Interview: Kiese Laymon’s ‘Heavy’ reminds us that Blackness can be abundant in a world trying to make us disappear
When you're carrying Blackness, you never get less heavy.
This essay discusses child abuse, sexual violence, addiction, and extreme weight loss
I tell him about my recent trip up to Philly and what happened on the way back. Our Uber driver overheard a conversation between myself, a child of the Carolinas, and my friend, the most Texas Texan I know, in which she told me with her lovely, raspy, twangy voice that what I won’t finna do was worry about her and her business. The driver turned his head and told us that people from the South “talk funny,” words and phrases like “finna” and “post to be” sound weird to him. I think he probably expected at least some polite laughter from us, but I just told him he can stay right in Philly and don’t come down south, ain’t nobody ask him nothing.
Kiese laughs at my story and I tell him that my favorite part of his new book, Heavy: An American Memoir, is when he writes about how white people’s words don’t weigh enough for him, but words like “finna” do. “That’s my favorite part of the book, too,” he says. “Don’t nobody wanna talk about that part, but that’s my favorite part. The book is possible because of that part, you know what I’m saying? Because of the weight I give to our words, the weight that people don’t want to give to our words or our bodies… That, to me, is where the book is made.”
The book is a letter to his mother that took him thirty years to write. At least, I think it’s a letter, because it is directly addressed to her. Maybe it’s a love letter, but maybe there’s some anger there, too. Some resentment, some fear. I ask him about it.
“It’s a book to my mother. That might not be important to nobody else but me. I intentionally wrote a book to my mom because writing it as a book to her means that I’m centering a Black, southern, Mississippi woman in a book, and everybody who engages with the book is gonna have to also center her.”
Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received was from a mentor in graduate school. She told me, and others in the room, to “start from the place that broke your heart.” It feels like that’s where Heavy starts for Kiese, from a place of healing that broken heart, or at least trying to.
“Broken ain’t even the word,” he tells me. “I wrote it from a place of complete brokenheartedness. I was like, ‘I want my heart to come back together,’ or I wanted to at least use my words to explore the pieces of the broken heart. And my family’s heart was broken, too. My mom was going through some things, my Grandmama was going through some things, my auntie…”
He’s honest about his failings and missteps, his moments of ignorance and naivete. He’s honest about the moments when he was dishonest with Black women, his mom, Grandmama, auntie, lovers, friends, even as he silently congratulated himself for being a Black feminist. He helped to break the hearts he was trying to fix.
“I had written two books and I was under the illusion that as soon as I got these books out, the world, our worlds, would be different—emotionally, economically, psychologically. And there were different in some ways, but they weren’t really different at all… I wanted to revisit places I was afraid to talk about… I wrote it from a place of brokenheartedness and into the most fearful place of my childhood, which was when I wrote the letter to my Grandmama about some stuff I saw and she didn’t make everything right.”
I know exactly the fearful place he’s speaking of, when he wrote his Grandmama a letter instead of the essay on the Bible she had asked for, and in that letter, he told her all the secrets he had kept with him. Too many secrets for a twelve year-old Black child. Heavy ones. But Grandmama didn’t make everything right for him, like she had done so many times before. She couldn’t make it right this time.
“She didn’t know what to say ‘cause, you know, I wrote some shit down that she didn’t know how to talk about,” Kiese explains. “I was talking about sexual violence that was happening to me, that was happening to her daughter. Some familial violence that she didn’t wanna talk about. She didn’t have a model for how to talk about it, and I didn’t either, my mama didn’t either.”
The picture Kiese paints of his mother is one reminiscent of Toya Graham, the mom who beat her teenage son in public because he went to a Baltimore protest in response to the killing of Freddie Gray. It was fear and love and trauma and desperation and hurt in that beating, that slapping of his head and pulling of his hoodie. She hurt him, as she had no doubt hurt him many times before, the way many Black parents have hurt many Black children and called it love, never anything else, because she thought it would keep white people from hurting him, keep the world from hurting him.
It’s a lie we tell, and keep telling. Toya Graham was called “Mom of the Year” after hurting her child in front of the world, to save him from the world, and that was a lie, too. Heavy begins and ends with a lie Kiese wanted to write and his mom wanted to read. About their relationship and all the hurt between them, much of which was dealt by her hand, or a belt, or a shoe, or a gun, and left marks across his back, face, and mind. I ask if he ever wishes that he had written that lie, or some version of it.
