Heavy: An American Memoir is Kiese Laymon’s third book. The first, Long Division, a novel, and the second, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, an essay collection, were both published in the summer of 2013—one in June and one in August. Laymon’s work is known for its honesty and courage, as well as for the way he reckons with his own past and our collective national one. In Heavy, he takes the stuff of his life and renders it on the page. Laymon discusses violence in many forms, gambling and addiction, the treatment of black students at predominantly white institutions, and more. He also discusses weight and bodies and the way all these things lend themselves to a heaviness that can be both physical and emotional. There’s a fable-like quality to the storytelling: it imparts its lessons in layers.
Laymon and I spoke on the phone as he was making the twelve-hour drive from Oxford, Mississippi, to Tampa, Florida, to meet with booksellers. The sounds of the highway occasionally made themselves heard in the background. In conversation, he is genuine and open, turning questions back around to his interlocutor with sincere curiosity. His work forces us to ask: What if everybody wrote like this to those who love and hurt them about the ways they have been loved and hurt? What would that do, and what would it look like? Until then, we’re just lucky that Laymon shows us a path toward reckoning.
What does heaviness evoke for you?
Heaviness evokes fear and desperation and, most importantly, a soulfulness. For me, it’s not one thing. I think I thought it was one thing before I started the book, but as I worked on it, I began to embrace the soulfulness in heaviness. It’s something most people try to avoid, but it’s also something that I need to make it through the day.
You write this book to your mother, telling her some of what made you and broke you, telling her some of where you’ve been and where you want to go. You say that you would rather write a lie and you know that she would rather have you write one. Sometimes it made me feel like I was looking at something that wasn’t meant for me, that was intensely private. Why did you decide to write to her?
I was at a point in my life where the closest I could get to honesty was talking to her because of so many lies between the two of us, so many things I didn’t say. And you know, my mama is a black woman from the South—from Mississippi. She’s a teacher. She loves black people. She’s an American. So she occupies all these subject positions that I wanted to talk to in this book and I just didn’t want to write a book about my mama that wasn’t written to my mama. Do you know what I mean? I think people conflate memoir with autobiography a lot, but memoir is the artful rendering of an experience. For me, to get to the artfulness of it, I had to think of a person who could help me keep the good fat and cut out the bad fat. And thinking about what my mama would want to hear and not want to hear helped me do that. But the real reason is that we had been lying to each other for my whole life and I didn’t want to do that anymore.
I kept coming back to this thought while reading, about the difference between a tell-all and a memoir. I didn’t feel like your book was a tell-all—I definitely felt like there were some things that you were keeping for yourself and for your family and for the people that you’ve known.
Oh, for sure. I’m glad you say that. You know, I’m black and from Mississippi. My people do not play that tell-all-your-business-type stuff. But at the same time, I think there are some things we do need to talk about and reckon with. A reckoning, I think, is different than a tell-all. And the book that you read—not only is it heavily revised, but there’s a lot of stuff that I took out because my family was like, “Okay, that’s not something that people get to see.” And there were people in my life that I’d harmed—I tried to write about that harm, because I thought that was the right thing to do. And some of those people were just like, “Naw, you don’t get to harm me and then ultimately get paid for harming me.” You know what I’m saying? So I had to take some other sections out of the book just because ethically it was wrong. But it was important for me to write it all out. All the stuff I’m talking about is in the subtext of the book. In a tell-all, I don’t think there’s much subtext. Everything is just explicit. I think there’s a ton of subtext in Heavy and I think people will know the emotional registers that I’m trying to play with. Though I give people way more, probably, than they deserve, to tell you the truth, just in terms of my information about me. But you know, whatever. I gotta sit in that. I gotta deal with that.
Has there been a dissonance between writing for your mom but knowing that all these other people are going to read it? Did you have to write it to your mom to write it?
I had to write it to my mom to write it. It was a different book initially. It was a weight-loss book. I was talking to my mom and my grandmom and my aunt and other people close to me about their relationships to weight and food and sexual violence. It was more of a reported book, and then a few things happened. People in my family were just lying. And I’m into language, so if you lie, that’s not a big deal, I’m still captivated by the language we use to tell lies, but at one point, I was just like, “Why y’all lying?” And they were just like, “Uh, ’cause it’s going in a book. Duh.” They were just like, “Why are you asking me? I’m lying because you’re trying to tell everybody our business.” And then I was just like, “You know what? I need to write back to them instead of just writing about them.”
