Our City, Our Story 2021

Featuring Kiese Laymon and Elizabeth Gilbert

We are proud to announce that this year’s Our City, Our Story will feature acclaimed authors Kiese Laymon (How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love; photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders).

How do we come together after a period of separation—physical, due to the pandemic, but also political and ideological? How do we remember what we have in common? How do we heal? Kiese and Elizabeth will explore these questions and more in a virtual conversation.

Save the Date

Our City, Our Story 2021 will take place virtually on Tuesday, September 14, 2021. Stay tuned for more information about this exciting event!

About Kiese Laymon

“Kiese Laymon is a star in the American literary firmament, with a voice that is courageous, honest, loving, and singularly beautiful.”

Martha Anne Toll, NPR

Kiese Laymon is a Black southern writer from Jackson, Mississippi. In his observant, often hilarious work, Laymon does battle with the personal and the political: race and family, body and shame, poverty and place. His savage humor and clear-eyed perceptiveness have earned him comparisons to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Walker, and Mark Twain. He is the author of the award-winning memoir Heavy, the groundbreaking essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and the genre-defying novel Long Division.

Laymon’s powerful bestselling memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir, won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and the 2018 Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, and was named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by The New York Times. In this fearless, provocative book, Laymon unpacks what a lifetime of secrets and lies does to a Black body, a Black family, and a nation hunkered on the edge of moral collapse. Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom and Bastards of the Reagan Era, calls Heavy “the most honest and intimate account of growing up black and southern since Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” In a starred review, Kirkus wrote, “Laymon skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own…. A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.” Heavy was named a best book of 2018 by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly; and a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction and was a nominee for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The audiobook, read by the author, was named the Audible 2018 Audiobook of the Year.

“Smart and funny and sharp.”

Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner 

When Laymon was a contributing editor at Gawker, he wrote an essay called “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” This harrowing piece, which describes four incidents in which Laymon was threatened with a gun, evolved into a collection of lacerating essays on race, violence, celebrity, family, and creativity. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America “rarely smiles” and “never relents,” writes Oscar Quine in The Independent: “What this book really does brilliantly is elucidate the depreciated nature of a life lived as a black American.” Writing for The Rumpus, Stacie Williams called the book “stirring and fresh, literary but ultimately approachable.” Laymon’s voice in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is profoundly compelling, as unignorable as it is familiar: “Though the blues impulse is present, he raps familiar, like an older brother. His pieces tend to reach a gospel crescendo, like a preacher” (The Rumpus). Three essays from How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America were selected for inclusion in the Best American series and The Atlantic’s best essays of 2013.

Laymon’s debut novel, Long Division, combines elements of science fiction, satire, and social commentary into a book that Sam Sacks, writing in The Wall Street Journal, called “funny, astute and searching.” Sacks praised Laymon’s “satirical instincts” and concluded that Long Division is “intimately attuned to the confusion of young black Americans who live under the shadow of a history that they only gropingly understand and must try to fill in for themselves.” 

In Long Division, 14-year-old City, a newly minted YouTube star, is sent to stay with family in rural Melahatchie, Mississippi. What happens next transgresses the boundaries of fiction and reality, present and past, as City travels through time.  Kirkus called it “hilarious, moving and occasionally dizzying.” Booklist noted that Long Division “elegantly showcases Laymon’s command of voice and storytelling skill in a tale that is at once dreamlike and concrete, personal and political,” and praised the novel for its “ambitious mix of contemporary southern gothic with Murakamiesque magical realism.” The novel was honored with the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in 2014, and was shortlisted for a number of other awards, including The Believer Book Award, the Morning News Tournament of Books, and the Ernest J. Gaines Fiction Award. 

Laymon is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, ESPN The Magazine, NPR, Colorlines, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Ebony, Guernica, The Oxford AmericanLit Hub, and many others in addition to Gawker.  A member of Black Artists for Freedom, he was named to the Ebony Magazine Power 100 in 2015 and selected as a member of the Root 100 in 2013 and 2014. A graduate of Oberlin College, he holds an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. He founded the Catherine Coleman Initiative for the Arts and Social Justice at the University of Mississippi where he taught for years. He is at work on several new projects including the long poem, Good God; the horror novel, And So On; the children’s book, City Summer, Country Summer; and the personal narrative about family and Mississippi, I Don’t Know What You Mean.

For more information on Kiese Laymon, please visit him on Twitter and at kieselaymon.com.

