Writing Back to History: A Conversation with Kiese Laymon

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In the aptly titled memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir, Kiese Laymon, the Ottilie Schillig Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi and author of a novel, Long Division, and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, does not shy away from the difficult truths plaguing himself and the people around him. From sexual and physical abuse, to income inequality, to body image, addiction, and systemic racism, Laymon compels us as readers to interrogate our own dark corners.

Like James Baldwin, and more recently like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Laymon, uses direct address, but unlike those men, he speaks to a woman—his mother, and sometimes his grandmother—about the ways in which their expressions of love for each other have failed. His message evolves to include us all, firstly Black folks, and then the nation at large, with unflinching candor in an attempt to jolt us into action. Alexander Chee says, “Heavy is a gift to us, if we can pick it up—a moral exercise and an intimate history that is at the same time a story about America.”

I caught up with Professor Laymon about the difference between invented history versus real history, the distinctly different tone of Heavy, and why humor is an inherently Black trait.

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The Rumpus: Earlier this year I read a self-help book called The Big Leap about how we hold ourselves back from reaching our true potential and in it, the author, Gay Hendricks, lists the top five reasons why we hold ourselves back and one of those reasons was “fear of embarrassing or shaming our family,” and I thought that in order for you to write this book that was something you had to overcome, because Black children are often taught very early that everything we do outside our home is a reflection on our home.

Laymon: Because one of the things that’s more embarrassing, not just to our parents, but also to ourselves is if someone goes out of the house and tells the truth about something we did in the house. That can be more embarrassing than people lying on me, but that’s where it all comes full circle. My grandmama raised me; my mother made me into a writer. Writing is how I deal with the world and we have just gotten to a place in my family, in particular, with my mother, and even in the nation where I’m just trying to use everything in my disposal to be a better person, a better grandson, a better son, a better partner. My mother and I were just in a really bad situation and I wanted to use writing to help us. Not that writing could get us out, but it could get us closer, help us find a way into memories that we always tried to evade.

And to do that I had to write things that could potentially be embarrassing to me, but also for my mother, but I tried not to write anything about her that I didn’t see. And she did read it before it went out. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. I wanted to try to love everyone in that book, especially my mom and my grandmama. Sometimes I think really loving people artistically can be harmful. This is not just a collection of confessions; it’s a piece of art I made for my mother and whatever comes from people indulging in that art is something I’ll have to deal with.

And on one level this is like when I was kid and I went to school and the teacher gave me construction paper and I had to make some shit for my family. I remember on those days my mother was crazy happy, because I gave her some picture that was probably terrible, but she loved it. So this book is like another piece of art I wanted her to have.

Rumpus: The tone here is so different from your other work. It’s gentler. In your nonfiction collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, there’s a lot more anger. I wondered if that shift happened because you’re speaking to your mother.

Laymon: Beyond wanting to write a heart-to-heart with my mother, as an artist I just didn’t want to write the same book again. In my mind I was always writing four books that were for Black kids. Long Division was supposed to be two books. And this was going to be my last book, but tonally I wanted it to be different. And for sure I was hoping it would be different, because the last thing you want people to say is, I already read this book by this author.

There’s an attempt at tenderness and also an attempt to write into places I was afraid to write about at any other time in my life. I wanted to write about the terror I felt growing up with my mother and I wanted to write about the absolutely sublime joy. I wanted to write about those places I don’t even know what to do with, you know what I’m saying?

My mother had me young and by the time I was twelve grown men were coming up to me, and asking me to hook them up with my sister, which is why that first scene is with us at the casino and her telling me to pretend to be her husband. There was an intense level of intimacy. So I needed to be as tender as I could while also being as honest as I could.

Rumpus: I couldn’t recall another time I’d read a memoir from a man, particularly from a Black man and presumably a straight Black man, with this much vulnerability. And it made me wonder if we allow Black men this level of vulnerability. It’s almost not safe. It’s a question of who gets to be vulnerable.

Laymon: That’s an interesting way you posed that because I’m thinking about permission. You said “gets to,” and I’m not sure if we’re not given permission or if we opt out or both. I think about the direct address books I read, and if they’re written by men they’re usually written to a son or a daughter. Baldwin wrote to his nephew. But I think we love thinking about Black men as father figures because we’re obsessed with this notion of Black men being absent fathers. That’s fine, I appreciate that art, but to tap into the emotional reservoir I had to write this to my mother.

