This is no. 112 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
You might consider it a bit of a cop-out that I open my short story collection I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021) with an author’s note: “Every narrator in this collection is a bisexual Puerto Rican cub with the exception of one—in that story, the narrator is gay.” And maybe it is! What started out as a joke I made on Twitter became a necessary signpost. Make no mistake, I beg, these characters are not Latinx in the vague sense; they’re Puerto Rican. They’re queer, yes, but with an experience more specifically rooted in bisexuality. All these elements are important to me, though perhaps the word with the most weight, pardon the pun, is cub. (I also considered using bear. In any case, situating their body sizes and type within a queer framework was vital to the project.) I have consumed so much queer media focused on bodies that were white and slim, or muscular and white, or tall and white, and I wanted my fat bisexual characters of color to exist in all their realities without an ounce of doubt from the reader.
You could say I’m unnecessarily defensive. I am. It was hammered into me as a young writer that the cruel default in fiction is characters who are white and straight and cisgender unless marked as some kind of “other.” What, then, becomes the presumed default for the body?
Writing the body is absolutely a matter of craft. How much should we foreground physical description, particularly when it comes to the narrator? I’ll admit I’m quite lazy on this front. I prefer to keep my details lean. First-person narrators don’t need to weigh themselves or stare in the mirror and describe the shape of their gut, unless, of course, they must. Jeans may fit snuggly, or a jacket may not close, or a zipper may break. I think there are times when such incidents work, but can our fat characters exist without the body becoming a playground for everyday violences? The fat body can be greatly loved as well, and the language for describing it can be lush, velvety, and serve the narrative—in which case, yes, bring it on. I’ll gulp up every word! But what if that’s not the project either?
With my own book, I wondered if I could write characters for whom fatness was not always an immediate concern. Could such a point be highlighted in fifteen stories side by side? I chose to create my own baseline and, on the matter of when and when not to include descriptions, I ultimately landed on: It just depends. I’m most hyperaware of my own body in specific situations—during sex, while eating among friends, or while trying on clothes, to name a few. Where does it feel most natural for a character to take a beat to consider their own body? And what is illuminated when you do mention it?
These questions were also on my mind while reading Jaime Cortez’s phenomenal and hilarious debut story collection Gordo (Black Cat, 2021). The main character’s nickname “Gordo” does a lot of the heavy lifting (again, sorry, sorry) in establishing his physique, and his size is mentioned by other characters offhandedly or more pointedly in arguments, but I was primed and much more interested to look at the observations made by Gordo himself. In “Ofelia’s Last Ride,” the final story in the collection, Gordo reflects on his body during a visit to Mexico: “Normally, I don’t like it when people tell me I’m fat…I better get used to it, because here in the barrio everybody and their dog are going to remind me I’m fat. People who don’t even know me call me Gordo.” Later, he describes how the only outfit he has to wear to a funeral doesn’t quite fit over his stomach. This scene feels so perfectly placed: Life and death, the end of childhood. A familiar frustration against a new loss. The comedy of a too-small shirt. The moment also serves as a continuation of his earlier thought, that his fatness is always there, a fact of his existence. I then revisited Gordo in the stories where his body wasn’t directly acknowledged. I considered how he moved through the narratives, always visible whether he was a passive observer or active participant. The full picture we get is this tenderhearted kid who is overwhelmingly kind and sincere, and alive with laughter.
After reading Gordo, I felt more confident in my decision to prompt readers of my book. I want them to have a similar kind of understanding from the jump. These characters grappling with loneliness and heartache and anxiety, who fuck and love and contain anger, who are frustrated by their own inability to takes risks, who, yes, love or at the very least feel passionately about food, are all fat. Their fatness is neither an obstacle to overcome nor portrayed in an overly positive light. Their fatness, like mine, just is.
Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.Thumbnail: Bruno Dias