Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is the author of the novel Big Girl, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and a best books pick from Time, Essence, Vulture, Ms., Goodreads, Booklist, Library Reads, and Her previous books are The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora (University of Illinois Press, 2021), winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association, and the short story collection, Blue Talk and Love (2015), winner of the Judith Markowitz Award for Fiction from Lambda Literary. Mecca holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Temple University, and a B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College. In her fiction, she explores the intellectual, emotional, and bodily lives of young Black women through voice, music, and hip-hop inflected magical realist techniques.

Big Girl

Big Girl is a beautiful coming-of-age story that follows Malaya, a young black girl growing up in 90’s Harlem. She is struggling to love her body in a world that tells her she is too big to fit in. Taking solace in hip-hop, Malaya faces pressure at school and a family tragedy at home as she navigates girlhood, her feelings around food and her own desires.

Coming-of-age stories are usually the ones that stick with us the most. What are some of your favorites?

You’re so right! Coming-of-age stories really do stick with us, whether we read them at a young age or discover them at other moments in life. My favorite coming-of-age stories are the ones I first came across as a young reader and have revisited many times since. Jamaica Kincaid’s novel, Lucy, is definitely one of those for me. It’s about a girl growing up in a Caribbean island community who longs for a kind of freedom she can’t seem to find in her present life. Kincaid always weaves fantastic critiques of gender, sexuality, and power into the stories of young women of color, and her narrators’ voices are just irresistible. Every time I re-read Lucy (or any of Kincaid’s work), I feel like I’m visiting that smart, witty, hilarious friend who just gets it in the most perfect, most comforting way.

Another life-giving classic is Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It’s mostly memoir, but brings in elements of myth, poetry, song lyrics and more to tell a story of Lorde’s coming-of-age. This is my favorite queer coming-of-age story. We get to see Lorde’s telling of how she came to be the world-changing powerhouse lesbian feminist writer we know today, starting from her childhood and sharing the loves and losses of her young adult life. As a writer, I also draw a lot of inspiration from Zami. Lorde grounds the story in her childhood as fat black girl in Harlem, an experience that echoes deeply in Big Girl.

In terms of more recent coming of age stories, I really love Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories. All of these paint vibrant, nuanced pictures of coming-of-age focusing on girls of color or gender-expansive young folks. They explore all the classic coming-of-age themes: independence, desire, the mysteries of the body, and the thrilling uncertainty of the future. But they also give us really delightful and necessary glimpses in complex inner worlds and communities we don’t often see represented. Their characters are rich and complex and often contradictory. As readers, we get to think and feel with them as they move toward adulthood, making messes and figuring it all out.

Do you feel like you learned a lot about yourself in writing this story? Or was this more a story where you shared a lot of yourself with the world?

I think writing always reveals core parts of us, both to ourselves and to our readers. As a writer, one of my jobs is to delve as deeply as possible into a question, an idea, or a worldview, and then to be fearless about how I show that to the reader. It’s a deep dive inward, and a choice to be brazen about revealing what’s there. Writing Big Girl taught me a lot about the power of that brazenness. I knew I wanted to tell a story of fat girlhood, black girlhood, and queer coming-of-age. And I knew I wanted to be as honest as possible about that experience. I wanted to tell a full story about the joy, the injustice, and the triumph of fat black queer girlhood. What I didn’t know was how much that honesty would mean to readers. Several times every week I hear from readers who’ve begun to question diet culture, or who’ve come out as queer under difficult circumstances, or who’ve challenged generational histories of body shame, and it’s truly incredible to hear how the novel has been a part of their journeys. As writers, I think we always hope that our honesty will resonate with readers, but talking with folks about Big Girl has taught me how powerful that can be.

What would your younger self think if she knew she’d one day write Big Girl?

