JANUARY 31, 2019
A YEAR AGO, at the university where I teach, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw lectured to a packed auditorium of first-year students who had just finished their summer reading project: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book Between the World and Me. Crenshaw’s talk was entitled “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” but her young audience understood the urgency already. Intersectionality — a concept describing how identity factors like gender, race, class, and sexuality “intersect” to form experiences of oppression or privilege — is now a common term for college students. Coates’s Between the World and Me looms large in the current conversation about race, but readers truly interested in how intersectionality works should also check out Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. Laymon uses the same narrative structure as Coates — writing to a loved one — but he molds this direct address into a truly intersectional form, allowing the “you” to be just as complex and vulnerable as the “I.”
In Between the World and Me, Coates writes to his adolescent son, whereas in Heavy, Laymon writes up the generational chain, to his mother, a professor and activist in Jackson, Mississippi. Like Coates, Laymon’s mother struggled to do her best to protect her only son, whose black, adolescent, male body was always already endangered. She was Laymon’s teacher and best friend, but she was also his bedfellow and abuser. Laymon’s blunt, incantatory sentences sketch these blurred boundaries. For example, Laymon writes in his introduction: “I would try to kill anyone who harmed or spoke ill of you. You would try to kill anyone who harmed or spoke ill of me.” As his parallel sentences swap subjects and objects, the memoir seems to ask, What if the “you” were really the “I”? What would happen if mother and son switched roles? Are they so entangled in intimacy as to be inextricable, even interchangeable?
Heavy appears at first glance to be a memoir of family secrets. But while Laymon lays out plenty of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, it wasn’t always secret. Laymon’s mother didn’t bother to hide her son’s welts, until he transferred to a predominantly white high school, after which she made sure to beat him where it wouldn’t show. And most of Heavy is about his mother’s absence — what Laymon doesn’t tell us about her, and what he’s up to while she’s away, teaching at Jackson State University and mentoring within the black community. His mother assigned him to write essays and book reports on the summer days she left him at her friend’s house, where cliques of “big boys” sexually menaced boys and girls alike. Laymon writes: “You made me read more books and write more works in response to those books than any of my friends’ parents, but nothing I’d ever read prepared me to write or talk about my memory of sex, sound, space, violence, and fear.” Laymon’s assignments were the practice ground for writing to his mother in Heavy: her absence made him a writer. Now, as an adult, Laymon can write the book that his adolescent self desperately needed to read.
Heavy is, then, a memoir of family absence. Laymon’s mother provides the formidable frame, but she fades out toward the middle of the narrative, freeing Laymon to chart his growth as a man and a writer. Comprised of painfully precise vignettes that localize Laymon’s traumas, Heavy begins during the summer when he was 11, an obese boy enduring and witnessing abuse, and it ends when he is a 43-year-old author and professor, detailing the ways that he has, in turn, emotionally abused himself and others. Laymon’s own reported conduct balances out his mother’s villainy, as if to protect her behind a skein of self-disclosure. And, in ample passages of dialogue, we hear from the other people who influenced Laymon’s development: not just Mama, who wouldn’t let her son speak in contractions, but also Grandmama, whose countrified wordplay “sounded like home,” and his friends, whose language of “black abundance” formed force fields of intimacy at Laymon’s majority-white high school and college (Millsaps, which expelled him).
As Coates does in Between the World and Me, Laymon explores and deplores the vulnerability of the black body in a country continuously built and rebuilt on that foundation. Laymon enumerates not just external threats but internal ones, too. While his most consistent form of self-abuse was binge eating, he also learned punishment through exercise; as an adolescent, he doubled down on calf raises and squats when his babysitter stopped sexually abusing him. In the latter half of the memoir, Laymon’s descriptions of his adult anorexia are excruciating. While a graduate student in Indiana, Laymon remarked with studied indifference, “I just love losing weight,” while punishing his body into permanent injury. Laymon forcefully demonstrates that eating disorders are gendered and raced, even as the ravages of self-abuse seem universal. When he writes of his physical breaking point, while teaching at Vassar College, the body even dissociates from the “I,” becoming its own third-person subject:
My body […] would remember taking off my shirt and shoes in the weight room to weigh myself surrounded by thin women people secretly called anorexic and bulimic. It would remember never worrying about anyone calling me anorexic or bulimic even though I was the first one at the gym at six in the morning and the last one to leave at ten.
Laymon refashions the old cliché about eating disorders — that they are all about control — into a new truth about narrative control. Just as he tried to game the numbers on the scale, so he calibrates his mother’s perceptions of him and how their shared narrative should shape up. “Every time I lied,” he writes, “I wanted to control you, control your memory of us, control your vision of me.”
And that vision is subject to revision. Heavy closes with a scene of mother and son facing off in the casino where each of them secretly gambled away their futures. Laymon writes: “‘I be seeing you,’ I told you, ‘especially when you think you be doing a great job of hiding. Maybe you be seeing me too.’” This is where the “you” and the “I” might finally meet: for a moment, mother and son recognized each other as discrete, entangled, equally flawed subjects. Laymon and his mother parted, promising to turn a new page, but when Heavy ends, they haven’t seen each other since.
In such a weighty narrative, Laymon doesn’t leave much room for redemption. His only hope remains the power of revision: reenvisioning his memories in order to write his way into a better self. He revises where he is headed, and where our nation is headed, as he comes to realize that the black female body might be even more endangered than his own. Even though Laymon was raised by women, he had to leave home to understand the language of black feminism.
Laymon’s feminism has continued to evolve since his last book, the 2013 essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. In Heavy, Laymon retells a story from that volume: how he and his girlfriend got into a fistfight with Millsaps fraternity boys who, in blackface, called them “nigger” and “nigger bitch.” In the earlier version of the story, Laymon describes his rage, writing uncertainly: “Shonda felt the same, I think.” In Heavy, Laymon describes what happened after the fraternity fight: his girlfriend exploded at him for not taking her experience into account, not acknowledging the compounded racism and sexism of being called a “nigger bitch.” She yelled: “You take all these damn women’s studies courses and you haven’t said one fucking thing about no ‘patriarchy’ or ‘sexism’ or ‘intersectionality’ these past two weeks.” The girlfriend then clocked Laymon in the eye, another turn in his cycle of abuse.
This is what the best serial life writing can do: revise personal history, revealing new truths each time a writer revisits a scene from his past. My highest praise for Heavy is that it is truly intersectional, in ways that Between the World and Me does not always attempt to be. Laymon takes the “you” just as seriously — as a subject with its own subjectivity — as he takes the “I.” Intersectional feminism prompts him to imagine what it might be like to broaden the “you” in the black literary canon: as he reread The Fire Next Time (1963), which James Baldwin addressed to his nephew, Laymon wondered “what, and how, Baldwin would have written to his niece.”