis was the only place we went for vacation,” said Laymon in a recent phone interview. “The way people think about New York or Atlanta, I thought that way about Memphis.”)
But they also have much in common: Writers of the same generation who penetrated the public consciousness via memoir, writing about their own lives, in Gilbert’s words, without much armor.
Initially a fiction writer and journalist, Gilbert became a sensation with her 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” about her travels in the wake of a divorce. Laymon began as a novelist and essayist, but expanded his audience with 2018’s “Heavy,” a coming-of-age memoir in part about his complicated relationship with his mother.
They also share a lecture agent, mutual admiration and, for the first time ever next week, the stage. Or at least a virtual one.
Gilbert and Laymon will be in virtual conversation, for a Memphis audience, in the 2021 edition of MIFA’s “Our City, Our Story” series, where they will be charged with tackling questions such as “How do we come back together after this latest crisis?” and “What does a better America look like?”
The conversation will take place at 11:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 14th. Tickets are $25.
Given the similarities and connections, you might think this event is a part of some kind of joint tour. That this is a show Gilbert and Laymon are taking on the road, so to speak. Instead, it’s a Memphis one-off.
“I wish we were taking it on the road,” said Gilbert, in a separate phone interview. “That would be amazing.”
Gilbert says that she and Laymon have “a modern digital friendship,” writing notes to each other across the digital divide.
“‘Heavy’ blew my mind so much when it came out,” said Gilbert. “I think he’s a genius, frankly, a really important writer, so when the possibility came up of us sharing a virtual stage together, that was an easy yes for me.”
“Liz knows how much I love her work, but we’ve never met in real life before,” said Laymon. “This will be the longest that we’ve had a sustained conversation. People have asked us both to do things together and it just hasn’t worked out, timing-wise, but I love that the first thing we do is going to be in Memphis. I wish we could be in person.”
As for the conversation to come, it will be a bit of a jump ball, but both Laymon and Gilbert sound eager to plumb to complexities of “coming together” in the wake of COVID
“The idea of coming back together has to be interrogated, because that assumes that we were once together,” said Laymon. “I don’t know if we were ever together, and I don’t know if ‘coming together’ is the remedy to what we’re seeing, but we’re going to get into that, I’m sure.”
“At the beginning of COVID there was this notion that it could be a unifying event, because everyone in the world was facing the same crisis, which may be historically unprecedented,” said Gilbert. “People were saying ‘we’re all in the same boat’ and I saw a correction of that that I thought was accurate: No, we’re all in the same storm, but some of us have really nice boats and some of us don’t have a boat at all. That doesn’t mean the storm isn’t happening to everybody, but it means that it’s impacting people differently.”
Laymon, particularly attuned to the way rural and/or Southern non-white populations get left out of the public conversation, agrees.
“We need to be talking about the particularities of the ‘we’ and what we’re doing to ensure that the people who suffered the most pre-COVID don’t continue to suffer the most post-COVID,” said Laymon. “I think that’s a more important question to me, and the answer might be that we can’t do that unless we do come together.”
If it sounds like searching for an impossible destination, Gilbert thinks Laymon might be a pretty good guide.
“Kiese, you know, he writes about love in a way that is so beautiful and devastating and rich and complex. He’s got a heart you can feel on every page of his work. He’s got a heart that simply can’t bring itself to give up on love,” she said. “He talks about his grandmother and the influence she had on his life and how she was good at loving. When you’re raised by somebody who is good at loving, love is the baseline for your entire understanding of the world. One of the questions I would have for him is: How do you reconcile that with being raised in a country that isn’t good at loving?”
Coming Together: A Virtual Conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert and Kiese Laymon, hosted by the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Alliance (MIFA), will be held on Tuesday, September 14, at 11:45 a.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, and to register, see community.mifa.org/ourcityourstory.