Susan Stinson’s (she/her) writing is a gift to fat people everywhere. I know because what typically happens is I pick up a book with a promising plot with a fat protagonist, but feel so let down that instead I grab another Stinson book off my TBR. What makes other writers so disappointing in their depiction of fat people, and women in particular? For women who think they are so close to being that “ideal” size 2 to 6 in the U.S., being a size 12 to 18 is a major disappointment. So close, yet so “fat”! Consider Bridget Jones telling us she weighs a horrifying 136 pounds. Actor Renée Zellweger had to put on 30 pounds to play the role.
Have you ever visited someone recently returned home from a cruise so they can show you their new vacation photo album for an hour and point out how fat they are in every picture? I have. Have you ever listened to someone complain about how hangry they are for two hours only to head out on their hour-long lunch break to eat a (singular) banana? I have. Anyway, back to Susan Stinson.
What is Venus of Chalk about? First, some context for the title. Carline, our fat lesbian protagonist living in Massachusetts, has a Venus of Willendorf statue that double as an ashtray. Chalk is a city in Texas where Carline’s aunt Frankie lives. When Frankie’s dear friend passes away, Carline decides to get to Texas and takes her ashtray with her. Venus OF Chalk implies that Carline is the Venus figure and she’s originally from Chalk, Texas.
So, how does Carline end up in Texas? Partner Lillian gives a good summary when she lists her concerns over the phone:
Carline, you quit your job without even talking to me about it, told me you burned yourself, took off for Texas, and now it’s no big deal? I know you’re trying to help Frankie, but that’s not the whole story.
Originally, I had thought the entirety of Venus of Chalk would be Carline’s road trip to Texas. Disliking driving, Carline rides the bus daily. When her regular driver, Tucker, tells her he’ll be gone for a few days, she wants to know why. He explains that the bus they’re riding is deemed “old” and will be sold at auction in Texas. Tucker’s going to drive it down there. Thinking about Frankie in Texas, and how much shame she feels flying as a fat person, Carline asks if she can ride along. And another regular passenger, Mel, a man who wears suits but appears to have zero agenda, wants to go, too. Sort of a “why not?” attitude. The three set off across the country.
But that’s only the first third or so of the novel. While this isn’t a total road trip book, Stinson captures being on the road with the kinds of details I don’t often see in fiction. Stuff that may not be important but makes each character feel human. On a break at a rest stop, Carline sees an old penny in the dirt, so she digs it out with her fingernail. When she goes to use the payphone, she pushes the little metal door to see if someone left any change, she pokes at the door as she talks, she leaves the penny in the change door as a “present” for the next person. My brain clung to details like these; in fact, I can’t remember if Carline called her partner or her aunt because the totally immersive details about the penny and the payphone consumed me.
When the bus driver, Carline, and Mel stop at a restaurant, she impulsively tells them they should pray before they eat, despite Carline not being religious. Why would she do that? Is it the location, that they are strangers on a “family” trip, what? But the scene brings to life the awkwardness of human beings without a tidy explanation:
When the food came, I grabbed Mel’s cuff, and said, “Grace.” It was another gesture from my aunt’s table. I was forcing the men into family conventions with me.
Mel let me grasp him. Tucker, tipping the catsup bottle, looked at us. He said, “I’m not Christian.”
Me shrugged and offered his hand. “I”ll try anything.”
Tucker regarded Mel’s hand for a moment as it hung in the air, then took it and said, “Now what?”
I leaned across the table to catch his wrist, careful not to get my breasts in the gravy. “Nothing denominational.” I felt giddy, winging it. None of this was habit. . . . “I’ll count to three and say ‘amen.'”
I wondered, why is Carline forcing this awkward exchange? Tucker isn’t Christian, Mel is up for anything, but both men are strangers to her other than being her bus driver and a guy who rides the same route as she. And yet I loved it. I almost got a sense of Carline making two men feel awkward on purpose as a form of silliness or even retribution for those who made her afraid for being fat and/or a lesbian.
All the bodies in Venus of Chalk are clear to me, from Lillian and Carline being a fat couple, to Carline being fat like her Aunt Frankie, to Mel’s big middle-age male belly, to Tucker’s legs in cut-off jeans. Once, when Carline thinks Tucker is trying to humiliate her for her body, she grabs her belly and shakes it at him hard, asking if that is what he thinks is so funny.
I think body awareness is interesting in fiction because most of the time we are picturing a default thin white woman. Even if we’re told what a character looks like in the beginning, eventually, her body dissolves back into that of a thin white woman because we forget. Typically, we don’t experience the body, just the internal state of a character, and that’s a shame. Consider when Carline sits on a chair at Frankie’s house, and the chair folds up under her and she lands on the ground, spilling tea everywhere. Frankie says, “I hate it when that happens.”
CW: self-harm, fatphobia