Title (as given to the record by the creator): Elana Dykewomon (1 of 1) — Fat Liberation People’s History
Date(s) of creation: May 8, 2022
Interviewer: Tracy Tidgwell, Max Airborne
Location: Oakland, CA, US
Physical description: 85-minute video interview
Source: Fat Liberation People’s History
Reference #: FLPH-Dykewomon
Links: [ YouTube ]
[Tracy] Okay. Hi everybody. Um, welcome. This is our first interview with the beloved Elana Dykewomon. Elana is in…Oakland? California?
[Elana Dykewomon] Ohlone land.
[Tracy] Ohlone land. Max is also in Ohlone land in Oakland California and I am here in Toronto. Ontario Canada. A meeting place of various tribes include the Anishinabeg, the Huron-Wendat, the Mississaugas [and the Haudenosaunee] and over time many other people. Today is Sunday May 8th, it’s 2:30 here in Ontario. I think it’s 11:30 in your zone.
[Tracy] For this session our goals are to – well this may be our one and only with you Elana, but, we’ll see. We hope to talk to about your early life history into some of the stories about your artistic and cultural work and life. And if we have time we’ll end with some reflections on where fat liberation is and where you’d like to see it going.
I just want to start by asking you to introduce yourself to us. Can you tell us about who you are today?
[Elana] I’m Elana Dykewomon. I’m 72 years old. I’ve been working as a lesbian activist in many different forms my whole life. I’ve been fat my whole life. I was institutionalized when I was 12 after trying to kill myself because I was a fat lesbian and I didn’t see any place for myself in the world. This was 1961, 62, so a long time ago.
[Elana] I’m a writer. I’ve written – I’ve published eight books. And I have a play that will have a staged reading as part of the San Francisco Bay Area Playwrights Foundation Festival at the end of July, beginning of August, about my spouse’s – my relationship with my spouse and her death from dementia. So many things have happened to me in my life.
Despite what just sounded grim, I feel like I am a tremendously lucky person, that in terms of my life experiences, my community, my friendships especially, those things have been sources of tremendous pleasure, growth, and appreciation.
And I am also class privileged, and I recognized that. It’s helping me get through a very hard time right now. Which is that I have stage four esophageal cancer. And very oddly for a fat person, I have not been able to eat anything since last September. So that’s who I am, where I am, right now. Very oddly for any person I think, it’s like I feel like a different species than other people. And I get tube feedings.
But I am also very lucky in that I have wonderful aides who are friends, friends who are aides, and I have – after I got out of the hospital I have a friend who has spent the last six months sleeping on my couch and being here for me all the time. And other friends who have come from other parts of the country to be with me.
So in all those ways, I count myself as enormously, a lucky person. And I have a lot of love for what I’ve been given and I am happy to be able to give back whatever I can.
[Tracy] Elana [indistinguishable]
[Elana] So that’s my introduction [laughs]
[Max] Thank you. Will you say something about your early life? Like who are your grandparents and where do they come from?
[Elana] Oh my early life. My grandparents were all orthodox Jews, my father’s parents were immigrants and most of – my father had four sisters and two or three of his sisters, his sisters, were also immigrants. He’s first gen – he was first generation. My mother’s family was in this country for one or two generations before she was born.
They came from New York and they met in college, my parents. They were not orthodox, they were conservative Jews. They were zionists, which I am not, for sure. But my father went straight from fighting in World War II to fighting in the Israeli war. My father was a lawyer and his firm moved us to Puerto Rico when I was eight years old. And, can’t run away on an island, so I, that’s when I determined to kill myself when I was 12.
[Elana] My parents – I mean – I had a fraught relationship, particularly with my father, as I was coming into early adolescence and somewhat distant relationship with my mother because she was very laid up with back pain and back surgeries for much of my childhood.
I later in life had a tremendously good relationship with my mother. We, we reconciled a number of times and eventually – but she was, she was afraid to visit me where I lived. And one of my lover’s mother’s met my mother and told her she had nothing to be afraid of and so my mother came to where I lived in Oakland. And suddenly realized lesbians were not like the covers of pulp novels but in fact incredibly generous and open hearted and welcoming to her as lesbians. Especially, you know, 30 years ago, any mother who showed up was like “oh my god what can we do for you? Can I bring you another glass of lemonade?” you know, whatever it was.
So then she was really happy to be around lesbians, she thought it was great. She thought all my friends were lovely people. Which they all were. So she was a good judge of character in that way and we had a very good relationship until she died at 92. About a year and half before my partner died. So that’s where I come from.
[Tracy] Beautiful, thank you. Can you reflect on what it was like to be a fat kid, a fat child?
[Elana] It was terrible [laughs]. I mean, every – anybody who’s fat knows that fat children are made fun of and stigmatized and the – I was – I tried to kill myself twice – and the second time I was close to successful, but after the first time they gave me Thorazine. And on Thorazine, drug-related, I gained about 50 pounds which is a lot of gaining for a 12 year old child.
And when I went back to school, boy, it was just, it was just awful. People just, you know, they would say “oh you’re white as a house” and this and that and this and that and this and that. And it was misery. And I was always being dieted.