“When I sold this book, I sold a lie. I sold [a] weight loss book. I was gonna lose 150 pounds. I was gonna talk to my Grandmama, my mama, my auntie about their relationship to food and weight, and at the end of the book I was gonna weigh 160 pounds, and we were gonna have talked about all these things, and the Black women in my family were gonna have lost all this weight. That’s a lie,” he exclaims.
“That’s the American Progress narrative which really values a kind of lightness, which I really think is similar to a kind of whiteness. This is all lies. I wrote that fucking book, but then I was l like, ‘This is bullshit!’ and I started over, and I wrote back to my Grandmama, back to my mama, ‘cause there was no work being done in that book for us.”
“I could’ve written that book and never talked about addiction, my experiences with addiction… never talked about all the fucking lies I told my mama, I told the world, I told my partners. I’m not trying to say this book was a deliverance. It’s not, but it has given my family, and maybe some other families, opportunities to not just have one conversation about this stuff, but to embrace the messy, hard, Black ass work of untangling our failures from the nation’s failures, and our successes from what the nation tells us success should look like.”
I’m so glad he didn’t write that lie. Or rather, that he decided to dispose of that lie in favor of the things that most of us want to forget. There are things we have to forget to make it through the day, because remembering is too hard and too painful. We forget about how our parents and grandparents hurt us to protect us from the world, but couldn’t protect us from themselves or the hurt they gave us. Some of us say, “I turned out fine,” even as we go around giving our own version of that hurt. We tell lies to protect our parents and grandparents from themselves and the reality of what they’ve done to us, and what was done to them.
Kiese writes around the lies we tell, and he also writes about stealing food from white people. I need to know if this was consciously seeking out reparations, and if he stole from white people because they were white people. So, I ask.
“Fam, that’s a great question. I just love stealing food from white people,” he chuckles. “Even ‘til this day… Ever since I was a kid, every time white motherfuckers did some ill shit, I just wanted to steal they food. I should go to therapy and figure out what that’s about.”
Stealing food from white people is therapy. I tell him it makes perfect sense when you really think about it. It’s like an extension of the “quick feets” young Kiese did on the white people’s laundry his Grandmama brought home to wash for meager money, even though the white people had a perfectly good, working, almost brand new washer and dryer at their house.
It’s not fair that they have all of this wealth, all of this property, all of this access, all of this sustenance. Food is sustenance. Food is survival. Food is something that gets associated with gluttony and greed, and that’s what white people are. Greedy.
“That’s so true,” he admits. “You get it. You get what I’m talking about.” But we both acknowledge that it’s somewhat futile. White people with wealth and property and access can always just buy more food, but the fact that he inconveniences them is enough for me.
I picture him ruining Susan’s afternoon by stealing her blueberry yogurt from the communal fridge. I picture him making Susan feel what I feel all the time, even for a short while, just until she is able to replace her stolen blueberry yogurt. I don’t steal food from white people, but I might start now.
The utility of food in Heavy is versatile. Kiese often found safety and comfort in food, but he found destruction and shame and punishment there, too. I think about this a lot, but what I ruminate on the most as I read is how many meanings the word “heavy” can have. It is versatile in its utility, just like food. Sometimes heavy grounds you, other times it crushes you. And so many things carry weight growing up fat, Black, and poor in the American South.
Heavy makes me think deeply about the enormity of Blackness, the muchness of Blackness, and Black Abundance, which is the title of one of my favorite chapters. I think of the abundance of Sarah Baartman’s body and how her ass made her an inhuman spectacle until she died on a continent far from home. The muchness of Eric Garner and how he could have survived being choked to death if only he hadn’t been so fat. The enormity of Mike Brown and how his Hulk-ing frame made his murder legitimate self-defense. How they were too heavy for this world, but not heavy enough to live comfortably in it.
I think of the space we are not allowed to take up, and the things we do to shrink ourselves, to try to disappear. How sometimes we try to destroy ourselves so the world can’t do it for us.
When I finished reading Heavy, I had nightmares. First, an autobiographical nightmare, about being back in college as a student with a blossoming passion for film and a long-held love for storytelling, hoping to come out on the other side as someone who makes these things come to life. Young, Black, woman, poor, southern, fat. I was out of place in my program, and I knew it the day I took a zero for my participation grade when I refused to discuss The Birth of A Nation (1915) with the class, after my professor had called it a “masterpiece of cinema” and had given no trigger or content warnings for the anti-Black violence he was finna show us.
