Debut Author Snapshot: Sarai Walker

May, 2015
Sarai Walker

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Both a subversive feminist journey and an immersive character study—and definitely not a book about dieting—Sarai Walker's gutsy debut, Dietland, packs a surprising punch. Unhappy heroine Plum Kettle, a 300-pound woman who answers mail for a teen magazine (handling questions about cutting, eating disorders, romantic trouble, and more), begins a strange path when an eccentric heiress tries to persuade Plum not to undergo gastric-bypass surgery, just as a mysterious guerrilla group, dubbed Jennifer, begins to make headlines for violent terrorist acts that seek retribution for crimes against women.

After writing for magazines like Mademoiselle and Seventeen, Walker went on to earn a Ph.D. in English focused on femininity of the body. Already at work on a second novel, she shares some of the inspiration behind Dietland and talks about giving feminism "teeth."

"I love looking at vintage ads for weight-gain products. They're an important reminder that fat has not always been demonized and that standards of beauty are socially constructed and change over time."
Goodreads: Plum fixates on her weight, yet Dietland is about so much more than weight loss. Why did you choose the issue of weight as the entrance point for a feminist discussion?

Sarai Walker: My entrance point, as a novelist, is always character and story. So while my novel does explore feminist issues, a novel has to be driven by characters first and foremost. When I was studying for my M.F.A. in creative writing, I wrote a short story about a fat young woman who works at a teen magazine. This story ended up becoming my entry to Dietland.

As I began the novel, I was interested in writing about what it's like to be a fat woman in our society, since this experience is rarely explored in fiction in any serious way. To write this novel, I needed to understand why fat women are so hated. (This was a personal issue for me as well.) My exploration led me to consider the roots of our contemporary standards of beauty, which exclude fat women. I needed to investigate the issue of sexual objectification of women, which contributes to the dehumanization of women, which is a precursor to violence against women. I see Plum's fat female body, and the way it's stigmatized by society, as deeply connected to all the issues I address in the novel. None of this is simple, of course, but I think the reader is smart enough to make the connections.

GR: Tell us about Plum. How did you develop this character?

SW: Plum is a 29-year-old, 300-pound woman, who, at the beginning of Dietland, is desperate to shrink in size. She's scheduled for weight-loss surgery and thinks once she becomes thin, her "real life" will begin. But then Plum's life takes an unexpected turn—to put it mildly!

"Fernando Botero is a Colombian artist known for painting fat characters. I know very little about him, but I enjoy looking at his work in part because visually appealing images of fat people are so rare in our culture. His female characters, like the one pictured here, are often cute, and they remind me of Plum."
It was very important to me to explore Plum's consciousness in a realistic way. I wanted her to seem like a real person, so that the reader could experience what it's like to walk in her shoes. To achieve this, I wrote in the first-person, autobiographical voice. By "autobiographical voice," I mean a voice that is intimate, that shares secrets and humiliations and vulnerabilities with the reader, that treats the reader like a confidant. It was difficult to develop this voice, and I had to channel Plum in order to write it, so I felt whatever she was feeling, whether it was sadness or anger or pure joy. I experienced a lot of ups and downs while writing, which wasn't always healthy for me.

GR: What was your inspiration for the Jennifer guerrilla group? Are any groups taking such drastic measures in the real world?

SW: Violence and feminism are an interesting and seemingly rare combination. There are historical examples of feminists using violence, including suffragists in the early 20th century. In the present day there's the Gulabi gang in India, who are known for wearing pink saris, and they sometimes engage in violence, including attacking rapists. However, nothing on the scale of "Jennifer" exists or has ever existed, at least to my knowledge. So I didn't have a real-life example for inspiration. It was an exciting and daunting challenge to imagine, as a novelist, what would happen if the struggle for women's liberation turned violent in the spectacular way of "Jennifer," since this is unprecedented.

"Like the characters Thelma and Louise, 'Jennifer' decides she (or is it they?) will no longer accept the mistreatment of women and girls and begins to fight back. I actually thank Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri in Dietland's acknowledgments."
Although nothing like "Jennifer" exists in reality, I researched women who have participated in terrorism, particularly Ulrike Meinhof and other women in the Baader-Meinhof Group. This left-wing guerrilla group existed in West Germany in the 1970s. They weren't concerned with feminism, and like many left-wing organizations, were male dominated, but the women involved were incredibly violent. So this was a helpful historical example for me, despite the differences from my novel. Also, since "Jennifer" is primarily an avenger, I liked to watch movies about revenge, my favorites being Thelma & Louise and Inglourious Basterds.

A friend who read Dietland said he had a hard time imagining women committing such acts of brutality, which I assume will be the reaction of some other readers as well. But women do engage in violence, and since this makes people uncomfortable, it's rich territory for a writer.

GR: Feminist has unfortunately become a loaded word in today's culture, and the media like to ask young celebrities like Taylor Swift and Shailene Woodley whether they are feminists—sometimes shaming them if they say no. Do you feel it's important for women to own the F-word?

