Sections Reproduction is a Problem
Canadian, living in the UK


Karen Schaller

I am an early reader. 18 months old. Before I am four I have written my first poem. I am voracious: my mother buys books for me to read, scribblers for me to fill. My parents shake their heads at the words coming out of my mouth, the things I say with my childish lisp. ‘Imagine that’: the highest praise my grandmother can offer. Motor-mouth. Chatter-box. I am sent to nursery school, according to my mother, so that I stop following her, talking, questioning, interrupting her housework. Other appetites are forming, too. They loom.

We were named for our difference: she after another beautiful Sophie; me, I am after ‘Anna’, gifted with brains but an unpleasing body, thick waist, thick ankles, and plain. It needn’t matter — I read and my words are never useless. On Father’s couch I supply for his lines of thought, his analysis. I furnish it all, on these plush rugs and cushions. Dreams. Secrets. The things we have no names for. No hiding in folds of privacy or imagination. Lay it all out, I am his material.

An open book: mum points to the section she wants me to learn. She has learned so well too. So I learn it by heart. What is a calorie? I am five. It will be years before I understand this pedagogy in class, the intransitive obstacle fat poses to social mobility, how it threatens the ‘health’ of Canadian society. But these are the things I learn right away: how many calories I will be allowed to eat, from now on. The loathing my mother holds for her difference, and for me. The ugliness of being a big girl. The rewards for being small. The ways deficit will shape my body. The discipline that will secure my good life. The incompatibilities of fat and self-realisation. Fat is a threat: my primal scene in becoming.

Last night Sophie with her beautiful arms and apple cheeks, apple of his eye, their darling, their Liébling, I heard her whisper and giggle with the others, all of them close around the table-lamp to work fine threads of Lyonnais silk, while I have only thick fingers to offer, clumsy with rough wool and wooden needles. Another whisper, a hush. When I look up Sophie’s speech is sharp: ‘Anna has no talent for knitting, nor sewing. No matter, she’s not the sort men marry.’

At night I dream of food. During the day I dream of food. At night I have nightmares. During the day I have nightmares. At night I write in my secret journal. During the day I write down my food for my mother, my first reader. At night I dream of being a writer. Both day and night I dream, counting: days, calories, how long. The only time I forget is when I read. I am obsessed with stories of run-aways. I keep a bag packed in case I need to leave: my journal, a cardigan and snacks. I tell this to a teacher and they laugh at first, then look at me for a long time. My chipmunk cheeks, my second-grade breasts. The things I write at school. Such an active imagination.

Anna, your obsessions are unbecoming: first your envy for your sister’s beauty, her ways with women’s work. Now this passion of sublimation — must you sew constantly? Yes, you have proven yourself needle-skilled, of sorts. But this constant knotting, tugging, the way you pull threads through your fingertips is excessive. You cannot look at a needle without licking your lips, preparing to floss the eye with a wet tip. It’s indecent, this material obsession of yours. Come. Lie back. Tell me everything. I will prepare my nib.

Mouth events. Don’t be saucy. Eat with your mouth closed. Stop talking. Breathe with your mouth closed. Don’t talk back. Fat lips. Do you want a smack? Shut your mouth. I’ll shut it for you. So mouthy. End of discussion. I would never’ve gotten away with that kind of lip. Fat lip. Stop your back-talk. Eat with your mouth closed. Breathe with your mouth closed. Shut it now. Shut your mouth. Close it. Eat. Breathe. Mouth. Close your mouth. Closed.

My finger work: picking, plucking, threading, smoothing, tying, binding, stitching, folding, pleating, tangling, tugging, stroking, fraying, tipping. Deft dexterity: I sew, I embroider, I weave.

Now I am a writer. My notebook has columns: calories in, out, calories I didn’t eat, calories I dreamed about. Sometimes at home I steal food to eat in secret. I read Nancy Drew with white bread in the back of my bedroom closet. I write stories crouched in the bathroom, sustained by soft supermarket bagels. I panic at the sound of footsteps and tear the bread to pieces. I am caught: ugly and fat and crying over a flooding toilet, wads of dough clogging the bowl. My shame is so deep my mother can’t tell even my sisters why I’m being punished.

With every bit of finger work I am more and more a subject of observation. Father is writing me, speculating. My pleasure in the material arts…but no, I must not embroider. That is, he instructs me, not design or innovation, but women’s work. He has confided in me that my obsession has its origin in wanting. Lack, deficiency: the abundance I feel in making is a sign of my shame. He wants me to make something of myself. But my lack knits us together. Night after night I lie here and he sits there; I spin, he writes. I feel we are making something, together.

