Just as I was getting accustomed to the flowers blooming and the warm air brushing against my ears as I rode my bike around Ann Arbor, it snowed this morning. As unexpected of a sight as it was, it was the perfect excuse to stay inside. As I logged off from my last class for the day, I had enough time to wrap myself up in a blanket and tune into the final Zell Visiting Writers Series event of the semester.
Presented by the Helen Zell Writers Program with the support of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, this past Thursday the program hosted the critically acclaimed author Kiese Laymon, whose book “Heavy: An American Memoir” was named one of the best books of 2018 by The New York Times. A polyvalent author working on a broad array of projects — from children’s books to films — Laymon gifted the webinar’s audience with food for thought and a thirst for making sense of a world that makes little sense.
The event began with a brief introduction by Poetry MFA candidate Caroline New. New recalled having been in awe of the “rawness, the humility and sincerity” that Laymon put into both his writing and community from the moment she met him. Laymon thanked New for her “dexterous introduction,” as he put it, and began an engaging reading of two of his essays.
I was bundled up in a blanket, but it wasn’t enough to pacify the prickly goosebumps I got listening to his essay “City Summer, Country Summer.” I found myself tensing my shoulders, wrapping my arms around my stomach and bringing my legs closer to my body in a manner reminiscent of when you spend too much time outside during a Michigan winter. That feeling, however, quickly turned into fervor. I was hooked — following his sonic descriptions of Mississippi’s woods, grandmama’s garden and a game of Marco Polo, I wanted to know more.
“City Summer, Country Summer” is a nostalgic memoir of Black boyhood allegorized with two young boys: the country boy, Mississippi, and the visitor, New York: two different realities, yet with so much in common.
The next piece Laymon read was first published by Vanity Fair in November 2020, a collection of five “ekphrastic essays” published under the title “Now Here We Go Again, We See the Crystal Visions.” These essays are odes to the simple happenings in life that gave Laymon faith among the chaos and solitude of the pandemic: a skateboarder singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” a classroom of 68 high school seniors, a bittersweet encounter with a curbside server at a Thai restaurant and reflections inspired by Adrienne Rich’s “Blood, Bread, and Poetry.”
I longed for a moment of silence after the reading of “Now Here We Go Again, We See the Crystal Visions,” some time to recollect all the emotions I felt in my gut. I was stirred by lines like “the nation insists on treating them as expendable at best, and big-hearted collateral damage at worst” when speaking of the high school seniors, and prickled by the apprehension that “I’ve done all of this not simply in the hopes of feeling good, but because I long to feel less like we are going to die tomorrow.”
The webinar then turned into a Q&A with LSA English professor Cody Walker, whose amiable personality felt like an extra layer of warmth. His questions launched a succession of great answers, and it felt precisely as Walker had intended: “I want to ask these as if we are walking and conversing down the street.”
Laymon’s answers kept tracing back to one specific action: revision — being self-aware of our actions, asking more of ourselves but also of those around us. Laymon mentioned that one ought to be aware of the damage he can do as well as the wonder he can create — to truly hear someone, to give a voice to the people in his community in Jackson, Miss., who had had theirs stripped away.
Laymon mentioned his grandmother, without whom his memoir would have far less substance. It was because of her that Laymon began writing in the first place, and for her that he created the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative, a program that aims to get Mississippi kids and their parents immersed in the world of reading, writing, revising and sharing.
As different as we all are, Laymon made me feel like we all, in some way or another, share universal modes of being, like how sometimes we are too self-critical, and that it is hard not to be in this fast-paced, capitalist world. But being self-critical is also “a place where, before you know it, you believe only bad things about yourself,” and looking back is a good thing as long as you don’t let the worst thing you have done define and consume you.
As someone who constantly lives in her head, this sentiment of giving yourself grace served as a reassurance — an exercise to observe the things that I am proud of and to relish the moments of life that I tend to overlook as insignificant. I felt a glimmer of hope among the heavy truths Laymon was preaching.
I was struck by the ending of the second essay Laymon read, which left me hanging with the line, “Everything, finally, is lost.” Although a pensive claim, it didn’t feel particularly distressing. It is true, we come and we go, we do and we don’t, we hurt and we heal.
I am grateful for the Zell Writers Series for having introduced me to such incredible authors throughout this semester, and for every time it made me think and rethink parts of life, love and me.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.