Reviews: Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon | More2Read Best Books
 

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon


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.


Praise for Heavy:

“With echoes of Roxane Gay and John Edgar Wideman, Laymon defiantly exposes the ‘aches and changes’ of growing up black in this raw, cathartic memoir reckoning with his turbulent Mississippi childhood, adolescent obesity, and the white gaze.”
—O Magazine

“[Heavy] take[s] on the important work of exposing the damage done to America, especially its black population, by the failure to confront the myths, half-truths, and lies at the foundation of the success stories that the nation worships. In the process, Laymon … dramatize[s] a very different route to victory: the quest to forge a self by speaking hard truths, resisting exploitation, and absorbing with grace the cost of being black in America while struggling to live a life of virtue…You won’t be able to put [this memoir] down, but not because [it is] breezy reading. [It is], in Laymon’s multilayered word, heavy—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

“Staggering … Laymon lays out his life with startling introspection. Heavy is comforting in its familiarity, yet exacting in its originality … Laymon subtitled his book, ‘An American Memoir,’ and that’s more than a grandiose proclamation. He is a son of this nation whose soil is stained with the blood and sweat of his ancestors. In a country both deserving of his love and hate, Laymon is distinctly American. Like the woman who raised him and the woman who raised her, he carries that weight, finding uplift from sorrow and shelter from the storms that batter black bodies.”
—Boston Globe

“Staggering … a heartbreaking narrative on black bodies: how we hurt them, protect them, and try to heal them.”
—Elle.com, Best Books of 2018

“Weight is both unavoidably corporeal and a load-bearing metaphor in novelist-essayist Kiese Laymon’s sharp, (self-)lacerating memoir, addressed to the single teen mom turned professor who raised him to become exceptional…a deeply personal book, where race, class, and the scars of sexual violence are front and center.”
—New York Magazine

“Laymon’s memoir is a reckoning, pulling from his own experience growing up poor and black in Jackson, Mississippi, and tracking the most influential relationships, for better or worse, of his life: with his brilliant but struggling single mother, his loving grandma, his body and the ways he nurtures and punishes it, his education and creativity, and the white privilege that drives the world around him…with shrewd analysis, sharp wit, and great vulnerability — Laymon forces the reader to fully consider the effects of the nation’s inability to reconcile its pride and ambition with its shameful history.”
—Buzzfeed

“This memoir from Kiese Laymon, whose previous books include the novel Long Division, looks at what it’s like to grow up different in the American South. “
—Town & Country

“Laymon revisits the abuse he suffered growing up both black and obese in Mississippi, as well as his complex relationship with his mother. A book for people who appreciated Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Laymon examines his relationship with his mother growing up as a black man in the South, exploring how racial violence suffered by both impacts his physical and emotional selves.”
—Time

“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

“[Laymon] unleashes his incendiary truth-seeking voice on a memoir that leaves no stone unturned in his examination of a life surrounded by poverty, sexual violence, racism, obesity and gambling. But Heavy is also about the lies family members tell each other and the heartache of growing up in Mississippi the son of a complicated mother.”
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Kiese Laymon is one of the most dazzling, inventive, affecting essayists working today, and his memoir lives up to the dizzyingly high expectations set for it. In Heavy, Laymon explores his tumultuous relationship with his brilliant mother, what it meant to grow up as a fiercely smart, rebellious black man in Mississippi, and his trouble with addiction in various forms. Laymon is fearless in his willingness to go to the darkest, the most tender, the most raw spaces of his life, and of our shared lives in the fragile experiment that is America. His writing will shock and comfort you, make you realize you are not alone, and stun you with its insights about desire, need, and love.”
—Nylon.com

“Weight is both unavoidably corporeal and a load-bearing metaphor in this novelist-essayist’s sharp and (self-) lacerating memoir, addressed to the single teen-mom-turned-professor who raised him to become exceptional, sometimes using a belt … Race, class, and the scars of sexual violence are front-and-center, a constant pressure and threat, but its effects are registered at ground level, a space too complex and for pop sociology.”
—Vulture

“Kiese Laymon’s intense, layered Heavy is a provocatively personal look at racism and oppression in America … Laymon’s prose positively sings, helped by the humanity and humor he brings to this astonishing memoir.”
—The A.V. Club

