“Heavy: An American Memoir”
by Kiese Laymon
“Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers”
I first heard of Kiese Laymon’s work in a book review podcast and was immediately drawn into his discussion of revision. He is known for buying back the rights to one of his books to change some of the essays previously published. Unlike the publishing industry, Laymon does not view published work as ever really being finished. He believes in revisiting the past with the perspective of the present. He dares to say he was wrong.
In his memoir Heavy, Laymon recounts the heartbreaking reality of growing up with a mother who loved him ferociously and broke his heart daily. As a young boy, Kiese is the overweight black kid who buries his feelings in food and seeks acceptance from his mother and peers. As a successful, yet poor, academic, his mother struggles to balance the pressures of being a black woman in academia and supporting a son she doesn’t quite understand. She demands perfection and employs upon her son society’s insistence that a black boy be superior intellectually and morally to even have a shot. Even as she demands excellence, she fails to provide the structure and support her son so desperately craves. Often left in the care of his maternal grandmother, Kiese navigates body image issues, social acceptance, romantic confusion, and his love of reading and writing. He must find for himself what defines success. Laymon tackles themes of race, education, weight, violence, and family. The throughline in the novel is his intense love of his mother despite her shortcomings.
Laymon’s writing power exists in the simplicity of his narratives that unpack intense emotional turmoil. While the memoir is a story, it unfolds in parallel perspectives, Kiese as a boy and now as a man. Some of the most compelling sections occur in his exchanges with his uneducated, black grandmother. She is the root that tethers him to Mississippi soil. In one discussion about his mother, Grandmother says, “Ain’t nothing in the world worse than looking at your children drowning, knowing ain’t nothing you can do because you scared that if you get to trying to save them, they might see that you can’t swim either.” Laymon balances the weight of the narrative with the lightness of words. He instinctively knows that heavy phonetic patterns work against his universal messages of love and family.
Heavy is a heavy read, but a beautiful, melodic weight to carry. I immediately told everyone who cares to grab this book. Admittedly, I am a sucker for a well-written memoir, but Laymon’s work is beyond exceptional. Heavy was published in 2018. Laymon’s previous books include Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
“Every time I sat down to write, I imagined sitting on that porch with layers of black Mississippi in front of and behind me.”