Kiese Laymon’s memoir is far from the weight loss journey he originally envisioned. But a lot of it is about his body.
He grew up as a fat kid in the South. And he continues to be shaped by the experience of being Black in America.
Often, he’s tried to deal with that pain by eating, or not eating. Over the course of his life he’s gone from being heavy, to dropping down to two percent body fat, to becoming heavy again.
In his book, Heavy: An American Memoir, Kiese weaves together all these experiences. In doing so, disordered eating, anti-Blackness, fatphobia, and addiction all bubble together. "As artists, we got to be able to talk about all of it at once because it always happens at once," he says. "Food to me is a paradoxical way to get into all of the mess of what we are."
Kiese’s entire memoir is written to his mother. When he was a kid she made him write a story or report every night on a range of topics. She believed that the best protection against day-to-day racism — the best way to survive really — was excellence.
In Heavy, Kiese processes his upbringing and adulthood to examine what it says about himself, his home state of Mississippi, and American life as a whole. The book won the Andrew Carnegie Medal, the LA Times Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, and Audible’s Audiobook of the Year. Kiese is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi, and he grew up in Jackson, Mississippi.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
- "Nice Kitty" by Black Label Productions
- "Hang Tight" by Hayley Briasco
- "Sidewalk Chalk" by Hayley Briasco
- "The Huxtables" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
Photo courtesy of Kiese Laymon.
Dan Pashman: Please note: This episode includes explicit language, as well as discussion of various types of abuse.
CLIP (KIESE LAYMON): I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie. And then I want to write honestly about Black Lives, Black thighs, Black loves, Black laughs, Black foods, Black addictions, Black stretch marks, Black dollars, Black words, Black abuses, Black blues, Black belly buttons, Black wins, Black bins, Black beans, Black consent, Black parents or Black children. I did not want to write about us. I wanted to write an American memoir. I wanted to write a lie.
Kiese Laymon: I wanted to do that old Black work of pandering and lying to folk, who pay us to pander and lie to them every day. I wanted to write about our family's relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats and high-fructose corn syrup. I wanted the book to begin with my weighing at 319 pounds and end with my weighing 165 pounds. I wanted to pepper the book with acerbic warning to us fat Black folk in the Deep South and sacral sentimental exhortations from grandmamma. I did not want you to laugh. I wanted to write a lie.
Dan Pashman: Thank you.
Kiese Laymon: Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Why did you decide not to write a lie?
Kiese Laymon: Like a lot of mothers and children and a lot of fathers and children, you know, my mother and I, we've spent a lifetime lying to each other. And sometimes those lies were—I lie to my mom and she would know the truth. Sometimes she lied to me and I know the truth. And because she like created a writer in me, I just wanted to use this book one time to try to talk much more honestly about things I wish we would have talked about before.
Dan Pashman: Kiese’s memoir is far from the weight loss journey he originally envisioned. But a lot of it is about his body. He grew up as a fat kid in the south. And he continues to be shaped by the experience of being Black in America. Often, he’s tried to deal with that pain by eating, or not eating. Over the course of his life he’s gone from being heavy, to dropping down to 2% body fat, to becoming heavy again. In his memoir, Kiese weaves together all these experiences.
CLIP (KIESE LAYMON): It's just a conflation of all these things. And as artists we got to be able to talk about all of it at once because it always happens at once. And food, to me, is a paradoxical way to get into all of the mess of what we are.
Dan Pashman: Stick around...
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Happy 4th of July, I hope you’re doing okay out there and staying safe. In honor of the holiday, and because of the discussions happening across the country, I want to share with you my conversation with Kiese Laymon, whose most recent book is Heavy: An American Memoir. This first aired last year but whether or not you heard it then, I hope you’ll find new meaning in it today. I know I did. Okay, let’s get to it...
