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Radio 2 Book Club - Big Girl

The next book to be featured on the Zoe Ball Radio 2 Book Club will be Big Girl, the beautiful and powerful debut novel by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan. The book was released on 6 July and Mecca will be on the show with Zoe on Tuesday 18 July.

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Big Girl

Malaya Clondon hates when her mother drags her to Weight Watchers meetings in the church’s stuffy basement community center. A quietly inquisitive eight-year-old struggling to suppress her insatiable longing, she would much rather paint alone in her bedroom, or sneak out with her father for a sampling of Harlem’s forbidden street foods.

For Malaya, the pressures of going to a predominantly white Upper East Side prep school are compounded by the high expectations passed down over generations from her sharp-tongued grandmother and her mother, Nyela, a painfully proper professor struggling to earn tenure at a prestigious university. But their relentless prescriptions – fad diets of cottage-cheese and sugar-free Jell-O, high-cardio African dance classes, endless doctors’ appointments – don’t work on Malaya.

As Malaya comes of age in a rapidly gentrifying 1990s Harlem, she strains to understand “ladyness” and fit neatly within the suffocating confines of a so-called “femininity” that holds no room for her body. She finds solace in the lyrical riffs of Biggie Smalls and Aaliyah, and in the support of her sensitive father, Percy; still, tensions at home mount as rapidly as Malaya’s weight. Nothing seems to help – until a family tragedy forces her to finally face the source of her hunger on her own terms.

Selection panel review

The book was selected with the help of a panel of library staff from across the UK. Our readers loved Big Girl – here are some of their comments:

“This is an incredibly vibrant, powerful debut novel with a trio of memorable female characters. The central one is Malala, the eponymous “Big Girl” of the title, who we meet as an obese eight-year-old. Her mother, overweight herself, is obsessed with Weight Watchers and fad diets and keeps too-small outfits hung up on the shower rail as motivation. Malala is devoted to her father, Percy, whose relationship with her mother becomes increasingly more fragile throughout the novel. Malala fights a constant battle against conformity, against the weigh-ins she is forced to endure, the ugly clothes she is forced to wear and the constant comments about her size from her mother and grandmother (Ma-Mère, whose epithets are cutting, profane and often funny). At Christmas, she receives a stationary bicycle for exercise instead of the coveted Brother P-touch 3 label-maker she asked for. It’s just one of a number of slights and indignities that will make the reader take Malala to their hearts.
Malala is creative, smart and loving. As she grows older, her size increases and soon her family is pressured into considering gastric band surgery for her when she reaches 16. It causes even more friction between Percy, who by this point has lost his job, and Nyela who is unaware of this and seems oblivious to Percy’s failing health. The way in which the author handles complex family relationships – and relationships with food, which many readers will identify with – is hugely accomplished. Food is both a source of shame and pleasure for Malala – I love the way she and Shaniece bond together as children over bodega snacks and how Malala finds her own style as a teenager, with her braids, Doc Martens and jeans bought from the men’s Big and Tall store. Shaniece is also the one who awakens Malala to her sexuality: she and Nyela’s colleague, Ethan Windborne, are wonderfully realised secondary characters.
Big Girl also deals movingly with loss and bereavement, and it seems fitting that Nyela takes on Percy’s book as a project, one that will record black culture and Harlem lives: “We make magic, they consume it, make it theirs. We have to start over, and we do. Over and over again. It’s hard on people.” Malala finds the strength to start living life on her own terms and Nyela is finally able to let her. Everything about this novel is word-perfect, with so many lovely touches, like the skipping game of double Dutch that frames the narrative. This is right up there with the best debuts I’ve read.”

“This completely transported me into the Harlem of the 1990s and was a fascinating look at diet culture, inner-city gentrification, and inter-generational dynamics. The characters are deeply flawed yet incredibly lovable and I’ve already created a Spotify playlist of all the incredible music referenced throughout. Malaya’s relationships: with her parents, her grandmother, her friends and, most centrally, her relationship with food and her own body, are the cornerstones of the novel and the parts that ring most true – even when they are painful to read. The dynamic between the three generations of women is completely, and depressingly, believable; Malaya, her mother and grandmother who, despite their great accomplishments and love for each other, are completely fixated on their bodies and the continual struggle to make themselves smaller. I was completely absorbed while reading this book, and became incredibly attached to Malaya and her journey to self-acceptance which, though somewhat foreseeable, feels incredibly well-earned and deeply satisfying.”

“This is an incredibly moving story of a girl growing up in the black community in 1990s Harlem and the roads she has to navigate to feel accepted and ultimately satisfied, something that she isn’t getting through food though this is where she is seeking her answers. The whole book is a study on what it means to be a “big girl” both in her community and the wider world, told in an honest and powerful narrative from the viewpoint of Malaya who we meet at eight years old and journey with her through to the age of sixteen. Every discussion point on what it means to be classed as overweight is laid bare here, from the parental responsibility to why people eat to excess and whether it is an addiction or habit, down to whether surgery is the right approach, particularly in this case for a teenager. Through Malaya’s eyes we see what it is like to get through school and what it is like to be a woman in her community which is also eye opening as you begin to feel what it might be like for Malaya trying to find her own place when she is also expected to be a wife, mother, cook and hold down a career whilst battling to be heard and gain the same opportunities as others – something not guaranteed because of the colour of her skin. I put this book down and thought instantly that I would like to meet Malaya, she stayed with me after reading and this to me is an indication that a book hit home for me.”

About the author

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, PhD is the author of The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora, winner of the Modern Language Association William Sanders Scarborough Prize, and the short-story collection, Blue Talk and Love, winner of the Judith A. Markowitz Award for Fiction from Lambda Literary. She is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. A native of Harlem, she currently lives in
Washington, DC.

A word from Mecca

“What a thrill to learn that Big Girl is a BBC Radio 2 Book Club selection! I’m honoured that the novel will be part of such a phenomenal program. The dream of Big Girl began in libraries—first in my mother’s small personal library in the basement of my childhood home in Harlem, then in school libraries and the historic public library in our neighbourhood. These spaces opened me to new realms of thought and feeling, and to the delectable freedom of exploring the world through literature. In many ways, Big Girl is a novel about that freedom of exploration, and about the challenge and joy of making space for oneself in the world. I couldn’t be happier to see the novel reach new spaces, readers, and communities through the Radio 2 Book Club. I hope you enjoy!”

Get involved

Tune in to the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show to hear the live feature on Tuesday 18 July. You can also listen to the full-length interview on BBC Sounds.

Have you read Big Girl? You can share your thoughts with us on Twitter using #R2BookClub.

You can also follow Mecca.

Planning to buy Big Girl for your group? Buy books from Hive or from and support The Reading Agency and local bookshops at no extra cost to you.

Want to make sure you get the latest news? Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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The Radio 2 Book Club on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show

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