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An American Memoir



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About The Book

*Selected as One of the Best Books of the 21st Century by The New York Times*

*Named a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, BuzzFeed (Nonfiction), The Undefeated, Library Journal (Biography/Memoirs), The Washington Post (Nonfiction), Southern Living (Southern), Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Times Critics*

In this powerful, provocative, and universally lauded memoir—winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal and finalist for the Kirkus Prize—genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon “provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot” (Entertainment Weekly).

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to time in New York as a college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. Heavy is a “gorgeous, gutting…generous” (The New York Times) memoir that combines personal stories with piercing intellect to reflect both on the strife of American society and on Laymon’s experiences with abuse. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, he asks us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

“A book for people who appreciated Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family through years of haunting implosions and long reverberations. “You won’t be able to put [this memoir] down…It is packed with reminders of how black dreams get skewed and deferred, yet are also pregnant with the possibility that a kind of redemption may lie in intimate grappling with black realities” (The Atlantic).


1. Train TRAIN
You stood in a West Jackson classroom teaching black children how correct usage of the word “be” could save them from white folk while I knelt in North Jackson, preparing to steal the ID card of a fifteen-year-old black girl named Layla Weathersby. I was twelve years old, three years younger than Layla, who had the shiniest elbows, wettest eyes, and whitest Filas of any of us at Beulah Beauford’s house. Just like the big boys, Dougie and me, all Layla ever wanted to do was float in the deep end.

Beulah Beauford’s house, which sat deep in a North Jackson neighborhood next to ours, was only the second house I’d been in with new encyclopedias, two pantries filled with name-brand strawberry Pop-Tarts, and an in-ground pool. Unlike us in our rented house, which we shared with thousands of books and two families of rats, Beulah Beauford and her husband owned her house. When we moved from apartments in West Jackson to our little house in the Queens, and eventually to North Jackson, I wanted people who dropped me off to think Beulah Beauford’s house belonged to us. Our house had more books than any other house I’d ever been in, way more books than Beulah Beauford’s house, but no one I knew, other than you, wanted to swim in, or eat, books.

Before dropping me off, you told me I was supposed to use Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to write a report about these two politicians named Benjamin Franklin Wade and Thaddeus Stevens. You told me to compare their ideas of citizenship to President Ronald Reagan’s claim: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Then I was also supposed to read the first chapter of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and imitate Faulkner’s style when writing a short story placed in Jackson. The first sentence in the book was a million words long, which was cool, and it used strange words like “wisteria” and “lattices,” but I didn’t know how to write like Faulkner and say anything honest about us. Ronald Reagan gave me the bubble-guts and William Faulkner made me feel drunker than a white man, so I decided I’d take the whupping from you or write lines when I got home.

Besides Layla, and Beulah Beauford’s son, Dougie, usually there were at least two other seventeen-year-old big boys in the house who were the friends of Dougie’s older cousin, Daryl. Daryl moved into Beulah Beauford’s house a year earlier from Minnesota and his room was a straight-up shrine to Vanity, Apollonia, and Prince Rogers Nelson. Daryl and his boys went from rolling their own cigarettes, to smoking weed, to selling tiny things that made people in North Jackson feel better about being alive. In between doing all that smoking and selling, they swam, watched porn, drank Nehis, boiled Red Hots, ate spinach, got drunk, got high, imitated Mike Tyson’s voice, talked about running trains, and changed the rules to swim at Beulah Beauford’s house every other week that summer of 1987.

One week, the rule was Dougie, Layla, and I had to make the older boys all the supersweet Kool-Aid they could drink with perfectly chipped ice if we wanted to swim. Two weeks later, the rule was Dougie and I had to place five socks around our fists and box each other until one of our noses bled. The next-to-last day I spent at Beulah Beauford’s house, the rule was simple: Layla had to go in Daryl’s room with all the big boys for fifteen minutes if she wanted to float in the deep end, and Dougie and I had to steal all the money out of her purse and give it to the big boys when they got out.

Layla, who smelled like apple Now and Laters, shea butter, and bleach, always wore a wrinkled sky-blue swimsuit underneath her acid-washed Guess overalls. I watched her walk down the hall behind Darryl, Wedge, and this dude named Delaney with the biggest calves in the neighborhood. Delaney claimed he’d been initiated into the Vice Lords one weekend earlier.

We all believed him.

When the door to Darryl’s bedroom closed, Dougie and I started rummaging through Layla’s purse. Stealing stuff, getting to the last level in Donkey Kong, barely losing fights, and saying “on hard,” “on punishment,” and “on swole” were Dougie’s superpowers. He wasn’t all-world at any of them, but he did all four ten times more than anyone I’d ever known in Jackson.

Since Layla didn’t have any money to steal, Dougie stole Layla’s compact that day. He claimed he was going to fill it with these weak joints Daryl showed him how to roll. I saw and stole a crumpled minipack of apple Now and Laters right next to this unopened bottle of white shoe polish.

Inside the smallest pocket of the purse, wrapped around some yellow legal pad paper, was this homemade ID. None of the edges were smooth and Layla had on a red Panama Jack shirt and braces on her bottom teeth in the picture. The ID had Layla’s birth date, school name, weight, height, and a church picture of her and her family standing in front of Mt. Calvary, but it didn’t have her name on it. I remember Layla was at least six inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than me. On the other side of the ID, blazing across the middle in huge bleeding black marker, were the words USE THIS IN CASE OF EMERGENCIES.

