Fat Girl in a Strange Land: a book review

By Shannon T. Rucker

Fat Girl in a Strange Land
Edited by Kay T. Holt & Bart Leib
Contributing Authors: Sabrina Vourvoulias, Lauren C. Teffeau, AJ Fitzwater, Josh Roseman, Brian Jungwiwattanaporn, Katharine Elmer, Bonnie Ferrante, Rick Silva, Nicole Prestin, Anna Dickinson, Jennifer Brozek, Barbara Krasnoff, Anna Caro, Pete “Patch” Alberti

 

 

Situated on a spectrum of fantasy to a tiny bit of romance (not too much, of course) to speculative fiction to science fiction to creative socio-political, Fat Girl in a Strange Land should definitely be applauded for taking me to strange and fantastic lands. I went to distant planets and a magic wildlife refuge. I was a princess trapped in a tower in a fairyland. I was a fire starter on urban streets showing the lean, lithe, and whipcord what I’m made of. I got to be a middle-aged superhero without being forced to wear spandex. I survived a crash landing on a planet whose dawn would literally kill me. I was a luchadora, mother, daughter, and lover who defended the women and children of my city from behind my mask. I was a warrior of man, fighting and leading rebels through the dangerous desert wasteland. When told I was too fat to fly on a spaceship to see the rings of Jupiter or the ice caverns of Pluto, I made my own way with my own ride. I created worlds. I rescued my newborn son from a world too thin to hold me. I even visited a place in an alley that few others could see where I got shoes tailored just for me.

While I like to experience vicariously through what I read–that’s how I determine whether or not I like the story–I also evaluate the socio-political nature of the story by asking myself one question:

Would I want to be a character in this story’s world?

There are several things I didn’t get to be or do in Fat Girl in a Strange Land as a whole anthology. Each story was distinct, but recurring ideas kept springing out:

  1. I didn’t get to be a fat woman whose fatness isn’t centered around her appetite and what she eats.
  2. I didn’t get to be a fat woman whose fatness and body image doesn’t come from a place of shame, self-hatred, or disappointment.
  3. I didn’t get to be a fat girl who isn’t a loner (to the point of being anti-social, in some stories).
  4. I didn’t get to be fat without having a use for someone else, which probably involved eating.
  5. I didn’t get to be a fat girl with supportive friends and an active life.
  6. I didn’t get to be a fat girl whose existence isn’t defined by her fatness.
  7. As far as I know, I didn’t get to be a fat person color, or a queer or poor fat person.
  8. I didn’t get to be a fat woman who isn’t bitching about how she was once thin or not pregnant.
  9. I didn’t get to be a fat woman who is friends with other fat people.
  10. I didn’t get to be a fat woman whose body is not characterized by slowness, unhealthiness, heaviness, and awkwardness.

As a whole anthology dedicated to fat heroines, it lands us in familiar tropes about fat women and fat bodies. I’ve read short stories about thin people where it’s not mentioned even once that they are eating, let alone that their eating is abnormal or excessive. In “The Right Stuffed,” by Brian Jungwiwattanaporn–whose setting and characters’ powers were some of my favorites–the heroines are hired by a secret division of the government to insert themselves into the Matrix, or cyberspace, just to eat! That is: eat information and bring it back. What’s more, they were chosen for the job just because they are fat and therefore are assumed to have extreme appetites and eating habits unlike the thinner, fitter, military service people whose delicate bodies and psyches can’t handle the job. What should have been an empowering story turned into a bad fat joke when these fat heroines realize their only role is to eat things in cyberspace.

It’s not that fat heroines shouldn’t eat–just not at the expense of writing them as three-dimensional characters.

And, like Jungwiwattanaporn’s piece, embedded in several of the stories is the idea that fat women have deviant, abnormal appetites that are fundamentally different from those appetites of skinnier people. Fat women compensate for what they lack by eating; they are bitter and jealous.

Almost all of the stories represent fat women as having no friends. Heaven forbid representing a fat women with fat friends because, of course, we’re enemies and don’t want to be around each other. One fat person per page is enough! In stories like “Survivor,” by Josh Roseman and “Tangwystl the Unwanted,” by Katharine Elmer, and–again–“The Right Stuffed” by Brian Jungwiwatannaporn, there lurks the suggestion that even fat people themselves find their bodies to be awkward, unfit, uncomfortable, weak, undesirable, and inconvenient. There is no offering of a deeper analysis or understanding of why characters who have been fat for much of their lives would think of their bodies like that. This only serves to normalize the thin body and Other the fat bodies of these characters, making fat people appear to have some kind of inherent body dysmorphia.

