Heavy: An American Memoir
I actually finished this book a week ago, but it’s taken me a few days to get together my thoughts about it. I haven’t, actually, gotten my thoughts totally together. Heavy is a complicated text. It’s gotten a lot of praise, and I think the praise is well-deserved. But I can’t exactly say that I like it. And I can’t exactly say that I agree with Laymon about what it means to write “to and for” your people.
First, on liking it: so what if I liked it or not? That’s not really the point here. This book isn’t written for white folks; we’re allowed to read it, certainly, but we’re not the target audience. In fact, the book is structured as a long, winding letter to exactly one, singular person: Laymon’s mother. So reading it feels voyeuristic and uncomfortable.
Which is the point, of course. Laymon knows what he’s doing, and I respect him for doing it. He’s taken up the task of behaving as though there is no white gaze on him, regulating his actions and weighing down his natural desires and feelings and actions. He is meticulously honest, or at least appears to be: at several points in the book, Laymon writes a list of his sins as though he is in a confessional and the whole wide world is his priest.
Or maybe not the whole wide world. Is he really only looking for a reaction from his mother? If so, why publish for the world to see? No, of course he has a broader audience. But who? Black folks, is the most obvious answer. You can read the book that way. But… is the audience instead all people of color who understand respectability politics? What about queer folks, who are also weighed down by respectability? Is it all men who are marginalized, who need to learn how to account for the interweaving of marginalization and power that exists in their experiences? Maybe all people who experience that layering of power and hurting? Is it people with complex, abusive/loving families? Maybe all people who have complicated relationships with their bodies?
What does it mean to write to and for a specific audience? What is the purpose of it? How is it done?
I keep thinking about this. I don’t know what the answer to that question is. It’s the nature of book publishing to flatten out your audience: once it’s on the market, anyone with $20 can buy the book and read it, no matter their background or experience. But there are some messages, and stories, with an audience narrower than that.
Sometimes writing about the experience of being disabled is like writing from an alternate dimension, one where everything is just a little bit different than the main branch of reality. You tell a story about your life and no one laughs at the jokes because they don’t understand that they’re jokes. You tell a story about an average day and people whisper: You’re so brave. You should kill yourself so you don’t have to suffer your life any longer.
It can feel like: what if you spoke a different language from everyone else, but no one else realized it, they just heard whatever words in their own language that they wanted you to be saying? No matter what you said or how you said it, people responded like you were commenting on the weather.
How do you write for an audience like that?
Laymon’s choice, brutal realism, is a tempting one. But will many of his readers respond like he’s commenting on the weather?
Maybe those are the readers who don’t matter.
One thing that I did find in this book, and treasure, is the idea of leaving behind the work of making your oppressor better. Laymon writes of his college years, of all the feelings and effort and shaping of himself that he put into waking up white folks, and how futile that has come to seem.
There will always be more white people, out here being white. And you can’t persuade a person that you are not their servant by gently catering to their sensibilities as you attempt to shepherd them to enlightenment. That’s just another way of serving them; you’re disproving all your points as you make them.
So, maybe it’s easier to know who you’re NOT writing for. This book isn’t for me, a white person—except maybe it is for me, a queer person, a disabled person.
CAN you define your audience?
I don’t know. I didn't find the answer here, but I appreciate the thinking about the question. And, it goes almost without saying: this is a marvelously-written memoir with a powerful message about race, memory, and power.