Heavy Book Talk sparks community conversations

A community discussion of the book, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” was held by the Public Events Committee and the Diversity and Intercultural Center on Monday, Jan. 18, in honor of the 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service (MLK Day). 

The event was publicized in Fall Term, and people who registered for the event had requested and received the book’s hardcopy or electronic copy so they could read it in advance.  

About 110 participants, including students, alumni, faculty and staff, attended the session. Twenty breakout rooms led by volunteer discussion leaders were opened for small group discussion regarding the content of “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon, author and Hubert H. McAlexander Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. Volunteer leaders hosted a 40-minute discussion in each break-out room, using question samples provided by the book’s publisher, according to Allison Fleshman, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Public Events Committee. 

The session started and ended with Laymon’s pre-recorded readings of the first and last passages of “Heavy.” After the last line, “I am just trying to put us where we bend,” was read, all participants were given a two-minutes to sit in silence and reflect on the book, discussion and the day of service.  

When freshman Allison Juarez Wunderlin, one of the student discussion leaders, was reading “Heavy,” she questioned whether she would be able to lead a discussion regarding the content of the book.  

“Its content was so shocking, raw and brutally honest about the racial biases, abuse, sexism and hate that plagues America,” Juarez Wunderlin said. “I wondered how I would be able to lead a discussion on a book that exposes such dark places in American life.”  

However, as Juarez Wunderlin continued her reading in the first chapter of the book, she realized the necessity to engage in the community’s conversation regarding social injustice. She determined that the harsh honesty portrayed by Laymon was what the community should discuss and internalize.  

“[What we need is] a vulnerable honesty that has the power to expose issues we prefer to keep hidden and inspire conversations about our reality that are difficult to talk about but absolutely need to be addressed,” Juarez Wunderlin said. 

As the community book read came to an end, Fleshman encouraged the Lawrence community to reflect on their participation experience on MLK Day.  

“I hope [students] use the day of service not only to serve others but also to serve themselves…and have the personal reflection as well as the external time,” Fleshman said. 

Laymon will also be giving a speech entitled “The Radical Possibility and Democratic Necessity of Navel Gazing” via virtual platform on Jan. 28 for the University Convocation series. Students will have the opportunity to participate in a public question and answer session with Laymon on the same day.