Dan Pashman: Kiese Laymon’s books include Long Division, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. When his memoir Heavy came out in 2018, it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal and was named one of the Best Books of the year by just about every prestigious publication you can think of. He’s also a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. Kiese grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, with his mother, who taught at Jackson State College. Before we got into his memoir, we talked about the food they had at home when he was a kid.
Kiese Laymon: My mother is complicated, man, because my mother didn't have much much money but she had that bougie taste. So we literally would have nothing in our fridge. Like when I talk about that habit, olives, a bag of pumbernickle bread, some fucking pimento cheese, that's real. My mama, like... that's my...that was my refrigerator. Do you know what I'm saying? That was our refrigerator. Nothing about their refrigerator is attractive. So when I would go to other people's cribs, it would just be the pantries, which were amazing. It would also be like the fact that it wasn't a lot of white space in the fridge. So I always thought white space in fridges were proof that something was a little off.
Dan Pashman: You know that you talk obviously sort of painful detail about some of the downsides of life with your mom.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: But there's also a lot of love and care in this book.
Kiese Laymon: Oh yeah.
Dan Pashman: There's something...and actually now I can't remember if it's in the book or I saw heard you say in an interview but that it gave me such a clear feeling about that side of your mom, which was how your mom orders food in a restaurant.
Kiese Laymon: Oh bruh, same old shit. Like today...
Dan Pashman: Like I'm the waiter. You're your mom. Like talk to me.
Kiese Laymon: You're the waiter?
Dan Pashman: Channel your mom. I come over to the table. Hi, how y'all doing today? What can I get for you?
Kiese Laymon: I told you, I wanted water.
Dan Pashman: Um, oh yes. Okay, I'll get you some water right now, ma'am.
Kiese Laymon: I want lemon in that.
Dan Pashman: Oh okay. Yep, yep. Sure. No problem. You want that on the side? Or you want that in the water?
Kiese Laymon: We've been here for a while. Can we just order our appetizers and our meal, please? We come here regularly.
Dan Pashman: Oh okay. Sorry.
Kiese Laymon: That's my mama, bruh. That was my mama when I was five, when I was 15, when I was 25, when I was 35. I mean, it made it tough for me to ever want to go out with my mom because I would just be like, "Yo, they didn't do nothing wrong yet." You know? But I just don't know what it's like to grow up. I mean, I see what it was like to grow up as a Black girl from rural Mississippi, who was being you know challenged intellectually, challenged physically in all of these spaces. But my mama was somebody like at every opportunity she could, she was going to use the space to one up somebody. And it's strange, I'm the opposite. You know, I mean... I am to a fault. You know, if I go somewhere—again, I don't eat meat. If you bring me a chicken sandwich with some bacon on it, I will be like, "Appreciate it. Thank you very much." You know what I'm saying?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kiese Laymon: Part of it is also because I'm a big Black boy, also. You know what I'm saying? It's a different kind of threat. But my mom is definitely someone who does not play. She just did not...she did not play. She did not play. And she didn't play with me. She didn't play with service.
Dan Pashman: As I said, Kiese’s entire memoir is written to his mother. When he says “you,” in the book, he’s talking to her. She always expected a lot from him. When he was a kid, she made Kiese write a story or report, every night, on a range of topics. She believed that the best protection against day-to-day racism, the best for him to survive really, was excellence. Kiese’s parents divorced when he was young. His father lived far away and Kiese had no siblings. So growing up, it was just him and his mom. During one period, she was in an abusive relationship with a guy named Malachi Hunter. Here’s Kiese, reading from an early passage in his book.
