Kiese Laymon on His Poignant Memoir, “Heavy”

Michel Martin speaks to Mississippi author Kiese Laymon about his poignant memoir “Heavy,” which takes a look at what it means to grow up in a society that oppresses black people, from eating habits to domestic violence, and how his upbringing was marked by struggle, a disciplinarian mother, and racism.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: In his poignant and raw autobiography “Heavy,” the author Kiese Laymon, looks at what it’s like to grow up in a society that oppresses Black people from eating habits to domestic violence. His memoir tells the story of himself as a small boy with his mother in Jackson, Mississippi, and struggling to take control in the society that gives you so little of it. Our Michel Martin sat down with Kiese and asked him to connect the dots of his multifaceted life.

MICHEL MARTIN: There is so much here, there’s so much to talk about. It’s about family relationships, it’s about food.


MARTIN: It’s about weight. It’s about being heavy.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: It’s written really as a lengthy letter to your mother. She is a very, how can I put this, interesting character — if you look at her as a character.

LAYMON: Definitely.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit about her.

LAYMON: She’s interesting. She’s complicated. She had me when she was 19. She became a political science professor at 24. So, we moved from Mississippi to Wisconsin back to Mississippi when she was about 24. And she gave her life to, you know, Black students at Jackson State University. Gave her love to our region. And, like most parents, she just, you know, had a hard time being a human and being a parent at the same time, especially to, you know, a little Black boy growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. But she never wavered in terms of what my writing practice was going to be. You know what I mean? We see our parents sometimes become people, and part of this book is like admitting that I wasn’t sure how to talk about my mother becoming a woman, not just becoming my mama. And she just made sure early on in life that I understood the writing and revision were key to what she would call survivor.

She was definitely one of these Black parents that believed you could write and revise your way into a particular kind of safety. On the other hand, I mean, I think it’s OK to say that, you know, I think my mother was a bit physically abusive.

MARTIN: A bit?

LAYMON: I mean, yes.

MARTIN: A bit?

LAYMON: I think that she was physically abusive. And I think she learned to be physically abusive from the nation but also from the culture. You know, like —

MARTIN: Talk more.

LAYMON: We grew up in a part of this country where parents, Black parents especially, taught their children that like whatever they did to their bodies was going to be less harmful than what the police might do to you, than what the teachers might do and what white mobs might do to you. So, my mom was very physically, aggressively trying to discipline my body into it anticipating what White supremacy and White people would do. And it took me awhile to understand that that was abusive, and it took me awhile to see that, you know, there were patterns of abuse, it wasn’t just that my mom was abusive, this is what was happening in most of the homes that I grew up in or saw. But she really believed that somehow, like she could protect my body by beating my body and protect my body from, again, White supremacy, which is an interesting and sort of sad sort of dialogue on where we are because when my teachers failed me, I would get a whooping and I knew that at the time. You know, if my teachers, you know, said I talked back or they said that they saw me with something I shouldn’t have, whether I had it or not, I know when I got home, I would get beaten because my mom pretty would say, “You should have known better. And with this beating you will know better.” The book, I’m laudatory of my mom, I’m very thankful for everything she gave to me. I just don’t know that those beatings ever actually did help.

MARTIN: Do you want to read this passage? I was debating whether — can you read it?


MARTIN: Do you mind?

LAYMON: I know — yes.

MARTIN: Just this passage here, just the first paragraph of this chapter which you call hulk.


MARTIN: Here you go.

LAYMON: Just the first?


LAYMON: Oh, yes.


LAYMON: OK. Hulk. You were on one end of grand mama’s couch yelling at me while I was on the other end grasping the side of my face. We weren’t back in Mississippi for longer than a week when you smashed me across my face with the heel of a Patrick Ewing Adidas because I talked back. The side of my face started to swell but I couldn’t understand why getting hit in the face with the heel of a Ewing didn’t hurt as much as it had before we left Jackson. I was 6’1″, 215 pounds, nine inches taller and over 40 pounds heavier than you. The softer parts of my heart and body were getting harder and those harder parts didn’t want to hurt you. But they wanted to never, ever be hurt by you again.

MARTIN: I find that passage so remarkable because, you know, black women whooping on their kids is almost a joke —

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: — in some parts of the black community.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: Do you feel like you’ve opened the door to a secret in a way, like a family secret, by talking about this?

LAYMON: That’s a great question. That’s a great question. A part of me worries that I opened the door to a secret that will further pathologize black women. And what I wanted to do in the book was show that the black women who raised me were incredibly complicated. And one of the things that they were taught was to physically discipline their black children into survival or excellence. And I’m one of those black children who was beaten into survival and excellence. And I want people to understand that I’m using the art that my mom and grand mama gave me to talk about, among other things, the belief that beating children into excellence works. I mean it doesn’t. It didn’t work with me. I say that —

MARTIN: Didn’t it?

LAYMON: No. I mean —

MARTIN: I mean it beat you into —

LAYMON: And one might say it did because I’m here.

