Heavy are the Words of Kiese Laymon
"I think Heavy is a new kind of book—not that it’s completely innovative, but there are some things that you’re going to read in it that you’ve never read before."
In his latest release, Heavy: An American Memoir, Kiese Laymon bares his soul with his moving recollection of growing up in the American South. His unapologetically candid
and evocative approach to telling his story engrosses one instantly.
His fascination with words and their arrangement aids his mission to
"do the work." It is abundantly clear that Kiese, or "Kie," is in the business of liberation through language, with every sentence and paragraph purposed and prepped for maximum impact.
A Jackson, Mississippi native, Kiese Laymon previously released a novel, Long Division, and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
We were lucky enough to pose a few questions and get heavy with him.
You were born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. Like many parts of the South, Mississippi is known for its shameful history of racism, but also for the indisputable fortitude of people of African descent. How would you describe your relationship with your homeland?
I feel really lucky to be born and raised in the South, particularly in Jackson, MS. I grew up aware that white people lived in my state and really had most of the power, but Jackson is a predominately black city so I thought the state had a lot of black people. When I grew up, I found out that was not true. For a writer or artist, it’s one of the best places in the world to grow up. There such a rich history of art—literary art and visual art. One of the reasons I think it’s so rich is because of the robust forces in my state that brutalize people. I think the clash of people that want to harm vulnerable people, and the fact that vulnerable people often create art in the face of that harm, makes my state special to me.
In the beginning of Heavy, you write, “I wanted to write a lie.” Why do you think lies have so much power in influencing decisions and thoughts?
I just think lies are easier. It’s easier to walk through life believing A when B is true, or when both A and B may be true. It’s easier to make money if you lie. It’s easier to get people to like you if you lie. I think corporations encourage this. With the book, I think people wanted to read one of those stories that ends with everything being hunky-dory. Like, “I lost all this weight…my family lost weight and we came to the conclusion that to be healthy in this country, all we need to do is eat right and talk to each other a little bit more…” Maybe. But there’s a lot of nasty stuff too and I wanted to write about a lot of that.
Certainly the task of writing Heavy must have been tough at times. How did you find the courage and emotional capacity necessary to reflect on your past?
I found the courage by writing two other books—two other books that were really different from this book. Those books were important and I honed my skills with them. I had to have a particular kind of skillset to write Heavy. That’s why I couldn’t create the book for two decades. I didn’t know how to enter into some of those memories. I didn’t know how to use the right adjectives and page breaks. Once I got my skills right, that helped build my courage. I had to write a lot to get the skill to create it.
The memoir recounts your life from your childhood to adulthood. What would say to the child version Kiese?
I would say, as much as possible, never lie–never lie to himself or to people that he loves. And get some sleep ‘cause this life shit is no joke.
Heavy is dubbed, “An American Memoir.” Surely the events and moments detailed in the book have shaped your identity. How do you currently define your identity, particularly your “Americanness?”
I’m a black American writer from the South. I’m not one of these ‘rah-rah American’ type of people. I’m a very ‘rah-rah Black American’ type of person. I don’t understand patriotism. I just don’t understand it. “American” is a very nuanced word to me. Some people just want to focus on the positives of that word and not the terrifying things about the word. I’m an American—I’m not proud of that and I’m not spiteful of it either. It’s a brutal mix of a lot of stuff. I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about the brutality of the nation and the ways in which it has seeped into all of us. When I call Heavy “An American Memoir,” I’m saying, “This is an American story. It’s critical of the nation. It’s also embracing of the nation.” Ultimately it’s saying, “We’ve got to do better, or else…” and actually, I think we’ve already met the “or else…”
Can you talk about the significance that black women had in shaping you and your worldview?
Generally, in my life and in the lives of black men that I grew up with, black women were the only people on which we could rely. But sometimes when you say that, it’s easy for people to see black women as perfect. One of things I’m showing in the book is that one of the ways you love people, is to show them what you remember about them. In that memory there’s going to be some wonderful stuff, but because they’re people, there’s going to be some not so wonderful stuff too. In general, I would say black women have taught me how to read, how to write, how to love, how to listen. If I’m also being honest, some of the black women in my family—because they were dealing with a lack of love from the nation, black men, and white folks—were also harmful and abusive. In my family, sometimes the people that were the kindest and the most generous and impactful to me, were also harmful. I’m talking specifically about my mom. Thankfully, she tried to instill in me the importance of revision, which means that I look back at way she parented, the way I was as a child, and how I’ve chosen to live in this world. That’s a gift from her. It’s complicated. At the end of the day, black women are not magical, but they have held this country down, in spite of the way it has treated them.
The memoir’s title, Heavy, can be used to describe the subject matter of the book, some of the events in your life, and even your physical weight as a child. One of the definitions of “heavy” is “something a great weight.” What is the “heaviest” thing about Kiese Laymon?
I would say the heaviest things about me are my memory and my imagination. They’re far heavier than my body, far heavier than my relationship with my state, my nation, and my mama.
In the memoir, you talk about your early relationship with books and language. Can you expound on this early impact that written language had in your life?
My mom had me at a young age. She was a student and was always into books, so they were always around. Because they were around, I was never intimidated by them. I read a lot, but I really didn’t like books because they kept me from being outside with my friends. My mama made me read and write before I could do anything I wanted to do. She wanted me to read all the white canonical books. She thought that if I mastered that kind of stuff, I would be safer in the country and in the world. I always knew I’d write books, but I never thought they would be good books. When you have so many of them in your house, you realize most aren’t good. I figured I could write some bad ones. But reading books by Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Richard Wright really make my memory and imagination so heavy. I see what people like that did with their memory and imagination and it makes you know what is possible. It gives you goals and lets you know that there’s something possible beyond the goal and beyond your imagination, if that’s even a place. I just want always seek to go there.
What is one of the more recent lessons that you have learned about yourself?
The same thing that made me gain 150 lbs is the same thing that make lose damn near 200 lbs. That same thing made me able to write Heavy, Long Division, and How to Slow Kill Yourself and Others in America. When I’m writing, I’m obsessive about the line, the break, and what I’m going with chapters and characters. That obsessive compulsion can used in wonderful ways but can also be used in ways that are completely harmful. Thankfully, I can use writing to explore the compulsion. But I didn’t really accept that until I finished this book.
Does that impact how do you deal with making your personal writing available to the public?
I’m like an obsessive reviser, so it makes editors really upset. For example, the book was done and then I did the audiobook. I saw sentences and words that I wanted to change, so I did. In a way, I think that’s good but I don’t know how to let anything go. So Heavy is out in the world now, but when I read over it, there’s a whole lot of stuff that I want to change. What I have to do is save that editing for the next book.
Why do you think people should read Heavy?
We see a lot of books where fathers are writing to sons, mothers are writing to daughters, and parents in general are writing to their children, but don’t see black child writing to black parent. I think Heavy is a new kind of book—not that it’s completely innovative, but there are some things that you’re going to read in it that you’ve never read before. I also think people should read it so they can write their own versions of it. I hope people see it as a weighted look into themselves. It’s hard and it might not be for everybody, but for folks that really want to do the work and see a model of how to talk to people that raised them, how to talk to themselves, and how to be honest without being obsessed with progress, I think it’s a good book for them.
In 50-100 years from now, what do you people to understand about you?
I just want people to care about the work. It’s difficult because the work, on the surface, is so much about me. But in the work, I’m laying out what I see as the cracks of who I am. There’s a really hyperbolic “I” in the book, but it’s so connected to a “we.” I want people to say he created some art and really did some work for us.