Up until that point, I’d never really imagined Layla being in one emergency, much less emergencies. 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. Part of it was Layla was three whole years older than me and I never really had a conversation with her for more than eight seconds. Layla wasn’t the most stylish girl in North Jackson, but she was definitely the funniest person in Beulah Beauford’s house, and she was all-world at more things than all of us combined. She was all-world at dissing Daryl for having feet that stank through his bootleg Jordans, all-world at reminding Delaney his breaststroke was forever a “drownstroke,” and all-world at never really laughing at anyone else’s sentences until she was good and ready. I wasn’t the type of fat black boy to ever talk to fine black girls first, and Layla wasn’t the type of fine black girl to ever really talk to fat black boys like me unless she was asking me to get out of her way, walk faster, or get her some Kool-Aid.

I didn’t have an ID of my own, but I did have this blue velcro Jackson State University wallet with the faded tiger on the front. You gave it to me for Christmas. I kept the two-dollar bill Grandmama gave me for my birthday in it. Behind a black-and-white picture of Grandmama, in one of the folds, was one of your old licenses. You said I couldn’t leave the house without it until I got my own license. A real license, you told me way more than once, didn’t mean I was grown. It just meant I was technically protected from the Vice Lords, the Folks, and the Jackson police, who you claimed worked for Ronald Reagan and the devil.

“What they up in there doing?” I asked Dougie, whose ear was pressed against Daryl’s door.

“Fool, what you think? Running a train.”

I smirked like I knew what running a train was. Really I had no idea how running a train worked physically or verbally. Running a train sat orange-red in my imagination. Running a train occupied the space of a proper noun, but moved like the most active of active verbs. Just saying “running a train,” whether you were a participant in the train or knowledgeable of a train, gave you a glow and gravity every black boy in Jackson respected. The only other three words that gave you a similar glow and gravity were “I got initiated.”

“They ran a train up in there this morning, too,” Dougie said.

“Layla was here this morning?”

“Naw. It was this other girl.”


“I forgot her name,” Dougie told me. “LaWon or LaDon some shit. They ran a train on her twice. Be quiet, fool. Listen.”

I stood there wondering why the shallow grunts and minisqueaks coming from the boys in Daryl’s room made me want to be dead. I didn’t know, but I assumed some kind of sex was happening, but I couldn’t understand why Layla was so much less breathy than the white women on Cinemax and The Young and the Restless. I assumed Layla’s short fingers were balled up and her eyes were rolling back in her head. If everyone in the room was naked, I wondered what they all were doing with their hands and how they looked at the hair on each other’s thighs. I wondered if anyone was crying.

Fifteen minutes later, the door to the bedroom opened. “Both of y’all little niggas getting on hard, ain’t you?” Delaney asked us. Daryl and Wedge walked out of the bedroom a few seconds later with their shirts wrapped around their heads like turbans. Dougie started walking into Daryl’s bedroom.

“Where you think you going?” Daryl asked Dougie. “Keece knocked you out like a little-ass trick the other day. Keece, take your big football-playing ass in there and get you some if you want. I think she like you anyway.”

I looked at Dougie, who was looking at the ground. “I’m good,” I told Daryl, and walked behind the big boys. “I don’t want none right now.”

When I saw no one was in the bathroom, I acted like I had to pee. After hearing one of the doors to outside close, I walked back down the hallway and stood in the doorway of Daryl’s bedroom.

“Big Keece,” Layla said from the bedroom. “I be seeing you.”

I wasn’t sure what Layla saw, other than a twelve-year-old, 213-pound black boy with a suspect hairline and no waves, but under the three crooked Vanity 6 posters and the chlorinated stank of Daryl’s bedroom, I saw Layla’s Filas were on, and the long stretch marks streaking across the backs of her thighs were so much prettier than the squiggly ones forming on my biceps and butt.

“Big Keece,” she said again. “Can you get me some yellow Kool-Aid?”

“Okay,” I said. “Wait. Can you tell me how you get your Filas so white?”

“Why you whispering?”

“Oh,” I said louder. “I was just wondering how you got your Filas so white.”

“Bleach and shoe polish,” she said, adjusting the fitted sheet.

“Bleach and shoe polish?”

“Yup. Use bleach first on the white part with, like, a toothbrush. How come you always be reading books when you come over here?”

“Oh. ’Cause my mama will beat my ass if I don’t.”

“That’s funny,” Layla said, and laughed and laughed and laughed until she didn’t. “My mama kinda does not play. But I heard your mama really does not play.”

“She don’t,” I said, and walked to the kitchen hunting for strawberry Pop-Tarts. I remember watching the swirling reds, yellows, and forest greens in Beulah Beauford’s pantry. At our house, there was no pantry. There was hardly any food other than spoiled pimento cheese, the backs of molded wheat bread, a half-empty box of wine, and swollen green olives. I missed our fridge, though. I missed our kitchen.

I missed you.

I opened an unopened bottle of thick bleu cheese dressing and drank as much as I could. Then I placed some crushed ice in a huge red plastic cup, poured some lemonade mix in it. I used a plastic butter knife to stir before walking back to Daryl’s bedroom.

From outside the doorway, I could see Layla sitting up, putting on her swimsuit. I’d only been this close to three naked women in my life: you, Grandmama, and Renata.

“You got me something to drink, Big Keece?”

“I got you some lemonade like you asked me to,” I said, still not fully in the room. “And a strawberry Pop-Tart if you want half.”

“I want half.”

I’d never kissed anyone my age and I worried if Layla tried to kiss me, my lips would be chappy, or my breath would stink like bleu cheese, or at some point she’d maybe see my stretch marks and the big flat mole on my left butt cheek.

