Photo by Kate Nuelle
“You were on your way back from Hawaii with Malachi Hunter while LaThon Simmons and I sat in the middle of a white eighth-grade classroom, in a white Catholic school, filled with white folk we didn’t even know.”
This is how Keise Laymon began to read “Meager,” a chapter of his memoir “Heavy,” to an audience of about 30 community members in Ruth Taylor Recital Hall this Tuesday night as a part of the Stieren Guest Artist Series.
Laymon’s memoir, published in 2018, has been widely praised by highly acclaimed writers such as Roxane Gay, Eddie Glaude and Zandria F. Robinson. The book has also been awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and made it onto the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2018 list.
“Heavy” is a collection of stories from Laymon’s life, reflecting on his experience growing up as a black man in Jackson, Mississippi. It is dedicated to his mother. In the chapter he read, Laymon talks about “black abundance,” and specifically his experience going to a majority-white Catholic school after his previous school shut down. In the chapter Meager, he talks about the differences between the two schools and the complicated pressure that came with his mother’s advice to “be twice as excellent and twice as careful” as his white classmates.
This chapter was impactful to many people in the audience, including sophomore Elena Negron.
“This reading was incredibly important because of the idea of black abundance,” Negron said. “This is something that white students and faculty at Trinity may have no conception of, but through [Laymon’s] writing they can teach themselves and broaden their world view.”
Senior Ari Fletcher-Bai said, in an email interview, that she was also impressed by Laymon’s stage presence.
“Kiese Laymon has such a powerful presence in person. He understands sound and rhythm, and he said he writes with the sound of words in mind, so it really is something else to hear him read. He’s just one of those genuinely down-to-earth people who makes you feel like his talent and achievements are inspiring, not flattening,” Fletcher-Bai said.
One of the key takeaways for Fletcher-Bai from the reading was the space that Laymon created and what it added to his acclaimed novel.
“I think the most important part of the reading was the space Kiese Laymon created for his own truths about his life and his community. I think it’s important to listen to people who have honest and searching evaluations and insights about situations you might not originally understand and I also think it’s life affirming for everyone to hear someone celebrating and mourning because we all do that for our own reasons,” Fletcher-Bai wrote.
Junior Hannah Friedrich was touched by Laymon’s ability to instill kindness in his stories, she wrote in an email interview.
“I found it very impactful to hear from someone who is so kind in his response to trauma. It was clear in the excerpt he read and in the way he answered questions that he prioritizes kindness and honesty, and that was refreshing to see from an artist,” Friedrich wrote.
When Laymon finished reading “Meager,” he took questions from the audience and discussed the process of writing a memoir, using comedy in serious situations in his book and the intentionality and meaning behind his words in a book centered around language.
“I wrote this book for my mama and my grandmama and me,” Laymon said. “And I write to the parts of us that we know are abundant but don’t get seen as worthy audiences.”
Laymon addressed the meaning and weight of comedy in his memoir.
“I need to create scenes that are somewhat comedic to get through the trauma,” Laymon said, referencing one of the several refrains that are prominent throughout the memoir that are paired with moments of trauma and sadness: “They laughed and laughed and laughed…until they didn’t.”
He also said that comedy could be a method of ignoring complex emotions or issues, noting how the comedy in his book was mixed in with the heavy topics it dealt with.
“The comedic and the tragic have to wrestle with one another,” Laymon said.
After the reading and Q & A, attendees of the reading had a chance to purchase books, get them signed and converse with Laymon.
Students were excited that such a well-known author was coming and they would have the ability to interact with him.
“I was super excited when I found out he was coming,” Negron said. “I read his book in Kelly Carlisle’s class and loved it. These types of events are important because literature, especially nonfiction, is a fantastic way to learn about other people, cultures and mindsets.”
Laymon’s “Heavy” is going to be made into film that will be directed by Issa Rae. He has other projects as well, an undisclosed project with Donald Glover and some screenwriting with various shows.
With reporting by Austin Davidson