‘Absolutely incredible. Beautiful, powerful writing. These pages will stay with me forever’ CANDICE CARTY-WILLIAMS, author of QUEENIE
Compelling and compassionate, Big Girl is an unforgettable portrait of a queer Black girl as she learns to take up space in the world. It’s also a love letter to a community that is vanishing before the protagonist’s eyes -Harlem in the 80s and 90s – its music, flavours and sounds.
The truth was, Malaya Clondon had been thinking of French fries since last night. She craved them as she ate Chinese food in secret with her father while her mother worked late at the university. The thought of French fries stayed with the eight-year-old through the canned laughter and blond-headed family tableaus of the Friday night sitcom lineup each week, and helped her push herself from bed the next morning. She thought of the shiny fried strips, nestled together, boasting countless shades of yellow and gold, from the time she cleared the front steps of the family’s brownstone at 8 a.m. each Saturday until she felt, at last, the film of hot grease on her face after African dance class, so much later in the day.
On the walk to the Meeting on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, other foods did drift to mind. Malaya and her mother, Nyela, passed at least eight bodegas, plus the McDonald’s, the Kentucky Fried, and the Woolworth’s on Broadway, where the smell of hot popcorn seeped out in slow waves from beneath the glass doors. On 145th Street there was Copeland’s Restaurant and Reliable Cafeteria, where they made crispy smothered chicken with gravy as thick as pudding and potato salad that was perfectly sweet and salty at once. But by the time the Clondon women pushed through the heavy green doors of AME Mount Canaan Church and went down to the basement community center—by the time Malaya took her turn on the scale and watched red numbers blink and multiply beneath her, feeling Nyela’s eyes fixed on the number panel from behind—Malaya thought only of the potato-and-ketchup crunch- crusted mush she would have later. She did not think of the hour of dance she would have to get through beforehand, or what lie she would tell as to how her allowance had been spent.
“Well, don’t everybody speak up at once now!” Ms. Adelaide, the Meeting leader, laughed over the collar of her lavender suit.
Malaya sat in a sea of fat women on folding chairs and watched Ms. Adelaide walk to the front. Ms. Adelaide caressed the plastic easel, flipping back a page marked emotional triggers pie chart and exposing a sheet as clean and white as the face of a new tub of Cool Whip. She stood there, her hip sloped prettily out before her, arms loose and easy along her waist.
“Come on, ladies. Don’t be shy.” Ms. Adelaide shifted into another breathtakingly casual pose, resting her weight on one tall plum-colored high heel and letting a hand float up to stroke the paper. “I want you to think about your favorite food. You know we all have that one food that always gets us in trouble. I want you to think about it. Call it out!”
Malaya listened, catching a few coughs, small squeakings of the metal seats. The rustling of a paper bag somewhere in the back of the room brought salt water to Malaya’s mouth as she thought of removing the fries from their paper bag. She imagined the strips bending over one another in their red-and-white-striped dish, salt crystals hitting them from all sides and sparkling like glitter.
“Alright, now. I know it can be embarrassing.”
Ms. Adelaide leaned back, posed, then moved slowly toward Malaya and Nyela, who sat a seat away from each other—to leave room for both their hips, Nyela always said. Malaya thought nothing of Ms. Adelaide’s first steps, except how nice it was the way the tapping of the woman’s heels seemed to punctuate the soft rub of her shimmery pantyhose: gzhhh-TPP, gzhhh-TPP. But within seconds Malaya could smell Ms. Adelaide’s perfume in her face and found herself staring directly at the silver buckle on her purple suede belt.
Fear frothed up in Malaya’s chest as the synthetic cherry stink of Ms. Adelaide’s uncapped marker prickled the insides of her nostrils. She would lie, she decided. She would disclose a passion for yogurt, welcome and unusual in a girl of eight. Her face puffed with earnestness, she would tell the woman that she was “Centered, Committed, and in Control”; that she’d take fat-free frozen yogurt over cookie dough ice cream any day. She would make her mother proud and force this lean purple creature to go back and check her scale—those red numbers could not be right. This girl could not weigh one hundred and sixty-eight pounds, committed as she was. It was Malaya’s specialty, this kind of invention. It was how she helped other children pronounce her name: Ma-LIE-ya. Like I don’t tell the truth. She parted her lips, prepared to declare her fidelity to the Program.
Ms. Adelaide’s mouth was plump and her red lipstick looked like jelly sliding over her lip line into her deep brown skin. She tugged at the empty chair between Malaya and Nyela, gently easing it from between them.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she cooed. “Did you want to say something?”