CLIP (KIESE LAYMON): I open the bedroom door, walked down the hallway a few feet from your bedroom. Behind a locked door, Malachi Hunter said he was sorry for punching you in your face, sorry for making you bleed, sorry for fighting your son, sorry for punishing you for wanting to know the truth. You told Malachi Hunter you wanted a daughter and you were sorry for running away. I went back to my room and heard your bedroom door unlock and lock again. The many squeaks from your bed got louder. I got on my knees and prayed to God to not hear you wailing under the weight of the revolutionary Black man from Mississippi. I hated my body. I walked in the kitchen, got the biggest spoon and I could find and dipped it halfway into peanut butter and pear preserves Grandma had given us. I heard the wailing all the way in the kitchen. I dip the same spoon a quarter deep in grandmother's pear preserves and put the whole spoon in my mouth. I did it again and again until the jar of peanut butter was gone. The wailing didn't stop. I hated my body. Before leaving the kitchen, I gulp down a few mason jars of box wine until I forgot the shape of the sound I was running from.
Dan Pashman: That refrain in that passage that we hear a couple of times, "I hated my body,"...
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: What was it about the experience of seeing your mom go back to this guy that made you feel that way about your body?
Kiese Laymon: Oh, man. Yeah, you're asking real questions. So being around my mother, being close to my mother, like being touched by my mom just made me feel worthy. It made me feel loved. It made me feel like...it made me feel abundant. So when I heard this man, who had harmed her, who was taller than me, more manly than me, bigger than me, making my mom feel something I'd never heard her feel around me? It's sort of just made me hate not just what was happening in that room but hate my body, too. And also, I'm talking about wanting to write lies, like I did want to talk about what my body felt when I was going through puberty. And so I'm outside of that bedroom listening to my mom umm....you know, I guess, having sex with this man who had harmed her and it was one of the first times I'd ever heard my mother having sex. I heard other people have sex, like my friends or stuff. And it made me angry. And it made me afraid but it also like excited parts of my body that I didn't want to be excited. And that made me hate, I think, my body and a situation even more.
Dan Pashman: And I guess going to town on that jar of peanut butter is one way of protecting yourself against those feelings.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, and control and something bro. Like, you know, my mother, she policed my food a lot, my intake. And so, part of me eating that big ass jar of peanut butter or those pear preserves was one, it tasted good and it was something she wouldn't have let me do. So I thought I was fighting back against her because I was just eating all of it.
Dan Pashman: So Kiese’s memoir isn’t just about his relationship with his mother over the course of his life. It’s also about his relationship with his own body during the same time.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about the first time you remember your mother calling you fat.
Kiese Laymon: Oh. (sighs)
Dan Pashman: It happened sitting in the car, in a neighbor’s driveway. It was a house where a lot of local kids hung out. Kiese’s mom was dropping him off there before she went to work. The last time he had been there, he saw a girl being sexually assaulted. But he hadn’t found the words to describe what happened to his mother. So when she brought him back the next time, he didn’t want to go inside.
Kiese Laymon: So she was just like, “Ki, get your fat ass out the car.” And I—you know, people that called me husky and fat before but because of the intimacy that I felt with my mom I just mean, honest to god truth is, that I just never thought she saw it. You know what I'm saying? I never thought she saw me as fat. And when she did, that thing just hurt, bruh. Like that just—that just hurt. That hurt a lot for me. In the moment, it really made me feel ugly and gross and like not my mother's child anymore.
Dan Pashman: When we come back, Kiese loses 150 pounds. But how would that change the way he felt about his body? Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Breaking news in our world, Plantation Rum, the brand that inspired the article by Osayi Endolyn that inspired our episode on plantation in food branding, announced this week that it’s going to change its name. We’re planning a special episode with Osayi to discuss this and other recent developments, that’ll be up next week. In the meantime, last week’s episode is more of a fun distraction for you. I enter the secretive world of flavor science when I talk with a flavor chemist. She says she loves the smell of kitten pee, because it reminds her of black currants.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): It occurs to me that you, probably, smell and taste foods in a way that's different from most people.
CLIP (MARIE WRIGHT): Uh, yeah probably.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Because most people, if they go to change their cat's litter box are not like, "Mmmm black currants."
CLIP (MARIE WRIGHT): [laughs] No, they don't But I tend to keep those thoughts to myself.