In “The Tradeoff,” by Lauren C. Teffeau and “Davy,” by Anna Dickinson, the authors present us with two thin women who become fat, one for her job and the other primarily because of a pregnancy. I must say I despised listening to thin women bitch and moan about how they gained weight and they are ever so depressed and out of sorts over it–their reactions to their loss of body privilege wasted a lot of page space.

In “Flesh of My Flesh,” by Bonnie Ferrante, a departure from the complaints of thin women who become fat, the heroine gains weight as she assimilates into an alien culture on another planet, emphasizing the foreignness and abnormality of fatness on Earth. Again the focus turns to appetite when she kills and intends to eat her own fiancé and the researchers, who are threatening the alien civilization.

In “Nemesis” by Nicole Prestin, I frowned to read that a size 14 is considered fat. This is another story of the fat girl fitting in only because she serves a useful function. The same goes for “Shark and Seals” by Jennifer Brozek. What do we need to prove to thin people and why do we need to prove it? “In Marilee and the S.O.B.”, author Barbara Kresnoff even goes so far as to tie her fat heroine to an ignorant thin bigot for three years in order for her to gain her birthright.

As I read, I wondered if any of the writers were actually fat or fat activists, because some of the stories at times sounded like thin people ghostwriting stereotypical imitations of what they think it’s like to be fat. I just found myself thinking Wow, a fat person aware of the social and political struggles flung at them would never write a story like this. Or at least, I hope they wouldn’t.

“How Do You Want to Die?” by Rick Silva isn’t a bad piece, but closer analysis might suggest that the “fat heroine” theme was kind of tacked on so it would suit the anthology. There were one or two other stories where I got a similar feeling.

In an anthology of fifteen stories, it disappoints me that this is the best some of these writers could do. I’m waiting for the next level, even as I try to keep my spirits up to write that level for myself.

In “Cartography, and the Death of Shoes” by AJ Fitzwater, Kresnoff’s “Marilee and the S.O.B.” and Ferrante’s “Flesh of My Flesh,” the only option for women to get far enough away from the stupidity, stigmatization, and persecution on Earth is to go to a different planet. If only it were that simple–we’d have all done it by now.

I don’t think I can ever embrace being characterized and referred to by my fatness, so “La Gorda and the Silver City” by Sara Vourvoulias had me a little on edge. I understand that the author is Latina and in some cultures being called “fat girl” or “little fat one” is a term of endearment, but it just doesn’t suit me and I will probably never be comfortable with it. In my culture, it doesn’t mean that. However, though all the stories have some well-written and delivered elements, this is one of the stories I would recommend.

Anna Caro’s “Blueprints” is by far the most socio-political, putting a spotlight on healthism. It was honest enough and hard enough that even I couldn’t turn my nose up at it, portraying a future where the Earth is dying and people are abandoning their own children who don’t meet the weight requirements to go live on some other-planetary paradise designed for–and policed by–the rich and thin. Housed at a school for the rejected humans, the narrator at some point flees Earth, abandoning her fat students, and travels illegally to this new planet only to find that it isn’t the utopia she expected. The nugget of goodness in this tale is that us fat folks left on Earth don’t accept the fate handed to us by people who don’t even think we have the right to live on the same planet  as them. We build our own future, our own destinies, regardless. A very “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade (or potpourri, as I like to say)” kind of story.

That theme is continued in “Lift” by Pete “Patch” Alberti, with Mary Beth, who is told by an acquaintance’s boyfriend that she is too fat to visit and explore the stars in his personal spacecraft with them. She tries to tell him that it would only take a simple recalibration of the spacecraft’s system to allow their combined weight but he laughs at her and mocks her, refusing to do so out of stupidity and ignorance. Mary Beth works hard and makes her own way, in the end reaping the rewards with pleasure.

I don’t regret reading Fat Girl in A Strange Land. I view it as a stepping stone, something to expand from and build on or completely redo. But I also want other readers to go into it knowing that–like many things for marginalized groups–it’s not perfect and they should be prepared for that.

For the theme of “Cartography, and the Death of Shoes” by AJ Fitzwater, I wrote,

“A journey tailored just for you,

to places not even mapped,

far from who you know,

what you know,

and where you know”

There’s a theme in the story of going to places that aren’t even mapped, places where no one has ever been. That, I think, is the journey for many of us fat girls and fat people. Or maybe the fantasy.

Maybe the Destiny.

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Shannon T. Rucker is a twenty-four year old blogger and creative writer. She graduated from Seattle University in 2010 with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing, a minor in Sociology, and a specialization in Diversity, Citizenship, and Social Justice. Her passions are womanism/Black feminism, anime and gaming, intersectionality, fat acceptance, creative arts, cats, and just plain expressing herself. She writes speculative fiction/Afrofuturism, poetry, and romance and is the moderator of a collection of blogs, including Every Smile a Lie: a living while fat journal.