Malaya’s mouth went dry and mealy. She paused, wondering if her lies were worth telling now that it was clear she wasn’t being asked to give up anything more than an empty chair. She shook her head no.
Nyela looked at her over the empty space where the chair had been, then turned to give Ms. Adelaide a stiff half-smile. Malaya knew this smile. It was the Professor Clondon smile, the small talk of her mother’s facial lexicon, used to assert her presence and to make vague reference to Malaya, as if to say, sighingly, “Yes, that’s my daughter.” Nyela Clondon did have real smiles, of course. Malaya had seen them on weekend afternoons when she, her mother, and her father, Percy, adventured through the city together, before the family moved to Harlem. But these public smiles were a matter of etiquette for Nyela, like knowing what shoes to wear with a winter-white suit with black buttons, or how to deadhead flowers without compromising the symmetry of a bouquet. Ms. Adelaide smiled back.
“Well, everyone is so shy this morning!” She pushed the chair to the center of the room and glided into it like a goose into a familiar pond.
“So I’ll tell you-all first. Mine was corn with butter. Anytime there was corn around, I knew I would not be able to control myself. I used to be a corn junkie!” A few ladies along the wall chuckled. “And I don’t mean just a little pat,” she continued. “I’m talking about butter, okay?”
At this, Ms. Adelaide changed shape before Malaya’s eyes. She uncrossed her legs, hunched over, filled her cheeks with air, and made smacking noises as she ran her fingers back and forth in front of her mouth, mimicking a wet and unsightly battle with an ear of corn on the cob. The room roared. Fat ladies shifted massive thighs in their chairs. Thick ladies clapped their hands and crashed against each other like waves.
“And let me tell you something,” Ms. Adelaide said, leaning forward and pointing a finger at the group in a gesture of sistagirl confidence. “I know I’m not the only one.”
The whole room laughed again, and one woman leaned her head back and opened her mouth so wide Malaya thought she might freeze in that pose, turn to stone, and begin to spout water like a fish in a fountain. Then Ms. Adelaide returned to herself, just like that—left leg draped over right, shoulders straight, manicured hands with their red-tipped nails resting coolly on her lap.
“Well,” another woman said from the fourth or fifth row, “I do have a weakness for pasta.”
“I heard that!” someone shouted. “What kind?”
And they were off, talking about food. Malaya tried not to listen, except when Nyela murmured in testimony when the women mentioned foods she herself liked, like oxtails and pistachio ice cream. As food names began to appear on the easel, Malaya imagined each item rising from a plate before the woman who’d claimed it as her “trigger.” Squares of lasagna and tall Styrofoam-cupped milkshakes with cartoon eyes and gloved hands cuffed these women to their chairs in Malaya’s imagination, dancing and singing devilishly as they leapt down their throats. The women, helpless victims, dragged themselves sadly to these meetings each week as their only hope.
Quietly, in her mind, Malaya considered what this “trigger” might be for her. But each food she thought of suddenly lost its appeal among these women who seemed to feel guilty for putting too much gravy on their grits. She thought of the dulce de coco candies she ate on the school bus with Shaniece Guzmán, the little butter-colored girl from Amsterdam Avenue, whom she played with, and the chocolate chip cookies—as big as her face—that she bought every day at school with money stolen from her mother’s coat pocket. These foods seemed unspeakable among the Meeting women. Even imagining them stung her with guilt. Malaya planned to eat her fries and enjoy them as soon as she could leave the women’s sight. She would not ruin that moment by thinking of it now.
Instead, she let her mind float to thoughts of Daundré Harris, the fourth-grader who was the only good reason she could think of for coming here every Saturday, or for trying to stay on-program at all. Each week as she waited for the numbers on the scale to stop climbing beneath her, she thought of Daundré and how much closer she might be to becoming Amandra Wilson, his pretty, thin girlfriend, who had a face the color of sawdust and long hair that curled like lo mein. Malaya had lost two pounds a year ago, when the family first moved to Harlem. She was in the second grade then, and had beamed all week, convinced that it was the beginning of a new life for her. She told Shaniece and marked it in her Hello Kitty diary, along with the news that Daundré had noticed her weight loss and asked her to be his girl, which was a lie. She had even given her grandmother, Ma-Mère, the good news in a letter she wrote and mailed to Philadelphia all by herself. She gained three pounds the following week, but the letter had already arrived.
