Heavy: An American Memoir
In this powerful and provocative memoir, genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse.
Kiese Laymon is a fearless writer. In his essays, personal stories combine with piercing intellect to reflect both on the state of American society and on his experiences with abuse, which conjure conflicted feelings of shame, joy, confusion and humiliation. Laymon invites us to consider the consequences of growing up in a nation wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.
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 his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and 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 personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family that begins with a confusing childhood—and continues through twenty-five years of haunting implosions and long reverberations.
Author: Kiese Laymon | Publisher: Scribner
“I will wonder if the memories that remain with age are heavier than the ones we forget because they mean more to us, or if our bodies, like our nation, eventually purge memories we never wanted to be true.”
This may have been the most personal memoir I have ever read. Laymon isn't just writing about his life; he's practically writing poetry about his soul. I kept being re-surprised, over and over, at just how many of his deepest, darkest, most private thoughts, feelings, and actions were put down into words for the world to read.
“For the first time in my life, I realized telling the truth was way different from finding the truth, and finding the truth had everything to do with revisiting and rearranging words. Revisiting and rearranging words didn’t only require vocabulary; it required will, and maybe courage.”
Laymon grew up in the Deep South, where he was exposed to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse all around him — not just to him, but also to the people he loved or idolized. He grew up hard-headed, for sure, but the contrast between this part of his personality — which was apparent from his actions — and the more introspective emotions he can now identify is striking.
But perhaps the bravest, most impressive part of this book is the fact that it's written to his mother. Like he's telling her the story of his life and her part in it — all of it, the good and the bad. Some of it very bad. No punches held, it seems. Writing true stories about the real people in your life is scary enough; it's a different kind of brave to write to them.
“After reading Bambara, I wondered for the first time how great an American sentence, paragraph, or book could be if it wasn’t, at least partially, written to and for black Americans in the Deep South.”
I'm a white woman from New York, so it's very safe to say that my privilege keeps me from understanding or empathizing about any of the experiences Laymon describes. I expected to get a glimpse into his culture, his struggles, his life. (This is why we read memoirs, after all.)
What I didn't expect — perhaps because Laymon's absolutely correct that so much of what's written by black Americans is written for white people rather than to and for black Americans, as this is — was to get so wholly absorbed by the power of Laymon's writing to the point that I temporarily forgot that I am "them." That I may have scratched the surface of feeling, temporarily, what it's like to be up against all of history and all of America's whiteness.
That was remarkable. And powerful.