Joanna Whitehead reviews the new feminist revenge fantasy Dietland and chats with its author, Sarai Walker
Dietland, the debut novel by Sarai Walker, should be an awesome book. Plum Kettle (what a name!) is the unlikely fat heroine who moves from self-loathing and body hatred to self-acceptance, self-love and anger at the acute inequality of an image-obsessed culture. In the midst of this journey, a radical underground collective of women, known as “Jennifer”, become involved in vigilante acts against those who have harmed women. These two stories become intertwined with explosive results.
Described as a “feminist revenge fantasy”, the book will certainly speak to some feminists and those of us frustrated and angry about sexist injustice and bullshit beauty standards. Walker’s feminist knowledge is evident throughout, with many interesting perspectives and insights. Numerous thinly veiled cultural references also raise a smile, such as “Thinz”, a garment modelled on Spanx. When Plum complains that she can’t breathe, bend or sit whilst wearing the body-moulding attire, she is told, “A fuckable woman doesn’t take up space. Fuckable women are controlled. Fat women are not controlled. They are defiant, so they are unfuckable.” Pressing the matter, Plum asks, “What is the point of Thinz? If you appear more fuckable because of Thinz, and then some wants to…fuck you, then you go home and undress and everything just flops out. Won’t that lead to shock and disappointment? Maybe even despair?” In response, Plum is told, “Being a woman means being a faker.”
Towards the end of the book, two characters are discussing Jennifer’s activities, which they describe as follows:
I don’t think this is terrorism or lady terrorism. I think it’s a response to terrorism. From the time we’re little girls, we’re taught to fear the bad man who might get us. We’re terrified of being raped, abused, even killed by the bad man, but the problem is, you can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones, so you have to be wary of them all. We’re told not to go out by ourselves late at night, not to dress a certain way, not to talk to male strangers, not to lead men on. WE take self-defense (sic) classes, keep our doors locked, carry pepper spray and rape whistles. The fear of men is ingrained in us from girlhood. Isn’t that a form of terrorism?
Dietland certainly isn’t concerned with making its feminism palatable for a mainstream audience – and this is a good thing. It’s radical and unapologetic in its message. Reading through reviews on Goodreads, it’s clear that some readers struggled with this, however.
Whilst I didn’t, there were a few moments in the book that I did find questionable. The circumstances surrounding the death of a porn star, Stella, and her partner, made me very uncomfortable, as Stella’s career choice seemed to justify her unhappy demise. In discussing Stella’s ubiquity in mainstream culture, it’s noted that her name had been number one amongst baby girl names in Ghana for two years running: “People who had no idea that Stella Cross made her living on her back and on all fours like a dog knew her name.” I think I audibly exclaimed upon reading this. It struck me as a very disparaging and judgemental way to describe a person’s choice of career. I also wondered why the author felt that sex “on all fours” needed to be demeaned and compared to that of an animal. As someone who believes in assigning shame as far away from sex and women’s bodies and behaviour as possible, this section struck me as particularly retrograde. The policing of women’s sexual behaviour is not something I want to see from a book that calls itself feminist.
The book does offer an excellent, yet depressing insight into negotiating the world as a fat woman, however. At the beginning of the book, Plum tries to be invisible – and it’s not hard to see why. She is relentlessly mocked and abused for being fat and perpetually gawped at. This is before she attempts to eat anything publicly, which strikes me as an exercise in endurance and survival. She changes her route home to avoid men who sneer and dehumanise her and avoids most human interaction, assuming people only want to mistreat and mock her. Sadly, she’s not far wrong.
Dietland provides a refreshing and welcome perspective on this experience, however. At one point, Plum is described as strong – as a survivor – something she contests. Her companion explains: “It’s not easy to live in that body, is it? Not in this culture, with so many shitty, hateful people everywhere. You haven’t had an easy time of it. Anyone who can survive that is strong.”
Later on in the book, Plum reflects further on this:
I think there might be something good about being fat. Because I’m fat, I know how horrible everyone is. I if I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. It’s a special kind of power. I see past the mask to the real person underneath. I’m not living a lie like so many other women. I’m not a fool.
If you’re sick of the relentless propaganda that dominates mainstream culture, pedalling diets, surgery and “the body beautiful”, consider Dietland. The book would make a fantastic book club read and provide substantial food for thought for dieters, feminists and direct action activists.
I recently chatted with author, Sarai Walker, by email.
There are some brilliant feminist truths throughout the book. Where did you learn about feminism? Who were the writers or commentators that had the biggest impact on you?