Dan Pashman: Marie Wright walks me through a set of experiments to teach me how to taste food the way she tastes it. You can even replicate the tests at home, and no kitten pee is involved. That episode is up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now, back to my conversation with Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir. As I said, Kiese’s relationship with his body is a recurring theme in his book. In our conversation, I wanted to explore that relationship further.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting you know that the terminology that like that I grew up with around race was always focused on the idea of skin color.
Kiese Laymon: Uh-huh.
Dan Pashman: But you talk more about bodies.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: Which I think is an interesting and different important distinction.
Kiese Laymon: Yup.
Dan Pashman: A different way of looking at it.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: Why do you feel like it's important to talk more about bodies than skin color?
Kiese Laymon: One reason is just because like as an artist you don't want to do what everybody else has done. But the other reason is like literally growing up, where I grew up in Jackson Mississippi, which is like a super Black city. We didn't have a lot of language to talk about some of these things the way we obviously could talk about them now. But we were obsessed with bodies and race and difference and in a gendered way you talk about it.
Dan Pashman: But there's also something I think about, the idea that your body was subject to all of these sorts of external pressures.
Kiese Laymon: Oh, for sure.
Dan Pashman: Both the sort of more immediate abuse that you dealt with but then also just sort of the larger forces of being Black in America.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah. Yeah, we knew....I mean big boy big Black boys, like me, knew we were going to be treated like men by police and by White people and malls in stores. Like it didn't matter how you know baby faced we were, cherubic we were. You know, people were gonna treat us like men. And it's complicated because a lot of times the people in our communities would be like, little man. You know, "Hey little man." You know, you're four fucking years old. How the fuck are you a little man? You'll tell a little man to come over here. You know? And then I thought it was ironic sometimes, when like these little men became actual men they were called, "Boy", by police officers and by White folks in positions of power. But this isn't even analysis. Like we knew. I knew. Most of my friends knew that police officers were gonna treat us like men because they all treated us like men by the time we were ten, eleven years old. You know, we'd all been hemmed up against a car. We'd all been accused of selling drugs, or throwing drugs out of windows. We'd all been accused of stealing stuff, whether we stole stuff. We'd all been roughed up in ways that I just never saw White kids be roughed up. Maybe they were but I just never saw it.
Dan Pashman: So growing up with those experiences in Mississippi had a real impact on Kiese. When he went away to college, and then grad school, he started trying to make his body smaller. He began exercising compulsively, and barely eating for days. His weight plummeted. Here he is reading from his memoir again, telling the story of a road trip with his Uncle Jimmy.
Kiese Laymon: On our way up to Indiana I did not eat or drink. I had no way of knowing how much I weighed until I paid the dollar to weigh myself on the raggedy bathroom scale at a rest stop in Tennessee. According to the scale, I was one hundred and eighty-six pounds. Up two pounds from when I weighed myself at the hospital. When we crossed the Arkansas state line. Uncle Jimmy stopped at a KFC and ordered some gizzards to go. A few miles down the road, we stopped at a grocery store that sold hot food. Uncle Jimmy told me to wait in the van. He came out with nothing and headed to another grocery store that served hot food. This time he came out with two beige styrofoam containers filled with greens and cornbread. “Want some nephew?” “No, I'm good.” Uncle Jimmy sat in a parking lot at a grocery store eating what must have been a pound of greens and cornbread. When I got home I got on my knees and thank God I wasn't flying and crashing like Uncle Jimmy. Or crying and scratching crusted scabs out of my hand like grandmama or moping and regretting all the money I lost in the casino, like you. I rub my palms up and down my abs, flex both to see which one was more defined. I slick my hands into the gap between my hard thighs and squeezed as hard as I could. I traced the veins of my calves down to my ankles and back up behind my knees. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a 319 pound fat Black boy from Jackson. When I touched myself, or saw how much I weighed or my percentage of body fat, I knew I created a body. I knew I'd made a body disappear.
