Dietland, Sarai Walker’s debut novel, is angry (and perhaps angering), feminist, satirical and hilarious. The novel begins with Plum Kettle, 300 pounds of misery. She has a closet full of clothes she’ll wear post-surgery when her life will really begin. Soon, Plum is inducted into Calliope House, a feminist collective that actively resists the beauty standards shoved down all of our throats. Oh, and there’s a guerrilla terrorist movement, out to wreck the world they see as mistreating women.
Sarai Walker, like her novel, is somewhat angry, feminist and hilarious. I talked to her about the book, why she proudly wears the label “fat,” and how terrorists out for vengeance can’t only kill who we want them to.
Kayla Tanenbaum: I loved how angry Dietland is. I feel that women can’t be angry, especially feminists, if we want to get our message across. It was refreshing to read a book that’s comfortable with its anger.
Sarai Walker: If women really let themselves get angry at all the horror that happens to women it would become all-consuming anger and it would be very scary. I think a lot of women don’t want to go there, so it’s easier to keep it at a distance. It could affect your relationships with the men in your family, the men you work with. It’s partly that it’s not socially acceptable. Women who are angry get chastised. People say, “You’re not attractive when you’re angry.”
KT: How much of you is in the book?
SW: Well, I’m fat. I used what it’s like to be living in a marginalized body to create a character that’s separate from me. There’s also a lot in this novel satirizing news. It’s funny because sometimes people say how exaggerated the novel is—this guy on Amazon was responding to the part of the novel outside the frat where the guys are shouting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!”—and he said, “That would never happen.” They must not be paying attention.
KT: What was the impetus to start writing the book?
SW: When I saw Fight Club, I loved that it had an angry, punk, defiant spirit. There wasn’t much like that for women. It made me wonder how we do violence to our bodies. The men fight each other to prove their manhood, but what kind of violence do women do? I started thinking about how dieting was really a form of violence, and all these beauty rituals that women do, which can cause bleeding and swelling, cutting the skin. That’s where it started, but it took a long time to evolve into a novel.
KT: Can you expand on your relationship and the book’s relationship to the word “fat”?
SW: I’ve been in fat acceptance movements where people use this word, so I don’t really think about it anymore. But people would react really weirdly when I would say it. Fat-activists use the word to de-stigmatize the word and by extension, the fat body. That’s important. The word “fat” is almost unspeakable unless it’s an insult. It shows how far we have to go. If I can’t even say the word, what does it mean to have a fat body?
KT: You have a PhD and an MFA. Coming at this from an academic background as well an aesthetic background as well as a personal background, how do these different avenues influence the book or how you think about these issues?
SW: As much as I enjoy reading feminist theory and doing my own research and academic writing, when writing the book, I had to push that aside to inhabit this fictional realm that’s driven by character. Of course, the personal is political. There’s no separation. It infuses everything that we do, especially when writing about a fat woman—a fat body is a political body. I’ve had people get upset at some things some of the characters do in the novel from an activist perspective. In real life, people do things that disappoint us. If you read a novel and agreed with all of the things all of the characters do, how boring would that be?
KT: In literature as much as in life, women can’t be fucked up. It brings to mind the likeability issue. The women in this book aren’t perfect activists or perfect feminists, and that’s a feminist act as well.
SW: People have been upset that the Jennifer character is a murderer. Does she have to be likable as a terrorist and only kill the kind of victims that the reader wants her to kill? What’s wrong with being uncomfortable as a reader? I think it’s good to be conflicted about what she’s doing. People say, “Why did she do that?” I say, “Because she’s a murder and she’s on a killing-spree.” [Laughs]
KT: What would you say your project is, besides just writing a good book?
SW: I want to achieve consciousness-raising. We live in this world where, legally, women have achieved almost equality with men—not quite with reproductive rights—but in most ways, we have equal rights. Yet there are still these horrible things such as violence against women, objectification of women that don’t seem to stop happening. This way of seeing the world, a law can never change. Particularly a fat woman who reads this, who’s always felt ashamed of herself, who’s always internalized all of the messages we get about fat bodies. Maybe she’ll see the world differently. I know a woman who is very thin, naturally, and she said she had never really understood what it was like to be fat until she read the book. That’s my ideal response, someone reading the novel and helping them see reality and interpret their experience in a different way.
KT: Thinking specifically about young women, readers of both Man Repeller and Dietland, is there a message you would tailor to them?
SW: I know it’s hard, but try not to focus so much on the idea of fuckability, that we have to be pleasing to men by the way we look and act. I want to emphasize the idea of trying to define yourself outside of those parameters. It’s a game that we play that we’re never going to win, and we waste so much energy trying. If I could go back in time and take back all the effort I put in in trying to lose weight, all the time hating myself, if I had that time and energy back, I would have achieved so much more in life already.
Another thing I’d love would be to get young women to look at fat-acceptance movements, even if they’re not fat. These movements can really challenge our ideas about the body. I wish women of all sizes would look at them and learn about their own bodies, their own prejudices.
Get your copy of ‘Dietland’ by Sarai Walker here; photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.