My mother was a fat woman. She dieted all her life. She dieted me when I was young, which is what she thought she was supposed to do. So she did it. There were two things my mother and I never quite agreed on, both of them were – one of them was dieting and one of them was zionism. So those were the things that we fought about until we determined that we weren’t gonna deal with it anymore, cus we were just not ever gonna agree with each other.
So, you know, it was just, it was awful. And when I was institutionalized I was weighed, I guess one a week and it was just this source of tremendous anxiety and grief for me every week. The mandatory weigh-ins. And I was really grateful when I was freed from that kind of observational hell. And got to, you know, leave the hospital, and go to school.
[Elana] But it wasn’t as bad in high school as it was in elementary school, in my experience. And part of that was because I was kicked out of my first high school that I went to. I went to boarding schools because I refused to go home and my parents were afraid that if I went home I would try to kill myself.
So I went to a Friends school, a Quaker school and I got, not invited back. They tried to kick me out. But I was kicked out for being – a lot because of anti-semitism in that case – for being Jewish and the headmaster who was a convert Quakerism was very into hating on all the Jewish students and there were a few Jewish students, except a few women who were very compliant kinds of people. But I was the editor of the school newspaper so I was always making noise and making trouble.
And so I got not invited back and then I went to a school in Western Massachusetts that was run by Holocaust suvivors who had started their school in Germany and had been forced out. And many of the teachers there were Holocaust survivors. And I had a great time there, I ran the student – I was editor of the student newspaper and on the student court and did a lot of stuff there. So I had peer power, power among my peers, and so it wasn’t – being fat, you know I would get, get disparaging remarks from time to time but I just determined that I would do what I wanted to do anyway, and that’s what I did, I did want I wanted to do anyway, and I had a good time doing it.
[Elana] My mother – when I was in high school my mother would send me amphetamines hoping that I would lose weight and I was kind of an amphetamine addict. At some point I was taking 10, 12, pills of amphetamine a day, which was way, way wrong. I did write 45 page papers but I am very glad I got over that fairly quickly by the time I got to college. I mean I tapered off of it, I was still taking a little bit. But I was kind of an amphetamine addict.
Which is another of the things that are done to fat children and you know, by well meaning people, is to put you on medications that are terribly dangerous. Terribly dangerous for growing minds and bodies and hearts and brain function and all of those kinds of things. And I am sorry now that I took all that amphetamine when I was young. I haven’t taken any in like 50 some years, so, I am hoping whatever damage that did got repaired, but yeah. Not a great thing to do.
So I had my first lover when I was in high school. Just before I graduated. And we are still friends now, really good friends. She, when my mother died, she came to be with me for my mother’s funeral, and when my spouse Susan died she was here helping to take care of me after knee surgery, but also Susan who was going through a very rough time and died. And she’s been here three or four times since I’ve had cancer. So that’s a long relationship, 55 years or something since 1987. 19…67. When I graduated high school. I get the decades mixed up a little bit. 1967 I graduated from high school.
I went to college. I don’t remember it being such a big deal in college that I was fat. I went to college in Portland and then I went to California Institute of the Arts which I graduated from. And it, I mean I experienced myself just as a freak. Not a regular college student. But a lot of the college students also experienced themselves as freaks at the colleges I went to. So that wasn’t so unusual.
[Elana] California Institute of the Arts I realized I was actually taken more seriously because I was a lesbian and butch, a fat butch. And the power structure, which was mostly white men, thought of the cis women that were there as there to get husbands or something. They didn’t take them seriously as artists. Though they were serious artists! I mean they just didn’t take them seriously as artists. But because I wasn’t interested in them in a romantic kind of way, they took me a little bit more seriously.
And one of my teachers suggested I write a novel for a publishing house in New York that published Henry Miller and was starting a new series on a, of erotic fiction for bored housewives. So I did. I did write that novel. And after I graduated I finished the first draft at Cummington Community of the Arts, which is in Western Massachusetts. And I totaled the International travel pick-up I had then and so I moved in with some of my former high school teachers in Western Massachusetts.
And found the Valley Women’s Center. And at the Valley Women’s Center I had a lot of different kinds of roles, I had very good friends and lovers. And, you know I kind of found out inadvertently that my friends were concerned about my weight. You know, and they would say like “what are we gonna do about Elana?” like you know I was doing all this other stuff. I was distributing women’s films, and I was very active in the anti-war movement and I was publishing a small book about women’s writings against the war. Booklet against the war. And going to demonstrations and all kinds of stuff. Creating lesbian gardens, which was a lesbian-only space above the women’s center. But my friends were mostly concerned about my weight. So that was kind of weird to find out. Not only concerned about my weight, but to a great degree.
[Elana] And you know like every fat woman, I’ve found that, much thinner women would talk about dieting and how they couldn’t stand their bodies, as if I was never in the room! Eventually I wrote an essay about that called “Traveling Fat” that was in a couple of anthologies, and yeah that was in 1982 after I had left Northampton and was living in Oregon.
When I was still living in Northampton I must have seen this in Lesbian Connection, that there was a group of lesbians that were – not lesbians, of women, fat women, who were comprising The Fat Underground. And they had a small pamphlet of essays that they were distributing for, I think a dollar or two dollars or something plus postage. And I got it and hid it under my bed. I don’t know why. I just felt like it was like this secret kind of information of fat women loving their bodies.
