Shana McDavis-Conway is a social change consultant, activist, and a reviewer at this here website! She recently published an article, “Self-conscious, unapologetic, and straight: fat protagonists in romantic fiction” in the journal Fat Studies, and she’s written approximately fat rep in romance for SBTB a few times, too. We talk approximately the evolution of fat characters in romance, what’s changing, and then Shana shares the romances that made her a romance reader – and the books that rock her world.

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Transcript

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[music]

Sarah Wendell: Hello there. Thank you for inviting me into your eardrums. I’m Sarah Wendell, and this is episode number 513 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books! Shana McDavis-Conway is a social change consultant, activist, and a reviewer at Smart Bitches! She recently published an article in the journal Fat Studies called “Self-Conscious, unapologetic, and straight: fat protagonists in romantic fiction.” She’s also written about fat representation in romance on Smart Bitches as well. So we’re going to talk about the evolution of fat representation in romance, what’s changing, and Shana’s going to share the romances that made her a romance reader and the books that rock her world.

You can find all the books we talk approximately, and of course I will link to her articles, in the show paper money at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast.

Hello and thank you to our Patreon community. Every pledge keeps the show going and makes certain that garlicknitter can craft a fine, fine artisan transcript. Thank you, garlicknitter! [You’re welcome! – gk] And thank you to the Patreon community for supporting the show. It means a tremendous amount to me. If you would like to join, have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches.

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All right, are you ready to do this interview? We’re going to talk approximately so many matters, and I hope you enjoy this conversation. On with the podcast.

[music]

Shana McDavis-Conway: I’m Shana McDavis-Conway, and the most important object you should know about me is that I get to review books for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books!

Sarah: Can I just tell you? When I saw your bio on the academic website and you mentioned that you –

Shana: Uh-huh!

Sarah: – like, oh my gosh, she mentioned the site and everything! Oh my gosh! Thank you!

Shana: Well, it was exciting ‘cause I actually changed my bio – [laughs] – and I added it in! It wasn’t in the bio that I submitted with my original abstract, and then I decided, I should include that – [laughs] –

Sarah: Okay, I’m super excited approximately that part, so thank you; that totally made my day.

Shana: Yeah.

Sarah: So congrats on your article in Fat Studies. I’m imagining that this is a journal that does precisely what it says on the tin. Tell me everything approximately this.

Shana: Okay.

Sarah: Are you, are you formally an academic?

Shana: I am not at all. So I’m from an academic family. I’m the, you know, black sheep of the family in that I did not go into academia. [Laughs]

Sarah: [Gasps]

Shana: I know, shocking! You know, I work as a social change consultant, and, and, you know, I –

Sarah: Which means that they can’t explain to anybody what you do, right?

Shana: They have no idea what I do. You know, I’ve tried various attempts to explain, like, you know, I’m helping organizations align their values around fairness, and they’re like, I don’t know what that means. You’re, you’re telling the story of someone’s work; they don’t know what that means. But they were very excited when I saw that – so Fat Studies, it’s like the field of study that critiques, like, fatness and body weight and appearance and –

Sarah: Does what it says on the tin.

Shana: Yep! So it kind of explores fat bodies and how they’re actually lived in and how they are shaped by the world around us. And so this Fat Studies journal I actually read regularly, even though I don’t generally read academic journals, ‘cause it’s really entertaining! [Laughs] And so they had a special issue on fat kinship, which was trying to challenge, you know, expectations approximately lonely fat people and to write pieces that were really focused on how fat people had relationships with other people, and I just thought, this is my time!

Sarah: This is –

Shana: I can finally connect! [Laughs]

Sarah: Everything I have done has prepared me for this moment, and, and –

Shana: Right! All of the books I read, terrible and wonderful – [laughs] – I can finally use them!

Sarah: And it, it strikes me that there’s a meaningful overlap in the insight of fat people being single and lonely and romance readers being lonely and frustrated –

Shana: Correct?!

Sarah: – and they’re often typecast as fat, single ladies with cats and fanny packs? Like, that was the stereotype for, of romance readers for ages.

Shana: It definitely is. And now I feel like they don’t mention fanny packs anymore, only because fanny packs have now become fashionable.

Sarah: How did this happen?

Shana: Well, something – [laughs]

Sarah: How? Can you explain that? Is there a fanny pack studies journal? ‘Cause I would really like to know how that became cool again, because I am just like, wow, that’s a dad at Disneyland bag!

Shana: There needs to be! One of my very stylish friends wears one all of the time, and she makes it look good! [Laughs] I just don’t know!

Sarah: I cannot do that. That is not in my skill set. Like, not at all.

Shana: And then, you know, it, it slips into weird places now? So you don’t really want your fanny pack to, like, slip up and kind of hug underneath your boobs? Like, that’s not a look you’re looking for! And you also don’t want it to really slip down.

Sarah: So you haven’t written an article approximately fanny packs.

Shana: [Laughs] No. So the –

Sarah: But you have written an article about fat representation in lesbian romance.

Shana: Yeah, so it’s called “Self-conscious, unapologetic, and straight: fat protagonists in romantic fiction.” And it’s actually not just approximately lesbian romances, although I have a lot to say – [laughs] – about them. It’s kind of just approximately how size-diversity romance has a lot of potential –

Sarah: Yes!

