Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Kiese Laymon says he’s never sure how to answer when someone asks him how long it took him to write Heavy: an American Memoir, his widely praised 2018 book that explored, with raw honesty, family secrets wrapped in a mix of brilliance, drive, pain, abuse, and addiction.
He’s not even sure the verb tense is correct.
“I’m not sure how long it took me to write Heavy or I’m not sure how long it’s taking me to write Heavy,” Laymon said Thursday as he virtually delivered Lawrence University’s Winter Term Convocation address.
As it should be with all art, he said, the revisions are ongoing, even though the book rolled off the presses more than two years ago and has racked up a bevy of top literary awards, including the Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction and the LA Times Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose.
“Because memory and freedom are so fluid, I’m never going to stop revising Heavy no matter what,” Laymon said. “I think the honest answer to the question of how long did it take you to write Heavy is, I’m going to have to let you know when I’m done. The book is published but the book is not done.”
That need for constant revision in our work, in our lives, to look deeply inward in pursuit of honesty and clarity, was at the heart of Laymon’s address. Titled The Radical Possibility and Democratic Necessity of Navel Gazing, Laymon’s talk challenged people to embrace their own “navel gazing” as they uncover their own truths.
“I would like to argue that in this nation we are suffering because we are not as navel-gazing as we need to be,” Laymon said. “If each of us looked within our navel patiently, with routine and imagination, we would really find things that we never imagined. Those things, if we rigorously push them, would connect us to someone else.
“If you look into your navel with any acuity, with any tenderness, you’re going to find something you never saw before, and that something is going to help you understand the people you love more, it’s going to help you understand context more, and, most importantly, it’s going to help you understand what you want tomorrow to be.”
In Heavy, Laymon, a professor in English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, offers a personal narrative of growing up Black in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s written as a communication to his mother, woven with layers and complexities of brilliance, passion, abuse, racism, obesity, anorexia, gambling, and more. The Lawrence community discussed the book earlier this month as part of a campus-wide read.
Thursday’s convocation address included a question-and-answer session in which Laymon discussed his work with Amy Ongiri, Lawrence’s Jill Beck Director of Film Studies and associate professor of film studies, and students Tania Sosa ’24 and Edwin Martinez ’24. President Mark Burstein then hosted a public Q&A with Laymon.
Music included Genius Child, performed by Preston Parker ’23 and Mandy Kung, and Set Me as a Seal, performed by the Lawrence University Concert Choir with members of the Appleton East High School Easterners, under the direction of Stephen Sieck.
Laymon recently released a new essay collection, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” an expanded and reworked version of an essay collection first released in 2013. He bought the rights to the book from the publisher so he could add six essays and edit others.
Again, introspection and revision.
That need for revision was instilled in Laymon early by a mother who pushed him hard. It has resonated through his teaching, first at Vassar College and then the University of Mississippi.
“It’s hard to have a revision if you don’t have an initial vision,” Laymon said. “It’s hard for that revision to have any integrity if that initial vision doesn’t have some sort of layers and depth. And I think that initial vision can only have depth if we do the rigorous work of looking within. I would argue there is no radical possibility without more sustained democratic navel gazing. And I think Heavy, among other things, is an example of that.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org