And I felt like, I always loved my body when I was young. I found it a source of erotic pleasure and physical pleasure and strength and I mean I couldn’t run a mile and have always had very bad feet but I have always really enjoyed my body and the information that I got about fat liberation was like a revelation to me. That there were other women who really understood these things and cared about them and said it was not a willful aberration to be a fat woman. And so I was, my consciousness got raised, like blown out of my head.
[Elana] And when I was living in Oregon a lover of mine at the time said “you should meet Judy Freespirit” and I went down to Oakland with another friend of mine who was also a fat woman and we went to the first performance of Fat Chance I think it was. The first fat performance group. And Judy and Hannah and Leah and a couple other women were there on trapezes doing all kinds of amazing performance art. And it was just fantastic.
The first night was for fat women only, and that was great. And there were a few women turned away at the door that were indignant “but I used to be fat” kinda. Anyway. The second night was for an open women’s audience I think. And we went to both performances.
And somehow I managed to meet Judy. I don’t remember exactly how we met, Judy Freespirit and I. But we did and we were lovers for a couple years. And then not lovers, but we were very involved in each other’s lives for the rest of Judy’s life for sure. And Judy was very involved in my life up until the present moment.
We did a reading together that we, somewhere upstairs in a file and I’m gonna have – my cousin who’s a historian is gonna come here and help me work on my archives. I have a flyer that says – of me and Judy doing a reading together, that says “together again for the first time” and it’s very sweet.
Judy wrote a couple of poems for us. And we took some photographs together, naked photographs together. I don’t know what happened to them. I might have them in a folder somewhere. And yeah. Judy was a tremendous influence on me and how I saw my body, how I understood my body, how I felt in my body, how, on how important it was for fat women to claim their visibility. Of course we’re always visible, I mean we’re always visible. But how other people perceive us. I mean a lot, you know, when I was coming up a lot of fat women stayed in their houses. And I think that is still the case in some places.
I know my friend Gloria Anzaldúa had me write an essay for “This Bridge We Call Home”, the second of her anthologies, or the third of her anthologies, focusing on fat identity because her sister was a fat woman who never never left the house. Always stayed home. And that pained Gloria a great deal. And we talked about it frequently. And so I worked on the essay to shape it to address those kinds of concerns that she had.
You know Gloria is somebody else I was very lucky to have a relationship with. When I broke up with Dolphin, I became lovers with Dolphin in 1978 and she found me at The Pagoda in Florida. I had a panel – I had a truck, an old bread truck that had been made by a, remade by a shop teacher into a kind of quasi-RV. And I was living in it with my dog. And I went down to The Pagoda, which was a women’s space in St. Augustine. That was kind of famous for a while. And I wrote them and I said just wanted to plug my van in and write. And I hadn’t been there a week when Dolphin and her friends all showed up.
And we ended up all caravaning together across the lower part of the United States and ended up in Oregon. And then we came down to Oakland and after a couple of years, three years in Oakland, we broke up and I moved into a house that was, that had like six apartments, and Gloria was in one of them.
[Elana] And lesbians were in all the apartments. And Gloria and I became writing buddies. And so I was extremely lucky and our relationship was very pleasurable from then on. And I became editor of Sinister Wisdom in that year, 1987. And Gloria was on the editorial board. And I had written a long poem called “The Real Fat Woman Speaks”, “The Real Fat Woman Speaks At Last”, something like that. It had like 11 sections.
[Max] “The Real Fat Woman Poems”
[Elana] “The Real Fat Woman Poems” thank you very much. And I published that in the first issue of Sinister Wisdom that I edited and I also, we had a big benefit for Sinister Wisdom at the women’s building and Adrienne Rich read and Gloria read and I think one of the first editors of Sinister Wisdom, I think Catherine Nicholson read, and some other people. And I read that. And it was a very intense moment for me because even though I am a fat person and I present as a fat person, I always feel like every time I talk about being fat I come out again. I don’t know if you have that experience but I feel like the idea that being fat has a meaning and a social valence, a construct, and is part of the liberation struggles of many people. That’s like a strange territory for people.
[Elana] When I was still living in Oregon, Dolphin and I went down to a National Women’s Studies Conference that was being held in Arcadia. And I was listening to Max Dashu, who is a wonderful and amazing historian of ancient women’s histories primarily. And she was talking about foot binding and it suddenly occurred to me that dieting fulfilled the same kinds of social mechanisms as foot binding did. It was something, it’s something that others are pressured to do to their daughters and it physically cripples the daughters in order – not, I don’t mean cripples in a disabled sense, although sometimes in a disabled sense, emotionally, though often destroys their daughters. In order to make them more attractive to a marriage market. So it has all those same components foot binding does, but nobody recognizes that. You know, that it is this terrible, social, pressure, that’s created by a heternormative society and pressures mothers to make their daughters be acceptable to men and to society as a whole.