Shana: – to be subversive –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – but it is not normally very subversive? It just kind of reinforces the same traditional gender roles –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – and traditional expectations, you know, like the way that it, they mostly pair fat heroines with, like, thin heroes and not really challenging those expectations for heroes. It kind of talks about the history of fat representation, and I get to talk approximately all of the ‘90s self-published fat romances that I remember reading and how they marketed themselves and were very radical at the time just for saying that their heroines were going to stop dieting – [gasps] – and, you know, learn to accept themselves, like, through love! [Laughs] You know, mainstream publishers realized that those were selling, and so they started taking these folks and marketing them in really similar ways and doing really amazing new things like possibly putting a slightly fat person on the cover of a book instead of, like, a flower or –

Sarah: A castle.

Shana: – [laughs] – a thin person! 

Sarah: And of course –

Shana: Yeah!

Sarah: – these were the books where all they thought about was their fatness. That was –

Shana: Like, continuous.

Sarah: – that was, it was like, it was like guys who like hot sauce think that’s a personality?

Shana: Uh-huh! [Laughs]

Sarah: The, the shorthand of writing these characters was, I am, I am fat, and that is the only object I can think of, and am I ever going to be lovable? Like, oh good God!

Shana: Yeah, that’s it. That’s, that’s their whole personality!

Sarah: Which is, no!

Shana: And you – no! [Laughs] Not that people don’t have insecurities or –

Sarah: No!

Shana: – or might worry approximately that, but numerous people don’t think about that at all! So –

Sarah: No!

Shana: – you know, what would it be like to have kind of fat heroines who just, just are fat? Like, that’s just a statement, and then they also have jobs and, like, they are, you know, difficult to fall in love with for completely different reasons. [Laughs] Like, reasons that thin heroines get to have about, like having pain from a past breakup or thinking that they’re throughout men or whatever’s going on with them, like, that they can’t trust – there could be all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with feeling unlovable for being fat, so. We do get some of that now, which I think is exciting, but it’s also pretty rare.

Sarah: I love some of the books, like for example you just reviewed 40-Love by Olivia Dade –

Shana: Uh-huh!

Sarah: – and in that book – ‘cause I just edited the review –

Shana: Oh, I can’t wait to see your edits! [Laughs]

Sarah: I, it was a brilliant review! It was like, like, nearly perfect, no notes. I mean, it was just like, we like this part; we like this part; this was a total delightful confection of utter joy. But it negotiates, the book negotiates not only how the heroine feels approximately herself at times, but also that the hero has things that he’s physically uncomfortable approximately himself, and there’s not just weight; it’s also chronic pain, and it’s also being a former athlete, and it’s, and there’s all of these other things.

Shana: A real person, you know? Like, there’s, it’s an age-gap romance, so that’s actually the major conflict.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: Not, you know, the character being fat. Not say-, they acknowledge it so that we don’t pretend like the character isn’t fat.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: You know, when it comes up, like, naturally and, like, you know, questions about, you know, access to something –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – you know, or assumptions that other people make about their relationship. Like, they acknowledge it, and yet, no, it is not her whole reason for being; he’s not obsessed with her being fat. He is obsessed with her, and –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – is aware, because he is not blind – [laughs] – that she’s fat.

Sarah: But it’s not like The Subject of the book; it is an aspect –

Shana: Correct.

Sarah: – to her character that informs her motivations, which is a totally different kind of representation. So tell me about your article: what did you examine?

Shana: Well, one of the things I looked at was book covers throughout time. So kind of looking at illustrated book covers and how they gave us this opportunity to begin putting fat bodies on, ‘cause it’s of course cheaper to do an illustrated book cover, or perhaps easier than to do the work of finding a fat mannequin who looks like the character –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Shana: – in the book, and, you know, there’s been a lot of things written about, like, what works or doesn’t work about illustrated book covers. I don’t want to – [laughs] – I don’t want to receive into, into that.

Sarah: It’s a whole thing.

Shana: It’s a whole thing! I mean, I do feel like one of the advantages was it meant that we could have these fat bodies, but it also means that those fat bodies were kind of depicted in these really cartoon-y ways that I think made them feel less threatening, and then it’s actually much more threatening to have a fat person, a truly fat person on the cover of a romance novel who might not have like an hourglass body shape, who might have darker skin –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – and so by making them these kind of happy, bubbly cartoons, even provided the book itself, the content of the book is not a rom-com – [laughs] –

Sarah: Yeah!

Shana: – like, by giving it that, that cover –

Sarah: Yes!

Shana: – it kind of allowed them to, to market more broadly and to make it feel safe and to maybe not challenge their own assumptions approximately who got to be on the cover.

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: And I also imagine it probably sucks for, for fat models, like –

Sarah: Oh, it has to suck.

Shana: But –

Sarah: Has to suck.

Shana: – yeah, they’re not getting that work.

Sarah: There’s a lot going on with illustrated covers; it’s a big thing.

Shana: Yeah, I find it fascinating? It wasn’t –

Sarah: Me too.

