REVIEW: #DIETLAND by Sarai Walker @QueSaraiSera
AMBER LOVE 05-JUNE-2015 Content like this is supported by backers at Patreon.com/amberunmasked. Rarely has their been a book that sucks me so deeply into its world that I want to stay in bed reading it until I’m done. That’s how DIETLAND was for me as a reading experience. Author Sarai Walker’s debut novel has been the talk of the town on feeds like NPR and MSNBC and truly, it deserves the highest honors. In a nutshell, if you’re looking for a feminist version of FIGHT CLUB, this is it. (Published by Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt.)
That’s not to say that DIETLAND is some kind of copy with only the genders changed. It’s an isolated call to revolution for girls and women all over the globe. The call is to push back. Push back against the barrage of media images of the “perfect female” that are in every book, show, storefront, and billboard. Push back when confronted by people who laugh at you and mock for not conforming. Push back because you’re not thin enough or white enough but love who you are. Push back when you are a victim to find your power, take your own breath, and give yourself a name.
I know I’m not the only one who writes or highlights in books. I never did this often except for textbooks to study. But once in a while, another kind of book would get me to mark it up so I can easily find passages. I remember as a kid we were allowed to do that with our own Bibles. I’ve done it a lot more with my witchcraft books and encyclopedias. With a Kindle, highlighting and notes are possible too (you might not realize that if you don’t have one); so let me confess that there’s an absolute ton of passages in DIETLAND that are colored bright yellow on my Kindle copy from NetGalley. If it hadn’t been for NetGalley, I might not ever have gotten to DIETLAND at all.
And one other general congratulations on this – the book design by Greta D. Sibley. The cupcake grenade and cheerful robin’s egg blue with aged and vintage texture are aces.
MAIN CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT – PLUM
DIETLAND is a book that reads like a memoir from Plum’s point of view. When we meet the protagonist, she tells readers that she’s around 300 pounds. The first quarter of the book is about how Plum lives her life as a ghost writer to one of the fashion/beauty industry’s most visible people, Daisy Chain teen magazine editor Kitty.
Is it possible for just any reader to relate to a white woman who gets to live in her uncle’s gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone apartment with cheap rent? I’m not sure, but Plum develops as a character and if you give her a chance, you may find yourself noticing connections either to you or to life around you. The first chunk of the DIETLAND is really about getting to know her and you get every single thought about how dissatisfied she is with her body and her career. At first, she thought the career was perfect. She could answer Dear Kitty emails all day long from home or a cafe and rarely step foot into the phallic Austen media tower in midtown Manhattan, filled with all the beautiful people.
Plum may even be a virgin, and I’m pretty sure she is. One of the early pieces of information about her is a look inside her heartbreak when boys would ask her out only for them to not show because they did it as a prank. Plum’s rejection for the world around her drove her to endless thoughts of self hate and suicidal speculations.
One of the areas that were dead-on accurate for me was how Plum would analyze her food. I went through years of this too. You didn’t see a sandwich. You saw “sandwich, 450 calories” or “breath mint, 5” or the awful single serving frozen meals, shakes and pills of diet plans. You see numbers not nourishment. Hunger, she saw as death, and she was hardly ever without it hovering over her and growling inside her. She would go from days without eating to days of eating everything in sight. Subtly, as Plum is at her lowest and starting to rebuild herself, those haunting caloric calculations go away.
Plum would judge her career and what she saw as failing at success.
“When I was around women who had grown-up lives, the kind of life I thought I should have, I felt suspended in time, like an animal floating in a jar of formaldehyde.”
The early chapters version of Plum, she was completely convinced that if she could only get to 125 pounds, she’d be happy. We learn that Plum’s legal name is Alicia. Alicia is that thin woman waiting to come out and live a full life. Alicia would be achieved with surgery since years of Waist Watchers, the Baptist Diet Plan, and other dieting never allowed her to be possible.
The women that come into Plum’s life turn her world upside-down. They are women of different ages, ethnicities and shapes, and they’re connected to the Calliope House, a sort of crash pad for women who need to sort out their shit. It was because another Austen media employee, Julia, had sent the punk nonconformist Leeta to follow Plum around and determine if she was right for their cause, that brought Plum to Calliope House. Leeta gave a book to Plum, Adventures in Dietland by Verena Baptist. Verena is the daughter of the woman who made millions off the creation of an unhealthy system much like the Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and Atkins of today.
