"Fat Chance, Charlie Vega" is the first novel by Crystal Maldonado. It's a young adult rom-com about a smart high school girl named Charlie who struggles with her body image. She's long lived in the shadow of her beautiful best friend — that is, until Charlie gets the chance to be the star of her own love story.
Maldonado, who works in marketing at UMass Amherst, said she always enjoyed romance novels growing up, but the heroines never looked like her.
Crystal Maldonado, author: A lot of the protagonists were these blond, thin, beautiful, white girls who were described, and they were a delight, but I look nothing like that. So I am Puerto Rican. I'm brown. I'm fat. I have glasses and curly hair. And I just was like, “Wow, I would love to read a story where the main character shares some of the qualities with me.”
Karen Brown, NEPM: It sounds like you really wanted to talk about the theme of fat acceptance from both a personal level — how an individual, overweight woman would feel about herself — as well as culturally, helping people from the outside looking at people who are fat or overweight in a more accepting way.
Absolutely. So not everybody who picks up this book is fat. And I think that's great. The people who aren't plus size, who aren't overweight and who still are able to relate to Charlie — I want it to feel like Charlie is their friend, and now maybe they understand her. And I know that, as the resident fat friend, that any friend who is willing to put that work in and effort in, I am so appreciative of. It just it really makes a world of difference.
I was really intrigued by the relationship between Charlie and her mother, which was very fraught. There was certainly affection there, but her mother really didn't get her and was kind of cruel in a lot of ways — certainly around her weight but around some other things. How did that plot come to you? Why was that an important thing to bring in?
Families are complicated and they come in all different types. And sometimes there are ups and there are also downs. And sometimes the people around us, like with Charlie's mom, have good intentions but the execution isn't so great. And we sort of see that with Charlie, where she and her mom are at odds at times. And it feels like Charlie's mom doesn't get her.
And I think that's like a universal feeling when you're a teenager; you're supposed to feel like people don't get you. But it does go deeper for her, too. She experiences this push and pull with her parent. And so I wanted to show that in a book, and show that other people experience this. And also, it's OK. And you'll figure out your boundaries and you'll kind of figure out how to make it work.
What went into your decisions around dealing with race and ethnicity? Because I thought it was very nuanced and subtle, and that was not the main themes that that you were dealing with. But you talk about the character being part Puerto Rican, there is an issue of your Black best friend. But again, it was not front and center. So how did the thinking go with that?
So I really wanted to create a cast of characters in this book that felt like any group of friends that you could find in a lot of high schools. So even in schools like Charlie's that are predominantly white, we see — and there have been studies about the fact that a lot of the students of color or marginalized students tend to group together because of their comfort. Right? Like they feel like, “Oh, I don't necessarily have much in common with my peers. So we're all feeling marginalized, so we're all going to go together.”
So I wanted to make this group that they just kind of understood each other, I think, on a really deep level and handle and tackle some of these things like discrimination. And what do some of those smaller things look like? What does internalized racism look like? So there’s a scene with Charlie where she's talking about how sometimes she would think that she's more, quote-unquote, “more educated” than her Spanish-speaking cousins because she didn't speak with an accent or because she knew what an Oxford comma was. And it took her a while to challenge those beliefs.
It wasn't a book that was about racial relations. But I also think you can't — if you are a person of color — you can't divorce your experience in the world from how the world perceives you.