Author’s Note: If you are into audio books, I highly recommend you listen to this one.
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse, sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, gang rape, drug abuse, emotional abuse, racism, eating disorders. This book is called Heavy for many reasons, its contents are only a few.
Kiese Laymon is a fearless writer. In his essays, personal stories combine with piercing intellect to reflect both on the state of American society and on his experiences with abuse, which conjure conflicted feelings of shame, joy, confusion and humiliation. Laymon invites us to consider the consequences of growing up in a nation wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.
In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a
young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.
A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family that begins with a confusing childhood—and continues through twenty-five years of haunting implosions and long reverberations.
My Take: 5/5 Stars
“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 knew, looking at all those words, that memories were there, I just had to rearrange, add, subtract, sit, and sift until I found a way to free the memory.”
There is nothing I can say about HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR before I first say it was one of the most beautifully written pieces of literature I have ever had the privilege of reading. I was also fortunate in that the co-worker who recommended this book to me, urged me to listen to it. It is narrated by the author, and it flows like a spoken word poem: in you, and through you, and out of you. It stays with you, both in content and in language, haunting and fresh.
I will also say that as a white girl, I won’t comment much on the content, except to say that white people should read or listen to this book. For us, this book is here to listen to, and think about, and stay silent, and do better. These words do not exist for us to analyze or dissect. They are not for us, for once. But they are lovely, and I am glad to have been able to hear them.
Kiese Laymon is a raw writer of a kind I can only hope we see more of. He writes with a courage that steals your breath. At times, his anecdotes are laugh out loud funny, and at other times, his stories left me with tears flowing down my cheeks. Laymon reached me in a way that I haven’t been reached in a good long while, and I am a better, rounder, fuller person for it.
You’ll notice that in my last review, which you can read here, I made a point to lay out trigger warnings. In the short stories I used to post on this blog (but no longer do because they were for an adult audience, and I am a young adult/new adult writer), I also made sure to preface them with trigger warnings. Now I’m about to explain why.
For those who don’t know or haven’t been around this blog for awhile, I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve been around the block with other mental health issues, too. Throughout the years, I’ve run up against generalized anxiety disorder, depression, self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, agoraphobia, touch aversion, and insomnia. These are the things that (in my mind), make my C-PTSD not “complex” as much as it is “complicated.”
For those who do know me, they’ll be the first to tell you I am also someone who does not like the way “trigger” is thrown around these days.
Trigger has a specific medical definition. A trigger is a stimulus such a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma. This is why it is most closely related (or used to be) to PTSD. A trigger is not something that makes you feel upset. A trigger is not something that makes you feel uncomfortable. A trigger is not something that makes you grimace and wish you hadn’t read/seen/heard/touched that thing. A trigger is not the predecessor to a mildly uncomfortable feeling.
A trigger is something to be avoided at all costs. A trigger causes anxiety, panic, flashback, nausea, fainting, vomiting, sweating, nightmares, shakes, and tremors. A trigger is, in short, the recipe for a very, very bad time.
A trigger is hearing a mother scream at her children, then having your mind go blank and your eyes glaze over before finding yourself, hours later, with your hands clasped over your ears rocking back and forth in the empty bathtub, all your clothes on, mumbling incoherent protests against a phantom from the past.
A trigger is a boy who looks like that boy brushing up against your arm on the bus, and your mind stealing you away to years before, when it wasn’t just a brush against your arm, and you weren’t on a bus, then only coming out of the fog of memory when a kindly black bus driver kneels in front of you and tells you as gently as her contralto can, that this is the last stop, and is there somewhere you’d like to go?
I rarely use the word trigger. Words have power and when I say the word “trigger” I want it to mean something.
Because it does.
It does not mean uncomfortable or upsetting. Literature is supposed to be uncomfortable and upsetting. It is supposed to make you feel. If literature makes you uncomfortable or upset, it is doing its job. There were a lot of things I listened to in Educated that made me uncomfortable and upset. There are a lot of things I read in books I will five star review in the future that made me uncomfortable and upset. None of them have been triggering to me.
But that last bit is the most important part of this whole thing: to me. I am thirty years old. I have been in and out of therapy seriously since I was nineteen. At this point, I know what most of my triggers are (although sometimes one will sneak up on me). I’ve been able to beat some of them back into the realm where they’re no longer triggers but are just experiences that make me uncomfortable. I’ve had that opportunity, to seek and destroy the things that make life hard to live.
