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Heavy isn’t exactly the book Kiese Laymon set out to write. Originally, it was a book about weight.
“I wanted to write a lie,” he writes on the very first page.
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. I wanted to write about our families’ relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats, and high-fructose corn syrup. I wanted the book to begin with my weighing 319 pounds and end with my weighing 165 pounds. I wanted to pepper the book with acerbic warnings to us fat black folk in the Deep South and saccharine sentimental exhortations from Grandmama. I did not want you to laugh.
Instead, Laymon’s book is a long letter to his mother, who raised him in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s still about weight: about gaining and losing hundreds of pounds; about the weight of lies; the weight of history. It’s also about language, and the words we use to hide from violence or to inflict violence on others.
Laymon has written about violence before. In 2011, his essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” recalls how he has “had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself” with his age given relative to the ages of Black Americans shot by police.
And he’s written about family. In 2015, Laymon write about his grandmother, the hip-hop duo Outkast, and the concept of freshness compared to the “stank” his grandmother said she had to wash off of her when she returned home from work.
This stank wasn’t that stink. This stank was root and residue of black Southern poverty, and devalued black Southern labor, black Southern excellence, black Southern imagination, and black Southern woman magic. This was the stank from whence black Southern life, love, and labor came.
Even at ten years old, I understood that the presence and necessity of this stank dictated how Grandmama moved on Sundays. As the head of the usher board at Concord Baptist, she sometimes wore the all-white polyester uniform that all the other church ushers wore. On those Sundays, Grandmama was committed to out-freshing the other ushers by draping colorful pearls and fake gold around her neck, or stunting with some shiny shoes she’d gotten from my Aunt Linda in Vegas. And Grandmama’s outfits, when she wasn’t wearing the stale usher board uniform, always had to be fresher this week than the week before.
She was committed to out-freshing herself, which meant that she was up late on Saturday nights, working like a wizard, taking pieces of this blouse from 1984 and sewing them into these dresses from 1969. Grandmama’s primary audience on Sundays, her church sisters, looked with awe and envy at her outfits, inferring she had a fashion industry hook-up from Atlanta, or a few secret revenue streams. Not so. This was just how Grandmama brought the stank of her work life into her spiritual communal life, in a way that I loved and laughed at as a kid.
Heavy picks up the theme of family and weight and violence and so much more. It may not be the book Laymon initially set out to write, but it is exactly what its subtitle proclaims: “An American Memoir.”
- Kiese Laymon Author of "Heavy"; professor of creative writing and English at the University of Mississippi; @KieseLaymon
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