Kiese Laymon

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Kiese Laymon, the author of Heavy, a much-praised memoir that served as a recent community read across the Lawrence University campus, will deliver the school’s Winter Term Convocation address on Jan. 28.

His writing has been lauded for its richness in detail, its emotional complexity, and its honesty as Laymon lays bare his experiences growing up and making a life for himself as a Black man in America. He feels the forces of racism suffocating him while he navigates complex and often confounding family relationships and issues tied to abuse, body image, and addictive behavior.

Set for 11:15 a.m., the Convocation will be virtual due to the ongoing pandemic. Laymon’s recorded speech, The Radical Possibility and Democratic Necessity of Navel Gazing, will be followed by an interview hosted by Amy Ongiri, the Jill Beck Director of Film Studies and associate professor of film studies, and students Tania Sosa ’24 and Edwin Martinez ’24. That will be followed by an audience Q&A with Laymon, moderated by President Mark Burstein.

Laymon, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, 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. It adds six essays and edits others from the initial release.

National Public Radio praised the new release, saying Laymon “takes on the messiness, richness, violence, and diversity of the South in his work, as well as the complex question of what it means to be Black and from Mississippi.” Jerald Walker of the New York Times called Laymon’s retooling of the essay collection a worthwhile undertaking “because by adding six rich new essays, deftly curating seven from the original book, and reworking the chronology, you have made a once solid collection superb.”

It was the release of Heavy in 2018 that first brought Laymon widespread acclaim. The memoir earned a bevy of literary honors, including winning the Christopher Isherwood Prize and being named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the Chautauqua Prize. Written as a communication to his mother, the book rips open and digs deep into layers of family pain, abuse, success, wisdom, passion, addiction, and fear, much of it grounded in his love-hate relationship with Jackson, Mississippi, where he grew up, fled, and eventually returned.

Lawrence faculty, students, staff, and alumni joined together for a recent community read. Many then explored the complexities of Heavy in a virtual book discussion held on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Music at the Convocation will include 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 Associate Professor of Music Stephen Sieck. The link for the Jan. 28 Convocation can be found here.

The live webcast will be accessible to the public, but a recording of the event will not be made public.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu.