Reading Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir
I read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir last December. I was back home in Miami, sitting across the living room from Pops, who was also reading. I would look up and share a quote from the book with Pops. He would nod and comment. He would do the same with his book. Through those readings, we would be able to start conversations. Say things we weren’t always ready to talk about directly, with the text triggering something for us.
Laymon talks about his loves and losses, his body, basketball, and writing in Heavy. When I first started reading the book, I told myself that I would not mark it up. I wanted to keep it pristine. But when I read Laymon say, “Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns. Revised thought patterns shaped memory,” I had a visceral reaction. This reminded me why I started writing, why I wrote. Why I still write.
In Heavy, Laymon talks about how he spent years writing, envisioning Grandmama’s porch. He writes, “Every time I sat down to write, I imagined sitting on that porch with layers of black Mississippi in front of and behind me.” I think about the green power box on the block that my childhood friends and I used to squeeze on between every basketball game. All of us different backgrounds and ages, so all of us having different stories. Laymon’s words remind me of the middle-school basketball courts we played on a little bit later, how we would lean up against the wall by the water fountain, whether the damn thing worked or not. How we would tell stories during breathers between games over the hot as all hell summer. I think of a little later, how I used to walk around a “lake” by the house of one of the people I loved the most in this world, smoking weed and sipping a little rum, until the night bled into fatigue. I think of the stories from mis abuelos and Pops, all of whom were uprooted from the island, from their Cuba. They told stories as the rum and wine disappeared with the light each Sunday. The stories being the one thing they had.
I think of Pops’s father, who lost two wives in Cuba, who sent his only son to the United States, not sure if he’d ever see him again. I think of how when he did get to meet back up with Pops, mi abuelo was never able to return to Cuba again. I think of Pops coming to this country alone. Mother having passed away back in Cuba. Never getting to go back to the place where he saw his mother alive. I think of how much mi abuelo and Pops internalized losses and loves. I think of how much I inherited that internalization, and how much I was taught it.
This thinking leads me to a memory of watching an NBA Finals game with Pops. Michael Jordan walking out during a game in Utah, the loudest arena at the time. While everyone else held their ears, Jordan walked up and down the court, cool as can be. I remember Pops telling me, that’s why he’s gonna end the season tonight. I think of how as a kid, ball was life, and how I tried to bring every one of those lessons to the rest of the world. We had to be the unaffected to win.
In Heavy, Laymon wants not to forget but to find more memories. He wonders about “the memories Grandmama misplaced, forgot, or maybe just lose from the time I started this book until I finished.” I think of how Pops told his old man that he would live forever because he would tell stories of him for the rest of his life, and they’d be passed down generation after generation, no matter when or if we ever got back to his home. I wonder how many of those stories Pops forgot before he realized it was on him to keep those stories alive. How many of those stories mi abuelo forgot, before he gave them to Pops. I think of how I went from walking around the fake lake with one of my best friends to watching him die one night. I think of how in that moment I started losing stories and memories. How I tried to avoid picking the scabs of other peoples. How I internalized stories with him. I wonder how many of his stories I lost by not telling them, keeping them active. I wonder how many laughs or cries we lost by not telling stories of him. I think of how many stories I lost drinking and smoking away.
Laymon says, “Sitting still, just as much as any other part of writing, took practice. Most days, my body did not want to practice, but I convinced myself that sitting still and writing were a path to memory.” My last years in Miami, I lived with two of my best friends. They worked nine-to-fives; I was a drunk and high and major-less undergrad who hustled for jobs between classes and semesters. I woke up those mornings, hungover and burnt out, and forced myself to sit and write. I spent those mornings alone, writing. With no plan for genre or style or publication. Just to bleed on paper. To make my thoughts physical, to have them be a physical thing so I could morph or mess with them.
My regulation basketball days were over. But I gave my all to writing. I thought of Ray Allen’s advice to Norris Cole as a rookie on the Miami Heat: that when he practiced, to never mess around, to take every shot like you’d want to take a shot in the fourth quarter. To waste no opportunity to get better. I thought of how I wrote the most important and heavy thing every time. Tried to write the best thing every time. Every time I felt the need to get better. To always write to get better. As a writer, as a person.
I think of how the first time I fell in love with someone, she lived out of town. How I had to sit still if I wanted to express that love, writing her long letters. How I had to get better with each letter, to convey how I was feeling.
I flip through the pages and see the moment in Heavy where Laymon’s mother helps him focus his energy on making a paper better after a coach embarrasses him. I read how his mom “challenged [him] to use the rest of the essay to discover ideas and questions [he] didn’t already know and feel.” I remember in my first-ever workshop story, a dark and all-feelings thing that was raw as a wound, one person wrote a solitary note on the back of the last page of my piece. “Worst story ever.” I remember someone I love dearly taking care of me after that class, editing my work, keeping my focus on the story, not the pain or frustration of another. I didn’t end the guy the way I thought I wanted. I did begin to revise. The stories had worth. The stories could keep people, memories, feelings alive forever. They could help us revise ourselves. I had to get better, to be worth the stories and the people I loved.
Laymon says, “I told you that running and hiding from folk who can’t see themselves has fatal consequences. You told me that unnecessarily opening yourself up for folk who can’t see themselves has even more fatal consequences.” I wonder if I am just picking scabs of ours while too far away to help and hold and heal with them. I wonder if getting better with my writing and more comfortable talking about the pains of our home is worth it if I’m only hurting my family and loved ones. I wonder if quitting the conversations we may need would be equally hurtful to mine and others like us who have internalized and not revised our thoughts and pains into things we can comprehend and own, instead of letting them own us.
I think of how Laymon addresses the entirety of Heavy to his mother. Commenting on all the things he should have said or wanted to say in their moments of silence and internalization together. I think of how I write about all the things that I wanted to say to the people I love, and how I feel freer to write it down more than talk about it. The text as a trigger.
I feel the repetition of Laymon’s words being used not just as a rhythmic device but also as a thematic one. Of a writer and a human trying to find and forge a memory of things lost. Of building a world of those memories. Beat by beat.
I remember my first published piece, how my boy called me from Miami, saying how he didn’t know a thing about New Orleans, but he liked the story because it sounded like we were just talking shit in the old hood over Heinekens. I like how I come into the bar I work at in New Orleans and different coworkers and friends will comment on pieces during drinks as we open and close and everything in between. I like how when I share a piece of home with one of my boys from Miami, he tells me it starts off pretentious, but we talk about home after that.
I am thankful for Heavy, for a text that lets me start off a conversation about the things I want to work on. That spots me through a conversation with my peoples. I think of how I’ve spent the majority of the last three years working on my MFA, away from my fam. I think of how a lot of people have read stories and writings of mine who didn’t grow up with me or see the world I saw, when these imaginations were birthed. Where these memories were lost. How I’m trying to bring them back again. I think of all the people who may read this and recognize themselves nameless in this piece. Is this just a picked scab? Does this get a conversation going with them, for us? Does the dialogue from writing reach my peoples and keep us revising and growing in our stories? Does the writing protect us from the silence of memories lost?