MARTIN: Yes, exactly. That’s the tricky piece, isn’t it?

LAYMON: Right. One might say, well, I think I would have been here a lot earlier.

MARTIN: Do you feel that in a way you’ve broken a taboo?

LAYMON: At my worst, I wonder if I broke a taboo that should not have been broken.

MARTIN: You still question that?

LAYMON: Well, because I do when I go around this country, there are black people who I think respect and love me and us who are like, I – there are some things you actually should have kept in the house. And —

MARTIN: Airing dirty laundry.

LAYMON: Airing the dirty laundry.

MARTIN: And why do they say that?

LAYMON: I think they worry because the same reason my mom beat me. I think they worry about what happens when white people see us, like see our secrets like what they will do. And I think what we know is that there’s no length to what they would do but what I’m trying to say and I don’t know if I did it effectively or not is like absolutely, why focus on what white folks are going to do. But can we be healthier, can we be more honest, can we be aggressively — can we aggressively listen and wonder around like our memory with each other, holding each other’s hands.

Like why do all those people do whatever these people are going to do and I think we can. I think we can make ourselves ironically heavier but we have to be willing to face yesterday. My mom is someone who often says I’m not — I wasn’t born with rearview mirrors. And I’ll say, OK but let’s invent them. Like let’s invent the rearview mirror and let’s look back together. Do you know what I mean? That’s what I’m trying to say and do, which means we have to do what a nation has taught us not to do which is to look back and regretfully say these are some things I should not have done. Let me talk to you about why I did them and hopefully going forward, I can be a better person, less violent, less abusive.

MARTIN: How do you understand her beating you? Because some people would say, you know it was your frustration. It was her frustration at not getting child support from your father. Her frustration at, you know, trying to take care of you, take care of herself, improve herself, go to school. It was just pressure and, you know, poverty, and lack of any other skills or knowing any better.

LAYMON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So how do you understand it?

LAYMON: I mean I understand that and I understand that my mother in so many other ways took what society and culture said she should do and be and made it different. She went a different way. In this way, in the way she disciplined her child, she did exactly what I think culture taught her to do, which is to again discipline your son into submission so he will not be killed by white people.

MARTIN: Or could it be just that she did not have personal discipline? Could it be her? Is there any part of this could just be her?

LAYMON: I mean I think if you —

MARTIN: Maybe she just did not have the patience to be a mom?

LAYMON: I think if you read the book, you see that I’m — I feel, as a person who doesn’t have a child, I feel unfair making that critique, but that critique is there. Of course, my mom, I think knows that she failed in beating me as much as she did. And I think that she knows that part of that was like, as much as it was influenced by culture and the nation, it was, obviously, her and she regrets that.

MARTIN: But it’s also true that you are very adamant about the fact that this is a bigger story.

LAYMON: Oh, it’s so much bigger.

MARTIN: It’s a story of Kiese and his mom and his mom hitting him a lot to the point where you still bear scars from it, emotional scars mainly, as well as physical scars, but this is bigger. Tell me why you think it’s bigger than that.

LAYMON: Well, I never got a beating in my life where my mother didn’t talk to me about what white people were going to do. Like I never just got a beating. The beatings came along with a critique of the nation, with a critique of white supremacy which, again, which is a familiar critique for those of us who got beaten in the South which is believe you me, what I’m doing to you is nothing compared to what they’re going to do. And, you know, I could see, right? Like I talk about it in the book. What’s interesting is I saw Rodney King get beaten. And I watched cops — watch cops beat Rodney King, right, and we watched it. I think it was on ABC. And that night, I came home, and my mother found out that I was in my first relationship ever, and I was in a relationship with a white woman, and she beat me. And it was one of the strangest times in my life where I was like, wow, I actually felt like I deserved that beating, which says a lot about like 15-year-old black boys sort of psychological makeup but also it had to do with what I had just seen on T.V. Because in so many ways, my mother was trying to say, I’m beating you so you won’t be Rodney King. Of course, I know —

MARTIN: I’m beating you so they don’t kill you.

LAYMON: So they don’t kill you and get off for killing you, right? What I have to do as a writer that she raised is critique that impulse and critique my mom publicly, which is hard. But I’m also trying to say that I understand that there are scripts that we’re all supposed to follow in this nation. And sometimes we veer and we make like healthy moves outside of the script and sometimes we stay inside of the script. And my mom often when it came to parenting, I think she followed a particular kind of script. But what’s interesting is that I saw her so often break that script as a teacher. You know, as a woman, as a daughter, as a lover. And retrospectively, what I’m trying to say is, ma, I wish you would have broken that script with me and I’m trying to break that script now as a son, as a writer, as a citizen.

MARTIN: Spoiler alert. Your mom is very much alive.


MARTIN: She did read the book. She has responded to the book.


MARTIN: So I want to spend some time on that. But I also want to point out that it’s not just about her hitting you and how you feel about it. It’s about a lot of things. It is about food.


MARTIN: Heavy. You are heavy.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: You’re heavy.

LAYMON: I’m heavy.