Dan Pashman: What lie were you telling yourself about your weight?
Kiese Laymon: Shit, bruh. I mean...that's a tough one. I mean, you know, when I was at my lowest like 150... I mean, I even lied about it in the book. When I was like 140 something I told myself I was fat, which was just a lie. You know, like I literally had less than less than 2 percent body fat. So I wasn't fat. I told myself that I was completely not just unhealthy but unworthy of love. Those are massive lies. I can never get low enough. If I was 170 I wanted to get to 160. If I was 160, I was like, "Yeah what would happen if I was 150?" When I was 150, I was like, "What if I got to 145?" So all of that is steeped in lies, I think.
Dan Pashman: And I mean it the most extreme parts of your eating disorder you were running two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening, and basically not eating all day.
Kiese Laymon: No.
Dan Pashman: And you say that at times you felt euphoric.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, bruh. Even when you just said that, I was proud of it, honestly. In a terrible way, I was like, "Yeah, I could do that." Yeah, I mean, it feels really good dude. So like when I was writing a book there's a sentence, "I love losing weight." And my grandmother was laughing and wondering what was wrong with me. My uncle was like, "What the fuck you mean? You love love losing weight." And what was interesting is it like they tied that not just to being a woman but to being a White girl. Like they were like, "That's some White girl shit." You know, because I think we see White women as sort of the only people in this culture that have disordered eating. Right? Which is just completely not true and terrible, too, and for White women. But also terrible to people, who aren't White women, who can ever get people to care. You know what I'm saying? So it just feels good. It felt good to not eat. And my mom never taught me to push my body in those terrible ways, but she did tell me to push my art. Like, "Don't stop. Don't stop until the sentence is what you want it to be." And so I just think this idea of pushing and pushing and pushing until you can't push anymore, is really familiar. And you just feel so high, dude. Like but I also felt high eating like, you know, a dozen donuts...plus two. You know what I'm saying? That's what was interesting about these conversations is that it's so much easier for me to talk about the starvation and the gorging.
Dan Pashman: Why do you think that is?
Kiese Laymon: Because people hate fucking fat people, dude. Like, they hate fat people. And I think we love fucking like the idea of like discipline, like cut up people. Or parts of my sensibility do and I need to own that.
Dan Pashman: No I think that's—I mean, I think that as a people assume that any fat person must be—that there's a sort of—they're immoral.
Kiese Laymon: Yup.
Dan Pashman: That they're lazy.
Kiese Laymon: Yup.
Dan Pashman: And, you know, there's something that I do think is...I'm sure it exists in other parts of the world.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: But I think that it's especially American...
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: Of the idea of sort of like salvation through suffering.
Kiese Laymon: Right. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Dan Pashman: And then from withholding pleasure.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: That the path to happiness requires withholding pleasure.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah!
Dan Pashman: Are you able to put your finger on what triggered this period of your life?
Kiese Laymon: Uh, yeah. You know, I think the book is trying to make the argument that this notion of particular incidents triggering is like a—you know, it's a nice sort of like neat notion. But, you know, part of it was my relationship with my mom. Part of it was my relationship with my state. Do you know what I'm saying? I think, I mean, the thing about a book like this is that I think everybody attempted to write this book or these kinds of books. Like we would all be like, oh shit. Because everybody's going through some fucked up shit. Everybody's been fucked up by parents, by the world, by this like deep, deep, deep, deep commitment to structural abuse in this country. This deep commitment to like throwing people in jail and letting other people go free. So....shit. You know, America triggered it. Do you know what I'm saying? And I just think, for me, it just manifested a lot in food and weight.
Dan Pashman: I feel like maybe when your body is so much the cause or the perceived cause of your trauma, like there's kind of one of two ways you can respond to that. You can try to make your body bigger.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: To build up your armour.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: Or you can try to make your body disappear.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Dan Pashman: And it seems like at various points you tried both those approaches.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah. I think most people do.