I wrote a million drafts and when I really thought I had it was when I had four sections: one was to my grandma, one was to my mother, one was to my imaginary daughter who I don’t have, and one was to my ex-partner who I’d harmed. But the hardest section to write was to my mom. That allowed me to be more vulnerable, but also she gave me my political imagination and she gave me my writing practice, so if I was going to be tender, if I was going be afraid and write a book that was reaching out to her and to us, and really beckon us to be more radically kind to one another I just had to write it to her. I didn’t know how to write that book to a general reader.

Rumpus: I kept coming back to your middle school teacher talking about Eudora Welty and how you rip apart her argument about “quirky racism” being in the past, but then also feeling a tug toward the interior of Welty’s stories. And I think that highlights a really common contrasting emotion readers and writers of color experience about the canon—that it’s not for us and yet we learn from it. Do we burn down the canon? Is there anything in the canon worth keeping?

Laymon: Oh yeah. For sure. It’s all worth keeping. But we shouldn’t call it the canon. If you have all kinds of people but only value the work of green people and then you call the work of green people the canon then I think years later you don’t have to destroy the books, but you do have to destroy the designation. I had to read all those books several times, but as a reader I know there’s so much more. I don’t even know what the purpose of the canon is.

I’ve found a lot of usefulness in Faulkner, but the Mississippi he describes is a version of Mississippi. The words he uses—he could not describe the Jackson I grew up in and use those same words. He couldn’t write about it all because it’s too Black and it’s not filled with Black people working for him or giving him the respect he thinks he deserves. And I think Faulkner is one of the top twenty prose writers ever, but the usefulness is that I can go in and dismantle it.

When people read Heavy thirty to forty years from now, it’s usefulness won’t be in reading it and saying, “I appreciate this,” but the usefulness will be in some writer, hopefully from Mississippi, who will tear the book up and be like, I see what he’s attempting to do, but this is bullshit and he didn’t pull it off here.

When the word “canon” is used we’re supposed to have this referential appreciation. And I love Eudora Welty but she’s an artist and I think she’d want us to get up in there and mess around with her stuff. Tinker with it. Tell the world where it goes wrong. And because I’m not a literary critic, I critique the work by creating alternative work. So my book is absolutely a critique of Black Boy, absolutely a critique of A Good Man Is Hard to Find or Go Down, Moses or Absalom, Absalom!. I’m thankful for that work and because of that love it means I’m going to get down and do something they didn’t do.

Rumpus: Well, talking about Mississippi and Faulkner leads to me to another writer who I love: Jesmyn Ward. She writes about Mississippi and she was the first writer who made me feel less embarrassed about my own Southern roots. And Heavy did that for me, too: talking about place, talking about what it means to be Southern without any signposts, and just reckoning with what it means to be Black from the South. Is it easier to be in Mississippi? Or is it easier to be away writing about it?

Laymon: I’m from Jackson, which is the capital of Mississippi, and it’s the Blackest city in the state. It’s eighty-five percent Black and that’s where I was born and where I was raised. Early on a lot of the Black writers who could leave left. And then I left, for my life and for my health. I was in New York for fourteen years which is the longest I’d been in one place, but I knew I needed to come home. I’m not sure what that meant. Was home Jackson? Was home my grandmama’s house? Was it my grandmama’s porch?

I got a lot of job offers and I decided to come to University of Mississippi because of the program and the department. I think we have the best English department and Creative Writing department in the country. And I do think Mississippi is the best state in the Union. Mississippi is responsible for so much of what we people use but don’t understand—whether it’s music or sense of morality or our particular kind of organized protest. But last night I was thinking maybe I came home just to write this book.

Rumpus: Baldwin wrote, in one section of The Fire Next Time:

The paradox—and a fearful paradox it is—is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.

And this quote came back to me because this book seemed like how you worked through your own past.

Kiese: Oh absolutely. Baldwin’s work, definitely The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room, were guides to me. I think the line between an invented history and “real” history is so thin. In some ways all writing is invented. It’s an artful rendering of memory. You have to be careful in the way some kinds of inventions are necessary.

Some people conflate memoir with autobiography or a tell-all. This is not an attempt at me telling everything there is about myself. It’s an attempt to create art out of the parts of my past that I’m most afraid of and it’s also a call to arms to the nation to slow down with these progress narratives. Progress at the expense of honest reckoning is often terror for a whole lot of people. And that’s where we are now. Not just politically, but also within our families—at least in my family.

