In his award-winning memoir “Heavy,” Kiese Laymon explores how the personal interweaves with the political in his own life as a Southern black man who has grappled with eating disorders and addictive gambling. He is also the author of the essay collection “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” and the novel “Long Division.”
Laymon is a professor of English and African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. He discusses his book at Boston College’s Lowell Humanities Series at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Gasson Hall.
BOOKS: What did you read this summer?
LAYMON: I’m a judge for the National Book Award for nonfiction. I can’t talk about those books until the awards are made but I can talk about the novels I read.
BOOKS: Can you say how many books you’ve had to read for the award?
LAYMON: About 600. There’s too many to keep in one place. I have them in my kitchen, my office, and my dining room. My sunroom is full of books. I believe in literary magic but I’m booked out right now.
BOOKS: What novels did you read?
LAYMON: I really liked Rion Amilcar Scott’s “The World Doesn’t Require You.” I also loved “American Spy” by Lauren Wilkinson, “Biloxi” by the Mississippi writer Mary Miller, and re-read Jesmyn Ward’s first book “Where the Line Bleeds.” Reginald Dwayne Betts’s forthcoming poetry collection “Felon” just stopped me in my tracks.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
LAYMON: The most interesting book I read all year was Tiffany Lethabo King’s “The Black Shoals,” which is about the many way indigenous folks and black folks have so much overlap.
BOOKS: Are there novels you think do a good job of depicting what it is like to be black in the United States?
LAYMON: These are so good because they don’t do that on purpose. Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi” and Darnell L. Moore’s “No Ashes in the Fire.” All three are very different books. One is about a black queer person in New Jersey. The Moody is about growing up during desegregation, and in the Morrison you see the texture of black relationships. I would also add Brittney Cooper’s essay collection, “Eloquent Rage.”
BOOKS: Who are your favorite memoir writers?
LAYMON: Alexander Chee, Samantha Irby, and Claire Vaye Watkins, who doesn’t write memoirs but her personal essays are incredible. Also Maya Angelou. People forget that she wrote many more memoirs than “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
BOOKS: What kind of books did you read as a kid?
LAYMON: My mother, who was a professor, made me read the classics, like Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” and all of Shakespeare. She thought then I’d have an easier time in school. I thought it was all boring. I wanted to read about black folks and southern people. I wanted to read Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks. Eventually I found James Baldwin, which changed my life, and then Richard Wright. My mother had thousands of books. Once she went to bed, I would take one off the shelf that I wanted to read.
BOOKS: What was the first book that spoke to you?
LAYMON: A biography about Langston Hughes written for kids. I read it at the library near my grandmother’s in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was supposed to be reading something else.
BOOKS: Do you have a lot of books?
LAYMON: Yes, but I also give a lot of books away. I had thousands and thousands when I taught at Vassar College and gave away all of them. I got this signed edition of Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and all I can think about is who can I give it to. I love giving books to people.
BOOKS: What other kind of books do you have?
LAYMON: I love to buy vegetarian cookbooks but I never read them. I think most people really just collect books. They don’t read them. I don’t have a problem with that. When I meet people who say they liked my book but I can tell they didn’t read it, I realize that they collected my book. I love that.