Shana: – you know, it was just kind of, just a small part of the article, but I, I actually would love to just write – [laughs] – about illustrated covers. But –

Sarah: Whether you would love to just write about illustrated covers, by coincidence I have this whole website, and people have –

Shana: Oh! Oh, do you? [Laughs]

Sarah: – and people – I don’t know whether you know this, but people in romance? They have opinions about covers!

Shana: Strong opinions about covers.

Sarah: Very strong opinions approximately covers. I am one of those people who, I’m like, the cover is not meant to attract me? But also very few covers do attract me, and I just consider myself a, a very weird anomaly in that regard. Like, I have never ever liked man-chest covers. They do nothing for me! I –

Shana: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – I could go my entire life without reading another romance with nipples on the cover. Sounds brilliant.

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: All I, every time I look at those guys, all I can think of is, you are so dehydrated, and I am so worried.

Shana: [Laughs] I do love a clinch cover, though.

Sarah: Oh!

Shana: So, like, I can handle man-chest like, you know, whether it’s tempered by – [laughs] –

Sarah: The presence of another person.

Shana: Yes.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: Yes, totally. I actually love covers? It’s a big part of what draws me to books. I’m completely that kind of person who will –

Sarah: Ooh, tell me!

Shana: – not read the blurb, not even see the author, but be like, I like that cover, and I mean, I will also buy wine based on the – [laughs] – the wine bottle label?

Sarah: I, listen, I have a poster of a wine bottle label that I really like, so I understand that.

Shana: Okay! I mean, I know I should know better.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: I have read books that have had terrible covers, oh, about how –

Sarah: So you spent a lot of time looking at covers –

Shana: Yes.

Sarah: – of romances and how they represented fat protagonists. So what were some of the conclusions you reached in your article?

Shana: Well, one of them was that queer romances really haven’t kept up with the trends of kind of m/f romances, which makes me sad because I love queer romances, and usually, like, queer romances will do matters first in a lot of ways, but in this case, like –

Sarah: Yeah!

Shana: – it’s very rare to find fat people in queer romances.

Sarah: And I’ve seen so much of the, the movement towards body acceptance and a wider definition of what it looks like to be a human coming out of the queer community.

Shana: Yes. Yeah.

Sarah: So it’s bizarre that that’s not in the books!

Shana: It’s not in the books. I mean, in some of the books, sure, of course. I mean, there’s, like, fantastic books like, you know, Knit One, Girl Two that has, like, two fat heroines and involves knitting, which is very exciting. Like, I love that book; I reread it regularly? [Laughs]

Sarah: Aw!

Shana: It just makes me happy. So there definitely are books like that; they’re mostly not books with the big queer publishers. So whatever is going on with those big publishers, it just, they really seem to preference queer heroines that are mostly thin and that, not only are they thin, are really absurdly preoccupied with, like, maintaining their body size. So you just get a lot more conversation about, you know, dieting and intentional weight loss and fear of getting bigger than you really do in, like, the average straight romance. So –

Sarah: Wow, that’s – what a –

Shana: It’s –

Sarah: – unusual imposition.

Shana: It is! It’s really poor with m/m books as well, but really both! Just in general, queer romance kind of has a, has a size diversity problem. And there’re brilliant people who are writing, trying –

Sarah: Absolutely!

Shana: You know, so it’s, again, not that they don’t – I think I just reviewed an Aurora Rey book, and she has a few different romances that do have fat characters. I will say they’re never on the cover. So that’s the other thing: finding those fat romances –

Sarah: It’s like –

Shana: – is so challenging. Like, you really have to just read every book that comes out in the hope – [laughs] – that despite the fact that there’s a thin person on the cover, that there could be a fat person in them. That’s like, that’s like a, the contrary of that, that idea of like – [laughs] – every fat person has a thin person in them just waiting to get out?

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: Every, every thin cover has a fat person potentially in there –

Sarah: Yeah, there’s a fat person hiding in this book.

Shana: – wishing that they, you knew that they were in there. [Laughs]

Sarah: Bum this illustration of somebody with absurdly long, thin, spindly legs –

Shana: Uh-huh!

Sarah: – in heels, there’s a fat person.

Shana: I mean, as a marketing standpoint, I don’t really get that, because will you be disappointed when you pick up this book with thin people and discover a fat person? Is that going to be upsetting to you? possibly, and again, like, is that good? Do you really want to anger – [laughs] – your readers that much? And then you have readers like me who would read any book you published with a fat person, and I won’t know it, because you have not let me know in any way in the blurb or, you know, on the cover.

Sarah: I have a theory, and I think we’ve talked about this, that there’s a segment of the romance-reading population that sees romance as aspirational, and so –

Shana: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – they want to fantasize about somebody who in some form of status is a step and a half above them, or even half a step above them: more wealthy, better looking, younger, lives in a cool city, finds –

Shana: All of the above!

Sarah: All of the above, right?

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: And so you’re more likely to use as a marketing hook the fantasy of effortless thinness and the image of, why, yes, all of these people are comfortable in these shoes that are depicted on the cover. It’s more likely, I think, to attract people whether you’re presenting the image of the fantasy, and then once they’re in and they’re invested in the characters, then that part doesn’t matter as much? But I still agree it’s a weird contrast; it doesn’t fit.