I took Layla’s ID out of my pocket, grabbed the apple Now and Laters out of my other pocket, put both on the ground to the left of the door. Then I moved the cup of Kool-Aid and the strawberry Pop-Tarts on top of the ID.

“Walk with me out to the pool?” she asked me. “I don’t want to go out there by myself.”

“Why? You think Daryl and them trying to laugh at you?”

Layla held the strap on her left shoulder and looked down at the Kool-Aid. “I don’t,” I remember her saying. “I don’t think they’ll laugh at me. They said I had to go in the bedroom if I wanted to swim in the deep end. So that’s what I did.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you think they gone laugh at me?”

“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, they be laughing when they nervous. Why you call it yellow Kool-Aid and not lemonade?”

“?’Cause that’s what it is to me,” she said. “It’s yellow and it’s Kool-Aid. Ain’t no lemons in it. Walk out there with me?”

I remember my back facing the opposite side of Daryl’s room and wondering if there was a real word for stories filled with people who started off happy and then got sad. “Happysad,” no space and no hyphen, was the word I used in my head. Telling happysad stories about what just happened was really all the big boys at Beulah Beauford’s house did well. Whether they were true or not didn’t matter. What mattered was if they were good stories. Good stories sounded honest. Good stories made you feel like you didn’t see all of what you thought you just saw. I knew the big boys would tell stories about what happened in Daryl’s bedroom that were good for all three of them and sad for her in three vastly different ways. I wanted to tell Layla some of the happysad stories of our bedrooms but I wasn’t sure whether to begin those happysad stories with “I” or “She” or “He” or “We” or “One time” or “Don’t tell nobody” or “This might sound nasty to you but…”

“I’m starting not to feel so good,” I heard Layla say behind me.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

Without turning around, I whispered, “Me either. I mean, me too.” Then I took off out of Beulah Beauford’s house, leaving Layla to walk by herself toward the deep end.

The run home was a little more than a mile. I ran a lot of sprints in basketball and football practice, and I always felt fast for my size, but I’d never run a mile nonstop. Running a mile for heavy kids like me had everything to do with your brain and your heart forgetting you were running a mile. That’s what Dougie, Layla, and me loved about the deep end. For however long you were in it, for a few minutes of your life, no matter how the big boys laughed at us, our bodies forgot how much they weighed.

Then they remembered.

When you and I lived in apartments off Robinson Road, your student Renata came over to babysit a few times a week. Renata, who was bowlegged in one leg, always made pork chops, rice, and gravy. We watched Mid-South Wrestling Saturday night. After Mid-South Wrestling, Renata asked me to come to your bedroom so she could put me in the figure four. While I was on my back bracing myself for pain, Renata told me she loved how my cutoff sweatpants made my thighs and calves look. No one ever said they liked my calves or my thighs before Renata.

When Renata asked if I wanted a sip of her thick Tang, I tried to drink from a part of the cup she hadn’t drank from because you told me never to drink after anyone. When Renata asked me why I didn’t want to drink after her, I told her because you told me I could get herpes drinking after randoms with chappy lips. “Your mama is the smartest and funniest person I’ll ever know,” she told me.

“That’s cool,” I said, and placed my lips right where she pointed. The Tang tasted sweeter than a melted Popsicle and way more sour than a pickle.

“It’s good, right?” she asked. “Does it make you want to kiss me?”

I didn’t know how to be anything other than scared at the thought I was about to have my first real girlfriend. I remember just fake smiling and drinking more Tang so I could have something to do with my hands.

When I was done with the Tang, Renata pulled up her shirt, unhooked her bra, and filled my mouth with her left breast. She used her right hand to pinch my nostrils until I could only breathe out of the corners of my mouth.

I held my mouth open as wide as I could, hoping not to cut Renata’s breast with my crooked front teeth. I remember praying to God the Tang overpowered the pork chop, rice, and gravy smell on my breath. I didn’t think Renata would want to stay my girlfriend if I made one of her nipples smell like pork chops, rice, and gravy. Choking on Renata’s breasts made me feel lighter than I’d ever felt. After a few minutes, Renata grabbed my penis and kept saying, “Keep it straight, Kie. Can you keep it straight?” She kept breathing in a way that sounded like she loved whatever her body was feeling. The sound of her breathing made me feel sexy for the second time in my life.

Nearly every time Renata came over to take care of me, she put me in a figure four, choked me, and asked me to keep it straight. When she came over and didn’t choke me or ask me to keep it straight, I wondered what was wrong with me. I always assumed it was because my thighs and calves weren’t muscly enough. On those days when she didn’t touch me, I didn’t eat or drink and I did calf raises and squats in the bathroom until I cramped.

After a few months, Renata’s real boyfriend came over while she babysat. They drank thick Tang together. Once, when they thought I was asleep, I heard her wailing in the closet and making the same sounds she made with me.

I heard Renata’s real boyfriend say, “You better not say no either.” Then I heard Renata start cussing him out. I opened the closet door and saw them both standing up, sweaty and naked. Her real boyfriend had the body of Apollo Creed but his neck was longer. I’d never seen Renata’s whole naked body that close up. I felt amazed someone with a fine body like hers and a real boyfriend who had a fine body like Apollo Creed would want anything to do with a wide messy body like mine. “Close the closet, little fat, looking-ass nigga,” her real boyfriend told me. “Fuck is you looking at?”

When I told them I was going to get your gun to shoot them in the foreheads, they both ran out of the house with half of their clothes on. Renata decided not to be my girlfriend anymore. I never saw her again. I knew it was because my legs were fat and I made her breasts smell like pork chops, rice, and gravy the first time she pushed them in my mouth. You got mad at me that night because your bed looked like two people had been in it. I told you I wasn’t in the bed with Renata. I didn’t tell you I wanted to be.

