Kiese Laymon discusses ‘spaces of belonging,’ writing, paradoxes

Posted on Apr 1 2019 - 5:50am by Isabel Spafford

Kiese Laymon addressed difficult, often contradictory truths head-on with honesty and eloquence Friday afternoon during the Oxford Conference for the Book.

Laymon, an English professor and author of “Heavy: An American Memoir,” and Brian Foster, a professor of sociology and Southern studies, sat down in the Lafayette County Courthouse on Friday to discuss Laymon’s widely acclaimed book.

LaKeisha Borum, an Oxford native, said Laymon inspired her to work to create spaces of belonging.

“I really enjoyed hearing him mention creating spaces,” Borum said. “I haven’t always felt that I belonged in a space that has literally been home my whole life.”

Laymon credited his grandmother for creating the space, both figuratively and literally, for him to write “Heavy: An American Memoir.” The book’s dedication reads, “For the porch that Grandmama built.”

“In spite of the national terror that this black woman born in the 1920s had to bear, she built the porch that allowed us to learn how to write, learn how to read, learn how to reckon, learn how to actually think about what a radical Christ meant in our lives,” Laymon said. “So, you know, there ain’t no me without my grandmama, and there’s no book without my grandmama’s porch.”

Laymon and Foster highlighted the importance of black women — especially their mothers and grandmothers — in their lives and the history of the nation. Wendy Nicholson, an Oxford community member, appreciated this focus.

“My initial thought was, ‘Someone gets me,’” Nicholson said. “African-American women … have contributed so much, and yet we get so little credit.”

Foster asked Laymon about his precise use of language. His book is titled “Heavy” as a tribute to language — it was a word he kept hearing as he interviewed family members. Laymon said he pays close attention to how language is used.

“We don’t bend that language just to bend it,” Laymon said. “We bend it to make space in this America that often believes that we have nothing — particularly black Southerners.”

Katelyn Hutson, a sophomore international studies major, said she was struck by Laymon’s use of language.

“There were a few times I almost took out a notebook to write (it) down because he had an incredibly poetic way of wording things,” she said.

The second part of Laymon’s book’s title, “An American Memoir,” acknowledges the paradoxes he addresses in his work.

“On one hand, this book is a critique of all the American memoirs that came before it. Another reason I call it ‘An American Memoir’ is because, although I am hypercritical of this nation, I also am of this nation,” Laymon said.

Laymon consistently analyzed other paradoxes during his discussion with Foster, including a woman who sexually abused him who he also saw experience sexual abuse, the fact that he both loved and was hurt by his mother and other events that he considered deeply traumatic but funny.

“What I’m trying to do is push readers to make decisions that readers might not want to make when reading about trauma,” Laymon said.

Laymon and Foster discussed the contradictions Laymon had to confront in the writing of his book as well as those inherent in their discussion.

“You and me, two black-ass brothers, we’re having this conversation in front of (the Mississippi State Flag), in this building where you know numerous black men who looked like us didn’t have a chance of walking out free,” Laymon said. “That’s absurd to me.”

Foster hoped that audience members would walk away more willing to face these uncomfortable paradoxes.

“I would really like to see the folks that were there to take this language as a call for being honest with ourselves and reckoning with ourselves and our history in pursuit of something better,” Foster said.