Boston College’s Lowell Lecture Series continued with a talk given by Kiese Laymon, famous author and winner of the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, on Wednesday night. Students, professors, and alumni filled Gasson Hall’s Irish Room, eager to hear Laymon discuss his journey to a successful career in writing.
The evening began with an introduction from Angela Ards, associate professor of African-American and contemporary American literature. After highlighting the 50th anniversary of BC’s Black Studies program and lauding the new African and African Diaspora Studies major, Ards gave a brief overview of Laymon and his work.
A black writer from Mississippi, Laymon wrote the award-winning memoir Heavy and the “experimental” novel Long Division, in addition to a collection of essays, such as How to Kill Yourself and Others Slowly in America.
“[His memoir] is a coming-of-age tale about becoming a black man in America and … a story about becoming an artist, a story about becoming a best-selling writer in America,” Ards said.
Laymon, now an English professor at the University of Mississippi, focused his lecture on Heavy. In writing the memoir, Laymon was able to come to terms with his past and who he has become, he said. The author said that it also offered him a chance to reflect on society’s social ills.
“One of the problems in my part of the country is not that we fail to get along with people and parties and politics by which we disagree,” Laymon said. “The problem, in my part of the world, is that we are horrific at justly loving [the] people, places, politics, and memories we say we love.”
At its heart, Heavy is a letter to Laymon’s mother, he said. It often uses words such as “you” and “we” to signal that Laymon is speaking to his mother, telling a story and reminiscing over what their relationship meant to him. Prior to writing Heavy, Laymon and his mother’s relationship was in a state of disrepair, according to Laymon.
“I wrote Heavy to my mama because we were not healthy. We said ‘I love you’ every time we got off the phone, but there was no proof that we loved each other at all,” Laymon said.
Laymon noted that though his mother originally loved the idea of a memoir about her and her son’s lives, after the book unexpectedly rose in popularity, she was not happy with such a large audience knowing deeply personal details about her life.
Laymon lamented that his book has not done much in helping his familial relationships especially due to its popularity.
“Though the book has helped my family financially, I think I can say now that it’s actually done a lot more harm inside my family than I ever could have imagined,” he said.
In writing such a revealing and personal book, Laymon said there is a unique dynamic when he meets fans—one that he’s not yet comfortable with, he said.
“I’m terrified every time I talk in front of people because I feel like most people I meet who read the book judge me, judge my insides, judge my mama, judge my family in ways that still make me feel a little weird,” Laymon said.
Laymon went on to read a chapter from Heavy. In this excerpt, Laymon wrote about his transition into a new, predominantly white school while he was in eighth grade. He had to attend this school because his old, predominantly black school unexpectedly closed due to a lack of funding.
This chapter covered the unfortunate situations he faced while making this transition. From getting in trouble when hanging out with friends, receiving beatings at home, and struggling with his weight while being a part of the basketball team, Laymon’s powerful depiction of his early life captivated everyone in the room.
“The book is about sexual violence and different kinds of violences, and that chapter also is about a particular kind of violence,” Laymon said. “But I also think it’s about a young community collectively trying to fight back through love and through rhetoric.”
Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Editor