‘Heavy’: Kiese Laymon Explores Identity During Black Arts Month Keynote Presentation

Kiese Laymon, the author of “Heavy: An American Memoir” and keynote speaker for Andover’s Black Arts Month, read an excerpt from his book and discussed race, education, and eating disorders during his virtual presentation on February 12.

Kicking off his presentation, Laymon addressed the difficulties of living as a Black man in Jackson, Mississippi while struggling with eating disorders. In the chapter titled “Meager,” Laymon discussed his settlement into a new and predominantly white school and the different ways his mother taught him to act in this new environment.

“I sat in the principal’s office thinking about what you told me the day before we started St. Richard. ‘Be twice as excellent and be twice as careful from this point on,’ you said. ‘Everything you thought you knew changes tomorrow. Being twice as excellent as white folk will get you half of what they get. Being anything less will get you hell,’” read Laymon from his book “Heavy.”

A graduate of Oberlin College, Laymon received his Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and is a decorated author with awards including the Austen Riggs Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media and the 2018 Christopher Ashley Wood Prize for Biographical Prose. His piece, “Heavy,” was also named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by “The New York Times.”

After reading an excerpt from his book, Laymon opened the floor to students and audience members for a Q&A session. During this discussion, Laymon initiated a conversation about his experiences in education and hopes that teachers take a more conscious effort to not perpetuate issues they personally faced.

Laymon said, “I would love it if teachers… started every semester talking to our students about the ways we were failed in education and similar classrooms, and how we hope not to imitate those failures. I wish we could talk to our students for a week about how we were educated and what we want to do, and listen to them talk to us for a second week about how they’ve been educated before we actually start creating syllabi and everything, but we live in a country and a culture where we don’t do that, and I just wanted to create a book that went into the crease of that experience in these classrooms.”

Both in his book and in the discussion, Laymon also focused on topics such as physical and mental health. Laymon felt that to understand a concept or topic, you have to be able to understand its effects on yourself and your body.

“What I really wanted to do with this book is talk about our body’s relationship to all of those terms. What is my body’s relationship to capitalism today? What is my body’s relationship to white supremacy, anti-blackness, patriarchy? What is my body’s relationship today? I think if you lose the body when you’re talking about these looming concepts that cradle and give us context…everything becomes cliche,” said Laymon.

Emilia Fonseca ’22, a student attendee, appreciated his focus on the body in both his work and discussion. “One of the most meaningful parts [of the discussion] for me was when he mentioned how we can’t talk about our bodies without connecting them to the different political and social systems that shape how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world,” said Fonseca.

As someone who struggled with his body in his own personal life, Laymon made these difficulties the main facet of his book. He discussed how society should make an effort to normalize the words associated with mental health disorders, but not substitute them for the full narrative.

Laymon said, “Sometimes when I’m writing about my relationship with food I can just use the word ‘bulimia’, I can use the word ‘anorexia’, I can use the words ‘disordered eating’, I can use the words ‘body dysmorphia’, and substitute [those words] for the narrative that I need to tell. I think we need to be able to use these words and make these words more normalized, but I also think we need to not let these words be a substitute for the work of thinking about our actual relationships to disordered eating or different kinds of health and mental health.”

Alongside his physical connection to the book, Laymon discussed the feeling of emotional conflict when publishing “Heavy.” He found it difficult to determine what to publish and what to keep private, as the topics he wrote about were personal to him and his family. Even after having discussions with his mother and grandmother, Laymon said that he still has regrets about publishing certain parts of the book.

“As an artist, I’m trying to distinguish the difference between writing something and publishing something, because sometimes people will be like, ‘you think I should write this?’ And I’m like ‘yeah you should write that [expletive],’ but writing and publishing it are different. For me, because I do love and honor the private spaces of my family, particularly my mother and my grandmother who made me, I needed them to [accompany me] along the journey that created this book,” said Laymon.

Fonseca appreciated the openness Laymon presented and hopes to further familiarize herself with Laymon’s work and his perspective on topics ranging from the body to race.

“The conversation was full of vulnerability and sincerity, and Mr. Laymon was able to navigate it with humor and brilliant insights. Listening to not only his thoughts but [Director of Community and Multicultural Development LaShawn Springer’s] as well, was an immense privilege,” said Fonseca.