Tag Archives: Roxane Gay

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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A Day to Celebrate Women’s Anger

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Women say:

Audre Lorde:  “… while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not to wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets, that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric.

“This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change. But our time is getting shorter. We have been raised to view any difference other than sex as a reason for destruction, and for Black women and white women to face each other’s angers without denial or immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea. It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves: Who profits from all this?”  — Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.”

Margaret Cho: “Anger has been a tremendously healing tool for me. Obviously, there’s a lot of language around not being angry and accepting and forgiving your abuser, but — I don’t want to forgive. [Laughs.] I don’t care! I’m not taking the high road. I’m not here to be the better person. That, to me, is another way to excuse rape. Why are you trying to forgive your abuser? You need to forgive yourself … My rage is really keeping me alive, my rage is my art. We’re always told by therapists and clergy and mentors that you need to forgive and heal, and I’m not there, and I don’t plan on going there.” — Washington Post, November 2015

Roxane Gay: “When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things or we are petty or shrill or strident or unbalanced or crazy or overly emotional. Race complicates anger. Black women are often characterized as angry simply for existing, as if anger is woven into our breath and our skin … Feminists are regularly characterized as angry. At many events where I am speaking about feminism, young women ask how they can comport themselves so they aren’t perceived as angry while they practice their feminism. They ask this question as if anger is an unreasonable emotion when considering the inequalities, challenges, violence and oppression women the world over face. I want to tell these young women to embrace their anger, sharpen themselves against it.” — New York Times, June 2016

Elizabeth Gilbert: “Anger is OK, actually. Anger, we can work with. At least anger (unlike boredom and fear) has fire in it. At least anger is alive with a kind of passion. The ancients said that there are three different kinds of prayer: You can pray in gratitude, you can pray in beseechment or you can pray in anger. You are allowed, in other words, to vent your rage to God. You are allowed to say, ‘I am furious at you for what you have allowed to occur!’ Do it. Get it off your chest. (God can take it.) But make a commitment that you will not remain in that state of rage for your entire life, or else it will burn a hole right through your soul.” — The Huffington Post, October 2014

Fran Lebowitz: “I’m pretty angry, but the problem with me is that I’m always in an extreme state of rage. I have all this other rage in me from 1950.” — The Huffington Post, October 2012

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