Shana: It’s very strange, and for me it’s something that feels very personal, because I remember reading my very first Octavia Butler book, Sunrise, and the copy I read had a white woman on the cover, and –

Sarah: Whoooa!

Shana: – the book is about a Black woman, and I –

Sarah: Well, that’s different!

Shana: – and I had no idea that the character was Black for the first at least third of the book.

Sarah: Oh my gosh!

Shana: And you know, even like, you know, they would describe her brown skin, but I thought like, maybe she’s just tan? I don’t know?

Sarah: Really tan. Whole lot of tanner.

Shana: [Laughs] And then I think it was an afro or something where it finally became lucid like, this is a Black character! I mean, Sarah –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: – not even kind of Black on the cover. Like, pale, pale, snow white?

Sarah: Now we’ve got covers that do the opposite, that sign a character of color, and it’s all white people inside!

Shana: [Laughs] Precisely, yeah, so I –

Sarah: Wooow! That’s new!

Shana: – get better about that.

Sarah: That’s new!

Shana: So I also think about those covers.

Sarah: I always wonder about things like that, like provided you have this Octavia Butler book with a white person on the cover, at some point there was a assembly.

Shana: Uh-huh.

Sarah: There was a, there was a group of people who were like, this is what we’re going with.

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: Correct?

Shana: Wait, no one will read this whether they know it’s about a Black person, so let’s just do a bait-and-switch. [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah. We’ll just stick a white – it’s fine. This inventory image works; all right, moving on. That’s good. Like, I always think about the assembly that went into the decision. Like, how many people were like, yeah, sounds brilliant! Absolutely! Let’s move along. Next item on the agenda.

Shana: It’s true! I often wonder that, and then I often think about how few people of color were probably in – [laughs] – those conversations.

Sarah: Mm! None of this – I –

Shana: Or possibly they were; maybe they were, like, the one person like, do I say something? Or possibly they’re correct! Like, I want Octavia Butler’s books to do well, and the only way to do that –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – is to trick white people into reading them! [Laughs]

Sarah: Surprise!

You mentioned that you are a social change consultant?

Shana: Yeah!

Sarah: What are some of the things that you do as a social change consultant, and how did you get a cool-ass job like that?

Shana: [Laughs] Well, I got this job because I was a nonprofit director for many, numerous years.

Sarah: My condolences.

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: I also used to work in nonprofits. Yes.

Shana: Okay, you get it!

Sarah: Oh, I get it!

Shana: So – [laughs] –

Sarah: Oh yes.

Shana: And, you know, I focused on narrative strategies, so kind of helping people figure out the existing stories around the issue that they’re trying to work on and then tell, like, a new story that will inspire people to take action on the issue.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: But I really loved doing that work, and it meant getting to work with a lot of fun organizations. A lot of the work I did was on racial justice and food justice. Unsurprisingly, like, I love food. [Laughs] I love, like, making recipes and growing food in my garden and going to the farmer’s market, so it was a great possibility to kind of do that, but I got tired of doing it, so I just became one of the many, many middle-aged women of color – [laughs] – who, like, stepped out of that role and started doing consulting, so. I actually have a, a gig coming up that is kind of like a sensitivity reader gig? It’s my first time doing that –

Sarah: Ooh!

Shana: – so I feel like it’s like a merging of, like, you know, getting to do leadership coaching on, you know, social fairness, racial fairness, food justice. Like, it’s kind of like a merging of that world and the fact that all I do is read all the time! [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah. Perfect!

Shana: So I’m excited about doing that coming up.

Sarah: That is very cool. So have, have your, have your family read your article in Fat Studies?

Shana: That is a really good question. Not that I am aware of. They’re very excited that it came out. They were super excited approximately it, and I was actually working on editing it throughout Christmas, and, like, you just see the glow on my mom’s face, you know.

[Laughter]

Shana: She, she was really proud. So I should ask, I should ask whether she’s read it. I’m not really good at self-promotion – [laughs] – so now I’m wondering, did I –

Sarah: I understand.

Shana: – did I even send it to them? I’m so terrible approximately that.

[Laughter]

Shana: I don’t know whether I did! So this is helpful, Sarah; this reminds me I should send – [laughs] –

Sarah: Do you want me to send it to your mom? I’ll send it to her for you.

Shana: That would be great! She’s a big fan of you.

Sarah: What?!

Shana: From one of the times when I had a review come out, and I don’t know, there was something snarky in the comments, and, like, you came in and were just, like, really good at defending me, so now mom is like –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: – I, I like that SB Sarah! [Laughs]

Sarah: Well, thank you! I, I have said numerous times, like, I do not take myself seriously at all, but I take the comment space very seriously, and I take the response to reviews – whether, provided I think a response to a review is somebody getting up very much in their own feelings and taking a review personally, I’m very ready to be like, okay, no? That’s not what we’re doing.

Shana: I always love and appreciate your gentle moderation, just to make sure it’s a curative –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – positive space for people, ‘cause that’s why people come back; that’s why I do.

Sarah: That is why people come back; that’s why I take it very seriously. I, I take the remark space very seriously because I want people to feel safe, and romance is all about all of these very intimate, difficult feelings! It’s, we are programmed with so much not good shit about sex, approximately our bodies –

Shana: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – approximately intimacy, approximately enjoying any of those things that being able to work that out in a safe space is really important, but there are limits to what I am willing to accommodate, and that is one thing I’m not willing to accommodate. So I appreciate that. Please tell your mom thank you.

