Mecca Jamilah Sullivan allows the reader no time to pause or get situated within her debut novel, Big Girl; once you’re in, you’re in. It unfurls in one long stream of messy, painful, big Black girlhood, and this intense interiority gives the novel a breathless, almost unbearable momentum.
Though Sullivan writes every character, even minor ones, with seemingly effortless depth, Big Girl stays relentlessly focused on its protagonist, Malaya. The novel never zooms too far afield, never meanders into subplots or backstory, never leaves Malaya’s emotional interior for more than a moment. In the hands of a less talented writer, this closeness could slip into tedium. Sullivan turns it into something miraculous.
Malaya is a fat Black girl growing up in Harlem in the 1980s and ’90s. For her mother and grandmother, Malaya’s weight is her defining characteristic, a problem to be solved. She grows up swathed in her mother’s shame, learning to count calories, hide her desires, hate her body and strive toward thinness as the ultimate ideal. As she enters her teen years and her body becomes more unruly, it gets harder and harder for Malaya to locate herself in the cacophony of voices telling her how she should look, think and be. She finds some solace in the music of rap artists like Biggie Smalls and with her small group of Black friends. But it’s not until she faces her first catastrophic loss that she’s finally able to see—and love—herself on her own terms.
This is a painful book about body shaming, fatphobia, patriarchal violence, white beauty standards, familial trauma and the male gaze. It’s about how much work and courage it takes to live in the world as a Black girl, a fat girl, a woman, a human with a body that doesn’t do what bodies are “supposed” to do. No matter where Malaya is—her own kitchen; her preppy, mostly white high school; the streets of Harlem—her body is on display. She can’t escape the ways people see her and treat her, and Sullivan brilliantly captures this endless, exhausting trauma of being looked at but never seen.
Big Girl is also full of moments of tenderness, joy and even hilarity, especially in the scenes between Malaya and her father, and in her relationship with her best friend, Shaniece. As Malaya slowly comes into her own, she learns to live loudly and take up space, to embrace her size, name her hungers and claim her desires. Sullivan’s novel is expansive and exuberant, loud and fierce, a celebratory, redemptive coming-of-age story.