The day I sprinted away from Beulah Beauford’s house, I sat out in the driveway of our house for hours thinking about what I heard outside of Daryl’s bedroom and what I felt in our bedroom. You made me read more books and write more words in response to those books than any of my friends’ parents, but nothing I’d ever read prepared me to write or talk about my memory of sex, sound, space, violence, and fear.

Usually, when I wanted to run from memory, I transcribed rap lyrics, or I drew two-story houses, or I wrote poems to Layla, or I watched black sitcoms, or I thought about new ways to act a fool in class, or I shot midrange jump shots, or I ate and drank everything that wasn’t nailed down. I couldn’t do any of what I wanted to do in our driveway, waiting for you to come home.

When you got home the evening I left Beulah Beauford’s house I hugged you, thanked you, told you I loved you. I hated, for the first time, how soft my body felt close to yours. I knew I’d either get a whupping or have to write lines for not doing the assignment you told me to do. Lines were a number of long repeated written sentences explaining what I would do differently, beginning with “I will…” I hated writing lines, and always wrote one fewer half line than I was assigned, but I hated getting beaten by you even more.

You turned the lights on when we got in the house and stood in front of one of the bookcases. “What do you see, Kie?” you asked me.

I looked first at your oversized blue dashiki, your wide feet squeezed into a pair of Beulah Beauford’s shoes, the shiny keloid on your forearm, and your mini fro leaning slightly left.

“Not on me, Kie,” you said. “What do you see behind me?”

When I was thinking of how to answer your question, you told me you were getting closer to defending your dissertation up in Wisconsin. I hugged your neck, told you how proud I was of you, and asked if that meant you were about to be a real doctor and if being a real doctor meant you’d be making a lot more money.

“Look,” you said, and pointed to the bottom shelves of the bookcase. Sitting behind you were the bluest books I’d ever seen. I asked you how we were going to pay for the books since we didn’t have enough money for lights or rent. “Kiese Laymon, do you like the encyclopedias or not?”

I stood up and ran my hands along the spines. You usually only said my whole name when I was about to get a whupping. “Does this mean I don’t have to go to Beulah Beauford’s house no more?”

“Smell the books,” you said, and opened the encyclopedia on the far left. “Get a grip. And don’t say ‘no more.’ Say anymore.”

“Anymore,” I said, and put my nose as close as I could to the spine of the book. You told me my first assignment was to use our encyclopedias to write a two-page report on Jim Crow and freedom strategies used by black elected officials in Mississippi, post-Reconstruction. The report was due by the end of the week.

“Um,” I told you before you walked to your room to call Malachi Hunter, “I think I want to lose weight. Can you help me? I be sweating too much when I try to talk to people I don’t want to be sweaty around.”

“You mean girls, Kie?”

“I guess I mean girls.”

“If someone doesn’t like you for you,” you said, “they are not worth sweating around. Save your sweat for someone who values it. I think I’m gaining all the weight you want to lose in my thighs.”

Your thighs were always thick, but I could see even less of your cheekbones in the last few months. Your neck looked a lot shorter. Your breasts seemed heavier when you walked around the house in your huge raggedy Jackson State T-shirt. You looked even more beautiful to me.

We played Scrabble that evening and I beat you for the second time in our lives. You asked for a rematch, and I beat you again. “I’m surprised you didn’t try to spell ‘be’ or ‘finna’ every chance you got,” you said as you walked toward our new encyclopedias. I watched you stand in front of the encyclopedias with your sweatpants and JSU T-shirt on. You smiled ear to ear as you gently fingered through half of the books. “The day your grandmother brought home a set of encyclopedias for us was the happiest day of my childhood, Kie.”

“Do I have to go to Beulah Beauford’s house anymore to use her encyclopedias if we have our own?”

You responded to my question with a question, which is something you said was illegal in our house, and asked if I used Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to write the essay or short story you told me to write. “If you didn’t write the essay or the story, what did you do?” You actually stood there, with an encyclopedia in hand, waiting for an answer. “Answer me, Kie. Don’t tell a story either.”

I thought about what I did, what I wrote, what I saw and heard, and how I ran away. I imagined Layla telling a story of that day. I could hear her telling it in a style that made me better than the big boys. I could hear her telling it in a style that made me worse. I could mostly hear her telling it in a style that centered her and made the big boys, Dougie, and me the same kind of blurry and terrible.

When I didn’t answer your question, you said my not doing the essay was another tired example of refusing to strive for excellence, education, and accountability when excellence, education, and accountability were requirements for keeping the insides of black boys in Mississippi healthy and safe from white folk.

I stood there watching you, feeling a lot about what it meant to be a healthy, safe black boy in Mississippi, and wondering why folk never talked about what was needed to keep black girls healthy and safe. My body knew things my mouth and my mind couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, express. It knew that all over my neighborhood, boys were trained to harm girls in ways girls could never harm boys, straight kids were trained to harm queer kids in ways queer kids could never harm straight kids, men were trained to harm women in ways women could never harm men, 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. I didn’t know how to tell you or anyone else the stories my body told me, but, like you, I knew how to run, deflect, and duck.

“Kiese Laymon, what did you do instead of writing your essay?” you asked me again. “I am going to ask you one more time and I am going to get my belt. Why did you not do the work I told you to do?”

