Tag Archives: Hunger

Heavy, by Kiese Laymon

cover of Heavy, all text

Debbie says:

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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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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Debbie says:

Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body:

I wish I could write a book about being at peace and living myself wholly, at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which has been the most difficult writing experience of my life, one far more challenging than I could have ever imagined. When I set out to write Hunger, I was certain the words would come easily, the way they usually do. And what could be easier to write about than the body I have lived in for more than forty years? But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body; I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained, and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I’ve been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I’ve cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.

I have been a body image activist since the early 1980s. I have heard people’s body image stories, told my body image stories, led workshops where people tell their body image stories, edited body image stories for print. Doing this work for much of a lifetime, one of the many things I have learned is that while your story is not, is never, cannot be my story, your story nonetheless overlaps and strengthens and connects to my story in hundreds of places.

So that takes us to Roxane Gay, who has perhaps written the most powerful body image story ever told. Having made that statement, let me say what I don’t mean:

  • Gay, as she is extremely careful to stress, is not the victim of The Worst Trauma. She is precisely aware of her privileges and the ways she is lucky.
  • She is not a stand-in for every other fat woman, nor does she want to be; her story is her own, not mine, and not anyone else’s.
  • Hunger is not a book about miraculous healing, or a road map for other fat women to find healing.
  • The book has no new information, and doesn’t contain much that is surprising to someone who inhabits the world of fat activism.

What makes this book such a punch in the gut is that Hunger ranks among the most nakedly honest books ever written. Whether Gay is reliving the story of her childhood, talking about her family, recounting relationships, or just telling every fat woman’s story of going to the doctor, she never for one second takes the easy way out. She never tells a simple version of the truth: the truth is always complex, thick, interwoven.  She also accomplishes the amazing feat of not writing about race, while also not excluding the role of race in body image. Here’s just one example of how open this book is:

During my twenties, my personal life was an unending disaster. I did not meet many people who treated me with any kind of kindness or respect. I was a lightning rod for indifference, disdain, and outright aggression, and I tolerated all of this because I knew I didn’t deserve any better, not after how I had been ruined and not after how I continued to ruin my body.

My friendships, and I use that term loosely, were fleeting and fragile and often painful, with people who generally wanted something from me and were gone as soon as they got that something. I was so lonely I was willing to tolerate these relationships. The faint resemblance of human connection was enough. It had to be enough even though it wasn’t.

Food was the only place of solace. Alone, in my apartment, I could soothe myself with food. Food didn’t judge me or demand anything from me. When I ate, I did not have to be anything but myself. And so I gained a hundred pounds and then another hundred and then another hundred.

In some ways, it feels like the weight just appeared on my body one day. I was a size 8 and then I was a size 16 and then I was a size 28 and then I was a size 42.

In other ways, I was intimately aware of every single pound that accumulated and clung to my body. And everyone around me was also intimately aware.

There is so much more here. We live in a world where physical nakedness is easy currency, although its implications are extremely contextual and complicated, and the physical nakedness of fat women is fraught indeed, as Laurie and I know in detail. But Gay’s determination to be emotionally as naked as a human being can get is far from easy.

Just as everyone’s story is individual and unique, our stories all also overlap on each other. They intertwine and diverge and reconnect. And when they are brilliantly told, they reflect so much more than one person’s story. Without ever taking a moment to speculate on whether or not her truth is related to anyone else’s truth, Gay opens a window on human truth in general; she focuses unrelentingly on her own story, and by doing so models how each of us can see ourselves.

Read the book (if you can stand a graphic description of pre-teen sexual trauma, and an unflinching examination of its results).  Read it whether you’re a lifetime body image activist or completely new to the concepts. Rarely will you find a book more worth your time and attention.

Caveat: Lots of people (including me) will respond to this book by wanting to reach out and make a connection with Roxane Gay. If you have that reaction, and you follow through, I’m personally asking you now to make sure that whatever you send or say to her doesn’t ask for anything from her in return: not an acknowledgment of commonality, not a response, not advice, not comfort. She’s given us everything she has in this book, and you can be 100% sure that a great many readers are asking her for more, and every one she has to turn away causes her pain. Don’t be That Reader.