Venus of Chalk by Susan Stinson

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.”

So highly recommended, and you can get the newly-released e-book copy here or a paperback copy here.

CW: self-harm, fatphobia


  1. I really dislike nothing more than forced prayers. The last time it happened was at a block party the neighbor threw to get to know all the new neighbors. Myself and one other couple did not participate, and we immediately became friends because of it. (So, in this case it was a good thing?) Rob was once exiled from a company potluck because he refused to pray.
    My first memory of such a thing was my religious aunt and uncle forcing me to say Grace before dinner at their house. Since this wasn’t something we did at my house or my grandparents’ house, I parroted my grandpa when asked to say Grace and said, “Good bread, good meat, good God let’s eat!” I got in trouble but to this day, I don’t regret it. Lol.
    Anywho, back to the book, sounds like an intriguing read. My last road trip book was On the Road and I did not like it but that had nothing to do with the road trip aspect of it.


  2. This sounds like a great one – I love a road trip and random travel mates book and the fact the characters are present in their bodies and the little details sound so enticing.


    • I totally enjoy plot-driven books more than character-driven books, but I wonder if that would be different if more authors included details like Susan Stinson does. I’ll follow an interesting person who helps me see the world, but I won’t follow someone simply wandering through life.


  3. Great post Melanie … really enjoyed reading it … I’d like to tease out this “Typically, we don’t experience the body, just the internal state of a character, and that’s a shame”. I get where you are coming from and like that. On the other hand I also like the idea of downplaying body image and focusing on the inner person. Who they are and how that shows in their eyes (like Lizzie Bennet’s fine eyes is all I’m interested in unless it’s a novel about body image. Jane Austen in fact focused very little on the appearance of her characters. Lydia though is described as “stout” though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “stout” Lydia in adaptations, come to think of it, which says something eh?


    • Oh! I think I was not clear enough. It’s not only about what a body looks like, but how it is used throughout a story. What is it like to exist in that body. Less about what does that body look like.


        • When it’s not discussed, I have no idea how the person physically navigates the world other than the bare minimum of walk, running, etc. You don’t read much about sweating, about accidentally biting their tongue while eating, what if feels like to have one’s breasts pushed up against the restaurant table because the booth is too close, etc.


          • True … I’m trying to think about how important the physical is if the issues are character, values, etc. I sort of understand where you are coming from but I guess it’s like colour? We want to get to the situation where colour/race/body shape/ability are not commented on unless they are relevant to the story?


            • But people all look different, and I think that unless we see differences, we’re all seeing the same stock person moving around. If I’m playing devil’s advocate, it almost sounds like I could interpret your question as a character should be raceless unless the story is about race, but what are we picturing in our heads? And can a character not be a specific race and not have the story be about that?


              • Yes, good question. Here’s the thing, I think … I don’t think I picture characters. So probably I am saying that I think these things are only relevant if they impact the story being told.

                On the other hand, in visual media, including fashion advertising, I’m loving the diverse bodies I’m seeing so I don’t THINK it’s that I just assume some “standard” type when I read. I just don’t picture anything unless attention is specifically drawn to it. Am I weird or am I in self-denial about something going on? Your devil’s advocacy is good.


                • Truly, Sue, I’m not sure! I think some of my perspective comes from what I’ve read from Black writers about their feelings on film. In the U.S., if a movie has Black actors in it, we’re typically watching a hard, but feel-good Civil Rights movie or we’re watching something about slavery, or we’re watching something silly by Tyler Perry. What about the stories of Black people just being people? Thus, when I think about who I’m seeing (and reading), I’m often thinking about how the stories of non-white people are often vehicles for issues that help white audiences feel good in the end (because we all just got along in the end, or we see how racism is “in the past” because the Civil Rights Movement was “a long time ago”). I’m transferring the same idea to books. May I recommend a book to show you what I mean? Check out Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. An amazing book about two writers, both Black, and it matters that they’re Black even though the story isn’t about racism.


                  • Thanks Melanie. This is exactly what I mean about colour blind casting. We are seeing more of it now here and it’s great. First Nations and Asian people for example on dramas where their heritage is ignored. I’ve written about this issue before, based on some articles about people of colour, particularly emerging artists, approaching literary agents, publishers etc, being recommended to write memoirs or memoir-based fiction. I do think a country comes of age when people from so-called minority groups are not expected to focus on that in their art but just express what they want to say – from the whole gamut of their experience. People just being people as they say.