I wanted to tell you I hated when you didn’t use contractions. Instead I said, “I’m sorry. I just got tired of swimming in the deep end at Beulah Beauford’s house, and I wanted to come home. I won’t do it again. Thank you for the new encyclopedias. I know they gone protect my insides from white folk.”

“Going to,” you said. “Don’t say ‘gone’ or ‘gonna,’ Kie. ‘They are going to protect your insides.’ If you know better, do better. Promise me you will do better.”


“Yes, now. Do you promise?”


“Say it.”

“I promise,” I said. “I promise.”

You didn’t beat me. You made me write ten lines instead. I wrote nine and a half because I was hardheaded.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told.

Reading Group Guide


In this powerful and provocative memoir, genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse.

Kiese Laymon is a fearless writer. In his essays, personal stories combine with piercing intellect to reflect both on the state of American society and on his experiences with abuse, which conjure conflicted feelings of shame, joy, confusion, and humiliation. Laymon invites us to consider the consequences of growing up in a nation wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family that begins with a confusing childhood—and continues through twenty-five years of haunting implosions and long reverberations.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. At the beginning of Heavy, Laymon writes that he “wanted to write a lie” but “wrote this to [his mother] instead” (page 10). Does his assertion that he’s writing to his mother shift your understanding of the memoir? Have you ever told a kind lie to a parent instead of telling the truth?

2. Why does Laymon run away from Beulah Beauford’s house? Why does his mother want him to return there?

3. When Laymon and his Grandmama go to the Mumford’s house, he feels a “rot spreading in his chest” (page 52) while he waits in her car. What causes these feelings, and how are they connected to larger social problems?

4. Laymon writes that, by eighth grade, and even before meeting “actual white folk,” he’d met the white protagonists of many, many TV shows, movies, and books, as well as in the rest of pop and contemporary culture—politicians, the coaches of sports teams, representations of Jesus and Mary, etc. “That meant,” he writes, “we knew white folk. That meant white folk did not know us” (page 72). What does he mean by this? What are some of the ramifications of this not knowing?

5. One of Laymon’s favorite words growing up is “meager.” How does he use it, and what does it mean to him?

6. For his final paper for Coach Schitzler’s English class, Laymon incorporates a reference to Assata Shakur. Coach Schitzler responds by telling him that the paper is a “mess of faulty logic” (page 110) and gives him a C. How does Laymon’s growing political awareness, and experience of institutional racism, shape his senior year of high school?

7. At Millsaps, Laymon realizes that “books couldn’t save [him] from a college, classes, a library, dorms, and a cafeteria that belonged to wealthy white folk” (page 126). In what specific ways is Laymon excluded, punished, and ostracized on campus because he’s black? How is this tied to his weight?

8. How does Laymon feel about Malachi Hunter, his mother’s boyfriend? How does their relationship test his connection to his mother?

9. After Laymon writes an essay for the school paper on institutional racism, and is threatened in letters and then in person by white fraternity members, Nzola tells him he hasn’t said anything about “‘patriarchy’ or ‘sexism’ or ‘intersectionality’” (page 151) recently. In what ways are their lived experience of racism and patriarchy different?

10. Laymon is expelled from Millsaps because he took a copy of The Red Badge of Courage out of the library without checking it out. Eventually, he transfers to Oberlin; he promises his mother he will come back to Mississippi soon, but he does not come back soon. Why not?

11. Laymon writes that, despite all the weight he’d lost, “whenever [he] looked at [himself] in the mirror, [he] still saw a 319-pound fat black boy from Jackson” (page 178). How is his self-image affected by his family? By the world around him? By his experiences of sexual abuse?

12. On September 15, 2001, Laymon takes a commuter train to New York City to volunteer at Ground Zero. A dark-skinned South Asian family is seated in front of him, and both white and black men on the train make comments about terrorism. Laymon defends the family, then wonders if “this feeling [he] had was what ‘good white folk’ felt when we thanked them for not being as terrible as they could be” (page 183). Can you describe what that feeling might be? Do you think you’ve ever had that feeling?

13. On a college judicial board, Laymon hears the case of a “small, smart white boy” (page 193) found with cocaine, who tells the committee a black man forced him to buy it. The small, smart white boy is found not responsible for distributing drugs. How does power and privilege play into this situation?

14. After seeing his father, Laymon writes that he’d “never given much weight to the idea of present black fathers saving black boys” (page 200). What do you think he means by this?

15. Laymon sees his mother at a casino and does not say hello to her. Why not?

16. Laymon writes, at the very end of his memoir: “I am just trying to put you where I bend. I am just trying to put us where we bend” (page 241). Discuss this play on “been” and “bend.”

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Laymon’s novel, Long Division, or his collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.

2. Consider reading some of the writers that he references in this memoir: Nikki Giovanni, Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Richard Wright, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, and others.

3. For more information on Kiese Laymon and Heavy, visit

About The Author

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Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Kiese Laymon is the Ottilie Schillig Professor in English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi and author of the novel Long Division, the memoir Heavy, and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He was recently named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow.