Shana: Yeah! [Laughs]

Sarah: So I also know from your bio in this awesome article that you’re involved with an organization called NOLOSE, which is a fat liberation association?

Shana: Yep.

Sarah: Promoting fat, queer culture. I love all of these words in this order.

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: And this actually marvelously dovetails with some, a lot of reading that I’m doing? I’ve been reading Your Body, The Body Is Not an Apology?

Shana: Oh yeah! Uh-huh?

Sarah: And then I just started Your Body Is an Instrument? Which is –

Shana: Oh, I haven’t read that one!

Sarah: Oh, it’s really – I mean, it’s, I’m sure for the work that you do it is 101 level, considering you’re probably like –

Shana: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – a 305, 400 level class at this point, but what I like is, like I said, we’re very much inculcated with all of this bullshit, and I love watching people do the work of reframing. The problem with body acceptance narratives is that that frame is like one of those frames at the museum that’s like four and a half feet wide, and it weighs ninety pounds, and, and it’s a lot to undo that frame.

Shana: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: It’s a big frigging frame, and we’re just steeped in all of this bullshit, so please tell me everything about this association and what kind of work you do, ‘cause it’s so cool!

Shana: [Laughs] Well, I love talking approximately NOLOSE. So it’s a volunteer group, and it kind of builds community among queer and trans fat people, so we organize fat positive events and, and we do grants and community activities. So we actually had a, I mean, kind of romance-adjacent event last year called Fats After Dark, where performers told kind of sexy, romantic stories?

Sarah: Hello!

Shana: It was really fun. [Laughs]

Sarah: That’s awesome!

Shana: I loved it! I’m hoping we can do that again. And the grants we offer, they’re really small grants that are mostly to, like, weird projects that really are hard to receive funded? Like, you know, kind of radical projects around fat and queer people and building fat and queer, fat, queer, and trans community. So, like, last year we offered scholarships for BIPOC folks who wanted to attend Fat Sar, which I hadn’t heard of until they applied for grant, but it’s a professional development training on the intersection of fatness and sexuality for sexuality educators, counselors, and therapists.

Sarah: Ohhh, cool!

Shana: Such a space it needs intervention – [laughs] – I imagine!

Sarah: Just a little bit!

Shana: So, like, that was one of our, our more recent partners, and we provide a lot of financial support to fat artists that are exploring fatness in their work. Like Naima Lowe is one of our recent grantees, so those are some of the things that we do, and I love it! Like, it’s a Black-led organization; we’ve been Black-led for a while. I was the president for several years, and I stepped back just a couple months ago to just be on the executive committee and to just have a little more rest –

Sarah: Good!

Shana: – [laughs] – in my life.

Sarah: Good! Provided you haven’t had any positive support for that sentiment, let me tell you, good! Good, good, good!

Shana: Oh, thank you! [Laughs]

Sarah: Rest is important. I mean, I, like I said, I’ve worked in nonprofits; I know how easy it is to receive caught up in this idea that there are so few people doing this work, I have to keep going; I have to do this, and no, you can step back –

Shana: Yeah.

Sarah: – and let other people pick it up in different ways. It’s, it’s tough to prioritize rest when you are dealing with such massively painful and important issues.

Shana: It is, you know, and, and just like you said, when you let other people in, though, they have great ideas. The new president, Meredith King, is a playwright. Like, she’s really interested in, like, fat plays? I have a theater background. I would never have thought, like, there was space to kind of think about doing that? So –

Sarah: That’s so cool!

Shana: – that’s been really exciting. You know, and I, I do think the work is just, it’s really important. I mean it is, it can be miserable? But that’s why I like NOLOSE, because it’s, like, really prioritizes fat joy and pleasure, and we need that! And I love the focus on queer and trans folks particularly, ‘cause I feel like there’s this overlap where, like, Black and brown bodies, disabled bodies, trans bodies, fat bodies, like, they’re all really, like, policed –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – by society. Like, we – and the more of those intersections you have, the more you feel that sense of, that, that your body is pathological in some way; that, you know, your body is wrong; that your fat body needs to be eliminated; that your trans body is, is dangerous; you know, that your, your Black body is abnormal in some way and atypical. So yeah, I just feel like we’re getting those messages all the time, and so we really need, there’s groups that are working, you know, on policy issues and groups that are fat liberation groups who work on those issues, and we also need a group like NOLOSE where it’s really about prioritizing your delight and, and imagination and, and weird fun. It’s also a really sex-positive space –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – so I know a lot of people who met their partner – [laughs] –

Sarah: Aw!

Shana: – at NOLOSE – 

Sarah: Love it!

Shana: – you know, who – and I get to go to, like, fat weddings for people who met through NOLOSE –

Sarah: Oh my gosh!

Shana: – and it still makes me so happy!

Sarah: Oh my gosh!

Shana: I love it so much! Even if it’s just a partner for a night, you know, that makes me happy too! [Laughs]

Sarah: That’s fine!