I mean I once found a letter in my mother’s drawer that one of my aunt’s had written her. And my aunt had written that she didn’t understand how my mother let me go out into the world in that condition. And I was like “in that condition? Okay”. And I was like “fuck you”. You know, so
[Tracy] Can I ask about Sinister Wisdom and your time there?
[Tracy] You mentioned that you brought that poem, “The Real Fat Woman Poems”, in 87. We wanna know, what did that mean to you to bring to Sinister Wisdom, to name fatness in this lesbian feminist publications, what did that mean to you, how was that received?
[Elana] I know that, I mean I got a lot of positive response from fat women. I got some positive response from other women ‘cause they found the poem powerful, and they found it, you know, an indictment of cultural norms. And I don’t remember getting any negative feedback, but that could be selective memory. We didn’t, I didn’t get a lot of submissions that I recall from other fat women afterwards. Although, a number of fat women, Betty Dudley and another woman whose name I can’t remember, which is unfortunate, little bit of chemo brain. They joined the editorial collective and were part of selecting pieces for the issue.
We did as a matter of course, as a group, write to women whose work we otherwise liked and would like to publish, about any kind of fat bias that, you know, anti-fat language that might be in their pieces as well as anti – disablist language. You know, “deaf as a door post”, “blinded by blah blah blah”. And sometimes we got back very angry letters like “I’ll write what I want” you know “fuck you”. And sometimes we engaged in really productive dialogues with writers about those issues. So you know, it was a mixed response, and it wasn’t just about fatness. It was about disability also.
The kind of awareness that we kind of take more for granted, I hope, now about disablist language and anti-fat language. It wasn’t really that much on the radar of the writing community in the late 80’s in my experience. And so those were sometimes difficult correspondences to have. And we did all that stuff, I mean we printed out letters, we sent out letters by mail with stamps. So we, you know, had to wait for responses and go through that longer kind of process.
[Elana] That’s what I remember about it. We had lots of different kinds of issues. I wish I could remember more of the specifics of what was in them. Like what was in the Passing Issue because I think now at least I would write an essay about trying to pass as a, as somebody whose fatness was incidental to their other identities.
Which I have to confess that sometimes I have tried to pass that way. I feel like fat liberation isn’t taken seriously by other forms of activism that happen. And that, if you, sort of like women’s problems were treated by the left in the beginning of the women’s movement. Sorry for knocking the table. That fatness isn’t considered as serious issue by other liberation struggles. And yeah. But I try to stay honest and clear and can’t miss that I’m fat. So there you go. And that I have a history of publishing what I needed to say about being a fat woman.
[Max] I want to read that article that you’re gonna write next.
[Elana] That article that I think that I didn’t write.
[Tracy, Max, Elana]
[Talk and laugh simultaneously, difficult to understand]
[Max] I’m curious what you mean also by, like, that fat is incidental, trying to pass as if fat is incidental, what does that mean?
[Elana] It means like, I do all these other things so you can overlook that I’m fat. I have power and credibility as an activist for this reason and that reason and this reason and that reason. So that I’m fat shouldn’t enter in the equation of how seriously you take me. Yeah.
[Max] Mmm mhm
[Elana] I think that’s what I mean.
[Tracy] It’s so interesting because so much of your work, your writing and your life work, have been meditations or even mediations on lesbian life, or even fat lesbian life, and I feel like, you know, in that, you have refused shame and you have written and created desire for fat lives and for fat lesbian lives. So it’s interesting to hear you say that. But I wonder if you can talk about what it means –
[Tracy] Go ahead, go ahead
[Elana] Well it’s an interesting dichotomy because I feel like the culture we live in shames every day. Constantly is shaming us. And I think it would be disingenuous for me to say that I’m not affected by that. I am affected by that. I’m affected by my family’s attitudes about fatness, although I do not spend much time with my family, I’ve spent more time with them since I’ve been sick.
You know and, because I haven’t been able to eat solid food and I just get tube feedings I’ve lost some weight and they’re like “Oh you’ve lost some weight!” Yeah, I’m dying, I’ve lost some weight, great. It’s like…you know and I remember that from early fat lib performances about how women with cancer were like “well at least I’ve lost weight, you know I can fit in the coffin” whatever. So it’s – and I perceived and maybe incorrectly, I think a lot of women have worked very hard to change this.
That people doing radical work in other areas, even in the areas of ageism, and disability rights, and anti-racist work, and indigenous sovereignty work, although certainly many fat women are involved in that, I feel like making being fat an issue is like, yeah we’ll get to that later. It isn’t a priority for us now. There’s too much else that’s a priority. And it’s not seen as part of the interlinking kinds of oppression that I believe that it is.
[Elana] So, you know, in the face of all those things I have my own internalized shame and – shame isn’t even the right word, sense of…not being taken seriously. You know, like, I’m not ashamed of myself, of my physical body and appearance. But I am sometimes aware that fatness is taken as a side issue that’s not really important to the liberation struggles that go on in the world. And that’s difficult to deal with. ‘Cause sometimes I come at it from yes, you absolutely must take this seriously, and other times I come from it from like, well I have a different priority here too, so let’s focus on this priority. And not deal with my criticism of your fat hating politics. Although, if somebody is overtly fat-hating, I will absolutely call them on it. But, you know, it’s difficult to navigate those different spaces. I think it’s difficult for all fat activists to navigate that.
