These extended excerpts are a way to share Kiese Laymon’s beyond powerful and beyond devastating book, Heavy: An American Memoir. It is at least formally addressed to his mother (the “you” in the first quotation).
I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.p. 53
I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping / out of the ends / of my toenails.p. 56
“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.”
Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”
“Heavy enough for what?”
“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”
I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different.
“Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”
“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.
“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”
“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”
“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”
“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”p. 60
I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital…
With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.
“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”
The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”
I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.
Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.
I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.pp. 169-170
As you can see, Heavy is a difficult read, likely even re-traumatizing for some readers. That’s part of what the title means. My initial difficulty when finishing the book and attempting to review it was that I worried for its author. I had a similar experience reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir last year. A few years before that, it was something by Augusten Burroughs (although this makes me more hopeful). In each of these authors’ works, his or her story has many ups and downs, then things close on an up. In each case, I am left wondering whether this was an editor’s suggestion, whether it was for the purposes of narrative, or whether things really are getting better in some more or less permanent way.
Laymon, who shares his life to the bone and writes like a poet, also reminds me of the confessional poets. This article on that movement names some of its most important figures: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, Ann Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass. Of those Berryman, Plath, and Sexton all took their own lives. Lowell (my first favorite poet) was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. Snodgrass, meanwhile, wrote his first collection out of the experience of being separated from his daughter after his first divorce, and then was married three more times before he died of cancer in 2009. All this frightens me for artists who seem to sweat blood on every page.
It took me two or three days to realize the other piece that unsettles me in Heavy. It’s the same reality I opened with: Is Laymon writing about the 1920s and 1930s or the 1970s and 1980s? Does progress ever come for racial and economic justice? Heavy is not at all a hopeless book, but it makes clear–again back to the meaning of the title–that even to feel hope placed on your shoulders is to bear a heavy load, one which you did not choose, and one which Laymon does not feel free to un-choose.
Read this book, and be disquieted.
Bonus: While you are waiting 38 weeks for your local library hold to bring the book to you, check out this interview with Laymon (beginning at 26:19 with a reading from Heavy) from the always excellent NY Times Book Review Podcast.