As he did in his previous two books, Kiese Laymon calls out White supremacy in his latest, “Heavy: An American Memoir.” The book, which was released today (October 16), is certainly political. But it is also a very specific story about a heavyset Black boy from Jackson, Mississippi, who was taught but never believed that being exceptional would protect him from the ever-present racism and violence of his surroundings.
Written to his mother, a single Jackson State University professor who had him when she was a college sophomore, “Heavy” details many of the traumas Laymon sustained growing up. He recalls his mom beating him “for not being perfect” and her boyfriend beating her. He tells of a babysitter who molested him and of a group of his male friends who gang-raped one of his female friends. There is the poverty that persists in his household despite his mother’s degrees and help from his grandmother. There is Laymon’s gambling addiction and his deeply destructive relationship to food.
And yet “Heavy” is not an indictment of Laymon’s family, his community or himself. It is a consideration of what life could look like if we all told the whole truth. Colorlines talked to Laymon, a professor of English and creative writing at The University of Mississippi, a few days before the official release of “Heavy.” The result is this candid Q+A edited for length and clarity.
Has your family read the book?
I had to show it to my mama along the way. If she didn’t want something in there, I wanted to give her a chance to talk to me about it. My auntie has also read it, and I read it to my grandmama. I was surprised at how supportive and loving they were.
Why did you decide to write a book to a “you” that is your mother?
You know, it was an entirely different book at first. At first I was going to [document losing] 100 or 150 pounds while talking to my mama, grandmama and aunts about their relationships to food and weight and sexual violence. But along the way, while talking to them, I decided to write to them [because] a lot of stories they were telling me just weren’t true. I was like, So we lying right now. Let me try to write a book back to them where I don’t lie.
Next, I planned to write one chapter to my grandmama, one to my mama, one to my imaginary daughter and one to an ex-girlfriend. Then I realized the hardest chapter to write was to my mama because [growing up] it was just me and her. She [was] very young, and there’s just a lot of things that we never talked about. I wanted to do the hardest thing I could, which is to write it directly to her.
You don’t really discuss your father or other father figures in the book.
I didn’t grow up with any men. I’m working on a project now where I’m trying to write about my relationship with my father, but he just wasn’t there. That book wouldn’t have been longer than 15 pages.
Let’s talk about your relationship to food and weight in the book. You write about loving the feeling of binging on junk food early in your life and later loving the feeling of starving yourself. Did you know at any point that you had eating disorders?
No. I had never heard the word “binge,” and I definitely had never heard the word “purge.” I’d heard of anorexia, but at the time I thought it was something that only White girls had.
I just knew that I liked to eat. And I knew when I ate a lot of what people consider bad food it made me feel good but it also made me feel terrible. When I started starving and running myself into exhaustion, I also felt euphoric. I got to the point where I was eating two packs of ramen once every three days. It wasn’t good for me, but I was losing weight. I started getting a lot more attention from people. I started to take up a lot less space. That might be part of why I felt so good. I mean, in retrospect I was trying to disappear, but I didn’t know it was an eating disorder.
How’d you come to realize it?
As a teacher now, in the 2000s, you actually have to talk to your students about a lot. One of my students talked to me about binging and purging. When I really started to think about it, I was just like, Oh! I started doing all this research and realizing that there was something really wrong with me. Part of not knowing was because I was a boy. Young men are taught that we don’t have eating disorders, but I think most of us do.
As a Black man writing about a disorder that has been depicted as only a White women’s disease, do you ever feel self-conscious? Have people tried to question your masculinity because of it?
It gets complicated. I have definitely felt [self-conscious], but there’s this thing in our culture where the bar is so low for us as Black men that if we just admit something, hordes of women will be there to encourage us. We don’t even have to deal with it. We don’t even have to attend to it. We just have to say it. And, to be honest, it was easier for me to write about starvation than it was for me to write about—I don’t even know what to call the other side—binging or just fucking just eating.
How we eat in my family—we just eat. That speaks to [the idea of] gluttony and all these other things that we’re told are just the worst. I can’t front like I’m through it. There’s still a part of me that is always like, Man, I ain’t going to eat nothing tomorrow. I can say out loud,”You know, I’m thinking about doing this cleanse.” Then somebody will be like, “What’s in the cleanse?” And I’ll be like, ”Water.” But I’ll never be like, “Yo, I’m fixin’ to eat me about four large fries and some honey buns and just lay up on my couch.” I won’t ever articulate that shit because that’s shameful.