Verena makes a deal with Plum: stay with her and go through five tasks and get $20,000 or take the $20,000 and continue with her plans for surgery. Plum accepts the challenges even though they put her at the most vulnerable she’s ever been. Challenge four was to go on four blind dates where she was humiliated time after time. Plum wanted love. She wanted to be loved. She wanted to know that if she could lose the weight, love would find her. She never believed anyone could date her and love her at 300 pounds and after those blind dates, she felt validated.
AM I TALKING ABOUT “STRONG” FEMALE CHARACTERS AGAIN? YES!
During a conversation between the women, Sana tells Plum that Marlowe believes she’s strong.
“She described you as a survivor.” ~Sana
This is something Walker may have intended to only reflect upon on her protagonist’s tenacity; but what I took from it is what I think a lot of writers need drilled into their heads – STRONG IS NOT ABOUT MUSCLES.
Just this week, I saw two of my male friends say something on Twitter about “strong” and “sexy” women – they both said they see it as the same thing and for that, I wanted to bash my beloved intelligent friends in the face. Walker’s character Plum (and the other women) are “strong female characters” and only a couple of the entire lot are “kickass” types of women. The ones that are happen to also be the ones in the Armed Forces. Women who sit behind their keyboards and weigh “too much” are perfectly capable as being called strong even though most people wouldn’t call them sexy. I’ve never heard anyone call actor Melissa McCarthy sexy – only funny or maybe pretty.
I was glad that once the Calliope House and its women were presented, DIETLAND finally got out of its whiteness. That’s how I saw it. I saw Plum, Leeta, Verena, and Marlowe as white. Verena in fact is the pinnacle of whiteness in her paleness and blonde hair. I picture Leeta like a Ksenia Solo (Lost Girl) or Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). For whatever it’s worth, I saw Verena Baptist as Holly Hunter because I just finished watching TOP OF THE LAKE on Netflix and her character creates a commune for women like Calliope House in mission, but out in the wilderness.
I also pictured Julia as a white woman, but it’s revealed far into the book, that Julia was pretending – passing as white; she has a black mother that she kept secret from the powers of Austen media.
Another key figure from Calliope House is Sana. It’s no secret that Sana is Middle Eastern. She becomes like the heart of Calliope House. She’s disfigured and if not for half her face being marred by fire, she would have been “exotically beautiful” as they say of women of color.
Rubi, I’m not sure about. She’s not as key of a figure as Sana. It’s possible she’s another woman of color.
Marlowe is a former hot actress who gets fat and becomes an author of books like Fuckability Theory. She’s the woman that kicks Plum into action. Plum gets onto Verena’s “New Baptist Plan” only because of Marlowe’s influence. She’s like an enzyme that is crucial to transforming one chemical into something else.
WHO IS JENNIFER?
DIETLAND readers will be questioning themselves on theories of Jennifer the whole way. Jennifer is the name given to an unknown assailant who has taken justice into her own hands. Throughout the book, you are given news articles and snippets of talk show hosts who talk about the mysterious Jennifer. Leeta’s face becomes the trademark – her face represents Jennifer (my own version of it below).
What was at first a vigilante attack against two known rapists, leads to a larger attack against twelve men. Then other attacks begin to happen around the world and this becomes known as The Jennifer Effect.
Here’s where the similarity to FIGHT CLUB is obvious with Project Mayhem and the call to take back power. The difference is The Jennifer Effect is not about the financial or political kind of power per se. The only financial fight for feminists is, of course, how they rarely make as much money as men doing the same job. Women don’t have the bank accounts that warrant power. But really The Jennifer Effect is about social power – shutting down the messages about beauty ideals.
There are constant worries that Jennifer is planning larger scale violent attacks and barricades get erected around the Austen media skyscraper just in case. The towering building is feared to be a possible target because of an anonymous letter sent to the Los Angeles Times. The letter contained 100 names called the “Penis Blacklist” and on it, was the name of CEO Stanley Austen. The contemptuous fakery of Austen media publications comes to light; things like inventing a fake expert doctor to espouse that “it was natural for men to cheat and for women to be overly emotional and like the color pink.”
Because of the Jennifer mystery, readers are introduced to a subsection of characters like Luz, a young rape and suicide victim; her mother Soledad, an honored veteran; Missy Tompkins and Agnes, other “traditionally” badass women; and few news anchors.
Readers will be thrilled wondering who Jennifer is – if she’s an individual mastermind or a group – following the web of connections back to Calliope House. How could all these women be connected? Did one person issue orders? What does this have to do with Plum’s decisions about dieting?
As citizens and politicians refer to Jennifer as a terrorist organization, talk show host Nolo Larson King explains:
“We’re [women] told not to go out by ourselves at night, not to dress a certain way, not to talk to male strangers, not to lead men on. We take self-defense classes, keep our doors locked, carry pepper spray and rape whistles. The fear of men is ingrained in us from girlhood. Isn’t that a form of terrorism?”