MARTIN: And food is very much a part of — and sexual violence and the —

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: -And people treating each other very poorly in a sexual way starting at a very young age.

LAYMON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Do you think those are all connected?

LAYMON: I absolutely think they’re connected. I don’t think that they are causal though. This is the difference, right. I don’t think that, for example, my mom beat me or that different people in my life were sexually abused purely because somebody else was abused. I think that, in my experience, my mom beat me partially because of white supremacy, partially because of mass evictions, partially because of mass incarcerations. We’re not lucky enough — I’m not lucky —

MARTIN: Because a man beat her.

LAYMON: Because a man beat her, too, right. And I’m not lucky enough though to say in my life that it was just because my mom got beaten, it was just because it is. So I’m not lucky enough to live in that world. There were just so many things colliding that I think encouraged my mom sometimes to not treat her child the way she wishes she would have. And conversely, I know that I ate too much, lots of times, in my life because I was trying to deal with not just my mom but the world. And I starved myself for years for the same reasons, right. I was trying to grasp control. And so I think it’s paradoxical. On one hand, you want to control what you’re putting in because you don’t have any control of your surroundings. But on the other hand, there are times in my life when I wanted to make myself feel pain. And this circles back to what we talked about earlier. Like when my mom was beating me, I felt a lot of things but I did also feel at least she cares, right. When I was pushing my body to places I should have never pushed my body, I thought I was doing it out of a sense of care. So like this desire sometimes to hurt ourselves again is something I think that’s been engrained.

MARTIN: And what about the sexual violence? I mean I’ll just tell you, it’s just —

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: It’s — your book is beautifully written.

LAYMON: fright.

MARTIN: It’s a hard read.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: It’s a hard read. Especially — I don’t know. Especially who? Especially anybody. I mean I have a daughter and a son and — this is really hard. It’s hard to think about girls just being treated as if they were tissues to be wiped off.

LAYMON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: It is hard to read about, you know, boys being expected to treat girls in that way in order to preserve their standing with boys.

LAYMON: That’s proven.

MARTIN: And also boys in some cases being treated that way. How do you understand that? How do you understand that? Why did sexuality become so compromised and so connected to violence?

LAYMON: I think my explanation is — I know that the boys that I know who aggressively sexually assaulted people were encouraged to sexually assault people. Were taught, particularly to black girls would recover no matter what but also taught we don’t have to care about black girls if they recover or not, right, which is a very interesting and sad state of affairs. But also like those black boys, and I was one of those black boys, I started the book with my being like this bystander, watching these boys, listening to these boys sexually assault this young woman to show that like it takes lots of people to create a culture of sexual violence, not just the perpetrators.

I was a young boy who knew what was happening in that room was wrong. I didn’t know exactly what was happening but I could have intervened. At that age, I knew that if I intervened, those older boys who I wanted to like me were going to do something to me that I didn’t want. Do you know what I mean? So it takes actual perpetrators but as we also know, it also takes a culture that encourages it. And often, it takes bystanders who just watch and pat themselves on the back for knowing it was wrong but not intervening. I did that at 12-years-old. I was never going to run and trade on and sexually assault anyone but I also was never going to stop anyone from being sexually assaulted. And at 12, I knew that that was something I shouldn’t do. That’s learned. That’s learned.

MARTIN: How are you now? How are things now?

LAYMON: How am I today? I know that my mama loves me. I know I love her. We’re giving ourselves an opportunity to work through the hard, tough parts. And that’s not deliverance but that’s better than we were.

MARTIN: She did read the book. She actually wrote a long blog post —

LAYMON: She did.

MARTIN: — that she posted.

LAYMON: Which is going to be at the end of the book. And we decided at the end of the day not to put it in there but she —

MARTIN: But you posted it on your personal —

LAYMON: I wanted people to see it. I wanted people to see it.

MARTIN: And what did she say?

LAYMON: She said — she knows. She says that we see thing differently, but she also apologized which was a big deal to me. And she also agreed that this book has given her tools that she wished she had before she even had me to be not just a better mother but just a better citizen, a better human being. You know what I’m saying? So I felt when my mother wrote that letter, I felt loved and I felt cared for. And she didn’t have to do that. Do you know what I’m saying? So I —

MARTIN: Some of the people who have responded to her post, though, are very critical of her.

LAYMON: All the critiques of my mom that have made, I listen to them. Sometimes, I hope she doesn’t. But when it comes to the messy work of creating a child, beating was part of what she did to me, which I think she didn’t have to do it. But the reason I’m sitting here with you is because she was also so good at the other things which are instilling the love of black people and the love of black literature and instilling the writing practice that loves black literature, loves black people. Without that, I’m not here. Without the beatings, I think I’d be here earlier. But the thing that she made was a black writer who wants to be the best at this.

MARTIN: Kiese Laymon, thank you so much for talking with us.

LAYMON: Thank you so much for having me, Michel. I appreciate it.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with iconic editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour; and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Michel Martin speaks to Mississippi author Kiese Laymon about his poignant memoir “Heavy.”