“My daughter and I like pie.” Nyela’s hand fell into her lap once the sentence was out. Malaya felt a force field of eyes on her.
“I don’t keep anything like that in the house, of course,” Nyela continued. “And when we go out I try not to order dessert. But sometimes, on the weekends, I’ll order an apple pie . . .” Malaya anticipated the fancy syllables she knew would come next. “À la mode.”
“I try not to eat all the filling,” her mother went on, shifting her weight and pulling her African mudcloth jacket around her shoulders. “My favorite part is the crust. My daughter likes the filling, so if I do have a craving, rather than deprive myself, you know, I always suggest we share.” The room emitted a wave of supportive mm-hmm’s. “But you know children. They want their own. I don’t usually let her order anything, but once we’ve eaten that pie we’re out of control. We’re Off-Program for the rest of the weekend, sometimes the whole week.”
Ms. Adelaide added pie to the list, which had grown to cover the entire page, leaving only a tiny diagonal of space between salmon cakes and plátano chips for the three letters of the Clondon women’s apparent trigger. Malaya wished to liquefy and slide from her seat, find herself gone from the basement into that word pie, curled into the lower nook of the E as though it were a shaded ground below an apple tree. She wished for spots of sun to heat her sandaled feet as the leaves of her E tree rustled, and for the cool of an afternoon to raise goose bumps along her legs. In truth, Malaya was not so compelled by pie. She would eat the filling because it was there, and because it was the only chance she’d have all week to indulge herself in plain view, right next to her mother. And besides, Malaya knew, Nyela would feel better if she herself ate only the crust.
What her mother did not know, what could not be written on Ms. Adelaide’s board for lack of space and limitations of language, was that Malaya would have preferred an endless plate of potatoes over pie without question. Mashed, salted, swaddled in gravy or butter or both, and served in a bottomless mixing bowl—that was how Malaya wanted to eat. She rarely had the chance: even when her mother and father weren’t there to watch her, Giselle, the babysitter, usually was. But Malaya found her ways, sneaking single-serving bags of breakfast cereal from the kitchen in the sleeve of her nightgown and volunteering to dispose of her friends’ leftovers at lunch.
And by now, Malaya had noticed in herself a tendency to choose quantity over quality—pools and pools of potatoes over a shared slice of fancy pie. She had not yet learned words like abundance, or profusion, or glut. The only word she could find to describe her true trigger was MORE. Of all the women in the room—thirty at least—only two seemed to share her passion: the loud woman who had broken the silence what now seemed like ages ago, and a smaller woman in the corner, who raised a hand only inches above her shoulder and said, almost in a whisper, “I have trouble with plain white rice.”
After the Meeting, Nyela decided they would take the long route to the Harlem Arts Academy, walking along Seventh Avenue to 145th and then up to Sugar Hill. It had begun to rain, and wet air stuck to Malaya’s face as she held her mother’s hand at the stoplight on St. Nicholas.
Women moved across the wide spans of pavement, before the limestone stoops and busy storefronts, gliding in a flurry of hair and shoes and eye shadow and wonderful outfits blaring more shapes and colors than Malaya could count.
“Malaya”—Nyela squeezed her hand in the drizzle and pointed her chin toward three women crossing the street in trench coats and umbrellas—“you see those women? Big as houses, over there? I hope you don’t ever get that big.”
Malaya looked again, confused. Each woman could have looked like a house—she supposed it was true. The largest one sort of sprawled like a mansion, and the shortest was tight and round like a shack. Still, Malaya was more interested in their elaborate angled hairdos, which fanned and swirled about their heads.
“I won’t,” she said.
It was sweetly obvious. Malaya would not become a house. She could not imagine how those women got that way, and it had not occurred to her, before that moment, that this might be a way to become at all. It seemed to her that either a woman was born a house or she wasn’t. Malaya wasn’t.
“I hope you don’t,” Nyela continued. “People like that are very unhealthy. They lead very unhappy lives, and usually they die.”
It angered Malaya that her mother could doubt her on so sure an issue as this. Nyela had always seemed to regard her own weight as an irascible young sibling, something to be managed to the point of exasperation in private, and then, in public, defiantly ignored. But lately Nyela had begun to monitor Malaya’s eating with a hawkish fastidiousness, and to harp on it in conversations like this. Malaya nodded again, emphatically this time. She imagined her ears stuffed with cotton balls, block- ing out her mother’s voice, leaving space in her mind only for sweet things and French fries.