                    But, when it comes to text it’s tricky isn’t it because if you mention the “difference” you are highlighting it, but if you don’t you risk readers not knowing. You can sometimes convey it subtly … a character’s name might suggest a different culture, a reference to something they do or need, might also, but if you do a lot more you are starting to draw attention to it. How much you want to draw attention – say to “normalise” not being thin for example – without making it THE issue is the challenge isn’t it.

                    I have read books like the one you are saying… Anita Heiss’s “choc lit” books are not so much about racism but are about young professional black women dealing with their lives just like any other young professional women but we know they are black. They talk black etc. Heiss wants to show exactly what we are talking about … people being people, but she does it with lightness and humour.

                    This has been a good discussion … I think we’ve teased out a bit more what we think and mean and would like to see? Thanks!


  4. Just reminding you, I think On the Road is one of the great books.
    The thing about road trips like the bus trip here, is that the people just for those days often get very closely involved with each other. I’ve found it when working two-up with other drivers. One driver I worked with was a swinger and all through one night I questioned him about how he felt sharing his wife.
    You could never forget Mel’s size after she had to be careful leaning forward not to dip herself in the gravy. Graphic image!
    You don’t tell us what happened in the other two thirds of the book


    • Bill, based on your blog posts, you do fit the twenty-something, wanderlust stereotype of gents who fall madly in love with On the Road! So, I can say I am not surprised.

      It is true how a road trip, even one that is only a few hours, really connects people in a way through close proximity and relaxing boundaries.

      I don’t tell what happens in the other 2/3 of the book because that would be spoiling the book. My aim is to entice you to read it yourself.


  5. I haven’t read that many road trip novels – the only one immediately springing to mind is Welcome to Lagos, which starts with a lot of strangers on a bus, but the whole novel doesn’t take place there. I am sure I’ve read others but they aren’t springing to mind immediately. Perhaps it’s because at a push, you can drive from the bottom to the top of mainland Britain in about 12 hours, but it’s not really a genre or premise that’s taken off here.


    • Most road trip novels that come to mind for me are about men, because of course there is a safety concern when we’re talking about women traveling. And, if the book is about women I’m spending the whole time wondering if they’re going to be assaulted, which is not what I want from my fiction. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins is an example of a woman traveling that isn’t scary. This is another.

      In the U.S. you can drive for a couple of days and still be in the country. I suppose in Europe you could hop over to other countries in an afternoon!


    • Yes, absolutely. I read another book recently in which the author describes how everyone pities tall people on airplanes and scoffs at fat people. I’ve also thought about how people say fat individuals are a drain on the medical industry, but I know almost no fat people who have surgeries, hospital stays, etc. from being fat. Almost every athlete I’ve ever known has had multiple surgeries and physical therapy, both immediately after an injury and decades later when their knees are giving them problems.


      • Yes, and many of them (like me) get fat after those multiple surgeries and expensive replacements. I just wrote a post about being too big for live theater and quoted Roxane Gay, who like me is both too tall and too fat for spaces shorter fat folks can squeeze into.


  6. This sounds great! I love a good ragtag group of people thrown together for a road trip type plot. That’s an interesting point you make about the fact we usually have a sort of default character we envision when we read a book. The book I’m currently reading features two black women and I feel like I can see both of them very clearly but you made me realize that the book does so very deliberately. Probably because the author realized that she wasn’t writing the “default” character.


    • If you’re curious, I hope you seek out Venus of Chalk. Susan Stinson is totally a writer worth supporting, be it by buying a book or asking for it at your library.

      I do think you’re right; that author is likely making damn sure you know what the characters look like. Sometimes a book can go so long without describing anyone that I just have my own little cardboard cut-out person in my head, and then the author will mention “short curly red hair” or something, and I think, “Heeeeey, that’s not what she looks like in my head!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will look for it!

        I’m sure it’s deliberate on the author’s part. The book is The Other Black Girl and a key part of it so far is both the similarities these characters share by being black women in a working environment but also the massively different backgrounds they have. I hate when authors describe their characters physically way late in a novel! Just as you say, I’m thinking, Nope, that’s not what that person looks like!


  7. This does sound like a fun read, and your mentions of the payphone elements intrigue me. I find only some writers can pull that kind of detail off, without me thinking they’re ‘trying’ to be a writer they don’t really understand. Some details are completely useless, or don’t add anything, but others make you feel like you are truly there, they place you somewhere, and it sounds like Stinson is really great at that. Among other things!


    • Seriously, I thought about the penny scene a LOT. I mean, she’s scraping penny gunk off with her fingernail, which I truly believe tells me loads about this character without saying anything about this character in text. It’s fascinating. Thanks for sharing your feelings; I know exactly what you mean.

      Liked by 1 person

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