Shana: For me especially, being in a, a multigenerational space and seeing kind of people’s bodies as they age has been really –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – important. You know, NOLOSE was, was started by, by white lesbians and really made this transition to a more kind of inclusive focus, and what that means though is that we have these people in our community who’ve been, you know, fat activists since like the ‘70s or ‘80s –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – and that I’ve just learned so much by how, like, really hot you can be – [laughs] – you know, in –

Sarah: When, oh yeah! Oh yeah.

Shana: I just think seeing those elders, particularly for queer people, ‘cause we’ve lost so many elders?

Sarah: I was going to say, there’s an absence of elders in the queer community.

You have written two essays approximately fat representation in romance for Smart Bitches, and we’ve touched approximately, touched on that a little bit. What are some things that you’ve noticed about fat representation in romance fictions that, that is changing? What are some matters that you are very curious approximately how that’s going to continue to evolve?

Shana: I mean, the biggest change is that there’s just fewer intentional weight loss stories?

Sarah: Thank God. [Laughs]

Shana: So I just, I mean, I just have to name that! [Laughs] Again, it’s just, they’re a rarity. It used to be they were the norm?

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: And so now we just get fat characters. They start the book fat; they end the book fat.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: Like, I love it? [Laughs] So I think that’s been a real shift. I think there’s also been a shift away from naming the book something, some sort of terrible pun around fatness or putting, like, the size, you know, in, in the title?

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: I mean, of course I’m thinking approximately Size 12 Is Not Fat, but, like, there was a bunch of lesser known –

Sarah: There was one, one of the first fat heroines that people encountered in Harlequin, and I believe the title is A Whole Lot of Love?

Shana: [Laughs] Another reason just to put a fat person on your cover: then you don’t have to call it something appalling for us to know that there’s a fat person in the book.

You know, I also think, it’s just interesting to me how there’s been a little more body shape diversity in kind of recent fat romances, so that really excites me? Because, you know, one of the ways that I think fat romances have really just conformed to existing gender standards is this expectation of hourglass-ness in the heroines.

Sarah: Yes!

Shana: So, you know, even if you’re fat, you have the tiniest waist possible – [laughs] – and you have really big boobs.

Sarah: 36-24-36.

Shana: Yeah. [Laughs]

Sarah: And she’s five-three! Yeah.

Shana: So I’m really excited to see that. And I think it is actually probably really challenging for readers. I know that for me as a reader, like, having characters really talk lovingly approximately, like, you know, round bellies or being kind of apple-shaped, I’m just not used to it, and so it, I really enjoy that –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Shana: – and I think it challenges me and it makes me want to read more of that, and so having more body types for women and men –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Shana: – and people who are neither –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – I think is just really important. So I, I feel like we’re starting to see more of that, and I’m hoping that’ll be a continued trend.

Sarah: Yeah. Why do you think it is changing?

Shana: You know, I don’t know that I really know the answer to that. I mean, I would say, cynical me says it’s because books have been selling. [Laughs] So –

Sarah: I don’t think that’s cynical; I think that’s logical. [Laughs]

Shana: Every time, you know, a fat romance sells well and gets, you know, a lot of press, like Spoiler Alert is a good example of that –

Sarah: Yeah, yeah.

Shana: – and I think that what we really saw, especially, like, in the like 2010s, like later 2000s was authors would experiment with having a longer series, particularly historical romances, and they would have just one fat character.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So if you wanted that fat character, you might see little bits of her in the whole series, and you would read the whole series just to get that one pop – [laughs] –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – of that character. And those books still did well!

Sarah: Yep.

Shana: And, and I think, you know, fat readers would read an entire series just to kind of keep up with that one character.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So, you know, I think that was kind of a test balloon to really show that those books could be very popular?

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: You know, I think that Rose Lerner’s, her historical series, like, starts with the fat character in the very first book –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So that’s much more radical than what other people were doing. [Laughs] And then kind of continues with thinner characters after that, so.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So I, I do feel like that was part of really what explained a bit of that shift, and then, you know, the whole Own Voices movement and just, you have all these people who are wanting to write, you know, for one another and write the books they want to read, and this is something that has been really lacking.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So, you know, what I’m hoping to see is just more representation with more points of intersectionality –

Sarah: Yeah, I hope so!

Shana: – because so many of these fat heroines are white. And on one hand I feel like Black authors have been doing such a fantastic job of, like, more body shape diversity and not feeling tied to very thin standards necessarily for many, many years.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: Like decades, right? [Laughs] So, like, we were already doing that, but, like, really, truly fat characters definitely exist in, in Black contemporary romance, but they’re not as, I don’t see them as often in historical romances.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So perhaps I’m not reading them and people should suggest some that I should read.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: But I would love to see more of that, so I’m, I’m hoping that we’ll see that in the future.

Sarah: So I want to know above all other books that you love, what are some romances that are your absolute must-reads, that rocked your world, that you love, that you want to tell people about?

Shana: I mean, I knew you were going to ask me that, and I started –

Sarah: And then your mind goes blank and you’re like, what’s a book?

Shana: No, I started thinking of like a hundred books, Sarah! [Laughs]

Sarah: That’s fine! When have I run out of room on the internet? The blog is like seventeen years old and I’m still going! We’ve got room!

