“The most important part of writing, and really life,” Kiese Laymon’s mother tells him, “is revision.”
The instruction comes in his remarkable 2018 memoir, Heavy, a book that is by turns a coolheaded dialogue, a passionate family argument, a tenderhearted tribute, and a shocking confession, all coming together to form a complex portrayal of a mother’s relationship with her son. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, the two of them were never “a family of tuck-ins and bedtime stories any more than we’ve been a family of consistent bill money, pantries, full refrigerators, washers and dryers,” Kiese tells us. “We have always been a bent black southern family of laughter, outrageous lies, and books.”
Running through the heart of their relationship is the question of how young Black men like Laymon should seek safety in a world stacked against them. His mother holds a deep faith in the notion of Black excellence, of working twice as hard and being twice as good, as a path to middle-class security. Laymon has the intellectual chops for this approach, but he chafes against it. Their disagreement over how to live is largely a question of how to speak, about code-switching between white professional language and the colloquial language of their home, about “I try” versus “be trying”; “don’t have” versus “ain’t got”; or “what I have experienced” versus “where I been.”
For several years I’ve been fascinated with Laymon’s work without fully understanding why. In large part it’s because of his approach to revision. In 2020 he bought back the rights to his first two books, a novel and an essay collection, paying the publisher ten times what he originally received for them. He revised the books and released them on his own terms, an act nearly unheard of in publishing.
For him, revision isn’t a sign of indecision but the opposite–a relentless persistent probing of what matters to him most. He’s committed to staring injustice full in the eye. He’s committed to making the most of the humor and hunger he’s been given. He pushes at the boundaries of the memoir form, turning confession into a tool for seeking moral clarity. As I think about the qualities I want to nurture as I age, this sort of tough-minded curiosity, for staring hard at what’s uncomfortable and mysterious, strikes me as deeply valuable.
His mother’s original instruction came through the essays she required him to write as a child—as homework, as punishment, as the strengthening of analytical muscles she wanted him to build. “Do your work, Kie,” she tells him. “Revise, and never, ever let these people see you fail.”
That’s an instruction he breaks right away. Early in Heavy, on her way to teach at a local college, his mother drops him off at a nearby house supervised only by several older teen boys. They lead a teenage girl into a bedroom, refusing to let her swim in the pool until she accompanies them. Outside the door Laymon listens to vague sounds and wonders what’s happening. “Fool, what you think?” his friend tells him. “Running a train.”
He recognizes the wrongness of a culture that tells him Black girls will be all right no matter what boys do to them. Yet soon after, he’s alone with an older sitter who touches him inappropriately, filling him with confusion and a sudden worry about his breath. He turns to the kitchen in shame at various points in these scenes, gulping bleu cheese dressing straight from the bottle or box wine as a reaction to the turmoil he’s struggling to process.
Right away we get several of the book’s core elements–violence mixed with humor; an embodied sense of the tastes, scents, music, and desires of Laymon’s adolescent world; and his difficult relationship with food. He tracks his fluctuating weight as another throughline in the book, binge eating and then later punishing himself with severely limited diets, eleven-mile runs, and basketball games strenuous enough to make himself pass out.
What interests me isn’t baring secrets for its own sake but the way Laymon examines his childhood formation so carefully, pushing against his mother’s instruction to present a sanitized self to the world. That title, Heavy, refers to both physical weight and the weight of nearly everything else–formative childhood experiences, injustice pressing in from all directions, and his desire to make something of his ambition and creativity.
The other key concept in Heavy is Black abundance–a wellspring of creativity, ingenuity, passion, and affection that arises under the force of pressure. In eighth grade, Laymon and his peers navigate a white Catholic school that is not particularly interested in understanding their culture. They repurpose their vocabulary words into playful insults: “‘Give me some grapefruit. And don’t be parsimonious with it, either’” … “‘Everythang about y’all is erroneous’” … “‘They preposterous in this school.’“
The riffing here isn’t mere comic relief; it’s another tool bearing toward the truth as teen boys subvert out-of-touch authorities and claim their own space. Laymon may be a “sweaty, red-eyed underachiever” in the eyes of his teacher, but he knows there’s something brilliant in the way his friend LaThon says “skrrimps” instead of “shrimp” just because it sounds better.
As Laymon’s education takes him through a series of elite, mostly white institutions—studying at Millsaps and Oberlin colleges, then teaching at Vassar—abundant language helps sustain him through a succession of joyless bureaucratic encounters. As an undergraduate at Millsaps, a wealthy school in Jackson, he runs into trouble for calling out campus racism in the student newspaper. After he steals a book from the school library (for reasons even he can’t understand), the college president uses it as pretext for expelling him. That’s the first, but not the last, instance of a school administrator acting cowardly to get rid of a subversive presence. For Laymon, it’s one more reason not to play the upward-mobility game his mother has in mind.