I skip a grade. Then another. Education becomes a thing I can accelerate: at last my capacity for excess is a boon. I overload — where other kids study five subjects, I study ten. I take classes at night on top of regular school. I write extra credit projects. I outperform on all my assessments. Soon my Sweet 16: a membership to Weight Watcher’s. You don’t want to start university fat. I excel at this too. Not for the first time I discover the thrill of losing, the rewards wanting gets me. By May I am small enough my mother says she will make me a dress for commencement. After the ceremony we go to the Chinese buffet where I eat for the first time in two days: three broccoli florets and a sliver of beef like a tongue on my plate. I dig my elbow into my hunger pains, read the promise of my hip bones with my fingertips. Dessert: I chew my cheeks between my teeth, picture how by autumn my face will be razor sharp and framed by my hair. I’ll look hungry. My mother leans close: I don’t want to know, but whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.

Some things I cannot untangle: Father’s authority, his writing on weaving. How he may concede it to women as their one techné. If so, it is not invention, but imitation. It is merely an elevation of concealment, for women’s pubic hair naturally matts together. It is only a small step to plait. This is the origin of weaving: fabrication but not art. Intention, but not episteme. The decorative effects of shame. What do I recover from these lines? How do I write now?

For a few months I am like a girl going to university in a movie. My mother buys me new clothes. I go to student union events. I watch ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the literature society social. I wear a floppy hat that looks oversized against my sharp face. I go on dates. Professors take notice of me. I go to class hungry. I go to bed hungry. I leave the table hungry. I write hungry. I read hungry. Proof of my discipline.

I have left knitting behind. Now I am pointed in my preoccupations — a sewing needle, a shuttle. I make ordinary fabrics, unmarred by decorative excess. When I wear them I fade: invisible, I can do my work. It is good work.

Writing is a mouth-event. Reading is a mouth-event. With essays I expand. I avoid scales after I reach 235 pounds. I become best friends with the sort of girl I had been on the verge of becoming. I take her for coffee while she tells me about the profs she’s flirting with, the annoyance of their interest. I am grateful my marks have no correlation to the possibility of sex. But I also envy the attention her ideas get in class, the way her body frames everything as sharp, and serious. I feel the clumsy realisation that fatness discredits me, of knowing that here, where bodies aren’t supposed to matter, they do. In my final year I start wearing my mother’s old leather belt, wide and thick and pulled three inches too tight. It is painful to eat, to breathe. I drink water when I read and write so that I feel full. When I am at risk of eating I remind myself: hunger and discipline are entwined. I tighten the belt. I go to class hungry. I go to bed hungry. I leave the table hungry. I write hungry. I read hungry. By the time I graduate, at 20, I am an expert.

I have come to believe we are weavers, analysand and I. We are not layers, but textures. Not matter and master, but fabricators. Ours is not the work of excavation, but materialisation. This is my line. Arachne. Ariadne. Penelope. Calypso. Warp threads in the geneaology of thinking, living matters.

These scenes repeat, teaching me my lipo-literacy, how we can read fat, but fat cannot read or write back. Fat is excessive and inert, overly material. Fat bodies are no longer sites of contestation. Fatness is passive, over-available to diagnosis. Fatness has no epistemic status, no agency. It is a life’s work, learning and re-learning and re-learning this. Fatness has only one story: not becoming. And I am determined to arrive. It is a constant care, this body that takes tremendous labour to read, make legible, as disciplined. The cost if I do not. So I enter an apprenticeship to disappearing women: I can be either a body whose hunger frames your work as intelligent, or a body that loses credibility, too close to all the things thinking is not. Consider the urgency of choosing, the complex entanglements of care and diminishment when a senior colleague tells me she has lost half a person in weight, then laments having donated her old suits: they’d fit you perfectly, she said. Which is the person she saw in me, when she said this — do I resemble the woman she’s lost, or the one she thinks I can become? I hunger to know. My mother’s voice: we will keep reading this together, until we’ve learned it by heart.

We share a house now, and will forever. I will continue Father’s line. Our rooms touch through ceiling and floor. Below mine, his pleases the eye, everywhere rewarded with rich decoration. Totems. Sketches. The thick Persian rugs, plush cushions for a reclining body. The stories he asks for are thickly woven, they furnish his reading. Above him, mine is so spare: no thing distracts the eye or senses. Unembellished, except in the flat weaves I fashion, the simple cross-stitch of my needlework when my analysand speaks. I almost disappear. Homely fabrics, plain cotton thread. I tell him we are not opposites, but entwined. Our lines will go far.

flowers and plants grow in a meadow

Original photo by Neelkamal Deka.

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