Vi­o­lence per­me­ates this Mis­sis­sippi-based ac­count of grow­ing up dis­trusted and de­monised

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Sukhdev Sandhu

Kiese Lay­mon thinks a lot about the truth. About what it is and what it isn’t. As far as he’s con­cerned, it isn’t to be found in the genre of the Amer­i­can mem­oir (al­though the book is subti­tled with that la­bel). It isn’t in prose like that of Wil­liam Faulkner, which, when he was younger, made him “feel drunker than a white man”. It’s not about cre­at­ing “a fan­tas­tic lit­er­ary spec­ta­cle”. It’s not about “tit­il­lat­ing” read­ers. Tempted as he might be “to do that old black work of pan­der­ing and ly­ing to folk who pay us to pan­der and lie to them ev­ery day”, he can’t – or won’t – go down that road. The lies of his mother, of em­ploy­ers, of many of the peo­ple around him: these are what he wants to dis­pel.

This em­pha­sis on truth – turn­ing it into a kind of the­ol­ogy – is a heavy bur­den. And heav­i­ness is at the cen­tre of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. He him­self is heavy: the book begins with the 11-year-old Lay­mon weigh­ing 208lb. Later he will get big­ger, at one point reach­ing 319lb. But the ti­tle also refers to his­tory, to the un­fin­ished lega­cies of slav­ery, to the bur­den black Amer­i­cans have to bear from liv­ing in a coun­try that dis­trusts, de­monises and all too of­ten de­stroys them. Who would want to face up to that heav­i­ness? “No one in our fam­ily,” he says, “and very few folk in this na­tion has any de­sire to reckon with the weight of where we’ve been.”

Born in 1974, he grew up in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi. His mother was study­ing to get her PhD and to be­gin, later than many of her peers, a ca­reer in academia. She saw ed­u­ca­tion as so­cial in­su­la­tion, some­thing that would pro­tect her son from get­ting beaten up by po­lice. Lay­mon, who ad­dresses his book to her di­rectly, re­calls how “the way you over­pro­nounced your words and in­sisted on cor­rect­ing ev­ery­one whose sub­jects and verbs didn’t agree made black folk in Jack­son think we had plenty of lunch money”. As he cleans up her face and ices her swellings af­ter she’s beaten up – not by a cop, but by her boyfriend – he tells her: “You gotta be still, for real.” She in­stinc­tively chides him for be­ing too col­lo­quial.

Vi­o­lence is the oxy­gen he breathes. His fa­ther’s mother was raped by a sher­iff in En­ter­prise, Mis­sis­sippi. His own mother goes to bed with a gun be­neath her pil­low. Lay­mon understands vi­o­lence as a so­cial by Kiese Lay­mon, Blooms­bury, £16.99 sys­tem: “Par­ents were trained to harm chil­dren in ways chil­dren would never harm par­ents, babysit­ters were trained to harm kids in ways kids could never harm babysit­ters. My body knew white folk were trained to harm us in ways we could never harm them.”

“In Jack­son,” he re­mem­bers, “get­ting a whup­ping was so much gen­tler than get­ting a beat­ing, and get­ting a beat­ing was ac­tu­ally tick­lish com­pared to get­ting beat the fuck up.” His own mother whups, beats and beats him the fuck up, us­ing ev­ery­thing from fists to belts to coat hang­ers – for crimes as var­i­ous as talk­ing back and get­ting low grades. At college, af­ter he writes an ar­ti­cle on in­sti­tu­tional racism for the stu­dent news­pa­per, he re­ceives a flood of threat­en­ing let­ters.

Food is part of the vi­o­lence he in­flicts on him­self as well as his an­swer to it. “When I was scared, I ran to cakes, be­cause cakes felt safe, pri­vate and cel­e­bra­tory.” Later, as he sets out to lose weight, run­ning miles and miles each day, glug­ging down gal­lons of wa­ter, he dis­cov­ers “con­trol­ling that num­ber on the scale, more than writ­ing a story or es­say or feel­ing loved or mak­ing money or hav­ing sex, made me feel less gross, and most abun­dant.” Eat­ing – or not eat­ing – is of­ten con­nected to anx­i­eties about self-worth or cop­ing with a tur­bu­lent world; Lay­mon writes that for him there’s a spe­cific racial pol­i­tics at play, too, de­scrib­ing the times when he starved or gorged, and “pun­ished my black body be­cause fetishis­ing and pu­n­ish­ing black bod­ies are what we are trained to do well in Amer­ica”.

His self-con­scious­ness about his body is on dis­play when he de­scribes, af­ter a girl places her breast in his mouth, “the pork chop, rice, and gravy smell on my breath”. In gen­eral, he’s best when writ­ing about his own feel­ings; ex­plain­ing why he rarely con­trib­uted to class­room dis­cus­sions: “There was too much at stake to ask ques­tions, to be dumb, to be a cu­ri­ous stu­dent, in front of a room of white folk who as­sumed all black folk were in­tel­lec­tu­ally less than them.”

Al­though he talks of­ten about the craft of writ­ing, Lay­mon’s prose can be er­ratic, lurch­ing be­tween showy “y’alls” and academese such as “modes of mem­ory”. There are many sen­ten­tious and un­der­de­vel­oped procla­ma­tions: “I won­dered for the first time how great an Amer­i­can sen­tence, para­graph, or book could be if it wasn’t, at least par­tially, writ­ten to and for black Amer­i­cans in the Deep South.” When he in­cludes his recipe for “build­ing the na­tion”, he sounds pompous.

Strangest of all is Lay­mon’s de­ci­sion to ad­dress Heavy to his mother. It comes across as a de­vice, as a con­trivance. It prom­ises an in­ti­macy that he never de­liv­ers on. His mother – labour­ing hard, mak­ing bad choices in men – re­mains un­know­able, twodi­men­sional, a char­ac­ter in a gothic melo­drama. “I wanted,” he de­clares at one point, “to craft sen­tences that styled on white folk, and dared them to do any­thing about the styling they’d just wit­nessed.” If only he had man­aged to do so. That would have been truly heavy.

To buy Heavy for £12.49 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Heavy: An Amer­i­can Mem­oir

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