I’m pretty good friends with Esther Rothblum who edits the journal “Fat Studies”. She’s had me write a bunch of different essays for her. The one I remember the most is being “Doing It Anyway”. And that’s what I’ve always felt in my life that, I wasn’t going to let either being a lesbian or being fat stop me from doing the things I wanted to do in life. And from being a cultural worker. So that’s how I’ve negotiated that.
[Elana] But I know she takes a lot of shit from academia for what, for the work she does. It’s not considered to be a serious discipline. It’s getting more credence but it’s, you know, it’s part of the fat and women hatred of the culture that we live in.
[Max] I just want to note that we are at 45 minutes.
[Elana] Okay it would be a good time for me to take a little break.
[Tracy] Okay. What do you think, five?
[Tracy] I wanted to ask you, Elana, do you have any beloved fat characters from your writing that stay with you?
[Elana] Well, the woman, in Beyond the Pale there’s a woman who owns the bathhouse in Kishinev who takes in the midwife and her mother and has them working for her. And she’s one of my favorite characters, I have to say, over all the books.
When I was writing Riverfinger I was just 21 and I was, I mentioned that a character, that one of the protagonists was fat. But I kind of downplayed it because of everything we’ve been talking about. In Risk the femme is a fat woman. And it was more of a challenge to write from the perspective of a femme character I think, than from a butch character, so in that particular, more contemporary novel. But I liked her. She was definitely a risk taker and a person with strong appetites that she was in no way ashamed of so I like that. So those are the three novels. There’s a lot of fat characters. There’s a number of fat characters in short stories and the fatness of those characters is just part of who they are, you know. It’s like, this is an important part of who they are. And one of the markers of their identity. So, yeah. But, my favorite I would say is the bath house owner in Beyond the Pale.
[Max] Yes, I loved her too. And you know I was just rereading the preface to Beyond the Pale that you wrote in like 2013 I think.
[Max] And you talked in there about how you were like writing your fat ancestors into being, or not your fat, writing your ancestors into being and it made me wonder about fat ancestors and like where does – is there a way that we can speak about fat liberation actually coming from our ancestors, is that something you think about at all?
[Elana] I think so, I think that most fat women have had fat ancestors. And you see pictures of women you know from the 18th and 19th centuries, as soon as photography was invented, there were always fat women in them. I remember Judy had a collection of postcards of circus fat ladies that she had pinned up on her wall and she kind of considered them her ancestors. That they, that they represented certain, a certain kind of fatness and the only available outlet for fat women at the time.
There was an interesting collection of writing by fat women called Suzanne LaFleshe? Do you know that book?
[Max] Yeah I think…I’ve heard of it but I’ve never read it.
[Elana] You’ve never read it. Oh, you should read it. I have a short piece in there that I originally wrote for Amazones D’hier/Lesbiennes D’aujourd’hui, which was a French-Canadian publication. And there’s, I mean there’s some interesting stories in the book. And one of them is about a circus fat lady who, I think a fat man takes her place in the circus to spare her the constant shaming that she gets from the people who come to sideshow. But she’s not ashamed of being fat and he’s not ashamed of being fat as I recall it. And there are, you know, the stories are all very fat positive. It was, again, you know, when I read it it was like…if I hid things under my bed it was one of those things I might hide under my bed. ‘Cause it was, it had so many –
[Elana] Oh [shoot?]. It had so many depictions, eroticized depictions, and just the ordinary as well depictions, of fat women, that were very engaging for me. I have a copy of it here somewhere.
[Tracy] Can you say the title one more time Elana?
[Elana] I don’t – the woman’s name, it was a straight woman who edited it whose first name was Suzanne.
[Elana] And I had an extensive correspondence with her at some point and I think it’s upstairs in my bookshelf
[Tracy] Not to worry, not to worry.
[Elana] [Speaking to someone off camera] Go look?
[Person off camera] Do you want me to go look for it?
[Elana] Yeah it would be in the section where all my books are.
[Person off camera] What’s it called?
[Elana] Something Suzanne LaFleshe
[Person off camera] Suzanne? LaFleshe?
[Elana] Yeah, S-U-Z-A-N-N-E. Yeah. Anyway, Susan Koppelman maybe? Yeah. So that was ver – those were very explicit things. You know I felt at a certain point that I had said everything I had needed to say about being fat. You know between the fat women poems and the essays and the essays I wrote for Esther Rothblum and the creative pieces. I mean, as I write characters I still write them as fat, some of them. But in terms of analysis my analysis hasn’t particularly changed over time. I feel like the…conjunction of being fat and being women of color is very important and very overlooked. That there are cultures and heritages – you were talking about ancestors, there are a lot of fat women in Africa and there are many countries in which being fat is seen as a status symbol and as a sign of great health and child bearing promise. Which is another problematic area, but be that as it may.
[Elana] And you know, and I feel like the ways that women have separated themselves from each other over issues of size has been very intense over time –
[Person off camera] …there were two copies of it.
[Elana] Oh there are two copies of it. So, hey, you can have one. Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe: and Other Stories of Women and Fatness by Susan Koppelman. There it is. So you should see it, you should have a copy. And you can have that one.