He tells his mother’s story with as many contradictions as his own, showing her as both a respected political science professor who gets invited to speak on local TV and as a single mother whose bounced check is posted at their grocery store. He describes her struggles with gambling (and his own) with painful detail. He criticizes her choices in men, saying he never needed a father as much as she needed a partner. Yet nothing comes through in their relationship as strongly as an undeniable tenderness.
His grandmother, too, is portrayed with beautiful depth and nuance. She’s worked for years at a chicken processing plant, selling garden vegetables and washing white families’ laundry for income on the side. She takes him to church, where he loves the bent organ notes, the taste of grape juice, and the attention from older women. Yet he can’t respect the certainty of the male preachers who let women lead songs, announcements, and mid-week prayer gatherings but restrict them from the authority of the pulpit.
His essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, gathers many of the piece that first brought him attention on Gawker and elsewhere. The revised 2020 version opens with him Zooming with a group of Black women who met online and took their biggest Covid risk to gather in person:
“’Y’all risked it all for a book club?’
The seven women looked at each other and filled that space with full-bodied laughter, wet eyes, and smiles that rocked back, back, forth and forth.
They risked it all for the radical possibilities of friendship forged in books.
Literature is a presence in his life as something that sustains, that matters, that can change a person. The shelves of so many books in his house growing up meant, he tells us, he would never be intellectually intimidated by others. Music is another powerful presence in his books. He describes discovering the Georgia-born Outkast’s music as “equal parts red clay, thick butter grits, and Mars.” (Later he grapples with the misogyny in some of the group’s lyrics.) He dwells on the wordless moaning in the group’s song “Wailin’”:
“The song made me know that there was something to be gained, felt, and used in imitating sounds from whence we came, particularly in the minimal hook: the repeated moan of one about to wail. I’d heard that moan in the presence of older Southern Black folk my entire life, but I’d never heard it connecting two rhymed verses. Art couldn’t get any fresher than that.”
The new book excludes several earlier essays that he felt hadn’t aged well (which naturally made me want to look them up). Those pieces explore, among other things, the artistic genius and deep personal failings of Michael Jackson and Kanye West. They’re replaced by newer pieces that experiment with form–a group essay written with several friends, a delightful essay-in-emails corresponding with his mother, and pieces that capture the real-time disorientation of the first weeks of the Covid pandemic.
The revision of his novel, Long Division, also shows his interest in manipulating form. The original version has a conventional structure of alternating chapters that braid a modern-day satire and a time-traveling subplot. In the revised version, the contemporary story comes first, bringing the reader to the physical midpoint of the book, when the text abruptly turns upside-down. To read the rest, you flip the book over and start reading from the other cover.
The disorientation reflects, I think, the disorientation of characters navigating a world designed for other people. Early on, a teenage boy is humiliated on the nationally televised stage of a racist college-scholarship competition. For all the force of the social commentary, the strength of the book is in kids ribbing and testing each other as they find their way in the world, much like Laymon and his Catholic-school classmates in Heavy. Capturing “the sounds from whence we came” as he puts it in his Outkast essay, is a way of getting at so much more.
Laymon isn’t the only artist experimenting with revision or questioning the conventions of commerce, distribution, and whether art is ever fully finished. Taylor Swift re-recorded several of her early albums to take control back from her record company. Walt Whitman reworked Leaves of Grass continuously throughout his career. For Laymon, revision is a moral practice, a way to keep growing and avoid calcifying in life.
At Vassar, we get some of the most painful scenes in Heavy. Laymon learns that, in that rarified world, it’s fashionable to talk about the “privilege” but not the “power” of his wealthy white students. He comes to see his teaching mandate as persuading his students to use their power less abusively. His time there culminates in a disciplinary board hearing, evaluating the case of a white student caught with felonious amounts of cocaine in his dorm room. The student tells a story of a “big dark man” approaching him in a club who “made” him buy the cocaine. The rest of the disciplinary board accepts this absurd story without reservation, and Laymon knows his time at Vassar is limited.
Heavy ends with Laymon’s story unresolved. His gambling struggles, his professional direction, and his relationship with his family all remain unresolved. He returns to something his grandmother told him earlier:
“The land, Kie,” she said. “We work too hard on this land to run. Some of us, we believe the land will one day be free. I been eating off this land my whole life. Greens. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Collards. You hear me? That’s all I can tell you. As far as these stories, I just try to gather up all the gumption I can before I take it to the Lord. And when I tell it to my children, sometimes I just be trying to put y’all where I been.”
He can’t quite tell if she says “been” or “bend,” and he plays with both words: “been” as the weight of experience, the crucible, the heaviness; and ”bend“ as the capacity to change, to grow, the places where we are flexible, perhaps more than we realize. He considers this as a personal virtue, the capacity to grow out of our previous limitations, as well as a social and cultural virtue, the question of whether a nation can grow past the limitations that have shackled and confused it for centuries.
That’s what interests me. Can we keep growing in life in substantial ways? Can a nation keep growing? Can confronting the ugliness of our injustice lead us somewhere new? I don’t know. Laymon shows that the scrutiny, the tough-minded examined life, is worthwhile in itself.