Oh wow! I love this question. Honestly, I think she would be so hype. I started imagining this book when I was not much older than Malaya, the novel’s main character, is at the start of the book. I was sneaking into my mother’s home library, reading Kincaid and Lorde and Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange—all of whom were writing coming-of-age stories for adult readers. But my little eleven-year-old self decided these books must be for me, because they were about little black girls. Growing up as a fat black queer girl, I knew that my body seemed to mean a lot of things to my family, my teachers, and my community. I felt a lot of external pressure to control my body, to change it. Reading these books helped me understand the histories behind that pressure, and to feel less alone. So it was around that time that I decided I wanted to be a writer, and Big Girl is the book I wanted most to write. If my eleven-year-old self knew that the book was actually out there in the world, I think she would be really excited, but not surprised. She would probably celebrate with cookies and a dance party in her bedroom—Janet Jackson and butter crunch.

We can’t get enough of 90s nostalgia right now. If you could go back and enjoy the 90s again for one day, what would you do?

I would put on a pair of baggy jeans and Timberland boots and walk around Harlem. The neighborhood has changed so much, and there’s a lot that I miss: the small mom-and-pop soul food restaurants, the street vendors selling African-print clothes and jewelry, the smells of incense and perfume oil wafting through the bustling indoor market on 125th street. If I could go back, I would delight in all those things. I would put on a new track from Biggie or TLC and glide over the streets awash in denim, guzzling Harlem in with both hands.

Do you feel like you’re starting to see the change Malaya would have longed for?

In many ways I do. Malaya grows up in a world where there are no words for “fatphobia” or “health at every size” or “body positivity.” There is no widespread concept of “diet culture” in the 1990s. In the 90s world Malaya lives in, “diet culture” is just popular culture in general—it’s absolutely everywhere, in every TV show, commercial, magazine ad, supermarket aisle—and there is no language for questioning it. The fact that we are talking about and questioning these ideas now is definitely a step in the right direction. We owe a lot of that to body liberation and fat justice activists who have been doing this work for decades, and who are just now seeing wider exposure. And yet, there’s still a long way to go, especially in terms of acknowledging how race and class shape many current “body positivity” conversations, leaving most people out. I also think there’s a danger of silencing the experiences of fat people, queer people, and people of color who experience injustice when we buy into flattened visions of “positivity” and positive representation. I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they feel pressure not to acknowledge the pain that fat shaming causes them, as though we’re supposed to be past that trauma. It’s important to tell whole truths about human experience. I think that’s where the deep joy of reading lies. The struggle brings meaning to the triumph, and readers deserve to bear witness to it all.

If you could change one thing in the world about how we see our bodies and others’, what would it be?

I’m going to cheat and choose two things. First, I would get rid of the idea that there is one single perfect way for a body to be. We receive a lot of messaging—from advertising to social media to some medical institutions—saying that there is one ideal body shape, size, weight, and range of ability, and that anyone that falls outside of that should transform to fit the ideal. Audre Lorde calls this the “mythical norm.” This is not only damaging and unhelpful, it’s also illogical, since all bodies inevitably shift and change constantly. Reading the work of disabled writers like Lorde is really helpful here. They help us to see that the current state of our bodies is temporary, and that much of how our bodies change is really not up to us. Facing that truth can be really freeing and empowering.

The other thing I would do is create some way to help people value their bodies not for how they look but for how they feel and what they can do. This is what Malaya finally comes to discover in Big Girl. She learns to deprioritize to how other people see her, and comes to see that her body really is hers to feel and enjoy. It becomes not an object to be accepted or rejected by others, but a source of movement, freedom, and pleasure for her. This frees her to move and walk and delight in the pleasures of her body on her own terms. I would love to make some kind of magic that helps people really see and feel this. I would put it in the form of a delicious, chocolatey dessert!

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m really excited to see Big Girl continue to make its way out into the world. The paperback version comes out on June 13th, with an awesome reading group guide. Later this summer, the UK and commonwealth edition will come out, and the French translation will be out in August. I’ll be doing events for these editions virtually and in-person, and I would love to connect with She Reads readers while I’m on the road!

I’m also working on a couple of new writing projects, including a new novel. It’s in its early stages right now, but what I can say is that it’s about freedom. It’s queer and it’s kind of sexy, and so far it’s a lot of fun!