"Heavy" and Inclusive Intimacy
Kiese Laymon's Heavy: An American Memoir is about being black, male, heavy, brilliant with words, and growing up in Mississippi. It's devastating to read—in a good way. I'd like to talk about a beautiful moment of friendship in the book.
In one scene, Kiese discovers that he weighs 228 pounds in front of his whole basketball team. The coach teases him about it and the team laughs. A little while later Kiese's friend, LaThon, also starts to tease Kiese about his weight, but then we get a wonderful moment.
"Everybody trippin' because you weigh like twenty-six more pounds than Michael Jordan, but you like eight inches shorter?"
I didn't say anything.
"… You ain't gross. You know that, right? You ain't gross…"
And then LaThon says it again.
"You ain't gross. You hear me? You you."
In a short moment of silence, LaThon has noticed his friend's feelings and empathized with them deeply. Then he cares enough about his friend to reassure him.
I might have cried a little bit at this point in the book. This moment of empathetic and caring friendship is intensely beautiful. It was also a surprise to me—one that made me question my understanding of race and gender. I was even angry at myself and at the literature I usually read that I would feel such surprise. It's rare to read about truly deep connections in any sort of platonic friendship. It's more unusual to see it between two boys than between two girls. And it's especially rare, at least in my reading, which is likely limited, to see such a deep level of feeling depicted in black boys.
So how does it work? First, it's a dramatic moment in the dialogue, a moment when the scene shifts, a moment of change. LaThon has been thinking and talking one way, but he suddenly switches direction. On some level, the reader is going to notice such a shift, even if it's subtle, even if it's only the subconscious that is acutely aware.
It's important to look for what makes the shift happen. Why does LaThon change his mood and style of speaking in the middle of this conversation? Well, between LaThon's teasing and his caring, are the words "I didn't say anything." Kiese is not speaking in that moment. But it's not the same as just letting LaThon rattle on. The words create a pause in the conversation, and a space for silence. We think about why Kiese is not speaking.
LaThon reads the silence, too. We don't know exactly what the narrator's expression or body language is. Perhaps we can't know. After all, it would be unnatural for him to describe his own face in that moment. But we feel the silence just like LaThon does and we understand that it is a moment of connection between the two boys. From the silence and whatever facial expression, body language, or telepathy that we don’t see, LaThon realizes that this is not a light joke for his friend. He understands that Kiese is hurt by the teasing and worried that he might be "gross."
Of course, the repetition of the word "gross" tells us that it's important. The reader already knows that. For this analysis, we need to go back a little bit to understand the meaning of the LaThon's reassurance, and especially the significance of "gross."
On an earlier day, LaThon and Kiese are lectured by a teacher about the hygiene of another black student, who they are expected to coach to smell better. The teacher repeatedly uses the word "gross."
"I’m not saying anything about”—she used her hands to make air quotes—“‘stank’ or washcloths. I’m saying some people think Jabari is just gross."
We've also already learned about the way Kiese and LaThon play with language, creating their own meanings and emphasis for the words they use. Here are some examples of that.
We intentionally used and misused last year’s vocabulary words.
“Mee-guh,” we said to each other. “Meager,” the opposite of LaThon’s favorite word, was my favorite word at the end of seventh grade. We used different pronunciations of meager to describe people, places, things, and shhhtyles that were at least eight levels less than nothing.
In the moment with the teacher, Kiese and LaThon silently determine a special meaning to the word "gross."
Worse than any cuss word we could imagine, “gross” existed on the other side of what we considered abundant. And in the world we lived in and loved, everyone black was in some way abundant.
It's hard for anyone other than these two to understand precisely what their meaning of "gross" is, but it's loaded with race and power (or the lack of it). Their understanding of the word requires everything it means to be the particular human beings that they are in that moment. It takes the whole story (which I probably shouldn't quote in full) to explain. It is so much more than the dictionary definition.
And so this special meaning of the word "gross," known only to Kiese and LaThon, intensifies the intimacy of the moment. Even if the scene weren't about caring, it's a moment when they share a secret understanding. LaThon reads Kiese's mind and feelings to know that he's worried about something that is unnamable, but that these boys have named, just in a way known to no one else. He knows Kiese is thinking of a word understood by only the two of them. Then LaThon voices that word, and uses it in a way that only Kiese can comprehend.
It's significant that Laymon does the hard work of definition, both in establishing a friendship that reinvents words, and including a scene in which a specific meaning is created, even before we get this scene that uses the word "gross." The careful set up means that in the moment, we don't need the word explained, and we can experience its power without interruption.
That's critical to the way this scene works, and it's important to the craft of writing in general. It's very often a good idea to establish your secret language, your symbols, your magical objects, anything that has a different in-world meaning, before the important scene. Pulling the reader out of the moment to explain a thing is more likely to create distance than intimacy.
But beyond the "craft" of it, there's a generosity in Laymon's allowing the reader to be part of the intimacy. This tender moment did not have to be so inclusive of the reader. It especially did not have to include me, a white woman. (It's fine for a book not to be written for me!) A different strategy would be not to explain the boys' special understanding of "gross," creating a moment of exclusive intimacy instead of inclusive intimacy. The reader could very well watch the scene from the outside, without sharing the special knowledge of the two characters. If we didn't have the earlier scene with the teacher, we could still know, intellectually, the import of LaThon telling Kiese he is not gross. We just wouldn't feel it in the same way.
By teaching us a special definition of the word "gross," then using that word at precisely the right moment, and after the right silence, Laymon lets us into the shared world of these two boys. He lets us know it's a world that includes real friendship, empathy, and caring.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com