And so initially, one section was written to my grandma, one section was written to my ma, one section was written to a partner that I had a long time ago, and one section was written to my daughter. I mean an imaginary daughter—I don’t have a daughter. I don’t have any children. So I wrote that draft and I kept thinking about what I didn’t say, what I didn’t write, what I couldn’t write, and then I was just like, “Man, I’m scared to write this to the person I need to write it to.” And that was my mama. I wrote it: draft, redraft, redraft. And then I showed it to her and we started having these conversations about lots of things we hadn’t talked about, particularly about addiction and violence. I went back and revised it again. I just needed my mama to get me through this. And my mama was the one who taught me how to write. My mama definitely would prefer me not to write this kind of book for lots of reasons, but in a lot of ways, she made me. She created me, but she also gave me my writing practice. So I just thought it made sense for this book to really be written to the person that I think made me, and also the person who I’m most like in ways that are great and also ways that maybe aren’t so great.
In centering survival, it seems like you also had a childhood that centered whiteness in some ways. A lot of things were about what white people thought or what white people would do to you. What does that do to a young black boy or young black girl?
I think it does exactly what it does. It’s weird because I grew up in a super-black house, super-black neighborhood, super-black communities, but this anxiety about white folks and what they would do if given opportunity was always around us, even before I went to white schools. Part of that is because I live in Mississippi, and the history of us and white folk is a brutal history, but I think sometimes it can inadvertently make white folks into the traffic cops of your life. It’s like what my mom always used to say, “You gotta be twice as good as white folks,” and I’m just like, “But they’re not even that excellent. Why are you trying to tell me to center some people that aren’t that excellent in my estimation?”
It makes us ignore the contours of our own imagination and our experiences. And I understand—it’s America. Everything is a big gumbo. But for me, I think it makes it harder for us to imagine because we’re literally told that if we imagine out of the box, white people are gon’ get us. And so when I bring that shit up in the book, I’m not trying to indict my grandmom, my mama, and them, because I understand. They’re trying to protect themselves and protect their child and their grandchild. I think that’s what a lot of black parents all over the world—definitely in the Deep South—do. But my thing is I don’t know. Do white people always have to be present?
Another reason I wrote to my mama was because I’m just tired of reading books where black people talk to white folks about white folks. I do think there’s a difference between writing a book to white people and writing a book that’s partially about the communicative gesture of always talking about white people to black folks. I just hate when I go to a speech or a talk and it’s a black person and they’re talking to a majority-white audience. There’s so many things that have to be synthesized and explained and it’s always cornier than it needs to be. I think there’s a pressure to write that kind of book and write those kinds of essays, and Lord knows those books and essays pay, but I ain’t wanna do that shit. I just didn’t wanna do that.
I grappled with this a lot in college in particular. I remember watching a play called Word Becomes Flesh, by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. It’s a series of letters from a black man to his unborn son that uses hip-hop, dance, and music. The audience watching the play was mostly white, and I just remember feeling like they were laughing at all the wrong parts.
Yeah, we all been there. Brutal.
I was just like, it’s great that this is touring and it was really important for me to see it, but what does it mean when black art needs white dollars to be sustainable?
That’s the question. That’s it. And if you expand it beyond what we traditionally call art—writing and dance and performance—if you think about the art of human being, what does it mean that in this country, in order to be sustainable, there’s a performative aspect to all of us? Not everybody, but most of us are performing—no matter how radical we are or claim to be, there’s a level of performance for white dollars. My grandmom performed that shit in the chicken plant. I often perform it in a fucking classroom or when I go to talk about my book. My mama, when she goes in the grocery store, she has to do a particular kind of performance for white folk in order to make it out of the grocery store, in order to make it home.
I had a lot, a lot, a lot of experiences with police that were just terrible and violent and I didn’t want to bring those into that book—I just wanted to allude to them, and the one episode that’s in there is with my mom, because I feel like sometimes we don’t think about the way black women encounter police, and the way black women who have children—not just black boys, but children—have to navigate police situations. It’s a performance, sometimes, just to make it home. And then you see somebody like Sandra Bland who was trying to do the performance. She’d been trained like we all had and she still didn’t make it home.
You once said in an interview that your mother equated survival with joy. That sentiment feels like it’s all over this book. But in that same interview, you say that you don’t believe survival and joy are the same thing. Do you feel that you’ve found joy?
I feel joyful having this conversation. I’m definitely beyond thinking about joy as this permanent destination the way I used to. I used to think about joy as a deliverance, like, I’m gonna be joyful, I’m gonna feel joyful. Now I think I’m more about, just, being able to articulate the times when I do feel immense joy. Like probably thirty minutes ago, the long list for fiction came out for the National Book Award and I mean, shit, I felt something beyond joy to see Jamel Brinkley and Nafissa Thompson-Spires and Tayari Jones there where they’re supposed to be. I think sometimes when you grow up the way a lot of us grew up, when the things that are supposed to happen actually do happen, you feel joy. We should live in a world where it’s like, Of course those books are on the long list. But it’s like when Serena Williams plays. My family’s just stuck at the TV because of course! She’s the greatest fucking athlete of whenever, but then of course she’s going to be treated like shit. Because she’s a black woman. And so, that makes the joy of watching her win so much better.