So in “Heavy” you write about how you got kicked out of your first college, Millsaps, in retaliation for your writings about racism on campus. A friend there, Ray Gunn, introduces you to the phrase “anti-Black” when he tells you that confronting White people the way you were at the time was a problem because you hadn’t worked out your own relationship to anti-Blackness. This idea of refusing to live a life where you explain things to White folks is interesting because so much of what we read today is about proximity to Whiteness. But you were having this conversation 23 years ago.
My boy was real interesting because he was always trying to create new slang. He said “anti-Blackness” because we would be talking about anti-Semitism, and he was like, “You know, we need to talk about anti-Blackness.” What he was saying was, “Damn, I know you love us, but why are you so obsessed with trying to change these people? While you messing with them, there’s a whole lot of other stuff that you’re not writing about and that you’re not doing that involves Black people.” He was right. When I got kicked out of school for arguing with these White folks, Jackson State University, where my mama worked, where I was born, was at risk of shutting down. Writing to White people had started to feel good and exciting.
Do you ever get tired of this discussion?
I get bored with a lot of this. I mean, honestly, I’m not dissing nobody else’s work because I think we all got to eat. I think we always need to push White people to be accountable for what they do, but we also need to acknowledge that titillating them with how they can be better people is a hustle. Why do I say it’s a hustle? Because, shit, people who are way better writers than all of us tried to do the same thing. They didn’t listen to [James] Baldwin! Shit, they didn’t listen to Fannie Lou Hamer who I think the most percussive, eloquent, clear speaker that I’ve heard in my lifetime.
In the beginning of the book you share how your mother’s student who babysat you sexually abused you. But you also talk about pleasure in that context. Why?
Let me start by saying that I’m not at all trying to equate what happened to me with what happened to a lot of the girls that were around me. It was different.
But the thing that I wanted to say was when that woman picked me, picked my fat-ass body at the time, I felt special. When I’m talking to people about this, I’m not just trying to talk about the explicit violence of it. I’m also trying to talk about the consequences. Growing up in a big Black body in the South, I just wanted to be touched, even if that touch was abusive. That’s why even when my mama was whipping my ass, it almost got to a point where the days when she didn’t whip my ass I was confused. Later I would get in these relationships with women who were complicated and strong, but also weren’t going to take no shit. This meant that if I talked to them any kind of way, they were going to hit me. I just recently realized I was always longing for touch‚ even violent touch.
I’ve seen ”Heavy” described as “difficult,” “searing” and “explosive.” How do those words make you feel about what you wrote?
Well, first of all, I’m just happy that anybody reads what I write. I want to put that out there first. But I think that when people say “Heavy” is difficult they mean that watching this person suffer is hard. And, just on a technical level, I think there’s a little difficulty because I’m not addressing the reader explicitly. I’m addressing the “you,” which you can tell early in the book is my mom.
What do you want this book to do?
There are two answers to that. The first answer is that my family was in a really bad way when I was writing it. We almost lost each other from the lying, the gambling, the deception and the different kinds of theft that we never talked about. My family does that thing where if somebody does something wrong to us, we call the other person. If my mama did me dirty, I’d call my grandmama and she would talk about my mama. If I did my grandmama dirty, my grandmama would call my mom. So on a basic level I wanted to use what my mama and my grandmama gave me—the gift of reading and writing—to try to heal my family.
What’s the second answer?
The second is that I know that a lot of other people, particularly Black folk, are experiencing these things too. I wanted to write a book encouraging and modeling a kind of messy familial reckoning. It’s not like a pill that makes things better. It’s showing people one way to think about communicating with those people you claim you love.
Can you say more about writing about the messiness of your family?
If you don’t really name the harm you felt like you experienced, it’s just going to be hard to go forward. [Failing to talk about] the violence makes love and collective political organizing less effective. We’re all just working from these really fractured fucking places without talking about the fracture. But if we do a better job of communicating about these things, we’re more likely to collectively organize—and to swing back with more force.