Shana: [Laughs] That’s true! I mean, the first one I thought of – well, there’s, like, what rocked my world and what is a must-read. [Laughs] So for what rocked my world, I actually have a copy of the very first romance that I ever read.

Sarah: Oh my goodness!

Shana: Correct here!

Sarah: [Gasps] Penny Jordan! Oh, look at that classic cover!

Shana: I know! It’s like from the ‘80s. [Laughs]

Sarah: Is the paper –

Shana: It’s a Harlequin!

Sarah: Is the paper, like, very delicate and crisp?

Shana: It is! I, I just started reading it, actually? So I read the first chapter, and I’m kind of nervous to be reading it? Like – [laughs]

Sarah: Do you need some, like, archival gloves?

Shana: I totally do! [Laughs] You know, my sister’s an art conservator, so I asked her for advice about, like, how do I display, like, my Harlequin romance Substitute Lover by Penny Jordan? And she sent me ideas.

[Laughter]

Shana: And I love her ‘cause she took me seriously. She didn’t say, why are we displaying – [laughs] – these books? She knows me and knows that they need to be displayed!

Sarah: That’s correct!

Shana: So, I mean, I feel like –

Sarah: Wait, what did she say? How do you display this classic romance? Do you have to, like, shrink wrap it, shrink, shrink it up or – ?

Shana: Well, it was interesting ‘cause she actually talked a lot about how bookshelves are designed well to store books. [Laughs] Like, so I was really asking approximately all these other options. She’s like, you know, here’s all the reasons that bookshelves work.

[Laughter]

Sarah: This incredibly new technology: the Billy bookcase.

Shana: [Laughs] And then, you know, she did propose, like, whether you don’t want to read the book, you know, that there are ways that you kind of like frame it –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – whether you don’t need to have access to the book. I, of course, want to have access to my books!

Sarah: Who doesn’t want to have access to their books? Like, what?

Shana: Like, there’s very, I mean, I have some amazing covers on my shelf, but there’s few where – I used to collect, like – [laughs] – 1960s interracial romances? So they all have these really racist covers; I’m never reading those books. So those I could just display. [Laughs] But everything else, no. So she, yeah, she had lots of suggestions. possibly I, maybe I should write an article about, like, what I end up doing with my book.

Sarah: Yes, please! I’m also curious about these interracial covers from the ‘60s. Are they going to, like, are they just going to, like –

Shana: Oh, girl.

Sarah: – kill me a little inside?

Shana: Oh my goodness! [Laughs] I, why don’t we do a special Cover Snark that’s just, just on some, some gems from my collection? I actually got rid of a bunch of them when I moved in a Marie Kondo bringing-me-joy occasion of realizing that some of them really were not bringing me joy. [Laughs] But I –

Sarah: I was just going to say, like, isn’t some of this imagery, like, really hurtful and painful? [Laughs]

Shana: Yes, but some of it’s so entertaining! So I kept the ones that brought me delight, like –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: You know, ‘cause I used to have a bunch of also romances that were white people who fell in love with other white people in Africa. It was a whole subgenre like in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So numerous of them, and that’s what I got rid of, because those just made me mad! [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah! Well, I mean, that’s just the, the whole, the, the whole population is a prop. No!

Shana: [Laughs] Yeah! Anyway, so I haven’t really, you know, I don’t know I can say Substitute Lover is a must-read, but it’s the book that made me love romance novels! Like –

Sarah: Ohhh!

Shana: – I mean – and it took me years to find it again. Like, I remembered the cover, like the orange dress, and, like, even just starting it, it’s pretty clear that so many of my favorite tropes are in this book, which then makes me wonder, is this the book that, like, turned me into who I am? [Laughs] Or did I love the book because I already loved those tropes? Like, I don’t know!

Sarah: That’s a –

Shana: This is like the Nature versus Nurture question!

Sarah: – good question! Wow!

Shana: And then I think my other, kind of moment romance route book is – ‘cause, you know, I, I started reading Harlequins and I read a lot of romances, and then I went to college and I kind of stopped because I was a serious person, a serious person who did not read romances? And then I read Touchdown by Emma Donoghue, and I love Emma Donoghue. She’s an Irish writer, and her books are mostly, she writes contemporary and historical books, and they’re mostly not books that have happy endings, so it fit in with my serious writing, and then I, this is a book that’s, it’s basically like a romance or women’s fiction with romantic elements. It’s about a woman who meets a flight attendant on a plane because the passenger next to her dies, and she’s stuck next to a dead body for remainder of the flight.

Sarah: As, as you do.

Shana: [Laughs] As you do! And the flight attendant who helps her with the situation, who’s Canadian, they end up falling, falling in love. And I loved this book so much more than I loved all of the depressing – [laughs] – Emma Donoghue books I’d been reading –

Sarah: Can’t imagine why!

Shana: – it really made me realize, yeah! Like, wait! So every time someone says Emma Donoghue doesn’t write romances I’m like, well, she has the one. [Laughs]

Sarah: She just has this one.

Shana: Oh, it is just like this lovely long-distance relationship, so, I mean, it just made me so happy, and it’s just what got me to start reading romances again, so –

Sarah: Yay!

Shana: – I have a soft spot for, for those two books.

