Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
Kim Fu is the author of the novel For Today I Am a Boy and the poetry collection How Festive the Ambulance. andrea bennett is a National Magazine Award-winning nonfiction writer and the author of Canoodlers (prose poetry). They met in 2009 at the University of British Columbia Creative Writing MFA program, and frequently collaborate on longform features for outlets including The Atlantic, Hazlitt, and Maisonneuve. This is the second instalment of a two-part conversation.
Kim Fu: Are there other things that give you pause, or challenge you, when it comes to writing your body? I know, for example, you’ve written and published poems about your breasts (and a poem about writing poems about your breasts!) and how you saw your mother’s body while you were growing up. What’s it like to share these in public? How does it feel to see them in print? How does it feel to read them on stage?
andrea bennett: There’s a freedom in poetry for me that doesn’t exist in nonfiction. So yeah—I once wrote a poem about being in the bathtub, my breasts floating at the surface while I chatted with Theodor Adorno; more recently, I wrote a poem for Poetry Is Dead that is essentially about how my breasts are living ghosts to me—one day I’ll have surgery to remove them. At the same time, there are moments in my life when I’ve decided to play up or play into how curvy my body is and what people expect of that curviness. Poetry seems like a better space than nonfiction for fluidity and contradiction, and my relationship to my body, or my embodiment of self, is nothing if not fluid and contradictory. With poetry, I feel more punk: fuck it, I’m going to mobilize the shame that’s been put on me at various times in my life and I’m going to perform it for you. It’s a bit of a rush to to read one of those poems on stage.
I see the poems about my mother’s body differently—they’re emotionally complicated to read, and I need to get into a space where I can allow for the “I” in those poems to be a bit mean, a bit flawed. I don’t know that I’ll ever have enough distance from that particular relationship to have anything but a flawed perspective. I wanted to be honest about who I was as a kid with an emotionally abusive, alcoholic mother—definitely not a perfect victim, definitely angry, definitely someone who had femininity foisted on them and responded to femininity more globally than was required. I don’t regret writing those poems, because as a reader I’m always searching for stories that reflect what I experienced.
I saw a movie last night in Montreal, called Rams, about two brothers in their sixties or so who are sheep farmers in Iceland. Over the course of the movie, both brothers appear naked or near-naked several times. The nakedness isn’t sexualized, and it’s not always about vulnerability; sometimes it’s just there. The men are just two old white Icelandic men, beards and lumps and all. For everything I’ve said, there’s another truth about the way I live in my own body: I’m mostly okay with it. When I see myself in the mirror I’m okay with the particular combination of tallish and plumpish and whitish pink that I see reflected. One thing I’ve noticed is that written bodies in fiction—literary and mass-market—are often just as flawless as the ones we see on billboards or in Hollywood movies. Even when there’s diversity in skin tone or fatness or gender, it’s like a managed diversity. It often feels like a hot-person version of Mr. Potato Head, where one element is allowed to deviate from the “ideal” but the central structure remains the same. Whenever bodily representations diverge from this—in Girls, in Viola Davis’s in-front-of-the-mirror moments in How to Get Away with Murder—it still feels so revelatory. I’m hard-pressed right now to think of literary examples that have felt as freeing to me—where a body that is not an “ideal” body gets to exist in moment as something other than a moral conundrum or a plot point or an object of desire. Is this just a me problem? Am I forgetting something?
KF: One book that comes to mind right away is the blockbuster novel Dietland, by Sarai Walker (full disclosure: Walker and I share an editor). While I didn’t love everything about that book—the satirical elements feel a little bit outdated and simplistic, ignorant of the current generation of feminist thought—the parts about inhabiting a larger body felt wholly revelatory to me, the best depiction I’d ever seen. It was brutally accurate, in her disordered thinking about her value and her life; her mistreatment by the people around her from the time she’s very young; the mechanics of an exploitative weight loss industry. And her character arc is one of empowerment and joy, WITHOUT losing weight, WITHOUT a saviour-dude who sees her inner beauty, without any of that bullshit. Her happy ending is not a fucking makeover. The prison she frees herself from is not her body, but all the shit that has been laid upon her because of her body.
Some other books have come out in this vein that I haven’t read yet—13 Ways of Looking at Fat Girl by Mona Awad has been getting positive reviews. But that doesn’t answer your question, because these books are explicitly about dealing with weight. It’s not incidental or casual, like the on-screen nudity you mentioned.