“Laymon provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot.”
—EntertainmentWeekly.com

“In Heavy, Laymon has written a memoir that feels like a body blow … Through it all, Laymon’s love for language and words drives his intellectual curiosity. Laymon’s reputation as a writer grows with each piece he produces. Heavy will cement his reputation as one of America’s best writers.”
—Signature Reads

“Stylish and complex … Laymon convincingly conveys that difficult times can be overcome with humor and self-love, as he makes readers confront their own fears and insecurities.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more. Laymon skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own … Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics. A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Spectacular … So artfully crafted, miraculously personal, and continuously disarming, this is, at its essence, powerful writing about the power of writing.”
—Booklist

“Oh my god. Heavy is astonishing. Difficult. Intense. Layered. Wow. Just wow.”
–Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

“What I have always loved about Kiese Laymon is that he is as beautiful a person as he is a writer. What he manages to do in the space of a sentence is unparalleled, and that’s because no one else practices the art of revision as an act of love quite like Kiese. He loves his mother, his grandmama, Mississippi, black folks, his students, his peers, and anyone else willing to embrace his love enough to give us this gorgeous memoir, Heavy. This reckoning with trauma, terror, fear, sexual violence, abuse, addiction, family, secrets, lies, truth, and the weight of the nation and his body would be affecting in less capable hands, but with Kiese at the helm it is nothing short of a modern classic. These sentences that he so painstakingly crafted are some the most arresting ever printed in the English language. Kiese’s heart and humor shine through, and we are blessed to have such raw humanity rendered in prose that begs for repeat readings. We do not deserve Heavy. We do not deserve Kiese. That he is generous enough to share is testament to his commitment to helping us all heal.
–Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching

“There are those rare writers in the world whose work unearths the stories that have been buried in and around us for so long. They force us to confront all that we would be rather not see, and ask us to reckon with why we have failed to see it for so long. Kiese Laymon is one such rare writer. Heavy is a memoir, yes, but it is also a testament to a sort of truth and self-reflection that is increasingly rare in our world today. If for some reason you were not already convinced, there should no longer be any doubt that Kiese Laymon is one of the important writers of our time.”
–Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent

“At once tender and explosive, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy is a growing-up story laden with an unusual candor. The book is stark, beautiful, challenging, and refreshing. Laymon explores abuse, love, violence, addiction, gender, and race without ever veering into the realm of the titillating or dehumanizing. He carries his people with a sweetness and fullness of heart that allows them to shine in three dimensions, allowed to be ugly and complicated and beloved and human. The abundance of Heavy is going to be a gift for many hurting hearts, in our time and beyond.”
–Eve Ewing, author of Electric Arches

“With Heavy, Laymon has outlined the wretched shape of our relentless national lie with duty and precision, breathing and pouring into it to shine the light ever brighter on its contours and limits. Heavy is an intimate excavation, a diagnosis, and a prescription for a cure for the terrifying dishonesty of the American body politic. I did not want to remember what I have found necessary to forget. Ready or not, Heavy remembers for me, and for us all, with the exquisite black southern precision of a post-soul blues. Its brilliance is in its intimate and firm reminder that we are more than what has been done to us by others and by this nation, and that we can and must unburden ourselves as we move towards freedom. With Heavy, Laymon, the chief blues scribe of our time, writes and plays us a path through the weight of things.”
–Zandria Robinson, author of This Ain’t Chicago

“Kiese Laymon’s new book is an emotional powerhouse. He fearlessly takes the reader into the dark corners of his interior life. Wound, grief, and enduring pain reside there. But this book is a love letter. And, as we all know, love is a beautiful and funky experience. Thank you, Kiese, for this gift.”
–Eddie Glaude, author of Democracy in Black

“Kiese Laymon has done nothing less than write the autobiography of the first generation of African-Americans born after the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and the Black Power ethos of the 1970s. His story of grappling with love and violence and language and our bodies is this generation’s story, and it is as moving and heartbreaking and heartwarming as you would expect. And then some.”
–Courtney Baker, author of Humane Insight

