SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Kiese Laymon has written a memoir that can scald your heart - a gifted son with a loving, accomplished mother who inspires and drives him and yet abused and burdened him. His book shows the way people can absorb trauma layer by layer with particular attention to the history of African-Americans. His new book "Heavy: An American Memoir." And Kiese Laymon, who wrote the award-winning novel "Long Division" and is a contributing editor of Oxford American and a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, joins us now from Oxford, Miss. Thanks so much for being with us.
KIESE LAYMON: Thank you so much for wanting to talk to me.
SIMON: When someone says to you, tell me about your mother, it's not a simple question, is it?
LAYMON: Oh, not at all, man, not at all. I look forward to it, though. My mother's an incredible model. And like most Americans, she just had a rough patch, and she was not comfortable talking about a lot of those rough patches. She had me when she was a sophomore at Jackson State University, and she got a job teaching at Jackson State maybe four or five years later after she started graduate school, so we moved to Jackson probably in 1979, 1980. And Jackson was home, and books were really home for me. She just made me read and write before I could do anything I wanted to my entire life. I thank her for my writerly practice that I still have now, but that writerly practice also enabled me to write into a lot of the gaps and a lot of the terror that I think she probably did not want me to write into.
SIMON: Well - and we do have to get to that, don't we?
LAYMON: I think so.
SIMON: To the outside world, your mother, a progressive voice, but what was going on inside the family?
LAYMON: My mother was dealing with a lot of what black women were dealing with in Jackson, Miss. So from the outside, it looked like she was doing really well. She was on television - local television - doing political prognostication. She was in an abusive relationship. She did not make much money. She was dealing with what I would call, like, the shards of abuse. And, you know, when I was around 9 or 10, she started to whip me when I didn't do right. And she would always say she was whipping me because what I would face from police or white people would be even harsher.
And those beatings just I think started to get progressively worse, and I think that the beatings my mother was taking from life, from our town, from her partner, also started to get progressively worse. And I think the scariest part about it looking back is that we just didn't know how to talk about any of it. We didn't know how to talk about what we were doing to one another, and we didn't really know how to talk about what the world and our state was doing to us.
SIMON: As the very title suggests, that the cost of trauma, including, for example, the beatings you endured from your mother, the beatings that she endured, all of that takes a toll on our bodies. What happened to you?
LAYMON: One of the things I just want to say - I'm not trying to make a causal relationship saying that because of this traumatic thing caused this traumatic thing. But I will say the layers of particular kinds of abuse, be they personal and structural, I think led to me eating way more than I should have. I was a very, very big kid. Luckily, I was a big, athletic kid, so I didn't have to deal with a lot of the bullying that a lot of other big kids had to deal with. And I definitely didn't have to deal with the bullying that a lot of really big women had to deal with. But I just ate. I ate. I ate as a way of hiding. And then eventually, I started to starve as a way of attempting to hide and attempting to disappear.
SIMON: Yeah. In the book, you kind of veer between what sounds to me like obesity and anorexia. I mean, you were running, like, six hours a day or something, right?
LAYMON: The running was terrible. I'd run two hours in the morning, two hours at night, and I'd play a lot of basketball in a day. And I think that could have been sustainable, but the problem was I was only eating a meal once every three days. And there's a sort of strange euphoria that comes with a lot of times that starvation, and I just kept thinking, like, if I can just push my body and push my body and push my body, I could disappear. And at that point, you know, I'd had lots of run-ins with police. I was about to get kicked out of college. So I wanted to disappear, and I thought if I could just make my body smaller, like, I would be OK. Like, people wouldn't see me as such a threat. And I kept that up for, like, 13 years 'til my body broke.
SIMON: Yeah. Then we got to get to gambling. How did that enter your life?
LAYMON: Oh, man. By the time my body broke - my body literally broke from overuse. It broke from not sleeping. It broke from not eating. The only thing I turned to that brought me some sort of feeling was gambling. And so every cent that I made from a particular date until another date, probably for, like, 6 years, went to casinos. And it was hard to write about that. It was harder to write about that than it was to write about different forms of abuse that I talked about in that book.
SIMON: Because you were implicated in this in a way. You're the victim in one, and you're the, in a sense, the perpetrator in the gambling.
LAYMON: Well, I'm definitely the perpetrator, but in my family, you know, I think because I am from Mississippi and so much of Mississippi black labor has been taken from us, I think there's a shame when we show people and tell people that the money that we are able to make we aren't able to keep - right? - and especially if it's tied to a kind of, like, mental illness. So I started to understand halfway through my gambling addiction that I wasn't going to the casino to win, though I told myself that's exactly what I was going to do. I was going to creatively lose as much as possible. I wanted to drive back home that two hours feeling absolutely like trash.
And I just think that's something that I never really understood my mother or anybody else in my family experiencing, but I know they were. And that's actually still the hardest thing to talk about with my family. We can talk about the physical addiction. We can talk about - we can talk about the physical abuse. The addiction to gambling on both of my family is something that we still can't really honestly talk about.
SIMON: I don't want to give away how your story seems to resolve itself toward the end, but I think a lot of people would ask you why do you even talk to your mother now? Why do you care what she thinks?
LAYMON: Oh, my God. I love my mother to death, and I'm a writer and I'm a black, American writer, and I would not be a writer, a reader or teacher had my mother not loved me enough to instill a practice at an early age. And this book, in some way, is like her investment coming full circle. She really believes that reading and writing can save us. And I don't know if that's true, but I know I'm a writer. I know I'm an American reader, and I wanted to use my words to try to talk to her and try to tell her that we can be better. We can be better if we give ourselves a chance to walk honestly together. And that's what I tried to do with this book.
SIMON: Kiese Laymon - his book, "Heavy: An American Memoir" - thanks so much for being with us.
LAYMON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.