I knew because I was surrounded by young white boys who ogled my breasts as we sat around conference tables. I knew because our professors were old white boys, and an old white boy once told me that I would never be able to write a successful screenplay adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I knew because I had to spend the rest of the semester proving him wrong in ways the young white boys around me never had to.
But my next nightmare was a fiction, at least in part. The police came to my mom’s house. Someone had reported her, claiming she was abusing pain pills. I told them they were wrong. They searched her house and found bottles on bottles of pain pills, half-empty, half-full. I told them they were wrong, my mom’s a hoarder, she keeps everything. “See, I do it, too,” I said, and showed them the expired bottle of pain pills I kept in a drawer in my own apartment. “I learned it from her. We never throw anything away.” I watched them take her.
My dreams are vivid, cinematic, like the movies I wish I were making. I have to remind myself that I can wake up, but the feeling in my gut is the same as on the nights when I have to remind myself that I can dream. And the feeling in my gut, and everything about it, is heavy, and I wish I had just kept sleeping, because remembering in the daylight somehow hurts more than it does in the dark.
I do not tell Kiese about these nightmares. I don’t want to add more weight, or take up more space. I don’t want to be so heavy. So I shrink. I still don’t believe I’m allowed to be abundant. To have layers and depths.
Like many of us, Kiese spent much of his life trying to be less heavy, but it never went away. Even when he went from 319 pounds down to 180 pounds with 6 percent body fat, or 179, or 165, or even 159 pounds with 2 percent body fat. Losing weight was his addiction, but he never got less heavy.
But we all have our addictions, the things we keep limping back to, things we use to try to make that weight feel a little lighter, to make the world feel less stifling, but when you’re carrying Blackness, you never get less heavy.
When Kiese writes about his friend, Ray Dunn, telling him antidepressants had him “feeling so white,” I felt that. I’ve never taken an antidepressant in my life because I can’t afford them, but I felt that shit in my bones. If Blackness is this heavy, imagine how light whiteness feels.
My favorite part is how he says white people’s words don’t weigh enough, and I tell him he’s right. He thanks me for reading the book he spent thirty years writing to his mother, and thanks me for liking the most the part he likes the most. I thank him for writing it and for sharing these moments with me. I’m left wondering what it’s like to put all of this on paper. What it’s like to lay himself, his mother, his grandmother and all the others bare for the world to consume.
“It’s scary,” he says. “You just want to give a lot of portals of entry to your intended audience, and you just have to hope that they go in some of those doors and look around. But you also have to be aware that some people who are not part of that primary audience might also go in those rooms, and they might fuck up the rooms.”
They might fuck up the rooms. It sits with me. They might fuck up the rooms.
This is why white people’s words don’t weigh enough for us. All white people know how to do is fuck up the rooms they wander into, or break down doors to get into—other lands, other people, other cultures, other languages, other bodies.
“For this book, what I couldn’t do was privilege that audience… I had to count on the possibility that there would be people out there who I really, really wanted to come into the room, and touch it, and write back to us, write back to me. ”
I want to write back to Kiese, and I begin to consider whether or not writing this book was a relief for him, and what work it did for him. “I’m glad the shit is over with,” he sighs. “I don’t even know if I should’ve written that book. The experience of it was a terrifying, actually painful experience… There were moments when I said, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t finish this book,’ but I’m glad it’s over with.”
I’m so thankful he did write it, and wrote around the lies we tell, and gave weight to the things that matter—our words, our bodies, our truths. For his mom, for himself, for me, for us. I’m grateful for his sacrifice and after reading Heavy, I will always hold space and appreciation for Kiese, his pain, and how he bled on these pages. I see parts of myself in his wounds, and parts of my own experience growing up in the American South. I see parts of my own mother, parts of my own family, our food, our weight, our speech, our transgenerational traumas.
With this memoir, Kiese puts into words what so many of us have always felt, but never been unable to articulate, or think through, or talk through with the nakedness and honesty it truly requires. It will stay with me for a long time, and I will use it to remind myself that I am allowed to be heavy, abundant, and honest. Because this world will always make it too easy to forget.