Is It Possible to Write a Truthful Memoir?
Kiese Laymon on figuring out how to write honestly about family, trauma, and race
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Kiese Laymon begins his latest book Heavy: An American Memoir with an earnest declaration: “I wanted to write a lie.” When writing memoir authors not only tackle their fear but expound on it, even dissect it when one may not be ready or able to. They must consider what it means to write a perceived truth versus the truth versus an experienced truth. All this is pertinent to the craft conversation, especially when it comes to nonfiction and memoir. This also came up as a point of reflection and interrogation in Laymon’s memoir.
When I spoke to Laymon about Heavy we discussed not only the creation of art but the fact that our work is up for consumption. How do we read and process art in order to recognize its inherent vulnerability? How do we reconcile what we portray versus what actually happened, at least to us or the folks we’re documenting? Is truth something that can actually be achieved in writing?
Heavy left me with more to think on as a writer, editor, and person, as did my conversation with Laymon. The strength and potency of his writing lies in his projection of a moment so real it hits the reader in the gut. But also the revelation of such truths through his writing encourages the reader (aka consumer) to not only do better as a scribe but in who we are as participants and observers. To me, the best prose doesn’t just reflect, it acknowledges and attempts to reconcile. Heavy may not be a book meant to provide answers or a clear path to reconciliation with family, Blackness, weight, or class among other things. But it sheds light to a truth that many of us know quite intimately and personally, and were able to grasp on to tightly, thankful for its existence.
Jennifer Baker: I do think everything is generational, passed down, so to speak. From a personal a level you mentioned you wanted to write a lie. So, when it comes to approaching nonfiction, I say the word “honesty” and “truth” but then when I heard you [at Tin House] it made me think “Well, dang. Are we getting at honesty or truth” or just an honesty and truth that works for us? I feel like art is trying to help us get to that answer, but I also feel like Heavy has no resolution. This isn’t the Disney-fied version of a Black boy’s life.
Kiese Laymon: Nah. And I understand why people want those endings. What I was saying at the beginning of that book is my mama wants that ending. And whether or not she really wants that ending in real life, she wants to read that ending. And then she also wants to read her son creating a narrative that has that ending.
So the lies that my mama wants me to create a narrative about our family that ends with everything being great. And everybody valuing where we been, but not too much just looking forward. And I want to write that shit too. I just think that’s bullshit though. I don’t know what truth actually is, but I know what honest attempts at reckoning are. I’m not saying I’m writing honesty, I think I’m attempting to honestly reckon, which is the difference. At the end of that honest reckoning, maybe some people might call it truth. I wouldn’t call it truth but I would call it an attempt. I think sometimes we know when we’re honestly attempting to reckon, honestly attempting to remember, honestly attempting to render. As opposed to when we’re attempting to manipulate. And even in those honest attempts it can be full of lies.
I’m not saying I’m writing honesty, I think I’m attempting to honestly reckon, which is the difference.
When I first started this book it was just gonna be about my mom and grandmama, about their experiences with sexual violence and food and all of that. I was really interested in the words they used to evade what I thought was honesty, or honest reckoning. At some point I asked my grandmama, “You just said something that you and I both know is not true. Why’d you say that?” And she said, “Because you’re writing it in a book, Kie. What you want me to do, tell you the truth?” And at that point I thought, I probably need to write back to y’all. Because I’m not trying to burden you with these white folk and telling all these other people who might read this book and tell all these black folks in different communities your business. But after listening to y’all for like a year and a half let me write back to you and tell you what I experienced. And that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be honest, but it was an honest attempt, you know?
JB: I was on a panel about trauma [writing] at Slice. And in talking, people really wanted to get an idea of how much trauma is too much? How do I approach trauma? There’s no really finite way to say, well this is how to expertly and wisely and considerately express your trauma on the page. But then I think that’s what separates the art from commerce. Art can be commercial, but I feel like there’s a very clear difference between commerce and art. Maybe it’s in the intention, maybe more than the product itself? But I worry about it because this is traumatic. Reading brings out the concern of: Is the writer okay, along with am I consuming this in a way that is ethical myself as a reader?
KL: That’s the question, right? I sort of think people talk about ethical creation, ethical writing a lot. But what does ethical readership look like? Of course I realize at some point that people are gonna talk a lot about trauma in the book. I don’t know if I use that word in the book, I definitely try not to use that word…
JB: Not really, no.
KL: Because I wanted to write a book that didn’t rely on specific words like that. Even though specific words are the basis for it. But yeah, my point is fam is that I don’t know how in this nation how anybody can be okay? I just don’t. That doesn’t mean there’s not joy, that doesn’t mean there’s not radical liberatory community and bonding. But the idea that we’re always even searching for an okay, and searching for a deliverance, and searching for this kind of progress narrative is part of why we’re not okay. And part of why people have to say they’re okay when they’re not.
The idea that we’re always even searching for an okay, and searching for a deliverance, and searching for this kind of progress narrative is part of why we’re not okay.
