2018 was a great year for memoirs.
Tara Westover’s shocking, bizarre, tender and truly original memoir, Educated, rightly finds a mention in most year end lists. Lisa Brenan-Jobs wrote Small Fry and achieved the difficult task of telling the story of her own life, and telling it well, without letting it become one about her famous father, Steve Jobs. Kiese Laymon, with his Heavy: An American Memoir, has straddled his complicated individual life circumstance with the tragic experience of growing up poor and black in deeply racist society.
Laymon begins by telling his mother why he decided to write this memoir and not another book she’d have wanted him to write. He characterizes his mother’s wish in his own voice thus,
I wanted to do that old black work of pandering and lying to folk who pay us to pander and lie to them every day. I wanted to write about our families’ relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats, and high-fructose corn syrup .
Laymon’s mother was a Political Scientist and worked for Jackson State University in Mississippi. One’d assume that landed her solidly in the middle class; except we find out young Kiese grew up in abject deprivation. They barely had enough to eat and they often did not have enough money to keep the lights on; his absent father did not keep his child support payments either. Worse, pre-teen Kiese is frequently left in the company of slightly older teens, who in ways that are typical of juveniles without adult supervision, are cruel towards younger kids. The crude and sad reality of the situation is captured quite poignantly,
Part of it was Layla was a black girl and I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them.
The book is addressed to the author’s mother. It’s a literary device that allows the narrator the luxury of deference, honesty and an unstable vantage point. When the author is describing childhood incidents to his mother, he infuses the narrative voice with childlike innocence. Yet, he swiftly moves to social commentary that takes an adult perspective when the sentences aren’t immediate declarations to his mother; it’s novel and Laymon, who teaches writing for a living, is very good at his craft.
The central character of the memoir, in some ways, isn’t the author himself but his mother. She is often abusive to her child. She raises him to not merely be good but be perfect; and in if he’s anything short of perfect she beats him severely. She makes him read and write and revise what he wrote and generally present his perfect self to the world because she believes her black son has to be perfect to merely not be shot to death by the white order. It’s extraordinary how much the simple act of speaking meant to black lives in terms of their status; she corrects her son’s patterns of speech and contractions by beating him. Even when she’s in the middle of beating him for something else, she corrects his contractions and starts beating him for that! She wants her son to never to speak in improper English that may make white folk construe he is somehow inferior to them.
Kiese Laymon, from the time he was a child, struggled with his weight. He stress eats and uses food as his only real crutch. His relationship with food, during the first few years in college in what was probably the most heartbreaking phase of his life, is terrifying.
In class, I only spoke when I could be an articulate defender of black people. I didn’t use the classroom to ask questions. I didn’t use the classroom to make ungrounded claims. 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. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me. And when I was scared, I ran to cakes, because cakes felt safe, private, and celebratory. Cakes never fought back.
The deep sense of hatred that the author harbors against white people often discomfits the reader. Laymon doesn’t take the high road to see the white order as something distinct from individual white people. He sees them as one oppressive lump. When he becomes a teacher at Vassar College, he realizes that the benefit of doubt and second chances that white students get is at the expense of black and brown students. He doesn’t forgive and isn’t ashamed to admit to that. The moral courage and a grievous sense of hurt that takes defines Laymon. He’s a complicated man whose life is complicated further by the fact that his mistakes are seen as excuses for the white order to shoot him off the sky.
Laymon, however, is far less engaging in chronicling his adult life. His older self, we realize, is pedestrian in ways his younger self would have hated. He seems to get more self indulgent with both his writing and his life over time. The conversation between the author and his estranged mother, as they struggle to snap out of their respective addictions, towards the end of the book, for example, sounds contrived. Perhaps that really happened and real life events don’t lend themselves to great writing. Whatever the case, the author seems to slowly forget the great lesson that his mother imbibed in him as a child: revise and rewrite.
The burden of writing a memoir of an ordinary life that’s also symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with status quo is extraordinary. Kiese Laymon has shouldered that with some grace. This memoir can and probably should be read as a chronicle of the cost that the oppressed have to pay to live an ordinary life. If the cost of living this anyway wretched life becomes so enormous, who can blame some of them for throwing it all away. The only miracle is, not all of them do.