I grew up in an extremely conservative, religious place in the American West, so patriarchy has never been a theoretical concept to me – it’s always been very real. The religion I grew up in (which I haven’t attended since I was 16) has a history of excommunicating feminists, among other horrible things. These early experiences have shaped my feminist politics in a profound way.
I also grew up fat and lived in a place where the majority of people were thin and blonde and extremely judgmental, so I was always an outcast. That also shaped my feminism, and some of what that feels like is part of Dietland.
I was always aware of the importance of women’s rights growing up, thanks to my mom, which made my family different from many of the other families in our community, but I didn’t really learn about feminism until my late teens. This was before the World Wide Web, so I found my feminism mostly in books. I found Susan Faludi’s Backlash, which was really my first exposure to feminist politics. And in college I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Here was a book that described things I had always felt, but couldn’t put into words; reading it transformed my thinking in a way that few other books have. I also took Women’s Studies classes at university (when Women’s Studies still existed in a widespread way).
How closely aligned is Dietland to your own feminist beliefs?
This is tricky to discuss, because Dietland is a novel, rather than a work of non-fiction. Novels, even feminist novels of ideas, have to be about characters first and foremost, and I don’t see the characters in Dietland as simply chess pieces moving around on a board, enacting my own personal beliefs. I’ve been asked to justify and defend the actions of certain characters, but I don’t like being put in that position. Characters, like human beings, can be unpredictable and contradictory; sometimes they do the right thing, sometimes the wrong thing.
What I can say is that when I began writing Dietland, I knew I couldn’t actually write the novel unless I understood why fat women are so hated and abused in Western culture. I didn’t fully understand this when I started writing. Writing the novel was, in many ways, the process of figuring this out through the experiences of my 300-pound (21-stone) heroine, Plum. I wrote about how our fat-hating, misogynist culture shaped Plum’s life, how it nearly destroyed her and how she was able to fight back. As such, Dietland is certainly a reflection of how I came to think about these issues during the writing process, as well as other related issues.
Do you know what choice feminism is? From reading Dietland, I get the impression that this is something you might be critical of. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, I am well acquainted with “choice feminism.” As a fat woman living in a stigmatised body, so-called “choice feminism” had nothing to offer me in terms of either understanding my situation or how to change it. For that, I needed more radical thinkers, from bell hooks to Sandra Lee Bartky to the work of many fat activists. Thank goodness I found them.
Some of the feminism in Dietland isn’t really the kind of feminism that’s mainstream nowadays, and I think that’s why so many readers find it invigorating. (And, of course, some find it angering!)
How much of this book was influenced by your own experiences? Do you identify with Plum?
I’m fat, and I wanted to write about fat embodiment in a serious, thoughtful way and through a feminist and fat-positive lens. While there are some great non-fiction books about this experience, fiction like this is much harder to find, as are films and television shows. I’m very excited that Dietland is going to become a television series, because we need to see stories like this in visual mediums as well as books.
So my experiences as a fat woman certainly inform Dietland — it would be impossible for them not to — but Plum is her own character, with her own unique experiences, and I don’t think of her as a fictionalised version of me at all. I identify with her in many ways though, which made the novel difficult and often emotionally exhausting to write.
Would you like to see the formation of a group like Jennifer?
Dietland explores different modes of resistance, including violent resistance. I wanted to examine what violence in the name of feminism might look like and allow readers to make up their own minds about whether they think this would be effective. This is one of the things that fiction can do that non-fiction can’t — it can provide these kinds of imaginative scenarios, in this case a feminist avenger who takes on the world, and who, for example, demands that objectifying images of women be removed from the mass media and be replaced with objectifying images of men. It’s unlikely that any real person outside of a dictatorship would ever have this kind of power, but it’s certainly fun to imagine it.
Am I personally advocating violent terrorism in the name of feminism? No. But I receive plenty of feedback from women who understand the rage that pushes “Jennifer” to act, and like to fantasise about confronting harassers or even murdering rapists and so on. The spirit of “Jennifer” already exists.
What book would you recommend to a newcomer to feminism?
I’d recommend bell hooks’s Feminism is For Everybody. For those who are more advanced, I’d recommend Sandra Lee Bartky’s Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. I love Bartky’s work so much I thank her in the acknowledgments to my novel.
Dietland is available now from Atlantic Books.
The image at the top of the page is the sleeve of Dietland. A cupcake with white frosting has the detonator trigger of a hand grenade stuck in the centre, with a cherry on top. The sleeve is light blue, with the title in white.
The image at the centre of the piece is a black and white head and shoulders shot of the author, Sarai Walker. She looks directly at the camera, smiling, and has long, wavy hair and wears two necklaces.