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

"The most exciting kinds of memoirs are the ones that throw you into the story of a life even while encouraging you to step back and consider the art of its framing. Heavy is one of the best of the bunch. Kiese Laymon’s writing about size and race, addiction and ambition in America is nothing less than thrilling — every sentence sings."
—Maris Kreizman, Vulture, 6 New Paperbacks You Should Read Right Now

"Laymon won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for this harrowing but tender memoir, in which he untangles his complex relationships with his mother and his Southern family roots."
David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly, The 25 Best New Paperbacks to Check Out This Spring

"A masterclass in memoir...a book this impactful is not going anywhere.”
—MSNBC, Velshi Banned Book Club

Heavy is a gorgeous, gutting book that’s fueled by candor yet freighted with ambivalence. It’s full of devotion and betrayal, euphoria and anguish, tender embraces and rough abuse…the liberation on offer doesn’t feel light and unburdened; it feels heavy like the title, and heavy like the truth…Salvation would feel too weightless—as if [Laymon] could forget who he is and where he has been. This generous, searching book explores all the forces that can stop even the most buoyant hopes from ever leaving the ground.”
New York Times

“With echoes of Roxane Gay and John Edgar Wideman, Laymon defiantly exposes the ‘aches and changes’ of growing up black in this raw, cathartic memoir reckoning with his turbulent Mississippi childhood, adolescent obesity, and the white gaze.”
O Magazine

“[Heavy] take[s] on the important work of exposing the damage done to America, especially its black population, by the failure to confront the myths, half-truths, and lies at the foundation of the success stories that the nation worships. In the process, Laymon ... dramatize[s] a very different route to victory: the quest to forge a self by speaking hard truths, resisting exploitation, and absorbing with grace the cost of being black in America while struggling to live a life of virtue…You won’t be able to put [this memoir] down, but not because [it is] breezy reading. [It is], in Laymon’s multilayered word, heavy—packed with reminders of how black dreams get skewed and deferred yet are also pregnant with the possibility that a kind of redemption may lie in intimate grappling with black realities.”
The Atlantic

Heavy is one of the most important and intense books of the year because of the unyielding, profoundly original and utterly heartbreaking way it addresses and undermines expectations for what exactly it’s like to possess and make use of a male black body in America … the book thunders as an indictment of hope, a condemnation of anyone ever looking forward.”
LA Times

“Staggering … Laymon lays out his life with startling introspection. Heavy is comforting in its familiarity, yet exacting in its originality ... Laymon subtitled his book, ‘An American Memoir,’ and that’s more than a grandiose proclamation. He is a son of this nation whose soil is stained with the blood and sweat of his ancestors. In a country both deserving of his love and hate, Laymon is distinctly American. Like the woman who raised him and the woman who raised her, he carries that weight, finding uplift from sorrow and shelter from the storms that batter black bodies.”
Boston Globe

“Stunning…Laymon is a gifted wordsmith born and educated in the land of Welty and Faulkner, and his use of language, character and sense of place put Heavy neatly into the storied Southern Gothic canon. Yet the defining elements of his art — cadence, dialogue, eye for detail, mordant wit — are firmly rooted in the African-American experience. Laymon has created Gothic's not-so-distant black relative…for a book that has the author's disturbing childhood as a metaphor for African-Americans' pursuit of unattained happiness and perhaps unattainable racial freedom, Heavy is surprisingly light on its feet.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Heavy is a compelling record of American violence and family violence, and the wide, rutted embrace of family love … Kiese Laymon is a star in the American literary firmament, with a voice that is courageous, honest, loving, and singularly beautiful. Heavy is at once a paean to the Deep South, a condemnation of our fat-averse culture, and a brilliantly rendered memoir of growing up black, and bookish, and entangled in a family that is as challenging as it is grounding.”

“[A] searing, fearless memoir... These haunted pages illuminate how systemic failures give rise to personal traumas, yet all of it is threaded through with complicated, enduring tenderness for the places and people who made Laymon.”
Esquire, 16 of the Most Essential Books on Black History to Read Before, During, and Well After Black History Month

“Staggering ... a heartbreaking narrative on black bodies: how we hurt them, protect them, and try to heal them."
—, Best Books of 2018

“Weight is both unavoidably corporeal and a load-bearing metaphor in novelist-essayist Kiese Laymon’s sharp, (self-)lacerating memoir, addressed to the single teen mom turned professor who raised him to become exceptional…a deeply personal book, where race, class, and the scars of sexual violence are front and center.”
New York Magazine

"Laymon's memoir is a reckoning, pulling from his own experience growing up poor and black in Jackson, Mississippi, and tracking the most influential relationships, for better or worse, of his life: with his brilliant but struggling single mother, his loving grandma, his body and the ways he nurtures and punishes it, his education and creativity, and the white privilege that drives the world around him...with shrewd analysis, sharp wit, and great vulnerability — Laymon forces the reader to fully consider the effects of the nation's inability to reconcile its pride and ambition with its shameful history."

"This memoir from Kiese Laymon, whose previous books include the novel Long Division, looks at what it’s like to grow up different in the American South. "
Town & Country

"Laymon revisits the abuse he suffered growing up both black and obese in Mississippi, as well as his complex relationship with his mother. A book for people who appreciated Roxane Gay's memoir Hunger."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Laymon examines his relationship with his mother growing up as a black man in the South, exploring how racial violence suffered by both impacts his physical and emotional selves."

"Laymon provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot."
Entertainment Weekly

"[Laymon] unleashes his incendiary truth-seeking voice on a memoir that leaves no stone unturned in his examination of a life surrounded by poverty, sexual violence, racism, obesity and gambling. But Heavy is also about the lies family members tell each other and the heartache of growing up in Mississippi the son of a complicated mother."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Kiese Laymon is one of the most dazzling, inventive, affecting essayists working today, and his memoir lives up to the dizzyingly high expectations set for it. In Heavy, Laymon explores his tumultuous relationship with his brilliant mother, what it meant to grow up as a fiercely smart, rebellious black man in Mississippi, and his trouble with addiction in various forms. Laymon is fearless in his willingness to go to the darkest, the most tender, the most raw spaces of his life, and of our shared lives in the fragile experiment that is America. His writing will shock and comfort you, make you realize you are not alone, and stun you with its insights about desire, need, and love."