When I first started writing this book it was supposed to be a weight loss book. I was supposed to be trying to lose one hundred and fifty pounds while talking to my grandma and my mother and my aunts and their relationship with weight and sexual violence.

Rumpus: Wait! Really?

Laymon: Yeah, that’s the book I sold. And I wrote that book. Which is why in the opening I say, “I wanted to write to you…” And then one day I was talking to my grandmama and she started describing a memory that we had already talked about for the book, which I had recorded, but it was different, so I said, “Grandmama, why you lying? That’s not what happened. That’s not the story you told me.”

And she said, “Kie, I told you a lie because you’re writing it for a book. I’m not going to tell you the truth because you’re going to put in a book.” At that point I was like, I need to write back to them and to that. That first book, about weight loss, Black folks would’ve clapped for being alive but it wasn’t a book that did anything to my insides or anyone else’s insides, so that’s why I decided to write back to my family after talking to them about their experiences and their bodies and their food and the way they survived different kinds of violences. History, for me, and the past, as everybody says, is always present, but it’s also an opportunity for love.

I think about all the times I was the most deceitful in my relationships, it’s because someone loved me and really wanted to know me and where I’ve been, but I just didn’t have the courage to walk back there with them. One, I didn’t trust if I walked back there with them that they would still love me and only in retrospect did I get, Oh this person loved me and wanted to know where I’ve been. And two, I thought I loved them enough to know where they’ve been, but if I couldn’t honestly talk about where I’ve been then could I really hold places they’ve been? So with Heavy I really wanted to explore that dynamic a little bit more: can you love people if you’re not willing to see where they’ve been and also share where they’ve been? And that’s not drowning, like Baldwin mentions; that’s opening the door for radical conversation, which leads to radical relationships and ultimately to liberation.

And that’s the question the book is asking: Are we ready to really love each other? The Civil Rights Movement would’ve been a lot stronger if the men were able to reckon with the harm they did. So this is not a completely political tool, but I do think if we tighten up on our familial relationships and allow for an attempt at honesty we’ll be better as people and as families and better as political forces.

Rumpus: Did you know your mother was going to write a response?

Laymon: Initially, she wrote an essay that was going to be in the book. But when I first finished the book, I had no idea what it would mean. Then she read the book and wrote her response and I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with joy. My mom and I, we’ve been through it. There were times when you couldn’t convince me that my mother had it in her to love me. Because it got to a point where love meant “Watch out for the police, Kie,” or “Don’t eat sugar or carbs, Kie,” and other warnings, but there’s a lot of other shit we needed to be talking about besides the police getting to me or me eating too much.

There are several layers to Heavy, but on the most basic level this is me asking my mother for help. Life was eating my ass up. And I needed help. So when she wrote that letter with the parts where she says publicly, “I should’ve done this. Or I should’ve said that,” as a woman obsessed with progress, that she wished she could go back and make different decisions to better the quality of our relationship was huge. We also talked about gambling, which is eating up both sides of my family, and the shame that’s there because we come from a family of hard labor and often we take from that labor and throw it away. And I think a lot of us feel like we don’t deserve that money and a lot of us are earning less than we should for our labor.

But yeah, that letter was one of the best things. I couldn’t believe that she’d taken the art I’d made her seriously.

Rumpus: In all its seriousness, Heavy has genuinely funny moments. I had to stop several times, because I was laughing so hard. But then I realized that the laughter usually came either before or after something intense or even in a moment of intensity, and I think that’s a very deeply Black trait. I’m curious if you see humor as a defense mechanism?

Laymon: It’s definitely part defense mechanism. In Heavy, humor is a way for me to write into what people call trauma. I didn’t want to use the word “trauma” in the book, but the most violent and traumatic times in my life—when I recall them, I laugh. Like when Black people talk about being beaten all you have to do is say, Man when I was thirteen my mother took an extension cord and she beat me across the head… and most Black people I know will start laughing. But we’re not laughing at that person or presuming that person deserved it; it’s a way of allowing us into what was obviously painful and traumatic. I don’t ever think of it as humor OR violence, the way I don’t think of things as love OR tragedy. All of those things mingle. And when I write I want all of those things as honestly as possible, to find the comedic slivers within something that was absolutely terrifying. We need the comedic to allow us into the memory.


Monet Patrice Thomas is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus. Her writing can be found at such places as Joyland Magazine, Hobart, & Split Lip Magazine. Visit her website or find her online. More from this author →