[Max] Thank you.
[Elana] Yeah. You know, so, I feel like the conversation goes on with younger women and women who are just beginning to understand all these connections. And that’s really important. And that, I support that and I appreciate that enormously. I think it’s really important work. I don’t know what – I don’t want to be one of those people who says “well, we did it first”. Although I sometimes feel that way about Roxane Gay ‘cause I feel like, you know, she doesn’t credit the women whose shoulders she stands on a lot for the kind of thing she says. But I’m glad for her presence in the world, you know, and I’m not gonna agree with everything anybody says. And I’m not gonna get into, certainly not now, I’m not gonna get embattled with people over the details of their psychological understanding of things.
I feel like any fat woman who makes it alive out of their, out of their adolescence is to be applauded. Makes it alive, you know, with a sense of self and feeling of beauty in their body, I think that’s great. I think Lizzo is great, you know, to watch. I’m not a big fan of the music but I love seeing her out there being herself. And I think there’s a new generation of thinkers and activists coming up and I’m so grateful for that, I’m so glad about it. Yeah.
[Max] Do you feel like anything has changed? I mean, I am struck when I look at all this stuff, I’m like wow we are saying the same thing today that people like you have been saying for gener – one or two generations before. And what has actually changed?
[Elana] Not much. I mean. You know, there was this whole thing about Kim Kardashian in Marilyn Monroe’s dress and dieting stuff. People, I think, in the mainstream media, there’s more willingness to publish countervoices. Which is, which are the voices that say, you know, dieting is a sham, and it just makes people fatter, and it’s ridiculous what you’re doing, and you know, like that. But the main thrust of the culture we live in, I don’t think that’s changed. You know.
I think there has been a greater willingness to be open to hearing from people who are like, “this fat hatred is a mistake”, and it’s something, it’s something that is a natural part of being a human. There are many humans who are fat. That’s just how it is. You know? And appreciate everybody. Appreciate us who are here doing all kinds of interesting things who are fat people. We do some terrific things, you’ve done some terrific things. You know. I mean, I’ve been, I was so grateful for FaT GiRLs Zine and everything that you’ve done Max, so, you know, I feel like, fatness is accepted to a lesser degree than lesbianism is. But I feel like both of those identities are still kind of sideshow identities for the main culture. You know. That we have been extremely lucky to be able to live our lives in the spaces that we’ve carved out.
But they are small spaces. They’re not the big spaces where a lot of cultural production takes place. And it’s very difficult to make larger spaces than the ones we have carved out so far. So you know, you get pop stars like Lizzo or pop theorists like Roxane Gay being physically present and visible in the culture. That does change things I think. A little bit. Little bit. And I’m sure they get a tremendous amount of hate mail. I’m sure that that’s true. I feel like I’ve been lucky to fly under the radar of hate mail generally speaking in my life and identities.
But it’s hard to live with, knowing that people hate you. Just for the body you inhabit. It’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous thing. And yet it is a very big part of contemporary culture. I mean, you know, I read it in Dear Abby, every couple of weeks somebody’s like “oh my friends hate on all the fat people they see and I don’t like being with them but what should I do?” and Dear Abby says “walk away from them”.
But you know, that’s a tiny response to what continues to be a tremendous, the culture imperative to be thin is overwhelming in a lot of ways. It’s in every newspaper, it’s in all the commercials that aren’t about eating junk food are about losing weight, you know, so, three categories of ads, cars, junk food, and losing weight. And that’s it. That’s the culture that we currently are enmeshed in. And it’s hard to free yourself from that culture.
[Max] I’m curious, you talked about the small spaces that we make possible and I’m curious to ask you, what do you feel like separatist spaces make possible?
Lesbian separatist or fat separatist.
[Elana] Well. Separatism is a loaded word. I feel like – there are fat communities, there are lesbian communities, there are many different kinds of women of color communities. And I feel like part of what those spaces make possible is the ability to come together in coalition. Especially in places like the Bay area, which has and supports in active ways, many different communities. So, you know, like when I was working on the Dyke March, there were fat women, there were old women, there were young women, there were Black women, there were latina women, I think there was a white woman. There were Jewish women, Jewish white women. Who were, who were working on the Dyke March and we had a common project that we were working and that there were many different communities to which we belong kept any of us from feeling tokenized in that group.
‘Cause we had strong bases, and we could go back to those bases and say “you know what happened to such and such” and they would give us advice or they would say “do this” or you know. But they validated the importance of being in those kinds of multi-racial, multi-age, multi-class, kinds of intersectional communities. So I think that, having separate spaces where people can get together and affirm their identities, I mean, this is something that Virginia Woolf said a generation before me, “if you don’t have a mirror in which you can see yourself, you can’t form a sense of your own identity and who you are”.
And I think those smaller communities provide us with senses of who we are and who we can be and to work out, like I worked out with you this morning about my sense of difficulty in claiming being fat as an important part of my activist presence. Because, you know, you’re fat women, you understand what I’m talking about. I think. I hope. You know, but we can have a conversation about it. And it makes it, it makes me stronger, it makes it more possible for me to go out and say what I need to say in the world to other people, in other situations. So, that’s what I think having have so-called separatist communities does for us.
