Mississippi

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

 

The word is out about Heavy. Currently there are 41 Holds on the library’s 15 copies, and we have ordered more. Glowing reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, Entertainment Weekly and on NPR have spread the word. This one is not to be missed.

Heavy is about a young black man growing up mostly in Jackson, Mississippi, shaped by his brilliant yet punitive mother’s powerful presence like a blacksmith shapes a sword. What is it like to be the steel, beaten and heated and tested? Kiese Laymon shapes the readers’ experience with utmost skill, letting us feel both his brilliance and his painful, relentless search for answers.

Laymon’s use of second person, speaking to his mother throughout the narrative, creates a profound intimacy. He seems to be working within his own circle, questioning how and why his complex relationship with his mother, and through her, with the rest of his loved ones and the world, made him struggle into becoming himself.

My life shares some aspects of Kiese Laymon’s experiences: our large size at an early age, our tough maternal grandmothers, our reliance on reading and writing more than others. We both went to local prestigious private colleges where we felt like fish out of water, and from which neither of us graduated. We both floundered, and both eventually left home.

These experiences were a bridge for me to Laymon's other truths that I can’t pretend to really understand.  Laymon eventually becomes a college professor and writer, while supporting family back in Mississippi and compulsively gambling the rest of his money away. He leaves behind his large body, but not the obsession with size.  His relationships suffer, and he breaks ties with his mother for years. Their eventual reunion is not a Hollywood ending.

There is no way to untangle the personal influences of family and community with the greater societal realities of being black in America, in the South, and in academia.  There is no way to separate a body, whether big and getting bigger, or thin and getting ever thinner, from the world in which it operates. There is no way to understand what is known, what is hidden, what is truth and what is lies, in a shifting time-stream that reveals and hides as it flows.  All we can do is continue to listen, continue to speak.

The craft and courage with which Kiese Laymon explores his truths, the awe-inspiring use of precise language and poetic repetition, is a gift to his readers.  Heavy: an American Memoir offers an opportunity to listen and to be known.