By Anya Shukla
I’m doing this text a disservice by reviewing it after only one read; “Heavy” is laden with layers, allusions, and double-meanings. (English teachers would have a field day with this memoir.) I desperately want to spend 2-3 weeks with this book and go through it carefully, underlining and cross-referencing until I get everything. But that is not the way I have set up this challenge.
I plan to re-examine “Heavy” at the end of the BIPOC Book List. Consider this review provisional until I can uncover and understand this memoir in the ways that I would like to.
Review: In his memoir, “Heavy,” Kiese Laymon writes to Black people, rather than for Black people. His raw, honest exploration of weight, sexual violence, and addiction—amidst undercurrents of language, power, and memory—does not pander to a white audience. Laymon alternates between lyrical and weighty prose, dazzling with literary slights of hand while simultaneously divulging potent truths that change one’s perception of America. Throughout his memoir, Laymon favors difficult truth-telling over wishful fantasy-building, demanding a deconstruction and reconstruction of this nation rather than a slight realignment. Rating: 4/5.
What I Loved: I cried approximately 20 times when reading “Heavy.” I’m not even sure why. Much of this book—which deals with writing as a person of color, intersectionality, family dynamics—resonates with me, even if its broader context—life as a Black person in the South—doesn’t directly reflect me.
What struck me most was Laymon’s honesty. He is open about so much: the sexual violence he saw and experienced, his relationship with his body, his gambling addiction, the ways in which he and his family are not perfect. During his time as a professor, he acknowledges that he failed his students—said the wrong thing to them, didn’t understand their personal struggles—more than he helped them. He is the hero of this story, but he is not always heroic.
I believe Laymon chose this raw, almost unfiltered approach to storytelling because he wanted to address the past, and in doing so, create a better future: “I remembered that the most abusive parts of our nation obsessively neglect yesterday while peddling in possibility. I remembered that we got here by refusing to honestly remember together. I remembered that it was easier to promise than it was to reckon or change” (pg. 386). Sometimes, oftentimes, his honesty was incredibly hard to read, but it was the truth and real. I appreciated that more than anything.
What I Didn’t Love: Laymon is so honest throughout most of the book that when he obfuscates the truth—just slightly—it jarred me. Especially when he talks about his relationship with feminism, I kept feeling that I was missing a few key details that would help me fully realize the points he was trying to make. I will say that since Laymon’s audience was Black Southerners, I may have lacked context for issues or ideas he brings up.
Additionally, Laymon’s honesty means that he gives very specific details (like his weight and body fat percentage) when describing his relationship with his body. Those kinds of numbers can be triggering for people who have struggled with disordered eating. If he was going to describe his weight loss in such vivid detail, I would have appreciated a warning.
Food For Thought: Laymon’s exploration of language and meaning intrigued me. When interacting with a white thesis student, Cole, at Vassar, Laymon “learned it was fashionable to call Cole’s predicament ‘privilege’ and not ‘power.’ I had the privilege of being raised by you and a grandmama who responsibility loved me in the blackest, most creative state in the nation. Cole had the power to never be poor and never be a felon, the power to always have his failures treated as success no mater how mediocre he was. Cole’s power necessitated he literally was too white, too masculine, too rich to fail” (pg. 321). I use the word “privilege” all the time, but I’ve never thought about the ways the word might censor the truth: “power” feels all-encompassing while “privilege” seems restricted to specific feature—your family dynamics, your location, your socioeconomic status. Are we attempting to erase reality by calling white power “privilege”?
“Heavy” has a fascinating linguistics undercurrent, exploring dialects, grammar, and languages of love and appreciation. In my linguistics class this semester, we learned that while some dialects, such as African American English, are stigmatized in the United States, all dialects are actually “correct” linguistically; they all have a consistent grammar, even if it isn’t “standard.” Although we may say we’re stigmatizing a dialect, we’re actually using language as a proxy for a group of people; we’re stigmatizing the people who speak that dialect. Linguistic snobbery is actually a form of racism, one that pervades our education and work sectors.
Laymon fights against that stigmatization; he uplifts his community’s language even when it isn’t viewed as “correct” or “mainstream.” He also sees language as a source of progress: “Revisiting and rearranging words didn’t only require vocabulary; it required will, and maybe courage. Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns. Revised thought patterns shaped memory” (pg. 155). Essentially, language is an expression of thought. I’m interested in the ways that “political correctness” impacts thought, and how thought patterns might diverge—and already have diverged—across the country as different groups begin using different words and descriptors with the goal of being “PC.”
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads Because It Is Why The Colorization Collective Exists: “Even before I met actual white folk, I met every protagonist, antagonist, and writer of all the stories I ever read in first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade… So even if we didn’t know real white folk, we knew a lot of the characters white folk wanted to be, and we knew who we were to those characters. That meant we knew white folk. That meant white folk did not know us” (pg. 133-134).
Up next: “The Marrow Thieves” by Cherie Dimaline!