[Elana] They create the spaces of support and recognition that help us come together. Which we really need to be doing a lot more of in the coming years as the radical right takes over the country. To say we need each other, we depend on each other, and we stand with each other in the positivity of our claim to these spaces. And you know, without those spaces I think people often feel lost, and often feel lost in movements. They get, you know, they get overwhelmed by the loudest voices or they get to feeling oh well whatever their concerns are, aren’t as important as so-and-so’s, ‘cause they don’t have a base to go back to. So yeah. That’s what I think.
[Max] Thank you. Trace, do you wanna ask the next thing?
[Tracy] Yeah I’d love to hear you talk about fat liberation and lesbian feminism, and fat liberation and Jewishness, and how those intersect for you.
[Elana] Boy. Well. You know. Lesbians are subject to all the same kinds of prejudices and inherited biases that the outer culture has. As my friend Dolphin, who’s sitting over here on the couch, her mother used to say, “just because she’s a lesbian doesn’t mean she’s a swan”. And I think that was very true. You know, never-the-less, I love lesbians and I feel like, you know, it’s an important part of my work and my life to work and raise consciousness in lesbian spaces when that’s needed. Young lesbians, you know, have a lot, often, of that kind of Amazon, we can do anything, we can, you know, raise the roof, we can change the patriarchy, whatever ideas that we have about our power and strength. And it often translates into very disablist and very anti-fat kinds of attitudes.
And I think that always has to be challenged and looked at in a deep kind of way. A woman I know recently published a book that was very well regarded in straight spaces, it was all about being a sports geek and being as strong as she could be. And I was like –
[Elana] Turn off your phone, please. I’ll turn-off my.
[Elana] And I was surprised because she’s my age more or less and been working and showing positive images of disabled women for years. And I was surprised at the kind of lack of awareness of what kind of effect this might have on disabled women or fat women or women who couldn’t engage in marathon exercise events. And I supposed I should write her a letter. Now that we mention it. You know, so we all come with that. All the communities come with that. And I don’t think the lesbian feminist community is any better or worse than most other communities in this particular regard.
In terms of being Jewish, I think there’s, I mean I think that Jews, Eastern European Jews in particular developed those kinds of response to starvation genes that if you have many cycles of starvation in your ancestral background, in your genetic makeup, you have a tendency to be fatter than other surrounding peoples. So, I think that’s true, I think that’s one of the ancestral things about being fat. There are groups of Native Americans who have a much greater tendency to be fat and groups of Pacific Islanders who have much greater tendency to be fat. We have genetic explanations for that. You know, I’m not sure about how great the genetic explanations are, but mostly they have to do with periods of starvation.
[Elana] That’s what the early fat liberation literature talked about. To a certain extent. How, how, you know, if you are, if your mother was starving when she conceived you, then your tendency to be a fat child is much greater. So you know, if you have all these mothers who are dieting, you are going to have a much greater percentage of fat children. Because their mothers were starving themselves. And you know, and all that stuff about lowering your metabolic rate. So I think there are certain groups that have a greater tendency to be fat. And in straight Jewish groups I’ve found that there is also a greater desire to avoid being fat. You know, it’s that same thing about dieting your children to make them more marriageable. And to ensure their social and economic success in the world. I don’t find this to be true among Jewish lesbians as much in general. Sometimes. But much less among Jewish lesbians in my experience. They’re much more used to people being fat. And accepting that. If they have something else to offer. You know, it’s not just enough to be a fat person and deserving of respect. If you come with other things that the community wants, or deems valuable, then you can be fat anyway. It’s sort of like that.
[Elana] I find that to be true a lot. That fat people who are just regular fat people having ordinary jobs, they’re not seen as valuable, I think in every part of this culture. In every kind of radical group. If they want, even if they want to be in radical groups. So. You know, it’s all of those complicated things about class and race and what different communities find to be valuable in terms of their own development. You know. So, just as small communities are essential for seeing ourselves they can also have an opposite effect of making people feel cast out for who they are. And not valuing individuals for what they might have to give or bring if those gifts aren’t immediately obvious. You know, they don’t come with a resume so to speak.
[Tracy] Mhm. Thank you.
[Tracy] Max, do you wanna ask the next question?
[Max] Yeah, I think that we may move on to some reflective stuff. We are nearing our time of an hour and a half and so, I think what I’ll ask you is how do you want to be remembered?
[Elana] I want to be remembered as a woman who loved women and worked for women to be all that they can be in their lives. That’s how I would like to be remembered. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews lately. And I’ve been honored for what I’ve contributed. And I’ve been a little bit amazed, not to be overly humble, but I have really experienced myself as being a cultural worker all my life. Somebody who was inside of her community and trying to reflect, encourage, and analyze what the realities of those communities have been. So I would like to be remembered as somebody who did that as a cultural worker who loved women.
[Tracy] That’s beautiful. My heart feels really full hearing you say those words.
[Elana] Thank you.
[Tracy] I wanna ask you, what gifts has your life’s work, your cultural work, your writing, what gifts has this work given to you?