SW: I think it's important for the word feminism to actually mean something. I hear people say things like, "If you believe women should have the right to vote, then you're a feminist," or, "If you believe women shouldn't be treated like garbage, then you're a feminist." But is the bar really that low? I appreciate that people want to destigmatize the word and encourage young women to use it, but that doesn't mean we should allow it to be watered down to nothing. Feminism needs to have teeth. So yes, I absolutely feel it's important for women to own the word feminism, but I want this word to mean something more than just "women shouldn't be treated like doormats." Feminism is about the liberation of women and should never become a simple celebrity buzzword.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

SW: I am currently researching my second novel, but I haven't had much time to work on it yet. As with Dietland, I am interested in telling women's stories, but this time I'll be writing in a different time period. Dietland is so plugged into the present moment that I've decided for my next project I need a break from writing about contemporary culture.

"When I first conceived of Dietland, I was living on Carroll Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which is the area where Plum lives in the novel. This street is lined with brownstones like the kind she lives in. Funnily enough, the title Dietland is a play on Wonderland, and so I like the coincidental connection between Carroll Street and Lewis Carroll." (Photograph by Sarai Walker.)

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Marienne (last edited May 07, 2015 12:44PM) (new)

Marienne Branch This was a great interview & reading it caused me to want to buy & read the book even though it's probably outside my budget.

As an former drop-dead gorgeous beauty who is now overweight (and extremely uncomfortable being so) I find Sarai's interview captivating. I couldn't understand why, as an overweight person herself, she had to channel Plum - why couldn't she just write those parts from her heart? Obviously, I'm not a writer & so have no comprehension of that process, but that doesn't stop me from wondering.

I'm curious to know how the violence plays out. I'm not a feminist in the popular sense of the word where all the 'right' boxes are ticked. I'm a bit more thoughtful & comfortable being different or even disliked to kow tow to popular sentiment.

Nowadays it seems there's little tolerance for unpopular views - example, anti-homosexual - and the reactions one sees (Chick-fil-A (sp?)) seem to me violent & bordering on actual violence - because one doesn't agree w. another?!? Sounds like another time & place. From reading the interview I'm curious to see whether Sarai's observations include or are from this perspective.

I'd also like to say that this is my first time reading the Newsletter & I enjoyed it immensely. Forgive me for making this comment in this forum, but I could find no where else to do so. The poem was beautiful. Thank you for enhancing my day in so many ways!


message 2: by Marjorie (new)

Marjorie Hobe Dietland
I too would like to add this to my read list. I have struggled with my weight and the stigma of being 'fat.' I am curious about 'Jennifer' and maybe it will be at least a metaphor about change for me.

Feminism for me has always been being me and being allowed to be me. I think it has become the same as wanting be be a man from having no curves and reed thin to wresting and football. These do not appeal to me but there are time when I am judged as a non-feminist for appreciating and participating in 'traditional' women activities. I have no desire to be a wrestler but I think it is an option that should be open to other women. As for reed thin, I think is is the objectification of women. When women start saying no to fashion gurus, we will all be better.


message 3: by Gay (new)

Gay Gooen I will also add this book to my reaing list; the subject will hit a nerve with many women (as it does with me), and we will read not only to try to enjoy the novel, but as well, to understand the frustration that drives us to overeat.

Why the problem is such an ordeal for so many women is a major concern. It's not just our physical health that is at risk. It's also our psychological health -- the issues that overeating causes are many, and they have a major impact on our lives.


message 4: by Sherri (new)

Sherri F. From this interview and excerpts, I'm really thinking I'll like this new author. I added it to my read list and on the Wait List at the library, but would buy it (although I'm over my reading budget this month let alone year) if I went to an Author meet/book discussion & signing.


message 5: by Susan (new)

Susan I have not enjoyed a book this much since "The World According to Garp," which (come to think of it) also centered around an inspiring commune of misfit women. Buy it, read it, read it again.Dietland


message 6: by Rachel (new)

Rachel I started this book, after reading Sarai's editorial in the NYT, and I could not put it down! I first found myself questioning - why have I never heard the voice of a fat woman before, as the protagonist of a novel?

I thought at first that this book would give me a chance to examine my own prejudices/distaste (arising of course out of my own struggles with weight, body image, self-loathing) - a chance to see things another way. I did not anticipate that this book would turn upside down the whole premise of the way society looks at women. Saria is 100% right that we are given the message, all the time, that we are being rated on our f--kability - and that we should do all kinds of torturous thing to lift our f--kability rankings - and - what is the rabbit hole this leads us down? The mind-f--k of society - I have been married to a great guy for 21 years, but I can still have days where I don't know why he loves me, because I don't look like . . . whatever it is I'm supposed to look like. This book has made me question all these underlying premises, messages we all bought starting at the age of 4.

This is a truly mind-blowing, illuminating, exciting book. I am buying 3 copies to give to friends, and I'm so grateful and glad that I read it!


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