Sarah: I get it!

Shana: And then also I feel like it was a, it was a must-read? I feel like there’s just some books where – like, this book is so smart? I really believe that romance books are the smartest books in the world.

Sarah: I completely agree with you!

Shana: And, you know, there’s just some where you’re just like, how can someone put this much brilliance – [laughs] – in a book? And I have a bunch of those, but, like, the first one I thought of was Signal Boost by Alyssa Cole. But I just really love that whole series, that, like, Off the Grid.

Sarah: Off the Grid, I think, yeah.

Shana: Yeah. Yeah, I loved that series. It’s, you know, kind of post-apocalyptic, and I think that one in specific I loved. It’s, like, I think the only queer one in that series, and so it has, like, a Korean-American main character who falls for, it’s like a Russian scientist, and, I mean, I think part of what I loved and really remember about that is that they end up in this, I don’t know, like, university that’s been taken over by evil – [laughs] – dystopian forces that are really doing kind of lousy matters to the people who were working there, and, like, the people who – it’s, like, really a book about, it’s like building connection in unforeseen places, even in really traumatic places, and it ultimately, like, the savior, like the big hero of the book who kind of comes up is an unforeseen person who had been kind of attacked and assaulted over the whole book. And there’s this, just this beautiful occasion at the end when the heroes get rescued – I guess this is a spoiler – [laughs] –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – get rescued, not by the group of kind of white, military men who they kind of engaged as allies but by this, like, small African woman who everybody just really saw as a victim, who it turns out was a child soldier and actually knows how to take care of naughty guys in a way that these, you know, men playing at being soldiers actually don’t. And she’s a minor character in the book, but I, I actually think about her all of the time –

Sarah: Wow!

Shana: – because I just think it’s just a way of, like, making you as a reader not pay attention to someone or see them as someone who is just the sum of the way that they’re being victimized, and then have them step out in front at the end –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – and actually be the person you really needed to be the hero! So, like, that’s just one of my favorite books. I love it. [Laughs] It’s really memorable. I feel like that whole series should be a film or a TV show.

Sarah: It should be adapted; it would be so good!

Shana: It really would be.

Sarah: And it’s a very cozy post-apocalyptic series. Like, there’s –

Shana: It is! There’s a lot of, like, cooking. [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah! There’s a lot of –

Shana: Like, that –

Sarah: – caretaking?

Shana: Yes! I think even that one is probably the darkest of the series, and there’s still a lot of, like, cozy connection and, like, hurt comfort.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So I love that, and then I think also Peter Darling by Austin Chant? That book just makes me so happy! I actually just bought it; I bought a copy at, at Ripped Bodice and forced a new friend to read it; like, a friend who doesn’t read romance novels! [Laughs] I don’t know whether she will, but I just love that book. So it’s, you know, it’s a retelling of Peter Pan where, where Peter Pan is trans and was Wendy, and falls for Captain Hook, and it’s just, like, such a smart book! Like, I love Peter Pan; I love retellings. It’s hard to think of, like, a more, I don’t know, like, creative retelling? And particularly in redeeming Captain Hook, you know, it just really shows that everybody is worthy of love. Like, it challenged me, you know, as a reader, and it just surprised me the whole time? I just, I love that book. I reread it a lot as well. [Laughs] Just, it just makes me really happy. So that’s definitely a must-read; like, that would be a Desert Island book for me.

Sarah: Aw! Thank you so much, Shana!

Shana: Of course! Yeah, cut me off or I’ll just keep going, like, on my list of a hundred, but we have to have something that we can talk approximately next time! [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah, next time! We’ll do more; we’ll do more of the books that rock your world. Thank you so much for doing this interview, and thank you for all the matters you do to make the world better for people.

Shana: Of course! Yeah, thank you for all the matters that you do and for giving me a chance to get to write approximately romance novels! It’s an important balance for –

Sarah: It is. It is –

Shana: – sometimes the, like, social justice campaign work. Like, we need those moments of joy.

Sarah: It’s all deploying narrative, right?

Shana: Yeah, exactly.

Sarah: And, and deploying narrative about the way in which you want the world to look.

Shana: Yeah, and how can we know the world that we want to create provided we don’t have a chance to see what it could look like?

Sarah: Yeah! With, with good sex.

Shana: With really good sex! [Laughs]

[music]

Sarah: And that brings us to the end of this week’s episode. Thank you to Shana for hanging out with me and talking about all the matters. Provided you have books that have rocked your world or you found really good fat rep in romance, please tell us approximately it: [email protected] or leave a message at 201-371-3272. I absolutely love hearing from you.

I also love when you send me jokes, and speaking of, I have one! [Laughs] Jennifer sent me this joke, and I love it so much! Jennifer also sent me Cover Snark and then followed it up with a joke, and I just had to go lie down I was so excited. Thank you, Jennifer! Are you ready for the lousy joke of the week?

Do you know what they call people who take care of chickens?

Give up? Do you know what they call people who take care of chickens?

Chicken tenders!

[Laughs] Chicken tenders!

On behalf of everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. Have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you back here next week.

Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find outstanding podcasts to subscribe to at frolic.media/podcasts.

[end of music]

This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.

Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at Frolic.media/podcasts!
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