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Susan Stinson

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12:20 am: The cover of Fat Girl Dances with Rocks and People magazine

Today I remembered to walk my trike down the sidewalk instead of taking the Pomeroy Terrace loop that lets me keep riding on my way downtown to write. (The Pomeroys were eighteenth century Northampton people -- Seth Pomeroy was a blacksmith and, eventually, a general, who got seasick on campaigns a lot. Died in his seventies of pleurisy fighting in the Revolutionary War). So I stopped at CVS and found a rumpled copy of People out of place in the magazine section (later saw the neat little rack of them next to the cash register). It opened right to the page I wanted, so I wondered if one of my friends had been in there, checking it out without shelling out for the magazine.

Sure enough, page 166, in the article, "Exercise Almost Killed Her," the bottom third of the page is a section with pictures of the journal Peach Friedman (who lives in Palo Alto, now works as a personal trainer and is getting her MFA in writing) kept when she was recovering from exercise bulimia. Next to an article about the Atkins Diet, near photos of thin women (at least one of which, I think, is of Peach -- there are other quite warm and radiant pictures of her now by Mary Ellen Mark with the article), and a calendar page that's printed with the words "lighten up," and facing what looks like a wrapping for a Kraft Free fat free singles slice of american cheese, there's a black and white copy of the dancing, serene fat nude that artist Jody Kim painted for the cover of my novel Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. It's just the image, taped in place. If you didn't know it was from a book, you couldn't tell.

I always loved that cover, despite the fact that I had to have numerous conversations with people about whether or not the body as drawn had nipples. (If you look hard, they're subtly suggested, says me.) The publisher told me that they asked the artist to redo the original to portray a fatter figure, more appropriate for the character in the story, and it is, it's a rare --more rare at the time it was published twelve years ago -- and lovely image, with a touch of magic realism, of a fat woman reveling in her body. The only time I've ever read at a chain bookstore was at a Barnes and Noble in NYC with that book (I read at Judith's Room, a women's bookstore, first), and they had fancy posters up in their window with stacks of the books (I snagged one and gave it to my parents, who framed it and hung it in their bedroom, which meant they had to talk about the book with people who went in there to use the bathroom), and the day before the reading, I stood outside the store, and watched people stop and look at the image, watched them react. Sometimes, I talked to them. It was my first novel, and I was so full just from the sheer existence of it. Agents (who didn't choose to represent me) came to hear me read that night. So did women from the Fat Feminist Caucus, although it was on the second floor and there were problems with stairs. It was such an intense moment for me.

So, now, all these years later, with the book out of print (but not hard to get, through NAAFA, for instance, if you want a copy), I have a few feelings about seeing the image from the cover in People. It means a lot to me that an image that the book inspired mattered to a young woman who was struggling hard with her relationship with her body. That's part of the work that the book was meant to do, and if, even very indirectly, even as a very tiny rivulet in the cultural river, it's still doing it, that's a gorgeous thing to me. And it's also tantalizing, because none of my books, all four of which to this point have centered on complex, sensual fat lesbian characters, have ever been reviewed in the mainstream press in this country (Martha Moody, my second novel, published in the UK by The Women's Press, did get well reviewed there), and so this brings one of the books so close to something that has completely eluded my work, the kind of media attention that would bring more readers -- and so more life -- to the books. Close, but, since it's just the image without any reference to the book, not there. Not yet.

I just wrote that in an email to Peach, and she, a poet herself and also working on a memoir about her recovery from eating disorders, wrote back. She hasn't read the book, so I'm going to send it to her. I've been buying used copies from Amazon, so that I'll have at least a few around, for times like these, when I need them.

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[User Picture]
From:theoryofgravity
Date:May 12th, 2006 03:23 am (UTC)
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Fiction isn't very fashionable

Eh, maybe, maybe not. As you say, it works differently.

I originally read Fat Girl Dances with Rocks secretly over a period of weeks - the old Tower Records on Newbury Street in Boston had a copy, and I went back again and again and read it a few pages at a time, as this was pre-size-acceptance for me, and owing to my seemingly bottomless reserves of internalized fat hatred, I couldn't bring myself to take it to the counter and buy it. Like, in front of someone. WHOA. Never. I read it like really gruesome, really forbidden porn - it was simultaneously horrifying and exhilerating. I was disgusted with myself for wanting to read it but I couldn't stop. I don't mean for this analogy to come across as disrespectful, but that's honestly how I was absorbing it.

One day I went in and the copy was gone. Someone must have bought it. I was devastated. That was telling.

When I did begin my own process of coming to love my body, I thought about that secret-reading experience a lot. I still do.
[User Picture]
From:susanstinson
Date:May 12th, 2006 04:09 am (UTC)
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Oh, God. That story just slays me. It doesn't come across as disrespectful -- horrifying and exhilerating make me think of the old aesthetic category of the sublime, which is so much where fat women live, I think -- and lord knows, I've done my share of secret reading. You evoke it well.

Thank you for telling me that. I'm not going to forget it. And such an illustration of how the thing with books just can't always be about whether or not one actually gets bought (as much as that matters to a writer -- I'm kind of talking to myself here).

That feeling of a book being just on the very edge of what a reader can tolerate -- I think my work is there a lot more than I know -- it's a place I love, but I love straight-up pleasure, too, and want to keep learning more about how to keep that flowing in a novel, along with everything else.

Maybe we've talked a little about this before, because I think maybe I've told you that the first book with lesbian content I ever bought was RubyFruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, at the now completely demolished then vast Cinderella City Mall in Denver, where I grew up, and I was so scared to buy it because it said "Molly Bolt, lesbian and loving it," or something like that, on the back and the front, too, I really agonized over handing it to the guy at the counter -- I remember heat and shaking -- but also really, really needed to read it -- I bought it.

Anyway, huge gift you just gave me with that the story of such an intense reaction to Fat Girl Dances with Rocks.
[User Picture]
From:theoryofgravity
Date:May 12th, 2006 02:47 pm (UTC)
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A gift! Wow! I am glad and feel like I've been given a compliment. :)

Funny you mention the purchasing aspect -- when the book finally disappeared, I felt a mild guilt/shame for not being able to buy it myself, and wobbling awe over the fact that somewhere in Boston there was a person who COULD buy it, take it to the counter and pay money for it in a totally public way, maybe unabashed, maybe scared, but they could do it! It frankly hadn't occurred to me that such people existed, that there were other options in how I could relate to my body and my fat. This was part of my bewilderment with the book in the first place: How is this allowed to exist and be printed and set on a shelf like a normal ordinary book when it's SO taboo and SO forbidden and just not anything approaching my reality? That was pretty powerful too.

I have ALWAYS WONDERED who bought it.
[User Picture]
From:susanstinson
Date:May 13th, 2006 12:57 pm (UTC)
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It would be completely impractical to actually know, but I wonder about everybody who buys my books, and what their experiences with them are. It really is so intense, what readers bring to books, and how they shape a book's life in the world -- and how important (in so many different ways) a single reader's experience with a book can be.
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