Sarai Walker on writing characters who tackle queerness and body image issues in “Dietland”

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I remember the first time I realized I was fat. It was in third grade, and I was running up the stairs to my classroom, and I felt my belly jiggle. That was it. One small jiggle. Nobody said anything to me, at least not for a few years, but something was changing in the way I thought about myself. I’d watch my thighs squish out when I sat down; I’d compare my waist diameter to the other girls’ in my class. It was around this same time that I realized I liked girls. This, too, I buried deep within me, to be known but not acknowledged, for years. Somehow I knew that these things were undesirable, that there was something ugly about me. As a teenager I drowned in oversized clothes, trying desperately to hide the body I thought was so hideous. No one must be allowed to see all the terrible things I’d hidden.

So many of us have been there. Everyone, especially women, struggles with body image, and so many queer women feel compelled to hide their truths for fear of rejection. We see so many images of stick-thin or impossibly voluptuous people and can’t imagine how our flawed selves could compare. We poke and pinch, suck it in, starve it out, try to shame ourselves skinny, because society tells us that fat is the worst thing we could possibly be.

It’s into this space that Sarai Walker directs her novel Dietland. The novel’s protagonist, Plum Kettle, is a fat woman who has spent her whole life waiting to be thin. She spends her days answering angst-ridden mail from teen girls writing in to their favorite fashion magazines; she’s unhappy, and she’s alone. Suddenly she notices she’s being followed by a young woman in colorful tights and combat boots, and a confrontation and a mysterious book later, Plum finds herself enmeshed in the world of Verena Baptist and her house of feminists, artists and activists. At the same time, a guerrilla group calling itself Jennifer begins a string of violent acts in the name of women everywhere. As Plum struggles to love herself and to understand what happened to her, the violence escalates until Plum’s individual journey and the guerrilla group’s actions become more and more entwined.

dietland

For me, reading Dietland was powerfully cathartic. I’ve felt so much shame about my body, and shame about my unhealthy relationship to food and exercise, and reading Plum’s thoughts showed me that I’m not alone. Dietland spoke to me in allegory too: a queer reading of the text reminds us that our own interior dialogue can be so damaging, whether it’s about weight, sexuality, gender expression, race, class or ability. As a feminist, I’ve long believed that every body is a good body, but those beliefs never seemed to carry over to how I saw myself. Until, that is, I read this book.

With Plum, I let go of my self-hatred, and with Plum I got angry. Angry at fashion magazines for setting impossible standards, angry with men for objectifying me on so many street corners, angry with women for the harmful rhetoric we share with one another about our own struggles. Dietland isn’t an explicitly lesbian book (although there is some girl-on-girl smooching!) but it speaks so clearly to the experience of outsiderness that goes along with being gay.

I was lucky enough to interview Sarai Walker, author of Dietland, about the book.

AfterEllen: We so often see self-love as this fluffy pink aesthetic, but you chose to portray self-love as violent and aggressive. Why did you make that choice?

Sarai Walker: Plum’s story is rooted in Fat Activism, and that’s a very radical movement. Sometimes in the Body Positivity community, they don’t have the radicalness that Fat Activism has. I think that when celebrities who very much conform to our ideals of what women should look like, that’s body positivity for most people. And that’s not very threatening. But if you have a 300-pound woman like Plum learning to love her body and accept her body, that’s much different. The whole concept of a woman like that saying there’s nothing wrong with my body, that in itself is very radical in a way that a lot of body positivity stuff we see just isn’t.

 

AE: Speaking as someone who’s struggled with these same issues, I know how hard it is to get out of toxic thought patterns. In your writing process, you must have had to completely embody those thoughts. I can’t imagine how challenging that must have been.

SW: Yeah, it was a very difficult book to write. People look at the more wild aspects of it and think, oh, it must have been so fun to write about Jennifer and all that, but the whole novel was very emotionally difficult to write. Every day there was some moment of exhilaration, it wasn’t all misery, but it was hard! As a first-person narrator, I’m in Plum’s mind, which especially in the first half of the book is not as easy place to be. It was hard to inhabit her headspace, but it wasn’t hard to summon up because I’ve been through it all myself. I’ve had those feelings myself. So I was writing what I knew.

 

AE: It’s pretty brave actually, to write that experience.

SW: Yeah, it’s hard, especially because people assume it’s me. Women’s writing is so often interpreted as autobiographical, and aspects of Dietland are, but it’s hard when people don’t separate me from Plum.

SW by Theresa Lee IIphotos by Theresa Lee III 

AE: Of course, but that said, people who inhabit fat bodies, as well as people who have other non-normative identities, have a different perspective on society. The women of Calliope House are outsiders in a lot of different ways, because of their bodies or their sexuality or any number of other things, and there’s power in that, right?

SW: bell hooks has written that being on the margins can be a place of power. But being on the margins is also hard. That’s a perspective I embrace now, but it’s hard: some people are more equipped than others to embrace the power of a marginal identity.

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