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Dietland by Sarai Walker
My New Favorite Book of the Moment is, you might be able to tell from our Best of the Month reviews, is this wonderful, oddball, sly-if-not-downright-subversive novel called Dietland, by newcomer Sarai (pronounced Sar-ay) Walker. It’s the story of a young woman who starts out, like many of us, weight and beauty obsessed, and ends up in an underground world where the values we’re bombarded with daily – women should be skinny, heels should be high, lipstick red, sex always super hot -- are turned on their heads. There’s slapstick in this book, and darkness, and some joyous skewering of the way we live now, but there’s also something deeper, smarter and more important going on, too; I was interested to find that Walker, who was too young to read them at the time of publication, took many of her (unconscious) cues from the feminist novels of the 1970s: authors like Kate Millet, books like The Women’s Room. How did this onetime freelancer for Seventeen and Mademoiselle come to write such a sophisticated book? I talked to her about just that last week.
Q: What was the “starting place” for this book? Did you set out to write a neo feminist novel about the beauty industry?
A: I had a couple of starting places, It was way back in 1999, and I saw the film Fight Club and it just sparked something in me. I just really responded to it. It had a consciousness raising narrative in it, though at the time I didn’t have the language to understand it. But I saw it as angry and defiant and very political and it said something about the world we live in. I really responded to that; at the time I thought: I want to write something for women that’s like that.” I had no idea what it would be, but I knew I had to do this.
Q: So you just sat down and did it?
A: Not exactly...I would say that it was a couple of years later, when I was at Bennington doing my MFA, I started writing about a young woman working at a teen magazine. She was fat and worked at a teen magazine. I was interested in that, as that was my experience Still, it was very risky for me because people would think, “Oh, that character’s you. She’s fat and you’re fat.” (By the way, I reclaim the word “fat.” I don’t like “heavy” or “overweight.”) But still, I thought she should be the heart of the novel. The Fight Club idea was an abstract one and this was giving it a heroine. I merged the two of them: traditional women’s territory and the “male aesthetic.”
Q: Was it difficult to write?
A: I wrote it during a really intense period. I was living in Europe, kind of between London and Paris...Living abroad made it easier to cut myself off from the world I’d been in before, and I just decided I’d try to get into the novel. It was hard – you have to pretend that no one is ever going to read it and just write what you want. I kept pushing myself to be uninhibited which is very hard for me; I was a very shy kind of person. But I wrote in a first-person voice, what I describe as the autobiographical voice of Plum [the heroine.] Some people have said that it reads like autobiography, which is what I was going for. In order to write like that I had to feel like I was channeling her. I can only describe it as what an actor might feel like. I was also reading a lot of feminist theory. I was going for my PhD in English with a focus on feminist fiction of the 1970s. I was reading about consciousness raising, and that’s what I ended up writing about, too.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from this book? What would you like them to say about it?
A: I hope that this book takes the premise of a “women’s novel” – and then explodes it. You think it’s familiar territory, and it ends up in a very different place. I hope they see that I was playing around with trying to subvert the form of a “woman’s novel.” Some people have told me that the book changed the way they see themselves or the world around them, or both. And that’s great for me, that they see it as consciousness raising. But I’d also like it if they said “It’s entertainment.”