One of the Jennifer actions is taking on the video game industry. While we all probably recognize that there’s been harassment in gaming culture for a long time and poor treatment of female characters, it was only in 2014 when conservative actor Adam Baldwin named it GamerGate, that we were given a label for it. GG originally was about a specific case (you know which one) but less than a year later, it’s a brand – and Jennifer is the brand fighting it. And Jennifer is not about to back down. Walker doesn’t use the GG name, but if you’ve been around the pop culture sphere, you’ll recognize that’s what she’s talking about.
There is a fair amount of sexual assault discussed because of the victimization of young Luz. There’s also the humiliation that Plum experienced where fellow students learning about “rape prevention” say Plum and girls like her would never be raped (see part three of my writer’s guide about this). Sarai Walker brings this discussion to readers fully real and grounded. Just watch a couple seasons of CRIMINAL MINDS and you’ll see that victims are always “perfect” women – pretty, able-bodied, meeting specific criteria. In reality, women from toddler-age to senior citizens are victimized. I’ve never seen a fictional program address elder rape, but it does make the news once in a while.
Walker chooses to use a 12-year-old character who is separated from her mother; it’s that difficult adolescent time when girls are blamed for their behavior and called sluts because they are following the models presented to them in every form of entertainment.
Walker does not fear pointing out hypocrisy and brainwashing that we are fed. At one point, she even has characters called “lesbians” because that’s considered an insult.
“As far as he was concerned, if I didn’t make his man parts happy, I had no reason to exist.” – Plum
The porn industry is also examined in DIETLAND because of the murder of porn star Stella Cross and her husband. The character Marlowe used mainstream porn to help her formulate Fuckability Theory. Inside Calliope House, she built a porn room – all the walls and ceilings covered in monitors streaming Porn Hub.
“Does wanting to make yourself fuckable mean turning yourself into that?” – Plum
I do get defensive of the porn industry even though, like the character Marlowe said, there is a great deal to hate. I hate the artificial bodies and the unhealthy sex that leaves women needing surgery to repair their natural orifices. I hate the lies of the porn industry; but I enjoy porn as entertainment and a sexual aide just like most people. What’s being attacked and examined in DIETLAND is truly about “mainstream” porn. There is porn that women like. There’s also porn for the LGBTQ communities that violate the barriers of being convenient orifices for men. You just have to find what you like. But essentially, since the mainstream is what wins awards and what you mostly would find on tumblr or any internet search, I agree with the way Walker wrote Marlowe and her disdain for the industry.
Plum also goes through medication withdrawal from an anti-depressant. The symptoms she experiences felt real and believable. There are times when you may wonder if what Plum is seeing is real or a hallucination. Walker doesn’t leave you hanging and addresses it when Plum is ready. Plum’s detox is hard (and a lot like mine was in ways). Getting off that garbage medication is truly a battle and can cost you your life – with considering taking your own life, causing terrible behavior so you lose your job and your family, making you so irrational risky behavior takes over.
“Without my pain, I wouldn’t be me anymore.” ~Plum
The Dear Kitty emails tackle a lot of triggering topics. They are emails from young girls writing to someone for advice. They include a lot of self harm and self hate.
Julia, the cosmetics keeper of Austen magazines and visitor of Calliope House, is anorexic and bulimic. She’s trying so hard to look like her coworkers that she punishes herself constantly.
WHO IS DIETLAND FOR?
It’s easy for me to say EVERYONE! But it does contain triggering content and mature themes. It’s not only for “chicks” to read – in fact, I hope to Hell male students are forced to read it if it’s not banned by uptight school boards and parents. Yes, everyone (13+) should read it.
Also, as I mentioned, FIGHT CLUB fans are definitely going to enjoy this. Another fan base that would LOVE LOVE LOVE reading DIETLAND and following Sarai Walker’s activities, are the fierce fans of BITCH PLANET, the comic series by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine deLandro, and their Image Comics team.
“Foxy, hot, fuckable. Whatever it was called, that’s what I wanted – to be hot, to elicit desire in men and envy in women. But I realized I didn’t want that anymore. That required living in Dietland, which meant control, constriction – paralysis, even – but above all it meant obedience. I was tired of being obedient.” ~Plum
Fuck yeah! Go, Plum!
So as I have seen many comic fans brand themselves in real and fake tattoos with the BITCH PLANET “Non-Compliant” logo, I can see the same for DIETLAND fans stamping themselves and not hiding that they are JENNIFER.