We asked 'Dietland' author Sarai Walker what she'd change about the world. Her answer is glorious.
We’ve already written about how Dietland is an important, absorbing meditation on rape culture, body image and sexism in America. But we’re still not over Sarai Walker’s groundbreaking book. Not in the least. So we decided to ask Walker about her writing process, her advice for other women and a few other burning questions we couldn’t hold back on.
HelloGiggles: What makes you angry?
Sarai Walker: There are so many issues to be angry about in a society filled with inequality, injustice and violence. Dietland explores some of the things that make me angry: sexism/misogyny, fat-shaming. Writing the novel was an exercise in facing what makes me angry, facing painful things, and not looking away. It’s not easy to do that.
HG: What is essential knowledge about the world that you think more people need to know?
SW: This is tough to answer because it’s so subjective, but I suppose Dietland was really my attempt to put something out into the world that expresses some essential truths as I see them.
HG: Why did you decide to get a PhD in English?
SW: I must admit that my reasons for getting a PhD weren’t very well thought out. I was unhappy with my life and wanted to make a radical change. Moving to London and studying for a Ph.D. gave me the change I craved. Thankfully it all worked out in the end, despite the burden of student loans. The topic of my dissertation evolved a lot over time, but I ended up researching and writing about consciousness-raising, the ‘personal is political,’ and 1970s feminist fiction. Dietland is really a reinvention of those kinds of 1970s novels.
HG: There have been some parallels made about Dietland and Fight Club. When did you first read/watch Fight Club?
SW: I first saw the film Fight Club upon its release in October of 1999. I didn’t read the book until several years later.
HG: Do you want to create a fight club with me?
SW: If you want to fight about ideas, then I’m all in! But I would prefer not to punch anyone…
HG: What sort of reactions have you received about the book?
SW: The critical reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and I must admit this has surprised me. I expected a more polarized reaction. The reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads are more divided, I guess. Dietland explores issues that are very personal, issues about the body and identity, and so everyone brings their own life experiences to it. I think that complicates the way people read it. From my experience, people who love the book really love it. Many readers have told me they found it transformative. Some readers get really pissed off, but that’s OK too. It’s an in-your-face book and inspires strong reactions.
Thinsplainers are one group of pissed-off readers. They make comments like: “But don’t you know that being fat is unhealthy!” I always want to reply: “Gee, in my whole life as a fat person, no one has ever said that. Thanks for enlightening me!” One thing to understand about thinsplainers is that their way of thinking isn’t very complex.
HG: You’ve lived in several cities — what has that been like? What differences did you notice?
SW: As an adult I’ve been lucky enough to live in major cities including New York City, Boston, London and Paris, as well as other, more low-key places. I am a nomad at heart. I keep saying to myself and to everyone I know that I want to find a place to settle down, but, I think, deep down the thought of doing that terrifies me. Perhaps I like being the perpetual outsider.
One difference I noticed between the USA and Europe is the staggering amount of sexism in the media there, at least in the UK and France, where I lived. The American media is bad, but it’s not as bad as that. I also experienced a lot more fat-shaming abroad. In general, while living and traveling in Europe, I felt as if my body was public property in a way that I had never experienced before. This surprised me and certainly influenced Dietland.
One thing I liked about living in Europe is the respect paid to writers and literary culture. It seemed to me that literature is treated more seriously there, particularly in continental Europe. Novels and novelists are a vital part of the culture, whereas here in the USA everyone seems obsessed with pop stars and movie stars and reality TV figures.
HG: If you had a ton of power and money, what would you change about the world?
SW: One of the things I’d change is the plight of so many girls around the world. I’d love for every girl to receive an education and to have bodily autonomy. I’d love to free young women from being forced/compelled to marry men or have sex with them for survival. I’d love a world where girls could grow up to decide their own destiny. I don’t think money or power could achieve all those things, but I can dream.
HG: What were you doing when writing this novel? How did you keep yourself motivated?
SW: Writing a novel is a long slog. Dietland took years to write and my life circumstances changed a lot during that time, including living in three different countries, studying for a Ph.D. and working different jobs. The most intense writing periods occurred while I was living abroad and I think it was helpful to be an expat during that time – it allowed me to cut myself off from the world I had known and focus mostly on writing. I developed an obsessive focus that wasn’t always healthy, but it’s the obsession that kept me motivated. I needed to express something through Dietland and I wouldn’t rest until I achieved that vision.
HG: Do you have any advice for women who read this novel?
SW: Buckle your seatbelts, it’s going to be a wild ride! This isn’t a “beach read” (although of course it can be read on a beach), it’s not a “woman’s novel” or “chick lit” (sexist terms I hate, by the way). It’s something radically new.
(Images via Sarai Walker’s Instagram)