When they reached the Harlem Arts Academy, Nyela stooped to give Malaya her allowance and a kiss, instructing her to hold on to the money in case of an emergency. “I know. I will,” Malaya said. She tucked the money into the pocket of her backpack, with the change from last night’s Chinese food, which Percy had let her keep. She took a breath and readied herself for class.
Entering the dance hallway, Malaya stepped over the narrow, breadstick legs of ballet and jazz girls whose straw-colored tights stopped abruptly at their ankles, exposing different shades of bony brown feet as they stretched. Silently, she pushed further, weaving through a group of girls in her African dance class whose black leotards spanned their flat torsos like gift wrap over book covers, and whose red, yellow, and green kente-printed lapa skirts hung merrily around their waists like Christmas garlands.
No one spoke to Malaya as she undressed at the back of the flock. Facing the wall, she pushed herself into her leotard and tights, then pulled her lapa from her bag and wrapped the fabric around her middle, tugging the ends hard in a tight half-hitch so that the skirt held her belly in and made a waist for her hips.
She pulled out the bra she had stolen from her mother’s bureau earlier that week, which still smelled like her father’s cigarette smoke. This was the subject of one of her parents’ many fights, which they recently seemed to call up at will as though from a Rolodex. Percy had been born with a lung condition that made smoking especially dangerous for him, but he refused to quit. Nyela said this was evidence of his carelessness and indulgence, but Malaya liked the smell. It reminded her of the time before the brownstone, when the family lived on the Lower East Side in three small rooms and seeing her parents touch was common as weather. She tucked the bra under her chin and stretched the elastic around her back as she’d seen her mother do. By the time she had finished dressing, the hallway was empty and the drums had begun to play.
Dance Studio One was a huge room with a wall full of mirrors and floors so smooth that if you ran on the panels in pantyhose and stopped short, you could slide and slide for what felt like miles. Some girls did come to class in pantyhose, and on the first day Malaya had been one of them. Having found nothing in Malaya’s size at the fancy Capezio dance store on 110th Street, Nyela dragged her to Woolworth’s after the Meeting and bought a black bathing suit in a women’s size 14-Plus and a pair of Queen Size pantyhose in black.
“Can’t y’all read!” Mrs. Breeves, the trunk-legged dance teacher, had yelled, holding a copy of the class description in the air. “ ‘Footless Dancin’ Tights’! I don’t want to see none of y’all in here in stockin’s! This is about respect!”
Malaya went home crying that afternoon, and by Thursday of the following week Nyela had brought home two pairs of Extra Large footless tights from who-knew-where. This was a mother’s magic. Nyela often said no to what Malaya wanted, but when something was truly needed, she could make it appear out of thin air. Now, toward the end of the sea- son, the only girls in pantyhose were the ones whose families, Nyela had said, couldn’t afford dance tights.
Malaya stood in the back of the room and watched in the mirror as the other girls warmed up, bending and stretching just enough to avoid drawing Mrs. Breeves’s attention as they chatted in their rows. Almost all of them were long and thin. Unlike Malaya, whose body was the shape of a potato, the other girls her age had bodies that made her think of what an ostrich might look like before it grew its big behind. But the older girls had the kinds of bodies Malaya dreamed about—hips that curved and sloped with dazzling symmetry, legs that shone like strokes of wet ink in the iridescent black tights. Though she was much wider than the oldest of those girls, the bra and tightly tied lapa gave Malaya a taste of that body, a hint of what it might feel like to be only a little loose at the top, cinched in the middle, and round and full at the bottom. She parted her legs slightly, raised her left arm over her head, bent her torso to the side, and explored this curve in the mirror.
Soon, Mrs. Breeves instructed everyone to gather in the corner of the room while she demonstrated the day’s dance. The girls clung there in clusters and watched the drummers play, pointing at the ones they thought were cute and laughing at the ones with messed-up teeth. Some watched Mrs. Breeves and tried to mimic her as she went over the first step of the day, a simple side-to-side march to grab hold of the rhythm. Malaya stood in the back and listened to the chorus of drums, playing games with the sounds in her head. She studied the steady bum-bum- bap! of the lowest drum, pulling it apart from the shhka-shh-shh of the gourd rattles and the brrrap-dap-dap of the djembe until she could hear each sound separately.
The dance was always easy enough at first, and it was normally not until the third full trip across the room that Mrs. Breeves threw in some twist, so Malaya had learned to start paying attention after the second step of the day. She watched brown feet tap and fly, trusting that her own body would do the same when her turn came. She was standing in the middle of the floor with Mrs. Breeves crouched down like a gargoyle in her face when she realized that, today, the twist had come too soon.
