By Jean Fain
The heroine is the news in “Dietland,” the new novel by Sarai Walker. That’s because she’s got the rarest of qualities in a female protagonist: She’s fat.
Also, she has next to no sense of self, and expects to remain selfless until she can afford weight-loss surgery and find her true self as a thin person. In the meantime, Plum Kettle, our heroine, works as a ghostwriter for the slender, glamorous and self-absorbed editor of a teen magazine called Daisy Chain. In short, Plum’s got no life of her own.
Plum’s transformation from fat girl to full-bodied rebel with a cause is the narrative arc of Walker’s provocative and insightful book. Like “Alice in Wonderland,” Plum’s sense of self gets turned on its head by a cast of oddball characters, from the daughter of a famous diet guru and her feminist cohort to a murderous terrorist cell of women avenging crimes against women. When the daughter of the diet guru offers Plum $20,000 to postpone her surgery and confront the real costs of beauty, the plot and subplot blend and thicken.
Despite the rave reviews from my inner circle and the world at large, I didn’t expect to be drawn in by the writing. But, truth be told, it’s fresh, playful and sometimes hilarious: The parody of the diet industry is spot on. I also didn’t expect to be touched by the rejection and humiliation the 300+ pound Plum encounters along the way to finding herself.
Most unexpected of all: I kind of looked forward to spending my evenings with a fictional someone desperately seeking weight loss. Generally, if I’m desperate for anything at the end of the day with clients (I’m a therapist specializing in eating disorders and food issues), it’s non-diet-related downtime.
I can’t say I always loved reading “Dietland.” Violence, even when served as Walker serves it — with sarcasm and panache — isn’t my cup of tea. I also had trouble swallowing the meanness of the male characters, and the complete self-acceptance of the female ones. And yet, my curiosity kept me turning all 307 pages. I wanted to know if Plum would live more happily ever after. Plus, I wanted to discuss the book with members of my mindful eating support group. (“Dietland” is the group’s first unofficial book club selection.)
At the same time, I kept reading between the lines to learn the author’s story. From the book-jacket flap, I knew Walker writes from professional experience. Before she did her doctoral research on the feminist issue that is fat, she wrote about body image for “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the feminist classic by the Boston Women’s Health Collective.
From the author photo, I also knew Walker is a fat woman. And yet, combing through the reviews and interviews, I could find very little about Walker’s personal experience with food and body image issues.
The therapist in me really wanted to know if Walker, like Plum, had tried and failed to lose weight over and again? If she’d been a victim of fat shaming and stigma? If she’d been discriminated against because of her appearance? What was Walker’s story?
My curiosity moved me to set up a Skype interview with the NYC-based author. What follows are questions and answers from that recent interview with Sarai (pronounced SUH-ray) Walker.
JF: You seem to know a lot about food and body image issues even though you’re not a medical person or scientist. What can you tell me about your personal experience in this arena?
SW: Well, I’m a fat woman, and so I think one of the reasons I wanted to write “Dietland” is I wanted to explore what it’s like to be a fat woman in our contemporary society because I think, while there are some novels with fat heroines, I feel like there aren’t any novels that explore the issue in a serious way. Continue reading