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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

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
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 Brown 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.
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