I think people are right to worry about the writer on something like this. But I’m right too to worry about every reader for something like this. And I think the two have to meet. But to go back to your question, the scary part is that the two meet at this part of commerce. I’m talking about this shit now as if it’s art that is free of slick marketing and all of that, but it’s a product. In my heart I think that the monetization is necessary because of the communities we come from. Because I’m gonna use the money I get from this to take care of myself and take care of my family and take care of other vulnerable people I know. But at the same time something is lost, I think, when it’s sort of transactional. And then not only is it transactional but I created a Black-ass piece of art. And I love my editor and I love my agent. I really do love them like they family and they’re white. And the people that they work for are white people. I don’t delude myself, I don’t think that in any way this shit is pure. Just because I’m creating Black art from a Black place for Black people. But what does it mean that there are so many white hands involved in the actual packaging and delivery of it? I don’t have the answers, but I think about what it means a lot.
JB: Going back to writing. We seek out how to write and I really try to reconcile how I was taught to read. But it was more Dickensian, Huck Finn, Moby Dick. I don’t know that even today if people know how to [really] read. And do people know how to read us? By “us” I mean marginalized people.
KL: For sure. I don’t think even we know how to read us.
KL: Maybe we do. I’ve taught classes where my Black students, amazing Black students, were like “I don’t feel comfortable reading this in this class.” Really what they’re saying is: I don’t feel comfortable being watched reading this. And having white people interpret this art that wasn’t meant for them. I’m torn because pushing through some kind of uncomfortability is what all artists have to do. And again I’m gonna argue that there’s an art to learning how to rigorously read. Sometimes I think we do this thing where we think people who read a lot are better or more moral or less fucked up. We know that the architects of this empire read a lot of books, which tells you that reading books in and of itself isn’t like some moral deliverance. You can’t convince me that people who read a lot of books are better than people who don’t. But I think there’s a kind of liberatory kind of reading and watching that we can hone and that we can encourage.
Beyond all the family stuff, beyond what people call trauma, my book is about reading and writing. I wrote that book because my mama made my ass read and write all the time. But the stuff she made me read and write was not stuff that was going to encourage me to push beyond a particular surface. She wanted me to read and write to protect myself from white folks. I always say the first really dope Black book I read was a biography on Langston Hughes. Then the first real real Black book that my mama did not even encourage me to read was her favorite book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. And I remember reading that reminded me of the first time I saw Michael Jackson moonwalk. And I was like “Damn, you can do this right here on a page?” It’s sort of antiquated to talk about Zora Neale Hurston but I still think people don’t appreciate what she did. I definitely think liberatory reading practices are something we need to get better at. And I think you do that by creating radical, dope, liberatory art. And I think Black art.
You can’t convince me that people who read a lot of books are better than people who don’t. But I think there’s a kind of liberatory kind of reading and watching that we can hone and that we can encourage.
JB: When I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school I didn’t like it. But I think it was because I was taught this is what “proper” English is. Then when you plunk down Zora Neale Hurston amongst John Steinbeck, she stands out. And it may stand out in a way that is: I really am tethered to this, or it may stand out in a way that is oppositional to what I was made to believe. I read it again and that I wasn’t even my favorite Hurston book — I really enjoy her short stories and Dust Tracks on the Road. Then I read more and more and I thought, “Oh, I really like what she’s doing here.” But it goes back to no one taught me how to do that. If I didn’t go back to [Hurston] I don’t think I would’ve appreciated her as much.
KL: Oh, absolutely! That’s what I’m saying about that re-reading. I wrote this book to my mama because she taught me how to read. And I wrote the book the way I wrote it because I was trying not to become her or my father. But it’s the re-reading and the rewriting that I’m most grateful for more than anything else my mama ever gave me. She did teach me early that you haven’t read anything if you’ve only read it once. And you probably haven’t written anything that’s worth being read if you’ve only written it once. I think on a basic level that’s not the fantasy, that’s not gonna make everything better for us. But that is necessary. And I think about how love works. You revisit things you love. People say you love people, they want to see them again. They want to talk to them, like over and over and over again. I’m always interested when people say “Oh I love this book and they only read that shit one time.” Or you love a painting but you only saw it one time. It just can’t work that way, you know. You might really like something in it, but you don’t even know what’s going on if you see it one time, I don’t think.
JB: You said in Heavy specifically that “revision is practice.”
KL: Yeah, I think so. But everything that I was taught about art was from my school. It wasn’t about practice, it was about product. It was about writing that 5-paragraph essay to get that A.
KL: Yeah. And I appreciate my teachers and think they’re underpaid and think they were tremendously undervalued. AndI guess they were trying to get at discovery when they would call it free-writing. But the idea that you can use words to discover what you forget, or discover what you imagine was just something that I never had a teacher tell me that in high school or even in college. Like you gotta write to discover what actually happened. And you don’t have to because a lot of people can’t write and don’t write. They have different recovery practices, different ways to remember, different ways to imagine that don’t entail the writing. But for me, I can’t understand anything I’ve experienced unless I write it a few times. And then that’s the thing about honesty and truth, in the rewriting of it you’re changing it every time you write it. Which means, Is it true? I don’t know. But I know that I’m attempting to honestly reckon and remember. I don’t know if it’s truth. But I can just try to tell you that the attempt has a lot of integrity, hopefully.