Big Girl -Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

NOTE: I listened to an audio version of this novel that I received via Netgalley. It does not look like this is available for the public.

Big Girl is the story of Malaya, daughter of Nayala and Percy (Pro or Prah) initially at age 8 -168 pounds – living in a Brownstone in Harlem and attending Weight Watchers with her mother. All big girls know, that in order to eat, you lie. And in order to get really, really big, you eat greasy food, sugary food, quantities of food. You eat during the night. You eat because it makes pain go away or because it brings joy. To the world, you are the big girl, the fat girl. To doctors, you are morbidly obese. Children tease you, except for your friends. To your overweight mother, you are her shame. But no one, is just the body she presents to the world. Sullivan blends together the story of having ones severe weight issues be all the world sees with that of a human being, going about her life, growing up, with talents and friends and loving parents in a discordant marriage.

Malaya is smart. She attends a private school for gifted students, traveling by bus with her friend Shauniece, who brings her food to share from her father’s Bodega every day. Malaya is a talented artist. She wins a major prize for her work in a local art program. She spends time in her room at her easel, drawing, painting, creating with the passion only artists know. Malaya is proud of her mother, a college professor with an advanced degree and the respect of her students, if not her male white colleagues. Malaya is close to her father, a computer whiz, who conspires to feed her food Nayala has forbidden and who is the more loving, nurturing parent, less critical than her mother. Nayala has a role model for this, her mother (Ma Mere) who spends and spent a lot of time being critical of her daughter and now her granddaughter, particularly around issues of food and weight. Throughout this novel, Malaya keeps gaining weight, past the 400 pounds of the scale in the gastric bypass surgeon’s office. Past anything she cares to find out.

And she listens to the music she loves and mourns the 1997 death of Biggie, along with her world. She finds a crowd as more students of color come to her school, crushing on one while embracing them all, “La Famille.” When hard things around her weight come up, she is in pain, but it is about how she experiences others’ hurtful behavior and at times, failure to see her. She has respect now, for her gifts but also is not considered as a potential love interest. She experiments in various ways but mostly the connection is not there or it is too confusing to pursue. She misses school for long periods. She experiences serious loss. She makes up stories for her therapist and eventually she finds s a desire to grow into who she is as a person. This is a coming of age story, among other things. It is also a phenomenal story, often painful, about how the world thinks it has the right to talk to obese people about their weight and to not bother to know the person. Because it is such an accurate depiction with so many characters who are complex and relatable, it can be hard to read. But it is also funny, sweet, touching and the story of a rebel who we know will make it from the very beginning. Who will be okay despite her challenges. You love her as the fat little kid in African Dance class; as the moody teenager; as the burgeoning cool person who is settling into herself. Truly a remarkable book.

I liked the audio version, including the narrator. Oddly, the sample offered on Netgalley of the audio did not demonstrate her notable skill in reading the book. It was just okay, but I wanted to get the book. I’m glad I went with it because the reader did a great job.

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