“I don’t know any emerging Black writer who hasn’t been inspired by the work of Kiese Laymon, whose meditations on Blackness and care are as ubiquitous within this community as is his mentorship and support.”
Literary Hub

"Weight is both unavoidably corporeal and a load-bearing metaphor in this novelist-essayist’s sharp and (self-) lacerating memoir, addressed to the single teen-mom-turned-professor who raised him to become exceptional, sometimes using a belt ... Race, class, and the scars of sexual violence are front-and-center, a constant pressure and threat, but its effects are registered at ground level, a space too complex and for pop sociology."

"Kiese Laymon’s intense, layered Heavy is a provocatively personal look at racism and oppression in America ... Laymon’s prose positively sings, helped by the humanity and humor he brings to this astonishing memoir."
The A.V. Club

"Laymon provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot."

"In Heavy, Laymon has written a memoir that feels like a body blow ... Through it all, Laymon’s love for language and words drives his intellectual curiosity. Laymon’s reputation as a writer grows with each piece he produces. Heavy will cement his reputation as one of America’s best writers."
Signature Reads

"Stylish and complex ... Laymon convincingly conveys that difficult times can be overcome with humor and self-love, as he makes readers confront their own fears and insecurities."
Publishers Weekly, starred

"A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more. Laymon skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own ... Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics. A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways."
Kirkus Reviews, starred

"Spectacular ... So artfully crafted, miraculously personal, and continuously disarming, this is, at its essence, powerful writing about the power of writing."
Booklist, starred

“Oh my god. Heavy is astonishing. Difficult. Intense. Layered. Wow. Just wow.”
–Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

“What I have always loved about Kiese Laymon is that he is as beautiful a person as he is a writer. What he manages to do in the space of a sentence is unparalleled, and that’s because no one else practices the art of revision as an act of love quite like Kiese. He loves his mother, his grandmama, Mississippi, black folks, his students, his peers, and anyone else willing to embrace his love enough to give us this gorgeous memoir, Heavy. This reckoning with trauma, terror, fear, sexual violence, abuse, addiction, family, secrets, lies, truth, and the weight of the nation and his body would be affecting in less capable hands, but with Kiese at the helm it is nothing short of a modern classic. These sentences that he so painstakingly crafted are some the most arresting ever printed in the English language. Kiese’s heart and humor shine through, and we are blessed to have such raw humanity rendered in prose that begs for repeat readings. We do not deserve Heavy. We do not deserve Kiese. That he is generous enough to share is testament to his commitment to helping us all heal.
–Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching

“There are those rare writers in the world whose work unearths the stories that have been buried in and around us for so long. They force us to confront all that we would be rather not see, and ask us to reckon with why we have failed to see it for so long. Kiese Laymon is one such rare writer. Heavy is a memoir, yes, but it is also a testament to a sort of truth and self-reflection that is increasingly rare in our world today. If for some reason you were not already convinced, there should no longer be any doubt that Kiese Laymon is one of the important writers of our time.”
–Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent

"With Heavy, Laymon has outlined the wretched shape of our relentless national lie with duty and precision, breathing and pouring into it to shine the light ever brighter on its contours and limits. Heavy is an intimate excavation, a diagnosis, and a prescription for a cure for the terrifying dishonesty of the American body politic. I did not want to remember what I have found necessary to forget. Ready or not, Heavy remembers for me, and for us all, with the exquisite black southern precision of a post-soul blues. Its brilliance is in its intimate and firm reminder that we are more than what has been done to us by others and by this nation, and that we can and must unburden ourselves as we move towards freedom. With Heavy, Laymon, the chief blues scribe of our time, writes and plays us a path through the weight of things."
–Zandria Robinson, author of This Ain’t Chicago

“Kiese Laymon’s new book is an emotional powerhouse. He fearlessly takes the reader into the dark corners of his interior life. Wound, grief, and enduring pain reside there. But this book is a love letter. And, as we all know, love is a beautiful and funky experience. Thank you, Kiese, for this gift.”
–Eddie Glaude, author of Democracy in Black

“Kiese Laymon has done nothing less than write the autobiography of the first generation of African-Americans born after the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and the Black Power ethos of the 1970s. His story of grappling with love and violence and language and our bodies is this generation’s story, and it is as moving and heartbreaking and heartwarming as you would expect. And then some.”
–Courtney Baker, author of Humane Insight

Heavy is an act of truth telling unlike any other I can think of in American literature, partly due to Laymon’s uniquely gifted mind—his ability to pursue the ways we lie to each other while also loving each other, or, not, and the humility he brings to bear while doing so, this consistently brings us back to life, to what matters in this world. Heavy is a gift to us, if we can pick it up—a moral exercise and an intimate history that is at the same time a story about America.”
—Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

"On the low, many in these United States of America imagine that to be black means that whiteness, whether in its feigned supremacy or brutal imaginings, should be the center of every black story. But nah, that's meager. In Heavy, the Kiese Laymon remembers how people who loved each other or might of loved each other, nearly shattered everything around them with hurt and then struggled to piece it all back together. Kiese crafts the most honest and intimate account of growing up black and southern since Richard Wright's Black Boy. Circumventing the myths about blackness, he writes something as complex and fragile as who we is. An insider's look into the making of a writer, Heavy is part memoir and part look into the books that turned a kid into a story teller. Heavy invites us into a black South that remembers that we loved each other through it all. In “Nikki-Rosa,” Nikki Giovanni wrote that ‘black love is black wealth.’ This book is the weight of black love, and might we all be wealthy by daring to open up to it."
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom

"Heavy heaves, sings, hums, and runs all night to make it clear that there's an alternative, that Black history's first premise is mutuality. That mutuality isn't perfect, ain't safe, it's dangerous, in fact, and Heavy moves in a terrible and beautiful and so gentle proximity to that—at crucial times our primary—danger, the ones we love and who love us the most. I was with Kiese the whole damn heavy-floating way, word for word in laughter and tears, in recognition, refraction and revelation. But, way more than any of those, sentence by sentence, I was with Kiese in thanks."
—Ed Pavlic, author of Another Kind of Madness

“In Heavy, Kiese Laymon asks how to survive in a body despite the many violences that are inflicted upon it: the violence of racism, of misogyny, of history — the violence of a culture that treats the bodies of black men with fear and suspicion more often than with tenderness and attentive care. In prose that sears at the same time as it soars, Kiese Laymon breaks the unbearable silence each of these violences, in their peculiar cruelty, has imposed. Permeated with humility, bravery, and a bold intersectional feminism, Heavy is a triumph. I stand in solidarity with this book, and with its writer.”
–Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side and The Reckonings

“How appropriate Kiese Laymon’s stunning memoir is titled, Heavy. Not only are the stains and hurt highlighted here, heavy, but also the writer’s capacity to revive graveyards of ghosts who haunt and seemingly will continue to haunt the protagonist. Laymon is a fearless writer, our writer, who’s willing to expose and explore his most vulnerable interiors so that we might get closer to our truths. This is a southern book for backroads and cornbread, for Cadillacs and collard greens, for big mamas and moonshine. Heavy is full of our beautiful and ugly histories, and a declaration of how we might seek redemption. The colorful and complicated characters here speak a blues and poetry that is both nostalgic and familiar. This is the book we need right now. We should all be thankful for this ultramodern weighty testament of heartache, catharsis, and utter brilliance.”
—Derrick Harriell, author of Stripper in Wonderland and Ropes

“You do not just read Kiese Laymon's work. It does a reading of you too—one that unburies the stories you thought you would never be able to tell truthfully, and reminds you of your voice to tell them. Heavy marks this quality in its highest definition yet. Written with as much devastating poignance as a humor only the Black South could inspire, Heavy asks readers not just to observe Laymon's courageous journey to understand even the most frightening complexities of life in an anti-Black, sexist, fatphobic society, but to embark on it with him. In doing so, Laymon's gorgeous wordsmithing moves us beyond simple binaries of pleasure and pain, joy and trauma, toward a deeper love for communities too often flattened into one dimension. Heavy is a book for the ages.”
—Hari Ziyad, author of Black Boy Out of Time

“Heavy is beautiful, lyrical, painful, and really brave. It is both exigent and timeless. Laymon’s use of juxtaposition—of the political and personal, the many stories of dishonesty and history, violence, everything—is all-world.”
—Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People

"Laymon’s profound memoir reflects on his childhood in Jackson, Miss., and shows how his pursuit of excellence was a means to survive. Touching on everything from the racism he encountered to the physical and sexual abuse he endured, Laymon compares his childhood memories with how he feels in middle age, and offers a complex, nuanced portrayal of his mother."
The New York Times, New in Paperback

"In a searing memoir addressed to his mom, Laymon examines his Mississippi upbringing and the roles race, seuxal abuse, and obesity have played in his life."
People, New in Paperback

"Laymon’s profound memoir reflects on his childhood in Jackson, Miss., and shows how his pursuit of excellence was a means to survive. Touching on everything from the racism he encountered to the physical and sexual abuse he endured, Laymon compares his childhood memories with how he feels in middle age, and offers a complex, nuanced portrayal of his mother."
The New York Times, New in Paperback

"In a searing memoir addressed to his mom, Laymon examines his Mississippi upbringing and the roles race, seuxal abuse, and obesity have played in his life."
People, New in Paperback

"Heavy does what good memoirs do: it takes the personal and makes it universal. It is about the weight we bear—physical and metaphorical—about race and racism, about carving a sense of self in a senseless place. Heavy will not leave you lightly. It will stick. It will hurt. But in a way we need, the way—in this time of hopelessness—that breeds the belief that we can."
—Ira Sukrungruang, Kenyon Review

"Heavy’s title is appropriate. This book is crushing, and the author is writing to his novel so the memoir feels that much more personal as you go through his life in and out of Jackson, from childhood to adulthood... [it] makes you confront uncomfortable realities about racism in America."
The Summer Evergreen

"[Heavy] explores the impact that lies, secrets and deception have on a black body and family, as well as a nation."
CNET, "Black Lives Matter: Movies, TV shows and books on systemic racism"

"With a story that lives up to its name, this memoir explores the many complex forces at play in Laymon's life growing up as a Black man in Mississippi. Through it all, the author confronts multiple traumas with openness and love, in a book that won't leave your mind anytime soon."
Good Housekeeping

"In this harrowing and courageous memoir, Laymon explores the multifold traumas of inhabiting a black body, as seen through the lens of his complicated and abusive upbringing in Jackson, Mississippi. Yet the great miracle of this memoir isn’t its evocation of the Deep South, its exploration of trauma, nor its condemnation of our fat-phobic culture--rather, the great miracle is Laymon’s ability to bear love and light toward all the complicated sources of pain in his life, making for a searing and cathartic read."

Awards and Honors

  • Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best
  • ALA Notable Book
  • ALA Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction

Resources and Downloads

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