Others haven’t. Not only because some may still be young (this is a blog that is supposed to be teen friendly, for goodness sake), but also because others might not have had the privilege I have had. I know what it’s like to choose between therapy and food. I’ve been there, in my younger days when mental health coverage was worse than it is now and I was poor. Food will win. Every time. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to make that choice anymore. Others aren’t so privileged. And I recognize that. They haven’t had the time or the means to seek and destroy. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
So I write trigger warnings. Not to devalue the word, far from it. I write trigger warnings because I know how powerful words can be. And I would never, ever want to intentionally shove someone before an altar of their own demons and make them pay.
…Odeth, the only woman person I’d ever known to smile as infrequently as me, returned it…
~ Revisions, The Blood Mage
#ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear was trending on Twitter today, and it made me angry–so here’s a blog post.
As I scrolled through the above hashtag, a few things occurred to me–I’m not alone (bittersweet), and many of these things have not only been said to me, but have been said by me. To/about other women writers and to myself.
Internalized sexism is a thing, y’all.
Just last week, I was having a conversation with another writer about friends of his who write romance but are working on something different. My immediate, knee jerk reaction, was to say, “They plan to publish under a different name, I hope.”
Yeah, I’m an asshole. That is sexist AF. Women can be sexist. I have a lot of sexist tendencies. They show up in my work (see the above). That revision didn’t come until my seventh draft of The Blood Mage. It took me SEVEN revisions to realize I’d quietly pinned the expectation of smiling onto female characters only.
Why is that? Short answer: society.
I was fortunate unfortunate enough to somehow be part of a conversation between two nineteen year old boys last night as they tried to convince me, “It used to be a man’s world.”
No. It is still a man’s world. And though we try to fight it, we must still live in it, so women have learned to adapt. We have bills to pay and families to support and dreams to nurture. So we learn to survive in a world that isn’t for us. In small ways and large. We smile and bat our eyes and try to change things, but some of the “way things are” trickles in. We internalize the words fed to us by our oppressors.
Smile. Be grateful. Be humble. Don’t be so negative. God, that’s dark. Your female characters are too weak, too emotional, write more like a man. Too autobiographical. Oversharing. It’s a good thing your boyfriend doesn’t read. Your character is unlikable. She’s too soft, now too hard. How can she have never thought about marriage? Maybe women just aren’t good writers. A sexually aggressive female lead? Disgusting. Don’t cry. Why don’t you ever cry?
These and a million others are constantly circling in my head, and at the end of the day, we write what we know. When what we know includes all this garbage, it’s no surprise we find internalized sexism in our work and in our lives. It’s no surprise I turn my nose down at romance writers or find myself debating the likability of female characters with my female friends. It’s no surprise I don’t balk at Chekhov’s description of female characters as “young and silly” but wonder if I should publish a short story describing men as lovers of things beautiful and broken.
Just because it isn’t surprising, however, doesn’t make it right. As writers, it’s our responsibility to ask hard questions, not only of those around us, but of ourselves as well. We need to read from the perspective of craft, and ask ourselves why we’re feeling some kind of way about that leading lady. Is she poorly written or has society made us feel that women like her are off-putting? Do we not like that romance novel because it falls into a problematic trope or because our own sexuality makes us uncomfortable?
And, above all, we need to educate. Ourselves and those around us, especially girls. Tune out society. Do you. Be fearless. Be brave. Be strong. Fuck, be weak. Be kind. Be smart. Be you. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. We need to tell our girls that their bodies are theirs and their voices are theirs and their stories are theirs. We need to stop policing how women “should be” and just let them be.
And to all the men who thought that we of course needed a counter-hashtag #ThingsOnlyMaleWritersHear, go ahead and take a seat for a minute, we’re having a serious conversation.
Author’s Note: Today is International Women’s Day and here in the States it’s also A Day Without A Woman. That means today I’ve decided to both wear red and tackle a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently—gender inequality in literature. As a side note, I’ve been thinking about inequality in literature in all forms recently, but this post will focus only on gender. That said, if you were to break the data I’m about to use down to non-gender minorities, things become even more bleak in terms of diversity (or lack thereof). Okay, here we go.
Gender Inequality in Literary Fiction
The Pulitzer Prize is arguably the highest honor a writer can achieve in his/her lifetime. The Pulitzer is the award we all salivate over. It’s the award that when you hear someone has won it, makes you sit a little straighter and take notice. It’s the biggest of big deals in the writing world.
Want to know something interesting about the Pulitzer?
Between 2000 and 2014, not a single book written by a woman about women was awarded the Pulitzer. Zero. In the same time period, books written by a man about men were awarded 8 Pulitzers. EIGHT. More than half for those of you keeping track. Three more were awarded to women authors who wrote about men. The other four were awarded to women who wrote about both women and men and the last described as “unsure.” You can see the data here.
