This is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile now. I know Laymon has a novel and an essay collection published years before this memoir, but I have to be honest, this is the piece that I first heard about from him. Likely as a result of the myriad of absolutely overwhelmingly, stunningly positive reviews about the power and vulnerability of Laymon’s words (especially from other writers I have read and loved, like Roxane Gay, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and more). Anyways, as I think I am always saying (mainly because there is just not enough time to read everything I want to read!), I am so glad I finally picked it up.
“America seems filled with violent people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts.”
In this memoir, Laymon chronicles, in essay form, his youth growing up in Jackson, Mississippi with his grandmother and “complicated and brilliant” mother, his time in and suspension from college, and then his time in New York as a young professor. This is all framed within a context of finally talking about all the topics and realities that he and his mother never recognized as he was growing up, and the way that needs to happen on a national level in order for the country to be able to move forwards to a better and healthier future. Throughout, he addresses his own experiences with sexual violence, racism, writing, gambling and, most consistently, disordered eating and his own weight.
There is really very little I can add in a review of this that hasn’t already been said by a writer better than me. Laymon’s writing is just as powerful and vulnerable as everyone said. It’s intense and difficult to read because of how willing to lay bare his individual realities and private truths Laymon is. But that intensity and difficulty is also what makes this memoir. I don’t want to take away from Laymon’s work or efforts by over-reviewing this piece, because I want you to read it, read his own words on it. There’s a line with memoirs that is hard, as a reviewer, because you have to separate the work from the life. There is, hopefully, a way to do that fairly and objectively. And I try to find that. In this case specifically, it’s important to note that I’ll be giving this memoir a glowing, five-star, review because of the writing and the skill Laymon has with words and the bravery he has to share them, and in no way as a commentary on the experiences he lived and endured to inform those words. Also, listening to the audiobook and hearing Laymon read his own words in his own voice was particularly affecting. Highly recommend that option.
I do want to add a few notes on specific aspects. First, the mother-son dynamic that Laymon shares so openly about is emotional and heartbreaking. He speaks a lot on the ways his mother’s work in benefit and defense of Black people in America often seemed at odds with the harsh ways she treated her own son, in their own home, both to prepare him for/protect him from the world and as a result of her own history of trauma. Related to this, the various forms of sexual violence he faced both in his own home and in his wider community, and the affect that seeing that, and then the general choice to ignore its occurrence, had on his psyche and his relationship to sex and women. He speaks to the consequences of youth not having teachers or role models or books/media that look like themselves or their culture, as well as the effect the general unpreparedness of the education system/educators for the task of teaching within an environment of daily trauma (in a variety of forms), has on the minority youth in this country. He grapples with power and privilege in America, the ways it has affected his own life and the ways he has had to grow within its confines and even contribute to it, without viable alternative choices, all while trying to take on the burden of changing that reality and trying to recognize that that burden should not be, should never have been, his to try and hold and address alone. And finally, connecting all pieces of this memoir together, Laymon discusses disordered eating and unhealthy relationships with weight and food as a result of and a coping mechanism for the instability he faced, in the various ways it shows up throughout his life, in a way that is deeply affecting in the ways it is intrinsically linked to, literally, eveything. There is more, so much more, in these pages, but, like I said, you should pick it up and read his words for yourself in order to benefit from it all.
Laymon talks about laughing through the pain and loss and lack until you just cannot anymore, because it just, in actuality, isn’t funny. And then what? He acknowledges the harm that silence does and fights against that with his own willingness to share all the things he (and his mother and his family) kept silent about in the past. These intergenerational patterns are strong, and it will take concerted and consistent efforts to speak and open up about these hard truths and realities in order to actually make progress towards overcoming them, but Laymon’s example provides a blueprint for how to do that. I am blown away, as I’ve said, and I will be looking into reading Laymon’s backlist for sure.
As usual, with nonfiction, and especially with nonfiction written as spectacularly as this memoir was, I had a number of passages that I highlighted while reading. Here is a selection:
“…unacknowledged scars accumulated in battles won often hurt more than battles lost.”
“My body knew things my mouth and my mind couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, express. It knew that all over my neighborhood, boys were trained to harm girls in ways girls could never harm boys, straight kids were trained to harm queer kids in ways queer kids could never harm straight kids, men were trained to harm women in ways women could never harm men, parents were trained to harm children in ways children would never harm parents, babysitters were trained to harm kids in ways kids could never harm babysitters. My body knew white folk were trained to harm us in ways we could never harm them. I didn’t know how to tell you or anyone else the stories my body told me…”
“Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.”
“…before I met actual white folk, I met every protagonist, antagonist, and writer of all the stories I ever read in first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.”
“For the first time in my life, I realized telling the truth was way different from finding the truth, and finding the truth had everything to do with revisiting and rearranging words. Revisiting and rearranging words didn’t only require vocabulary; it required will, and maybe courage. Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns. Revised thought patterns shaped memory.”
“…I didn’t understand the difference between “writing to” and “writing for” anyone. No one ever taught me to write to and for my people. They taught me how to imitate Faulkner and how to write to and for my teachers. And all of my teachers were white.”
“There was too much at stake to as questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all black folk were intellectually less than. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me.”
“Mostly, I wondered what black writers weren’t writing when we spent so much creative energy begging white folk to change.”
“‘The worst kinds of teachers be the teachers that teach other folk how to be like them.’”
“I would come into that meeting knowing the illest part of racial terror in this nation is that it’s sanctioned by sorry, overpaid white bodies that will never be racially terrorized, and maintained by a few desperate underpaid black and brown bodies that will.”
“I told you the truth about white folks’ treatment of me without being honest about how I treated myself and others close to me while surviving that treatment.”