There is a radical kind of vulnerability at the heart of Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. It requires vulnerability to describe the nature and depth of one’s own pain to the person who caused it, but it is radical to move in allegiance with that person through sorrow and toward triumph and abundance. It requires vulnerability to name the myriad ways that violence gets absorbed by the body and spirit, and to grapple with the weight of carrying that violence in one body for so long. But it is radical to tell that story from a place of compassion and love.
Since Long Division (Laymon’s novel of time travel and confronting the contemporary evidence of historical wrongs) and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (his stirring 2013 essay collection about the traumas of coming of age as a black man in Mississippi), I have been a fan. Kiese and I share an editor at Scribner and, when I was in her office early this spring, I saw a galley of Heavy and shamelessly begged to have it. I read it on the plane ride home and into the night after my return. This is a memoir filled with awareness and honesty I haven’t yet seen. Kiese Laymon is not the only person to write about the particular peril facing the black body in America, but he is among the few men writing on this topic who are willing to wrestle so profoundly with the hard truth that race is not the only axis on which violence pivots. His critique of America is an intersectional and necessary one. This book is a love letter to the black women who have raised and made him, and at the same time is a powerful rebuke of the enduring lie that violence tells: that wielding it is power in a world that yields none.
Kiese and I exchanged emails in late November and early December, against the backdrop of a horrifying news cycle that has become the hallmark of contemporary life: on the same day a sentencing hearing offers incontrovertible proof of the illegitimacy of our current president, I read that a wealthy, white frat boy was sentenced to no jail time for raping a woman while she was unconscious, while a woman of color who had been a sex-trafficking victim is sentenced to fifty-one years in prison for killing someone in self-defense when she was sixteen. Kiese and I talked about collective imagination, collective memory, the role of truth-telling and loneliness in artmaking, and the terrifying prospect of writing for people who do not love us or our stories or our words.
—Lacy M. Johnson for Guernica
Guernica: In Heavy, you grapple with the idea that though the harm we’ve experienced might be a reason that we harm others, it doesn’t excuse or absolve us. There’s so much in that claim that people may struggle with, because you take some of the power out of the injuries each of us feels and give it to the responsibility each of us has to care for those we love (and even those we don’t). There’s a uniquely American myth that claims that each of us is responsible for ourselves, and only ourselves—but this myth is incompatible with the lived experiences of most people who appear in this book (and, I would argue, most people either of us know). I hope you might talk for a moment about your subtitle: “An American Memoir.” With what parts of the collective American memory does that first part of the title—Heavy—grapple?
Kiese Laymon: This is a great and scary question. I’m not even sure what the collective American memory is. Baldwin wrote that none of us wants to look back. He wrote that we’re all terrified of history. Sixty years later, this sad abusive rich white man named Donald Trump wins the presidency by asking white folks to harken back to a history that actually never existed and never will exist, so I’m wondering if we need to talk more about the American imagination and how it necessitates brutalizing pep rallies celebrating the suffering of vulnerable folks and absolute moral failure. I wrote that book because I didn’t want to celebrate or be a silent survivor of moral failure anymore.
Guernica: Maybe that’s the collective American memory I’m talking about. Memory is made of stories we tell ourselves, and storytelling requires that we leave some things out—that we forget. So much of how people like Donald J. Trump talk about America and its former “greatness” requires that certain experiences, or certain memories, be forgotten. I keep thinking of that Lucille Clifton poem, “why people be mad at me sometimes”:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
There is a struggle in your book over whose memories get to be told, whose stories get to be remembered. I wonder if you’d be willing to talk at all about the process of reconciling your memories with those of the other people who are in this book?
Kiese Laymon: That Clifton poem is on the chain around my neck. It was the initial epigraph to the book. I just wanted to let the reader know that my memory shouldn’t be seen as the memory, or the truth. As much as possible, I tried to talk with the most important characters in the book about their memories. So those conversations helped shaped not just what I remembered, but what I turned in to my editor. I’m really clear in my process that there’s a difference between what I remember, what I publish, and the truth.