[Elana] Oh many. Many many. I mean, there’s a certain pleasure in the, in writing. And I think that it is a great gift to be able to do that. To have that be one of the main things that you’ve done. But a lot of the pleasure in what I’ve done has also been in the sharing of it. Both of my own writing and of teaching.
One of my favorite things that I do is that I have a class at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center that I’ve had for about seven or eight years, long before I had this cancer, that I – it’s a drop in class but I figured out a way to provide a common thread for it over the years and I love giving that class. I’ve had private classes in my house of women writers and even when I taught at San Francisco State sophomore English, I really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed stimulating and challenging expectations. You know, I’d have my students rip up copies of Shakespeare and then make collages out of the pieces with crayons and glue and they were like “what? What? What?” and you know, it was, you know, we would have, it was fun.
Yeah, so, I’ve really enjoyed interacting as a writer and almost all my life as a writer I’ve been in writing groups, peer writing groups, and I have felt really happy to be in a community of writers. When I was in Germany in 2000 maybe, with a German translation of Beyond the Pale, one of the women in one of the cities I went to asked me if lesbian writers in the US talked to each other and I found that kind of an astonishing question. And so I asked her, “do you mean that writers here in Germany don’t talk to each other?” and she said “no we don’t talk to each other because we are afraid we’ll steal each other’s ideas”. And I was like “okay then”.
But you know I mean one of the greatest pleasures of my life has been to be in a community of lesbian writers and to know other lesbian writers and to encourage their work and be encouraged in my own work by theirs. And it’s never a question of like, anybody stealing each other’s ideas. It’s like, you know, we give each other helpful feedback and say which ideas are working or coming across clearly or like that.
[Elana] And, you know, plotting each other’s successes. That’s what being a cultural worker has given me. It’s given me a tremendous feeling of expansiveness in my life. Of feeling like I am part of a community that goes way beyond the geographical boundaries of the Ohlone land that I live on and into other countries, in wonderful and productive ways.
When I was more physically able I used to stand with Women in Black often in protests against the wars the United States was engaging in, against the occupation of Palestine. And in 2005 I went to the Women in Black conference that was held in Jerusalem. And I met a woman there who, I was in her workshop and I was kind of falling asleep out of jetlag, and as the workshop ended she came up to me and she said “I know you” and I said “I don’t think I ever met you before”. And she said “yes, you’re in JEB’s picture book”. And there’s a – JEB did a couple of early picture books, I’m in the second I think, sticking my tongue out, like that, in the Gorgon pose. I had published a book with Gorgon on the cover and I’m holding the book and sticking my tongue out. And she said that we brought these books up to my apartment and brought all the young lesbians in Belgrade in Serbia up to, up to her apartment to see the pictures of lesbians in the United States ‘cause it was the common language the photographic language. And she knew me from that and so we started talking and we became friends. [Leppa?], whose last name I unfortunately cannot pronounce, you know, but being friends with her opened up a whole new areas of my life. So, it’s, it’s a wonderful thing to be connected in these ways with each other.
[Elana] That’s…I could go on for pages about how much being in lesbian community has given me over time. You know I feel like, we just watched a documentary about Saudi women being able to drive for the first time and I feel like, sort of like an escapee, of, in the 20th century, somebody who was able to have a free life as a fat woman, as a Jewish woman, as a writer, as a lesbian. That all of these things – not particularly able-bodied woman, now, a disabled woman – that in all of these areas, I’ve had tremendous mobility and ability to travel and to, and to talk when I couldn’t travel across big boundaries. And I think that’s an amazing thing. I think that those of us in the United States who experience this often don’t realize how lucky we are historically. You know, that historically, I mean, now with the looming Supreme Court decision people are like “oh wait a second” you know, “wait a second, history!”, but we have been tremendously lucky to escape patriarchal control as much as we have been able to. And to keep making free spaces for ourselves and for others coming behind us. And I hope that people will continue to do that. ‘Cause it’s crucial work, it really has to, has to happen for women of every kind to have this kind of freedom.
[Tracy] Thank you. Do you have the energy for one more question?
[Elana] One more question.
[Max] Where would you like to see the fat liberation movement go?
[Elana] I would like to see it become much more mainstream. Excuse me. I would like to see much more publishing done. And, you know, pop stars are great but I think it’s really – ah excuse me it’s a thing – I would like to see more publishing done. I think that your created an archives is fantastic because I think that it’s really important to preserve the history that we do have. And make it as accessible as possible, as visible as possible. Yeah, I’d like it to be much more visible. I’d like to see that happen. Because visibility is what changes things. You know when people see that there are fat women and fat people of all kinds talking about their lives in all of the complex intersections that, that create their radical understandings, that that will move other people. And you know, and some people are right there on the edge but not having an awareness that there’s a place for them. And I think that the more that we create that place, the better it will be for future generations of fat women who will definitely arise. Yeah. That’s what I would like to see.
[Max] Thank you.
[Elana] Thank you. Thank you for all the work that you’ve done and that you continue to do. I appreciate it enormously.
[Max] Thank you, and thank you for all you’ve done to make it possible.
[Tracy] Yes, thank you for that Elana.
[Elana] Thank you
[Max] Should we stop recording now?
[Elana] Yeah I think that would be good.