If you’re sitting there saying, “But Aimee, it’s not about gender, it’s about the best book winning,” then I would challenge you to take a deep breath and contemplate the data. Now, do I think we should have some system where we say, “Okay, a woman won this year, next year it will be a man.”? No. Absolutely the best book should win, and I understand literature is subjective. Boy, do I understand that. However, I think it’s more than a coincidence that in 15 years not a single book written by a woman about women was considered “the best book.” I’m just not buying it. Things would be different if there were simply more men publishing (that would be and in some opinions, is, a separate problem), but that isn’t what’s going on here.
The Pulitzer problem isn’t even precisely a female author problem. It’s a female story problem. Six Pulitzers in the time period described above were, in fact, awarded to women. But NONE of the Pulitzer prize winning stories were stories about women.
What is it about our stories that seems less worthy of a prize?
My first thought was, “Okay, I know literary fiction is this way. I have always known it. It’s shocking to see it all laid out like that, but my genre is dominated by women and women’s stories.” Right about there is when I fell down the rabbit hole and started to do some research of my own.
Gender Inequality in Fantasy
I’m going to bring the powerhouses of my genre in now, because those are the stories I’m most familiar with. When I type “epic fantasy” into Goodreads, I get the following list of authors:
George R.R. Martin
Are we seeing some issues with this list? Besides the fact that it’s 80% male I’ll also point out it’s 90% white (rep it, Diana Gabaldon).
As Exhibit B, I’d like to present to you the list as it looks when I search “Popular Young Adult Fantasy” (“young adult epic fantasy” yields no results, interesting all by itself).
Sarah J. Maas
This list is a complete reversal in terms of gender (80% female) but even more dismal in terms of diversity at 100% white (seriously, we need to be better, YA fantasy). This brings to light two points I have regarding the stories we tell and who writes them.
Women write YA stories and those stories aren’t seen as “serious”
For those of you familiar with fantasy, take a moment to breathe these lists in. Think about how you view the authors on each and the books they write. Because before I even compiled these lists, I made similar ones in my head. When I thought: “Who writes fantasy that would be considered literature” I came up with:
When I thought: “Who writes popular fantasy” I came up with:
My OWN list was biased against not only my own gender, but the people I admire most. That’s not to say I don’t admire the people on both lists, because I do, but the stories that have been the most important to me are the ones on the second list (with the exception of Phillip Pullman). Those are also the stories I’m quickest to discredit as being less than serious or “fluff” pieces. Why is that? Why do I consider these stories about young adults as being somehow less important than stories about adults? And if Pullman and Paolini and C.S. Lewis can write for a young adult audience or even children and be considered “epic” and “serious” why can’t Rowling or Bardugo or Maas? Does my bias have something to do with the way I feel about my own self-worth? Do I assume these young adult stories written by women about women can’t be as “important” as the adult stories written by men about men because Idon’t feel like my own story is as important as a man’s?
Romance is a crucial element in women’s writing and that’s not “serious” either
Many of the authors on the second list have romance at the center of their narratives. How you feel about the way they handle romance is not the point of discussion here (they all handle it very differently). Most of these authors have a fandom that “ships” these romances (or even fanfiction offshoots of these relationships). These are the authors who hold the keys to the OTP (One True Pairing). Whether it’s Maas’ Rhys/Feyre, Clare’s Clary/Jace, Bardugo’s Kaz/Inej or Meyer’s “Team Jacob v. Team Edward” you have true “fangirling” happening with these authors.
If you’re picturing adoring, teenage fans screaming over Justin Bieber, you’re really not alone. It just doesn’t seem serious, right?
But here’s my question—why not? Romance is serious. Sex is serious. Marriage is serious. Childbearing is serious. And all of these things start with a crush. Humanity starts with a crush.
Furthermore, romance is a part of the stories of the authors on the first list as well. It’s a different kind of romance in most cases, but it’s still there. Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has three wives. Tolkien’s Arawen and Aragorn have a romance to conquer kingdoms and even get a happily ever after. Phillip Pullman’s Lyra and Will were the first fictional characters to make my heart skip a beat. So I ask again, why is a man’s depiction of romance more valuable than a woman’s?
In conclusion, I’m not arguing that any of these authors aren’t deserving of the laurels they’ve garnered. I’m not saying that a single one of these names should be replaced on any list. What I’m saying is the list should be longer. We don’t need to rearrange seats at the table, we need to add them.
Happy International Women’s Day everyone! Go read a female author!
P.s. If you want a suggestion for your reading that is by a female, about a female, and by a woman of color, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Hate U Giveby Angie Thomas. It deserves every bit of recognition and hype it’s receiving and then some.