Guernica: But within that matrix of relationships between what you remember, what you publish, and the truth, there is a certain vulnerability that runs as a current under what you are willing to say. I’m so interested in the way vulnerability—especially the emotional vulnerability of men (or lack thereof)—works in this memoir. In so much of contemporary society, it seems masculinity is incompatible with vulnerability, especially when it comes to certain masculine bodies who are “read” as men even while they are still children. How do you see the relationship between vulnerability and masculinity working in this memoir?
Kiese Laymon: That’s a huge question. I just wanted to show a slew of vulnerable masculine-bodied folks running away from vulnerability, in sometimes super violent ways, and sometimes super tender ways, because that’s what I saw. And I think we need to talk about the violence and the tenderness and cultural touchstones for that violence and tenderness with equal force.
Guernica: And maybe, as a followup to that, how do you, personally, approach (or negotiate) vulnerability in your writing practice more broadly?
Kiese Laymon: I just start every morning asking myself what I want to lie about. And I try to get as close as possible by laying out the details of why, and where, and to whom. And I write. And usually, I spend the first drafts telling more lies, deceiving myself, all that shit. But if I have the courage, I revise the work and actually am kind to myself, my work, people close to me. But sometimes I don’t do that revision work and I’m horrible.
Guernica: I think you’re being too hard on yourself, though I hear you about wanting to lie. I heard you give a talk this summer at the Tin House Summer Workshop and you said that in the early drafts of Heavy you were writing for forgiveness. But by the ninth draft you’d arrived at a question: What do I want to lie about and why, and how will I respond when I am taken to task for that? I think one of the most profound truths you’re articulating in Heavy is that no story exists in a vacuum—no violence does, either—and that any story about violence must declare its allegiances. It seems like maybe your allegiances have shifted in the process of working on this book. Where do you think they’ve landed?
Kiese Laymon: Chile, I honestly don’t even know. I think my initial allegiance was to discovery of who and why I’d become as a black man, or black boy, and how and why we’d become as a nation. Now, I think my allegiance is to making sure I can wake up tomorrow. It’s weird, but I just really don’t want to die before my grandmama because I think I know what will happen next. Makes no sense. But I think my immediate allegiance is to waking up and being as good as I can be at loving my family and my people and my region and, honestly, my country before I die. In that order.
Guernica: And that love brings us back to the idea of shared moral responsibility. Violence, in this book, seems to be a failure of that shared responsibility to care for others—whether it is institutional violence, cultural violence, intimate partner violence, even violence that calls itself love. You write about how all that violence is internalized and refracted in the body, and the ongoing trauma of that violence becomes other forms of abuse: how we abuse our own bodies or another’s, how our pain comes out sideways at the people we love. I wonder what role truth-telling plays, if any, as a step in repairing that harm you’re willing to reckon with here—either the harm you’ve experienced or the harm you’ve done to other people. Or whether repair is even possible. And, if it is, what steps come after telling the truth?
Kiese Laymon: Thanks for this. I just don’t know how we actually get better at loving anything or anyone if we don’t aspire to honesty and organizing. I think that’s different than thinking we know what the truth is. At my worst, I haven’t even aspired to honesty with myself, or people who loved me. So I didn’t even give myself or anyone else a chance to repair or actually see cracks and holes that were there. That is terror. That’s just what the worst parts of our country do to the most vulnerable, too. Over and over again. At my best, I’ve been willing to really listen and really share and really imaginatively, collaboratively work. But I haven’t been at my best nearly enough. It’s weird when you realize all this shit is really about collaboration and that the same shit that makes healthy organizing possible is what makes healthy relationships possible. Anyway, I’m just not nearly at my best enough.
