Kiese Laymon bears the weight of a difficult past in his powerful memoir, Heavy

The American author and academic on exploring identity, addiction and childhood trauma growing up in the Deep South.
Heavy is a memoir by American writer, editor and University of Mississippi professor Kiese Laymon. (Simon and Schuster)
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Kiese Laymon originally conceived of Heavy: An American Memoir as a weight-loss book, but it turned into something much bigger and more profound: an intimate account of growing up black in Jackson, Miss.

With fearless honesty and hard-edged humour, Laymon describes a childhood filled with love, but also violence; confronting his complicated relationship with his mother, his lifelong struggle with his weight and his addiction to gambling. Heavy was named a best book of 2018 by CBC Books, The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Buzzfeed and The Washington Post. It is shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for The Kirkus Prize.

Laymon also drew on life experience in his first novel, Long Division, which he wrote while teaching at Vassar College in upstate New York. His essays — on family, race, violence, pop culture and contemporary American society — have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeneys, The Guardian and others, and are published in a much-praised collection titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.

Kiese Laymon returned to his home state in 2015. He spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from Oxford, Miss., where he now teaches.

Mother figure

"My mother, literally, is partially responsible for every progressive kind of movement in central Mississippi between 1983 to 1997. She was a political scientist; she worked as a political campaign manager for many black progressive candidates. She had a love and commitment to vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable children. But she's also complicated. She had me when she was 19. She got in relationships with people who weren't so loving. Sometimes she took that out on the person closest to her, which was me. 

"My mother pulled a gun on me a few times for talking back. I laugh my way through that now, but it would break my heart. It would make me question myself, question why I would do something that would make her do stuff like that. It made me sad because I never wanted my mother, who was the closest person to me in the world, to want to hurt me."

Big boy

"Being a larger kid, older boys didn't want to fight me because I was so big. I wasn't just big; I was big and athletic. I didn't have to fight the way a lot of my friends did. Black children generally are seen as being older and more mature than they are, which means that people think they can treat them any kind of way. The run-ins I had with police and school principals had a lot to do with race, but also to do with size.

"People also saw my big body as something that could potentially bring people joy through sports. It made older men really happy when they were watching me play football and basketball. But I felt I always had to make the distinction between that and being a big black boy who wasn't at all seen as athletic, or being a big black genderqueer person. That would have been even more terrifying." 

Gambled away

"I tried to hurt myself financially by gambling, which was ironic because my mother also had an unhealthy relationship to gambling. I just didn't understand until I became that same person. So I blew through all my savings at the casino. I started getting payday loans just so I could have a way to creatively lose.

"Like most addictions, it's terrifying in that it's so euphoric, both winning and losing. It's like finding creative ways to give away every dime. Thank goodness I don't do that anymore."

Southern comfort

"To be from the Deep South means everything to me, partially because of the rich history of music, culture and literature. I've lived in New York for 16 years and often, the Deep South and Mississippi in particular, is a convenient whipping person for those who want to act as if the rest of the country isn't also in pretty bad shape.

"The Deep South is the home of Jesmyn Ward, Fannie Lou Hamer, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Etheridge Knight, Oprah Winfrey... That means everything in the world to me. When I lived in New York, I had tenure at a great university. But I always wanted to come back home and fight and love and try to be better. But I didn't come back to save it. I came back because I needed a lot of what Mississippi gave me. So I came back home."

Kiese Laymon's comments have been edited for length and clarity.