Oh! Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park! It’s a lovely YA romance, and the characters aren’t conventional romantic leads in lots of ways, including that Eleanor is a “big girl.” They’re not at all Mr. Potato Heads with a single flaw-not-really-a-flaw plugged in (I totally hear you on that), they’re complex teenagers who have a variety of hangups and struggles (including class, race, and the more fine-grain and esoteric differences that teenagers use to organize each other), who are disparaged and discouraged by the world in believable ways, and it’s a very sweet, very true-to-adolescence love story.
I can make longer lists for aging bodies, bodies of colour, and gender-variant bodies, but they’re mostly “managed deviations” in exactly the way you describe. The bodies in literary and mass market fiction are absolutely idealized and exclusionary. Do you think this is changing in TV and movies, and do you think books will follow suit? What needs to happen to make this possible?
ab: You just reminded me of a book I read recently—it’s a hetero-romance with a male narrator and a female object of desire but it actually feels nice. The man likes the woman’s body and the woman’s body doesn’t seem model-perfect and the man respects the woman and you can feel it in his gaze. Again, shouldn’t feel revelatory and heartwarming, but it did. The book is Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter.
andrea bennett’s Canoodlers (Nightwood Editions, 2014)
I’m not sure if this is changing in TV and movies. Maybe things in North America reached peak bad and now they’re receding? I feel like there’s always been more latitude for men, but oddly enough, there’s been a recent trend to have all the men get hotter and hotter and not age, either. I grew up watching British TV, which is better at casting normal-looking people. America is obsessed with braces and tooth whitening and hair removal and symmetry and thinness and it makes things rather boring.
The publishing industry should probably wake up to the fact that readers who don’t normally get to see themselves reflected in books get so stoked and buy the books and hype the books when something that reflects what they know and experience of the world hits the shelves. I’m not sure, but I feel like writers probably tend to remove the “complications” of their bodies when they write themselves. I feel like I see a lot of sinew and creamy collarbone on the page, and a lot of normal average adult on the stage. People have a right, of course, to write what they want! And there’s nothing inherently more natural or interesting about a lumpy body than a thin one. I’d just like to see more variety. I’ve given gentle feedback in workshop when it seems relevant, now that I think about it—“hey, all the women in your book seem to be white and thin? consider varying?”
And speaking of how we transform when we write ourselves: you often write poetry from the perspective of monstrous characters. Do these characters embody part of the way you see yourself in the world and the way you feel the world sees you?
KF: Oh boy. Let me start with something concrete: the voice in my head has always been very deep, about an octave deeper than what someone else hears. I mean, literally, the sound of my voice when I speak. I think it’s something about the shape of my skull and the reverberation.
On top of that, I’m physically strong for my size. I used to pick people up as a party trick—bigger and bigger dudes would have me lift them, yelping about how they’d crush me. When I was young, I misunderstood the situation; I thought I was strong for anyone, of any size. And therefore I could take anybody in a fight (hah!), and there was no reason to be afraid of any situation.
I also thought—I don’t know how to explain this—that I was sexless and shapeless somehow, like a brain on a stick or a gingerbread man. Like I could walk down the street naked and nobody would care.
I didn’t yet know there were older white men obsessed with young Asian girls who would harass me at the laundromat or on the train or follow me home from the movie theatre. I didn’t know I would be seen as a “young Asian girl” at all. I didn’t understand that, while I might do okay if I were arm wrestling only women of my height and weight, the average man can just pick me up and carry me under his arm like a football. I did martial arts, and it only highlighted how poorly the little I can do translates into real-world situations. I have been as fit as I think is possible for my body, six-pack and veiny biceps and all (I’m now back to being a squishy couch person), and it still didn’t change the more immediately salient qualities about me, the things that other people saw first.
The monsters I write are sometimes just my worst thoughts made into whole characters, the kind of violent or petty or self-aggrandizing thoughts I think anyone has. Sometimes they’re monsters I have known. Sometimes it’s me missing the delusion that I used to be under, that I was big and strong and scary. And safe. And that if I saw myself as big and strong and scary, other people would as well.
ab: Does the way we write ourselves affect the way people see us?
KF: No, but it’s another comfort of being an artist, I think. That you also get to exist in an alternate plane, on top of this one where we’re trapped by our labels and sacks of meat.
Kim Fu and andrea bennett are contributors to a month long series on writing the body.