Kiese Laymon published Heavy: An American Memoir in 2018, but I only got to it last month. Fair warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. Laymon is trying just as hard as an author can try to tell the whole truth as he sees it, to pull no punches, to let no one off the hook: not himself, not his mother (the book is framed as a letter to her), not the other people in his life, and most certainly not the white world which is ultimately responsible for most if not all of the miseries he recounts. Not that the book is all misery–it is much too rich for that.
The title of the book tells us right away why I would review it here. Laymon experienced himself as fat from early childhood. He describes teenage eating as self-medication, a deep fear of what the scale would say, a dislike to be seen other than fully clothed. These feelings are familiar to most fat people, and yet this book (along with Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I reviewed here in 2018) never fail to remind us that being fat is different in a black body than in a white body. (Gay is quoted on the front cover of Laymon’s book.) Fat bodies are frequently singled out for oppression; black bodies in America are effectively always in danger of being oppressed. One way to frame this book is as an example of intersectional oppression–and an example of a strong man’s complex and rich response to the world’s desire to keep him down.
When I imagined the insides of rich-white-folk houses, I imagined stealing all their food while they were asleep. I wanted to gobble up palms full of Crunch ‘n Munch and fill up their thirty-two-ounce glasses with name-brand ginger ale and crushed ice tumbling out of their silver refrigerators. I wanted to leave the empty glasses and Crunch ‘n Munch crumbs on the counter so the white folk would know I had been there and they’d have something to clean up when I left.
Laymon was always fat … until he shifted from eating to obsessive exercise, and took to anorexia as self-medication. To echo one of the book’s common refrains, he ate and ate and ate and ate until he didn’t. And when he didn’t, he stopped eating dramatically and exercised unceasingly, with eventual tragic results to his Black body.
I will forget how the insides of my thighs feel when rubbed raw. I will play on the basketball team. I will think 190 pounds is too heavy so I will jog three miles before every practice and game. I will sit in saunas for hours draped in thermals, sweatpants, and sweatshirts. I will make a family of people who cannot believe I was ever heavy. I will become a handsome, fine, together brother with lots of secrets. I will realize there is no limit to the amount of harm handsome, fine, together brothers with lots of secrets can do.
His relationship with his body is not the only relationship in the book; it may not even be the most central one. His relationship with his mother encapsulates the complexities of the book: love, admiration, fear, shame, disgust and appreciation are all there all the time–and we come away with a picture of a woman about whom all of those feelings make sense, and we understand how he can hold them all simultaneously.
In a simplified arc of author-in-a-fat-body, author-in-an-anorexic-over- exercising-body, the third portion is author-in-a-gambling-body. The gambling narrative illuminates many of the previously opaque issues his mother was having, and is as raw and insightful as the rest of the book.
I kept coming back to the casino because I felt emptier and heavier when I lost than when I won. I couldn’t win, because if I didn’t have enough to begin with, I could never win enough to stop. And if I won, I came back to win more. And if I came back to win more, I would eventually lose. And after I eventually lost, I would remember the thrill o fwinning. No matter what, I would always come back with the stated intention of winning and the unstated intention of harming myself.
Throughout his own self-examined journey, Laymon never fails to talk about who his friends and lovers were, what his life with them was like, and how much he loves them. With the keen eye of the observant lover, he brings them to life on the page. He also came very early to a realization of how women are treated, and a gut-level unwillingness to be part of that pattern … and the ways in which his refusal also made him a participant. He never lets us forget for a moment that we are all complicit, all the time, and that there are very few paths to escape complicity.
Books like Heavy and Hunger show us something that no theoretical books–about race, about fat oppression, about human pain–can ever fill. Laymon is incomprehensibly generous to let strangers so far into his own life, a journey no reader can or should come back from unscathed.
The work of bending, breaking, and building the nation we deserve will not start or end with you or me, but that work will necessitate loving black family, however oddly shaped, however many queer, trans, cis, and gender-nonconforming mamas, daddies, aunties, comrades, nieces, nephews, granddaddies and grandmamas–learning how to talk, listen, organize, imagine, strategize, and fight fight fight for and with black children.
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