Guernica: Does collaboration always require us to be at our best? You’ve spoken elsewhere about how, in many ways, this book is a collaboration with your mother and grandmother and other people who have loved and made you, and that in any attempt to love another person and protect them from harm there will be failures. Reckoning with your own failures and others’ failures is difficult heart and mind work. As a reader, I recognize the effort that takes in the loving way this book is made and addressed. And, at the same time, I’m struck by a feeling of loneliness that permeates your writing here—a desire to be seen and loved and understood. How do you handle the loneliness that is required to write a book like this? Now that it’s written and moving in big ways through the world, do you think it was worth it? I don’t necessarily mean for your career as a writer—because of course it is—but for you as a person, on whom writing a book like this must take a tremendous toll, or many kinds of tolls.
Kiese Laymon: I’m afraid of this question. Actually, I’m afraid of the answer. Lately, I’ve just been reading, writing, sleeping, and doing edibles when I’m somewhere where those are legal. I’m late to all that. It’s scary to become more than the artist you thought you were capable of becoming, so I just find myself obsessively reading and rereading other people’s books, other people’s stories. Part of that is the weight, too. I need to be outside more. But I’m afraid. I’m also afraid of hurting folks and being hurt. Being fat and lonely and black and interested in liberation and forty-four in the part of Mississippi where I live is harder than I thought it would be. Harder and lonely as fuck.
Guernica: Has that gotten any easier over the years? There is always a kind of loneliness to writing—because in the end the writer is alone with their words on the page—but maybe some projects are lonelier than others. How does this particular book fit in that long, lonely arc of your work?
Kiese Laymon: My writing practice sorta always stays the same. And I need and long for the loneliness that literary artmaking necessitates. But the weight of Mississippi, its wonder and its horror, feels like a lot now because I l live alone in the middle of it for the first time. Before I left Mississippi at nineteen, I’d never lived or slept alone in Mississippi. Even if I had my own dorm room, people were close. Before that I lived with my mama and my friends. It’s hard to be black and alone everywhere, but for me being black and alone in Mississippi is a new kind of scary. And it’s gotten scarier since I finished the book.
Guernica: Why is that? Scarier how?
Kiese Laymon: I just wanted to create the best piece of art I could create for my mama and my people and it’s been scary to see it being useful to folks other than that. I’m thankful, but it’s scary because there’s a small part of me that thinks if a lot of white people like, and maybe love, my art that maybe I didn’t do what I was supposed to do with the art. That might sound fucked up. But I felt that initially. Then I remembered how many white folk there are in this country, and if a few thousand find my art useful, that means a few hundred million of them didn’t like it or even know that it’s alive. Mostly I’m feeling absolutely shocked than anyone other than my mama and me needed this book.
Guernica: That doesn’t sound fucked up at all. In fact, it makes me wonder about your experience of reading this book on the road. Have you found yourself being asked to offer parts of yourself you weren’t prepared to give? I know from my own experience that it seems like people often hope I can be something I’m afraid I am not. Nothing about training to be a writer prepared me to be a trauma counselor, for instance, besides the fact of attending to my own trauma through telling the story of it. What are people asking you to be, and are you comfortable with those roles into which they are casting you?
Kiese Laymon: Some folk want me tell them how to talk to their parents or children about memory and violence. Some folk want me to listen to what they have endured and what they’ve made others endure. I’m super comfortable listening, asking questions. But I’m not trained well enough to help beyond that. And I don’t want to harm folks who come to me for help. So it gets tricky sometimes. And I worry about that trickiness a lot.
Guernica: Yeah, I think most people just want to have their experience confirmed as true. The last question I want to ask you is: What books do you think of this book as being in conversation with? Who were you reading as you prepared to write and then wrote this book—and what kinds of works do you hope might appear in the future to respond to you?
Kiese Laymon: I was thinking a lot about your second book, The Other Side, but also Hunger, The Color Purple, Zandria Robinson’s essays, a lot of the books and music I reference in the memoir, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Imani Perry’s book More Beautiful More Terrible, Saeed Jones’s Prelude to a Bruise, Nabi Lovelace’s work, Jerriod Avant’s work, Derrick Harriell has this amazing poem about scarcity at the club, and songs like “Hey Mama,” “Dear Mama,” and “You and the 6” that directly address the listener and a mother. I hope that the work that appears in response to my book is some shit I can’t even imagine.