“You! What’s wrong with your arms?” Mrs. Breeves shouted, spreading her own arms out across the room. The two girls in front of Malaya were reaching into the air and pulling their elbows down in syncopation with their feet in the step. Malaya glanced at her partner, whose arms hit her sides just as Mrs. Breeves’s voice faded into the sweat-thick air. Malaya had forgotten to raise her arms.
“I said, why you not moving? What’s wrong with your arms?”
No response came to Malaya’s mind, other than Nothing, what’s wrong with your face? which, of course, she couldn’t say. Her throat filled tight with breath and her eyes stung.
“The step is ba-ba-da-DA!” Mrs. Breeves pounded the floor with her heels and toes, reaching up at the ceiling with her arms and neck, grabbing what could have been a coconut from the air and tucking it down toward her stomach in time with the beat.
“You got to be in your body, girl! Move your arms! Your feet!”
But Malaya had been moving. She had not gotten the arms right— that was true. And her footwork may not have been as quick as everyone else’s, but still, she had moved.
“You want to be in my class, you got to learn to be in that body of yours!” The woman’s hand shot out and pinched Malaya’s belly hard on the side where the lapa was knotted. Then Mrs. Breeves looked past Malaya at the rest of the class. “You have to disciplint yo mind, ladies!”
Malaya imagined “disciplint” as a vise on her head, a metal sheet clamped and soldered over her mouth and eyes like in the cartoons. The word made her think of pain worse than too-tight pantyhose and Ms. Adelaide’s marker, worse than the sound of her parents arguing downstairs first thing on a Saturday morning.
She and her partner repeated the step, the other girl moving with a fresh vigor, Malaya floating through the movements without the vaguest commitment to the dance or the drums. Even the hope of salt-showered fries slunk silently from her mind. She spent the rest of the class daydreaming about sleep, wishing for a life into which she could wake up happily, a life of which Daundré Harris could be a real part, or in which one could actually crawl quiet and alone into the bottom nook of a letter E, curl up, read a book, eat an apple.
Malaya still felt the dance teacher’s pinch in her side late that night. She sat alone in her room with the light off and Friday’s leftovers in her lap, spooning hard heaps of rice and cold, congealed gravy into her mouth.
There had been other kinds of Saturdays once, before the move to Harlem. Malaya could remember those mornings still, if she squinted hard. Leaving her mother in the small yellow kitchen to work on her dissertation, she and her father would climb from the high-rise tenement apartment down into the funk and dampness of the subway and ride the few short stops to Columbus Circle. He would buy her something—an Italian ice in the summer or a pretzel if it was cool. Then he would let her lead them in any direction she wanted to go. In the afternoon, her mother would join them, and the three would wander around Central Park for hours, watching mimes whose faces and bodies were part man and part woman, so that they looked like a new kind of person entirely. Sometimes they would sit with Dr. Testudine, a ruddy-faced man who raced baby turtles by the pond, taking bets on which would win. Nyela’s favorite was a little runt named Arnold, whose shell was marked with a bright smear of green. Nyela would clap and cheer for Arnold during the races, spilling into laughter on Percy’s shoulders when Arnold lost, which he always did. Malaya liked remembering those times, but the idea of climbing and racing did not appeal to her as much now, though she couldn’t explain why.
There was a feeling Malaya Clondon imagined, one that grew in her on nights like this and stayed with her long after. It was the heartpounding feeling of sliding loose from good dreams, glad to be in reality. She imagined waking one day, not sad and slow and praying to crawl back up into sleep, but quickly, with a lightness, a spring. She had tasted this feeling in the predawn hours before trips to the park with her father, or during the first short breaths of a holiday. On those mornings, she would leap out of her dreams like a splash of water from a boiling pot, ready for what the day might bring her.
But most mornings, she lay stiffly in bed, wishing for the sun to fold up into the clouds so she could be swallowed back into her dreams. To be nice, she thought, she might consider visiting this real life she’d left, so long as she wouldn’t have to stay. She might float out of her dream and back over these steps for a while, hover above the Meetings, watch calmly as the dance teacher pinched her flesh. In a show of grace and generosity, she might even reach down from her elsewhere and touch this body, listening from an easy distance to her mother’s voice on the stairs as it crackled its first chords of the day:
“Malaya, get in the shower! You have to wake up!”