Dan Pashman: But I don't think either one works, most of the time.
Kiese Laymon: Nope.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kiese Laymon: You can't hide from yourself.
Dan Pashman: But I wonder if maybe that's also one of the lies.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Is that making yourself bigger or smaller can erase that trauma.
Kiese Laymon: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's like one of the biggest lies...yes. I went to Lilith Fair. You remember Lilith Fair?
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Kiese Laymon: You remember Lilith Fair?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. I assume there's not a long line for the men's room.
Kiese Laymon: (laughs) No, bro. Shit. There wasn't a long line for the men's room but you could count the Black folks, period, on one hand.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Kiese Laymon: And You can count the brothers on like a half a finger. You know what I'm saying? And that was me because I was super skinny at the time.
Dan Pashman: And hey, no judgment. I saw the Indigo Girls in concert more than once.
Kiese Laymon: Bruh!
Dan Pashman: So, right on.
Kiese Laymon: I saw Tracy Chapman. I saw Michelle and Diego Cello and what the Dixie Chicks were doing. So I went with these three White women. And the three white women were driving a Geo Metro and I was in a passenger seat. I didn't drink or smoke anything at the time. I didn't want to put anything in my body that would hurt me. And a police car comes up behind us. Soon as the police lights come on, I'm like, "Oh here we go..." I'm in the passenger seat. Instead of coming to the driver seat, the police officer comes over to my side and they say, "We saw you throw crack out the window. You need to get out of the car." And the first thing I thought was like “Damn yo. Like, I've had a lot of things happen to me in Mississippi but not this." Like when I got caught up in Mississippi, it's usually like I was in a car full of Black folks. I was driving a car. So I get out of the car. I'm like, "Bro, where's the crack? Just find it." And he was like, "We saw you throw it out there." And so then I point, being like, go find it. So as soon as I pointed, you know, they hit me up, put me on a police car. The two or three White women, who were in the car, are just like, "What's going on?", and I'm in the back of that car now. Because they put me in the back of the car and then they started going through the bookbags of the White women, who were there. And you know, when you got Lilith Fair, one of the things that they do is they talk about the importance of safe sex. So lots of people like can grab condoms. So one of these White girls had a book bag full of condoms. So I watch from inside the cop car. And inside the cop car I'm looking at this feel and I'm like, "Fuck man, I just wish I was back home," because, I guess, there's like a more familiar kind of racism at home. And he goes into her bag and he pulls out all of these condoms and then he starts shaking his head. And this White woman is like, "What do you want me to do?" And then he puts his hand on her, in a way that he wouldn't put his hand on me. Right? The point of the story is that when I wrote about this, I didn't write at all about what those White women experienced. I wrote completely about what I experienced as a Black man. You know?
Kiese Laymon: And one of things I'm trying to say is that all of these isolated instances of like transphobia, trans antagonism, White supremacy, anti Blackness, they're always meshed. It's not just like, "Yo, they treat Black people like shit and blah blah blah..." Yeah, they treat Black people like shit while these underpaid cops fucking chastise White women for presumably wanting to control their bodies. Right? And then they pit Black men on the back when you get out in a car. Right? Because you didn't really throw any crack out of the window and you seemed like a good one. And then on the way home, one of the White girls who didn't get out of the car starts talking about how hilarious it is. Right? When it's really not hilarious at all. So my point is that it's just a conflation of all these things. And as artists, we got to be able to talk about all of it at once because it always happens at once.
Kiese Laymon: Food to me is a paradoxical way to get into all of the mess of what we are. Right? Because we put all kinds of stuff in our bodies. Lettuce. Broccoli. Gummies. You know I'm saying? I'm from Chitlins. Literally, shit. You know, literally the intestines of fucking like pigs. Like all of that shit is in us.
Dan Pashman: Pickles marinated in Kool-Aid.