Overview from Lyceum Agency.

About Elizabeth Gilbert

In her critically acclaimed novels and immensely popular works of nonfiction, Elizabeth Gilbert expands our understanding of creativity, spirituality, and love. Whatever her subject—her own transformative experiences, the institution of marriage, or 1940’s showgirls—Gilbert writes with “a mix of intelligence, wit, and colloquial exuberance that is close to irresistible” (The New York Times Book Review). The woman Oprah Winfrey called a “rock star author” is among her generation’s most beloved and inspiring voices, with an avid international readership and devoted following.

Gilbert’s memoir, Eat Pray Love, exploded onto the scene in 2006. The #1 New York Times bestseller famously chronicled the year Gilbert spent traveling the world after a shattering divorce. Translated into more than 30 languages, it has sold over thirteen million copies, and was adapted into a 2010 film starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. Following Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert wrote Committed: A Love Story, a meditation on marriage as a sociohistorical institution.

In the years since, people around the world have looked to Gilbert for guidance in leading brave, authentic, and creative lives. Gilbert’s bestselling nonfiction treatise, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, unpacks her own generative process and shares her wise, witty insights into the mysteries of curiosity and inspiration.

“Part inspiration, part how-to,” wrote The Washington Post, “[Big Magic] offers up both a philosophy of creativity and advice for living a more creatively fulfilling life.” Written in Gilbert’s “charming, personable, self-aware, jokey, conversational” voice (The New York Times Book Review), Big Magic underscores Gilbert’s status as a mentor for spiritual seekers and introspective explorers.

From the beginning of her writing career, Gilbert’s observant eye and abiding appreciation for her subjects has distinguished her work. Not merely a writer but also an explorer, she worked in a Philadelphia diner, on a western ranch, and in a New York City bar to scrape together the funds to travel. Her persistent longing to understand the world and her place in it led her “to create experiences to write about,” she says, “to gather landscapes and voices.”

Starting as a magazine journalist, she wrote articles published in Harper’s BazaarSpin, and The New York Times Magazine. Her work caught the attention of editors at GQ, where she soon became a stalwart, writing vivid, provocative pieces that grew into books and even a film: 2000’s Coyote Ugly. Gilbert was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and her work was anthologized in Best American Writing 2001.

“I think my gift, far beyond whatever gifts that I have as a writer, my gift as a human is that I can make friends with people very quickly. Everything I learned about being a journalist I learned by being a bartender. The most exquisite lesson of all is that people will tell you anything. Want to. There’s no question you can’t ask if your intention is not hostile. And it’s not like entrapment; it’s more like a gorgeous revelation. People want to tell the story that they have.”

—Elizabeth Gilbert

Though best known for these works of nonfiction, Gilbert is at her heart, an inventive storyteller.  She is the author of The Signature of All Things, a sweeping story of botany, exploration, and desire that spans much of the nineteenth century which The New York Times Magazine called a “rip-roaring tale… unlike anything Gilbert has ever written”.  Her latest bestseller the novel City of Girls, is the “fiercely feminist” (Esquire) story of a young woman coming into her own in the theater world of 1940s New York. “A lively, effervescent, and sexy portrait of a woman living in a golden time” (NPR), it debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Populated by unapologetic women discovering that you don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person, City of Girls is “a page-turner with heart, complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).  The Guardian raves: “[Gilbert’s] romp through 1940s Manhattan is a glorious, multilayered celebration of womanhood… an eloquently persuasive treatise on the judgment and punishment of women, and a heartfelt call to reclaim female sexual agency.”

While her more recent work has grabbed the spotlight, Gilbert’s earlier books met critical acclaim.  Her publishing debut, a collection of short fiction titled Pilgrims, was a New York Times Most Notable Book and won a Pushcart Prize, among other honors. Her first novel, Stern Men, won the Kate Chopin Award and her third book, The Last American Man, which explores America’s long-standing intrigue with the pioneer lifestyle, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

In her lectures Gilbert talks about her writing and seizing the opportunity to live a life guided by creativity rather than fear.  She lives in New York City with her dog Chunky and is always working on something new.

For more information on Elizabeth Gilbert, please visit her on FacebookInstagramTwitter and at elizabethgilbert.com.

Overview from Lyceum Agency.

Thanks to Our Sponsors

Many thanks to the generous sponsors of Our City, Our Story 2021.

Hope Sponsors





Stability Sponsors

The James A. Wax Fund for Social Justice at Temple Israel

Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare

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