“Heavy is an act of truth telling unlike any other I can think of in American literature, partly due to Laymon’s uniquely gifted mind—his ability to pursue the ways we lie to each other while also loving each other, or, not, and the humility he brings to bear while doing so, this consistently brings us back to life, to what matters in this world. Heavy is a gift to us, if we can pick it up—a moral exercise and an intimate history that is at the same time a story about America.”
—Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

“On the low, many in these United States of America imagine that to be black means that whiteness, whether in its feigned supremacy or brutal imaginings, should be the center of every black story. But nah, that’s meager. In Heavy, the Kiese Laymon remembers how people who loved each other or might of loved each other, nearly shattered everything around them with hurt and then struggled to piece it all back together. Kiese crafts the most honest and intimate account of growing up black and southern since Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Circumventing the myths about blackness, he writes something as complex and fragile as who we is. An insider’s look into the making of a writer, Heavy is part memoir and part look into the books that turned a kid into a story teller. Heavy invites us into a black South that remembers that we loved each other through it all. In “Nikki-Rosa,” Nikki Giovanni wrote that ‘black love is black wealth.’ This book is the weight of black love, and might we all be wealthy by daring to open up to it.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom

“Heavy heaves, sings, hums, and runs all night to make it clear that there’s an alternative, that Black history’s first premise is mutuality. That mutuality isn’t perfect, ain’t safe, it’s dangerous, in fact, and Heavy moves in a terrible and beautiful and so gentle proximity to that—at crucial times our primary—danger, the ones we love and who love us the most. I was with Kiese the whole damn heavy-floating way, word for word in laughter and tears, in recognition, refraction and revelation. But, way more than any of those, sentence by sentence, I was with Kiese in thanks.”
—Ed Pavlic, author of Another Kind of Madness

“In Heavy, Kiese Laymon asks how to survive in a body despite the many violences that are inflicted upon it: the violence of racism, of misogyny, of history — the violence of a culture that treats the bodies of black men with fear and suspicion more often than with tenderness and attentive care. In prose that sears at the same time as it soars, Kiese Laymon breaks the unbearable silence each of these violences, in their peculiar cruelty, has imposed. Permeated with humility, bravery, and a bold intersectional feminism, Heavy is a triumph. I stand in solidarity with this book, and with its writer.”
–Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side and The Reckonings

“How appropriate Kiese Laymon’s stunning memoir is titled, Heavy. Not only are the stains and hurt highlighted here, heavy, but also the writer’s capacity to revive graveyards of ghosts who haunt and seemingly will continue to haunt the protagonist. Laymon is a fearless writer, our writer, who’s willing to expose and explore his most vulnerable interiors so that we might get closer to our truths. This is a southern book for backroads and cornbread, for Cadillacs and collard greens, for big mamas and moonshine. Heavy is full of our beautiful and ugly histories, and a declaration of how we might seek redemption. The colorful and complicated characters here speak a blues and poetry that is both nostalgic and familiar. This is the book we need right now. We should all be thankful for this ultramodern weighty testament of heartache, catharsis, and utter brilliance.”
—Derrick Harriell, author of Stripper in Wonderland and Ropes

“You do not just read Kiese Laymon’s work. It does a reading of you too—one that unburies the stories you thought you would never be able to tell truthfully, and reminds you of your voice to tell them. Heavy marks this quality in its highest definition yet. Written with as much devastating poignance as a humor only the Black South could inspire, Heavy asks readers not just to observe Laymon’s courageous journey to understand even the most frightening complexities of life in an anti-Black, sexist, fatphobic society, but to embark on it with him. In doing so, Laymon’s gorgeous wordsmithing moves us beyond simple binaries of pleasure and pain, joy and trauma, toward a deeper love for communities too often flattened into one dimension. Heavy is a book for the ages.”
—Hari Ziyad, author of Black Boy Out of Time

“Heavy is beautiful, lyrical, painful, and really brave. It is both exigent and timeless. Laymon’s use of juxtaposition—of the political and personal, the many stories of dishonesty and history, violence, everything—is all-world.”
—Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People


Review:

No unnecessary words, straight to the heart, the voice, the life story and complexities, heart at battle with all the trajectories and the weighing things of life and the self, through the intersections of love and at the crossroads of interloping violence and racism in the world one young black male denizen of Mississippi walked and breathed.

The narrative taking you by the hand into a life, into a body that is heavy in weight but at the same time heavy with struggles, pains and joys, something he called “having the most fear-provoking body in a contained American space.”

A ballad of honesty and humanness, of vulnerabilities and fortitude, stark and raw, reflections and love filled testaments to a mother, sentences crafted with a melody and easy reading quandary of assimilating words, emotions and thoughts. A necessary narrative from a formidable new writing voice.


Excerpts:

“I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie. I did not want to write honestly about black lies, black thighs, black loves, black laughs, black foods, black addictions, black stretch marks, black dollars, black words, black abuses, black blues, black belly buttons, black wins, black beens, black bends, black consent, or black children. I did not want to write about us.
I wanted to write a lie.
I wanted to do that old black work of pandering and lying to folk who pay us to pander and lie to them every day.”

“Right there, in the same spot where I remember Grandmama teaching me how to hang up clothes on the clothesline, she told me about not being able to vote, not pissing where she needed to piss, not eating what she needed to eat, not walking how she needed to walk, not driving when she needed to drive because she was born a poor black girl in Scott County, Mississippi. She talked about the shame of white-folk wants always trumping black-folk needs. She talked about how much she loved eating vegetables off her land, and the fear of running north with the rest of her family during the Great Migrations. Grandmama told me survival stories placed in offices, washrooms, Sunday school classrooms, parking lots, kitchens, fields, and bedrooms. She told me stories featuring her body and the white foremen at the chicken plant. She told me about Mr. Mumford, about the deacons at our church, about the men who worked the line with her. She told me stories about her father, her uncles, her cousins, and her husband. “I think the men folk forgot,” she said near the end, “that I was somebody’s child.”

“You and I have never been a family of cabinets filled with Band-Aids, alcohol, and peroxide. We have never been a family of tuck-ins and bedtime stories any more than we’ve been a family of consistent bill money, pantries, full refrigerators, washers and dryers. We have always been a bent black southern family of laughter, outrageous lies, and books. The presence of all those books, all that laughter, all our lies, and your insistence I read, reread, write, and revise in those books, made it so I would never be intimidated or easily impressed by words, punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and white space. You gave me a black southern laboratory to work with words. In that space, I learned how to assemble memory and imagination when I most wanted to die.”

“Nothing I’d read in school prepared me to think through the permanence of violence in Mississippi, Maryland, and the whole nation. After school, I kept reading and rearranging the words I’d written, trying to understand what the words meant for my understanding of violence. 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. Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns. Revised thought patterns shaped memory. I knew, looking at all those words, that memories were there. I just had to rearrange, add, subtract, sit, and sift until I found a way to free the memory.”

“I still wrote every night and revised every morning, but practicing crafting formidable sentences just made me a formidable sentence writer. The other part of writing required something more than just practice, something more than reading, too. It required loads of unsentimental explorations of black love. It required an acceptance of our strange. And mostly, it required a commitment to new structures, not reformation. I’d spent eighteen years reading the work of supposed excellent sentence-writers who did not love, or really see us. Many wrote for us, without writing to us. 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.”

“That night, I started rereading Black Boy. Reading the book at Millsaps felt like a call to arms. Reading the book in my bed, a few feet from your room, in our house, felt like a whisper wet with warm saliva. Wright wrote about disasters and he let the reader know that there wasn’t one disaster in America that started the day everything fell apart. I wanted to write like Wright far more than I wanted to write like Faulkner, but I didn’t really want to write like Wright at all. I wanted to fight like Wright. I wanted to craft sentences that styled on white folk, and dared them to do anything about the styling they’d just witnessed. I understood why Wright left Jackson, left Mississippi, left the Deep South, and ultimately left the nation. But I kept thinking about how Grandmama didn’t leave when she could. I thought about how you left and chose to come back. I thought about how I chose to stay. I wondered if the world would have ever read Wright had he not left Mississippi. I wondered if black children born in Mississippi after Wright would have laughed, or smiled more at his sentences if he imagined Mississippi as home. I wondered if he thought he’d come back home soon the day he left for Chicago.”





 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 16 October 2018