I’m able to articulate joy a little bit more, but I definitely used to think, Man, I feel kind of sad. I feel kind of in a funk. And if I could just make it to joy, everything’ll be all right. Or I used to be like, If my book gets published, Imma be joyful, or, If I get such and such, but my life ain’t like that. There’s some joyful shit every day, but I ain’t reached that joy as a destination point. I don’t think that exists, actually. Not for me.
That’s an interesting distinction. Not that it doesn’t exist at all, but just for you.
Yeah, definitely. I think it definitely exists.
In the book, there exists a duality between love and violence, between an unbreakable companionship and beatings and manipulation. In All about Love, bell hooks says, “No one can rightfully claim to be loving when behaving abusively.” Do you think violence and love can coexist?
I think love exists to confront violence—emotional violence, geographic violence, race violence, gendered violence. So yeah, I think they definitely coexist because love is always attempting, not to smother violence, but to disarm violence in some way. And I think we often use violence as a backlash to love. Like Baldwin always says, and like Morrison teaches us, love is not pure. It’s dirty and it’s necessarily stanky and funky.
In some ways, it seems like love can be a finite resource when you’re strapped for other things. If you have to worry about keeping a roof over your head and how much money you’ll have for the rest of the month and whether there’s food in the fridge, you may not have the space to learn how to love well. Do you think learning to love well is a luxury?
I actually don’t think that. I don’t think there’s any way in the world I would be like, Most of the people I met who have an abundance of stuff are better at loving. Everything that they encourage us to have as black folk—be in a two-parent home, go to “the best schools,” have money in your home—everything that we supposedly want or have been taught to want and need, that dude Donald Trump had. That motherfucker is terrible at loving, as are the people who elected him. So I don’t know if it’s a luxury.
You write that your mom never wanted you to let white folks see you fail. Do you still worry about that? Does she?
She definitely does. Me, not as much. And that brings me joy. I can definitely say at this point in my life, I’m cool failing in front of white folks. And that failure could manifest in walking into a hotel filled with white people and tripping. I dress how I want to dress all the time now in my life, I talk how I want to talk. But it’s a paradox. I’m not wealthy, so I also need money and I know that if I cut up too much, Imma cut my check. You know? And if I cut my check, my grandmama not gon’ have the health care she needs next month and my mama might not have this and my auntie might not have that. So I’m not tryna front like I’m all liberated and shit, but I kinda sorta don’t give a fuck about what they think about me in the moment. But my mother absolutely, absolutely, absolutely cares about that and I understand why. My grandmother too.
Do you feel like the not caring allows for a freedom of humanity that the desperation of caring doesn’t?
I do. I definitely think that. And it’s not just not caring. For me, it’s about what I actually do care about. So my mother, for example, doesn’t want me to have the word ain’t in anything I write. She might not love that word, but also, she still might be like, “You know, Kie, if they see you writing that, they’re not going to think you’re blah blah blah, and if they think you’re not intellectually capable, you’re going to limit your economic options in the future.” And what I’m trying to tell my mama is that I am an artist, so when I’m writing a line that one character is saying, “I ain’t going,” and the other character is saying, “How come?” and another character be like, “ ’Cuz I don’t want to,” that to me is not performing for white people. It’s trying to honor the rhetorical discursive tradition that made us. That’s not just about, Imma do this ’cuz white people want me or don’t want me to. That’s actually about what we talked about earlier in terms of centering. I just want to try to rigorously honor the words and the sentences that made us. That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do in my work.
You’ve said that this book was you asking your mom for help. What has been the result of her reading it?
Initially, her response was going to be the last chapter, but then we decided not to do that, so on my blog, she wrote a response to the book. What she wrote in there was something I’d just never thought my mom would say publicly. She admits to certain things that I never thought she would. We’ve had conversations that we never thought we would have. But it’s not like it’s all good now. It’s better—it’s definitely better. I just think it’s important for us to have the words love and violence and addiction and joy. It means a lot to be able to talk to my mama about the ways I’ve harmed and failed at life, too, because I’m just a private person in a way, even though I write a lot of shit that’s not private. And I think it helps her see her son, maybe for the first time really. Honestly. And I think that’s really scary for my mama. Definitely scary for me.
Read Kiese Laymon’s essay “World’s Finest Chocolate” in our Summer 2018 issue
Abigail Bereola is a writer and the books editor at The Rumpus.
Last / Next Article