— From the pages of FLL#36 • Photo by Drew Reilly
From the time we are young, we know the popular refrain by heart, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Yet, it was the quirky, colorful cover of Sarai Walker’s novel, Dietland, which initially had me hooked. The cover is sweet, yet subversive, featuring a sprinkle-covered cupcake fused with a grenade on top of a bright blue background. It is rare that the design of a book matches the content as perfectly as Walker’s novel. This is a feminist novel which simultaneously tells a compelling story about a group of characters for which the reader truly cares, while providing social commentary on body image and positivity, gender inequality, and the beauty industry, among other equally fascinating topics. Even if gender theory is not usually found on your reading list, be sure to give Dietland a chance. It is truly a fun, thoughtful literary wonder. Fine Living Lancaster magazine spoke with Sarai Walker about her novel, Fight Club, and the word “fat.”
Fine Living Lancaster: How did Dietland come to be? What were some of your influences, informing personal experiences, etcetera for the novel?
Sarai Walker: Dietland took shape over a period of several years. I first had the idea to write a novel after I saw the film Fight Club. I loved its angry, defiant, punk spirit. I knew I wanted to write something like that for women, but I had no idea what the novel would actually be about. A few years later, while pursuing my M.F.A. in creative writing at Bennington College, I wrote a short story about a young fat woman who works at a teen magazine. I had never written anything like this before, particularly about the experience of being fat. It felt riskier than anything I’d ever written, which was exhilarating. I soon realized that this short story should become the foundation of the novel idea I’d been thinking about. My abstract idea now had a heroine and a heart. Balancing these two elements—the influence of Fight Club with an exploration of more traditional “women’s concerns”—was one of the primary challenges of writing Dietland.
FLL: Why do you think we are all so afraid of the word “fat?”
SW: We’re afraid of fat bodies, so fear of the word “fat” is a natural byproduct of that. We live in a society where fat is considered one of the worst things a person can be, particularly for women, so of course the word “fat” itself is a dirty word and a potent insult. We use euphemisms such as overweight, obese, curvy, plump, etcetera, yet fat activists are reclaiming “fat” as a neutral or positive adjective. It’s liberating to say this taboo word and to not be ashamed of it. Being able to use the word “fat” without any negative connotations is necessary in ending fat shame and stigma.
FLL: There has been a great deal of discussion on feminism in the media recently. Where do you think your novel fits in?
SW: There have certainly been some high-profile feminist books lately by writers including Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay, Caitlin Moran, and so on. The popularity of these books and the media interest in them is encouraging, but they’re all non-fiction. Dietland is different because it’s a novel. Explicitly feminist novels are almost non-existent these days, which is too bad, because fiction can do things non-fiction can’t. For example, in Dietland I imagined what would happen if a group of feminist avengers began to attack misogynists in our society. A novelist isn’t constrained by what’s actually happening in the world, but can use “what if ” scenarios that can be powerful for readers.
FLL: Who are some of your literary influences?
SW: Virginia Woolf is probably my favorite writer. I love that she was a master of both fiction and non-fiction, and that her non-fiction was radically feminist, particularly Three Guineas. Other writers who have influenced me include Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Jose Saramago, and many others.
FLL: What film, music, or other aspects of pop culture have played a role in shaping your work?
SW: Dietland has two narratives, the main narrative about a fat woman named Plum, and the secondary narrative about the “Jennifer” group of feminist avengers. Pop culture influenced each in different ways. The “Jennifer” narrative was influenced by film, particularly the aforementioned Fight Club, but also Thelma & Louise and Inglourious Basterds. As I was writing Dietland, I saw the “Jennifer” plot cinematically in my head. As for Plum’s narrative, almost everything about fat people that exists in our popular culture is negative, toxic, and insulting, so I wasn’t inspired by much of anything. Rather, I wanted to explore reality of life as a fat woman in a new way and push back against all the negative things we see.
FLL: Your protagonist, Plum, works for a teen fashion magazine. What are your thoughts on women’s interest magazines? What impact do you think they have on young women?
SW: I was an avid reader of these magazines when I was younger. I also wrote for magazines such as Seventeen and Mademoiselle in my twenties. Nowadays I don’t read these magazines unless I’m at the hair salon or dentist’s office. I think there can be serious articles in magazines like this, but for the most part they exist to sell products. In order to do that, they must emphasize—and in some cases create— “problems” that women feel compelled to fix by purchasing things. Women’s magazines and websites are a driving force in turning women’s bodies into projects which need constant upkeep and repair.
FLL: Do you think it is possible to consume and enjoy some aspects of pop culture discussed somewhat negatively in your novel (i.e. women’s magazines, pornography, etcetera) and still consider one’s self a feminist?
SW: Our popular culture is filled with sexism. It exists in practically everything, so if we limit ourselves to feminist-friendly magazines, books, films, TV shows, and music, we’d have very few options for entertainment. I don’t think being a feminist means having a list of approved behaviors. Rather, I think one of the things that feminists do is interpret the world around us, as well as our own behavior, through a feminist lens. This allows us to be critical consumers of pop culture.
FLL: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
SW: I hope in ten years to have published another novel, maybe two. It took me ages to write Dietland, but I am hopeful that not every book I write will require so many years of my life!