Kiese Laymon: Exactly, right. All of that.
Dan Pashman: At age 26, Kiese became a professor at Vassar College. His compulsive exercising eventually caught up to him. He hurt his legs. He still walks with a slight limp. So he couldn’t run anymore. And his job at Vassar meant that for the first time in his life, he was making good money. So he transitioned from an eating disorder to a gambling addiction. He started going to casinos, losing his money, and gorging himself. Here’s Kiese reading again from his memoir.
Kiese Laymon: I ate free casino veggie burgers, casino grill cheeses, casino fries, casino rings, casino shakes when we arrived. And a nice dinner of free Mexican or Italian food later. After I lost all our money for the night, I ordered room service and ate free casino omelets and casino pancakes before watching Susie Ormen, until I fell asleep. Whether I lost every dime I walked in with or won more than I ever imagined, I always punish myself with casino food as ferociously as I punish myself with starving and exercise.
Dan Pashman: Why did you feel like you needed to punish yourself?
Kiese Laymon: I just think I needed to prove to myself that I still could control something. And in that instance it was like controlling making all this money—I mean, not making tons of money but making the decision to do what I'd never done, which is give all my money away. Because before that my money was my momma's money. My money was my grandmama's money. And there was a point, actually after I paid off my student loans, where I was just like, "Okay, now my money is my money," and I went to the casino with my partner and she thought she's playing 75 cents. She was playing seventy five dollars and she won like six, seven thousand dollars. And I was like, "Wait a minute. You can win massive amounts of money just by pushing a thing?" So then I got in just like obsessed with trying to do that. And the thing about casinos, as most people know, is that when you lose all your money you accumulate casino points, which are like literally pennies on the dollars that you've lost.
Kiese Laymon: And at that point in my life, really, because my body stopped working. Like when my body worked, I wasn't trying to be in casinos all the time because I could just break my body. I could push my body to the point of no return. But when my body was sort of gone and I literally couldn't—I could barely walk and I could really run anymore, I just wanted to hurt some other way.
Dan Pashman: Today, Kiese says his gambling addiction and his eating are pretty well under control. And he says writing this book has improved his relationship with his mom. They’re talking openly now about a lot of the things they never talked about before, a lot of the topics Kiese originally wanted to lie about. Still, Kiese isn’t one for sitcom endings. He says real life is messy.
Dan Pashman: I know the title of the book, Heavy, has multiple meanings and I've heard you say that one of your hopes for the book is that Black people will be heavier. I don't mean— doesn't mean like obese.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, right. Right.
Dan Pashman: But just sort of fortify their armor.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Can you elaborate on that?
Kiese Laymon: I want to be connected, particularly to Black people. Particularly to Black people from our region. I want us to feel collectively heavy. To me that means we have to look at where we've been, like where we be eating in. And think about the ways that like the culture and our families and ourselves have made ourselves bend so much. So much, so often that we break. So I want to be heavy. I want to be more connected to my mother to my grandmama to my great great grandmama, who I don't know. I want to be more connected. And honestly, I want to be more connected to everybody. You know what I'm saying? It's just like, I do prioritize. I do think the particular song on Black people is a particularly pernicious ason in this nation. But that doesn't mean that like I don't want to be connected to indigenous folks or Latinex folks. You know I'm saying? I just want us to hold hands metaphorically and push ourselves through to some sort of honest liberation but let's start with trying to be honest about what the nation has done to us and the consequences of what the nation has done to us, which aren't the same things at all. I don't think we can do that if we just go into our silos or go into our isolated places. I just think we got to hold on to one another and listen.
Dan Pashman: That’s Kiese Laymon. His book is Heavy: An American Memoir. Next week on the show, since our episode on the word plantation in food branding came out, a lot of companies have changed their names. But does that really get at the root issue? We’ll discuss with writer Osayi Endolyn. Please follow me on Instagram @TheSporkful. Thanks.