In Dietland, timid Plum Kettle is sure that losing weight is the key that will unlock the life she wants to live. But when she crosses paths with a mysterious young woman, she ends up involved in a full-on riot grrl ride to a feminist awakening. Author Sarai Walker answered a few questions about her edgy, girl-power debut.
It feels like a bit of an understatement to say that this is an unusual premise for a novel! What was your starting point for the story?
I would say it had two starting points. The first was when I saw the film Fight Club many years ago. As soon as the film ended, I knew I wanted to write something for women that had that defiant, punk spirit. (It’s not fair that men get to have all the fun.) But at the time this was nothing more than a vague idea, a gut feeling.
Several years after that, when I was studying for my M.F.A. in creative writing, I wrote a short story about a young fat woman who works at a teen magazine. As a veteran of teen magazines myself, this story was very personal to me.
This short story and the Fight Club idea eventually merged into one, which I think explains the unusual premise of the novel!
The structure is also unusual—Dietland includes book excerpts, complete with footnotes, plus news stories and even a journal. How did you decide to include all these elements?
I wish I could say I invented this, but I was influenced by other novels that use this “pastiche” effect. The one that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which includes a book-within-a-book and news articles. I read Atwood’s novel around the time I was first attempting to write Dietland and thought this technique looked like great fun, so decided to try it myself. I adapted it for my own purposes and love what it adds to the novel. Dietland uses an intense first-person voice and I think it benefits from the inclusion of these other voices.
What do you like the most about Plum?
I like that she’s brave. I aspire to be as brave as she is.
In her book, your character Marlowe says that “being a woman is being a faker.” What’s your take on that statement?
She’s really commenting on all the ways that we as women are socialized to pretend to be what we’re not. We wear make-up to appear prettier and younger; we use various techniques to appear thinner and shapelier and bustier; we often deny that we have appetites, pretending not to be hungry and so forth; we’re encouraged to act dumb and weak and helpless sometimes; and the list goes on. Being a woman in our society too often means concealing who we really are. Girls learn this at a young age.
"Being a woman in our society too often means concealing who we really are. Girls learn this at a young age."
You wrote most of this book while living in Europe. What differences (if any) did you see in women’s lives in Europe vs. the United States?
What was most interesting to me was the difference in my life while I was living there. I spent most of my time living in London and this influenced the novel in key ways. I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this, but the U.K. is the most overtly sexist place I’ve ever experienced, as well as the most fat-shaming. There’s a chapter in the novel that takes place in London and explores the sexist media scene there; I felt compelled to write that chapter as a form of catharsis.
"The U.K. is the most overtly sexist place I’ve ever experienced, as well as the most fat-shaming."
Who are your feminist heroes?
I have way too many to list, but I’ll mention two women who should receive more attention. As I wrote Dietland, I was influenced by feminism of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, both the fiction and nonfiction of that period.
Joanna Russ should not be forgotten. She wrote a wonderfully irreverent work of feminist literary criticism called How to Suppress Women’s Writing. I also love her essay “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write.” She is perhaps most known for her science-fiction novel The Female Man.
I also want to mention Dorothy Bryant. Her early feminist novel Ella Price’s Journal is one of my favorites and it deserves to be discovered by many more readers today. It has to be read and considered within the historical context in which it was written, but it is a moving exploration of a woman’s consciousness-raising during the early days of Second Wave feminism.
"It’s important to have kindred spirits however you can find them."
Dietland is something of a manifesto. What would you say to readers who finish the book wanting to change the world?
I’ve actually already been contacted by readers who had this response, which is terrific, but also a lot of pressure for me!
I think one of the things that Dietland can do for certain readers is raise their consciousness, to use an old-school feminist term (which I love). Consciousness-raising is the process of coming to see the personal as the political; after your consciousness is raised, you see the world through a different lens. This is an important first step in creating change.
My advice for readers is to find a like-minded community of people, as Plum does in the novel with the women of Calliope House. An in-person community is great, but online works as well. It’s important to have kindred spirits however you can find them. I also think expanding your knowledge by reading up on the topics you’re interested in is essential. For readers interested in fat acceptance, there are lots of great websites, blogs and books to explore. The insights you gain this way can help you make the change you want to see in the world around you.
Many feminists in the 1970s believed that many small personal “revolutions” have the potential to add up to a large revolution. I really like that idea.
What are you working on next?
I’m researching and thinking about my second novel. I had hoped to be writing it already, but I don’t have the mental space or distance from Dietland yet. I’m also writing essays.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a review of Dietland.
Author photo by Marion Ettlinger.