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Northampton's Susan Stinson wants to add 'fat lesbian home economist' to canon of literature themes

Susan Stinson Photo by Jeep Wheat Mt Sugarloaf Connecticut River .jpeg
Jeep Wheat
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Provided by Susan Stinson
Susan Stinson is a writer based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Northampton, Massachusetts, writer Susan Stinson's new e-book, "Venus of Chalk," takes place largely on a bus trip from western Massachusetts to Texas.

The main character, Carline, has taken a break from her partner Lilian, and decides to join her aunt for a memorial service.

During and after the trip, Carline tries to find peace in her body. Stinson describes Carline as a “fat lesbian” and resists the use of euphemisms for the term "fat."

“Of course, there's all sorts of cultural charge around it,” Stinson said in a recent interview for NEPM's summer fiction series. “It can be hard to start using it, but I experience it as a simple descriptive term, like brown hair, blue eyes.”

Stinson explained why she wanted to use a road-trip narrative, which she was familiar with in other literature, from "Don Quixote" to Jack Kerouac's “On the Road.”

Susan Stinson, author: It'd been a format mostly written by men — the midlife crisis story road trip. So I was interested in taking that up from a woman's perspective, specifically a fat, lesbian, home economist.

Karen Brown, NEPM: Why is that the lens that you wanted to tell this story through?

Well, I have a lot of home economists in my family. The fat lesbian part is — it's been one of my big impulses ever since I started writing, or at least publishing, to try to bring some of those experiences into literature.

I'm a fat lesbian myself, and I'm certainly not the first person to say that until a culture has dealt with an experience in literature, it really hasn't even begun to grapple with it.

Were there parts of this book that felt therapeutic for you? I mean, there are some really painful scenes in this story, often around the issue of body size — like the main character getting aggressively harassed with cigarette butts by some young people.

You know, it doesn't feel therapeutic to me. It feels more political or revelatory. Because I was seriously trying to answer that question about how I came to love my own body, I wanted to start with someone who was in the most painful situation that I could imagine.

It's also a story about grief. Was that something that you were dealing with at the time or is that a topic that is pretty timeless to you, and most of us?

A friend of mine who had lost her parents once said to me that she was surprised that I was so empathetic and aware of her grief process, because I still have — I'm in my 60s and both my parents are still alive and healthy. It's amazing. And I haven't had a lot of intense experiences of grief except for, of course, we're all right now going through a very cultural experience of massive grief.

But I did grow up fat, and young fat people are in general treated very badly, even [having] loving families and all that — you know, at least my experience. So I had to develop a relationship with deep experiences of sadness and loss.

Who do you see as your primary audience for this book? Is it a community of lesbians, a community of fat people, people who are neither of those things and might benefit from understanding more about that population?

Karen, I always wanted to be Shakespeare. So I really do want everyone to be able to experience this book and take from it whatever they take from it. Yeah, that's the answer to that question.

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998. Her features and documentaries have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, Third Coast Audio Festival Award, and the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize.
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