On Reading Kiese Laymon’s Singular and Indestructible Heavy on the 5th Anniversary of My Mom’s Death

Illustration for article titled On Reading Kiese Laymon’s Singular and Indestructible Heavy on the 5th Anniversary of My Mom’s Death
Photo: Damon Young (VSB/The Root)

With his devastating and resplendent and transcendent Heavy, Kiese Laymon conjured, created and gave us a thing that each person who conjures, creates and gives things aspires to do, and that’s to create a thing that only he could have created.


Of course, for the people who conjure, create and give things for a living, there are other aspirations. You want your shit to land. You want your shit to happen. You want your shit to matter. You want your shit to hit niggas in they chests. You want your shit to be sat with and studied. You want your shit to sell. But mostly, you want it to be the most you it can be. And for a thing to be the most you it can be, you need to tell the truth. And before you tell the truth, you need to find it. And before you can find it, you need to find the will to find it. You need to sometimes move some things out the way before you find it. You need to sometimes break some things and build some other things to find it. You need to sometimes feel like you’ll die if you don’t find it. You need to sometimes feel like you’ll die if you do. Among the many, many, many, many things that Heavy is, it’s mostly (to me) the guts of Kiese’s truth-finding. And when a thing that you create is your guts, no one alive, no one who has been dead, and no one who ain’t alive yet could have done it like you.

I could stop there. I wanted to stop there. I still want to stop there. But because Kiese’s book is about (to me) an honesty—a truth that he had to move and break and build and crack and crush and create things to find— not telling the whole truth about how it hit me in my chest and almost crushed something in me would be a lie. And I won’t lie about this. Not today.

I’ve had a copy of it for a little over two months now. But I waited until Tuesday, the day I could walk into a bookstore and buy it—five bookstores, actually, before I found one (Pittsburgh, do better) —before reading it. It happened to be the same day I approved the final copy edits of my book, also a memoir. It’s now off to production, whatever that means.

I finished reading Heavy yesterday, Oct. 18— the same day, five years ago, that my mom died.

My book is the best thing I’ve ever written. It is the longest thing, the hardest thing, the most vulnerable thing, the scariest thing. It’s also the most descriptive thing. The funniest thing. The weirdest thing. The most esoteric thing. The Pittsburghest thing. The Young familyest thing. The most East Lib. thing. The blackest thing. The me-est thing. But mostly, it is a thing I’m so proud of that I can’t be as proud of it as I want to be because the thing that would make me most proud—watching my mom hold it and read it and talk about it and ask me about it and sit with it and study it and know me even better after finishing it—ain’t possible.

But while reading Kiese’s book, my book felt smaller. As I was amazed by it and also crushed by it and also laughing at it and also appreciating it and also marveling at the references in it (I haven’t thought about James “Hollywood” Robinson in years!), I thought, more often than I want to admit, that “I can’t do this.”


The best work—the very best work—I think populates that type of thought in people who conjure, create and give things for a living. (Or maybe it just populates that thought in me, and I’m just presuming a collective so I feel less lonely in my insecurity.) The admiration for it exists in concert with an acknowledgment of your own attributes, which segues into a reckoning of and obsession with your own limitations. I read Heavy with the fear that when I finished reading it I’d want to throw my whole entire book in the Monongahela River. It was selfish. It was silly. It was dumb. And considering that Kiese is a friend, it was awkward as fuck. But that thought and that fear happened.

But then I remembered that Heavy is Kiese’s guts. The guts of his journey. The guts of his truth finding. The guts of his truth. And of course, I can’t do what he can do because his guts are his guts. Of course, I can’t. And I was assisted with this acceptance when thinking about my mom yesterday. She (and my dad) created me. She (and my dad) are all up and through my book. Her hair is there. Her love for Ivan Lins and Steely Dan and Michelle Obama are there. Her french toast is there. Her teaching me how to drive is there. Her watching Goodfellas with me and showing me how Scorsese breaks the fourth wall is there. Her tears are there. Her bracelets are there. Her secret handshake with me is there. Her cancer is there. She (and my dad) gave me my guts. And what I created—what stretches and bleeds and messes over the 300 pages of my book—are the guts of my truth finding. The guts of my truth. The guts of me. And those of us who conjure, create and give each have different paths, each has different jabberwockys to fight, each has different debris to duck from, each has different wounds to cauterize, each has different ways to chronicle that battle, each has different stank and sticky and beautiful ass fucking guts.


Finishing Heavy made me think about my mom yesterday, on the fifth anniversary of her death, in a way that I haven’t thought about her before. She is still, beyond the grave, here for me; reminding her son that everything will be alright. Thank you, Kiese, my nigga, for conjuring, creating and giving us something that gave that to me.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Old Man Wu

James “Hollywood” Robinson <——that hooped for Bama and the Clippers??? Wow!

Hang in there, man!

I’m looking at six years without my mama on November 10th and each year, heading towards that date a new set of thoughts come about. Good and bad but they are about her so I relish in them for a moment but try not to get stuck there.