To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Author Mecca Jamilah Sullivan comes to Brandeis University

On March 16, 2023, author Mecca Jamilah Sullivan came to the university to discuss her debut novel “Big Girl,” the latest in the Creative Writing Reading Series. The event, according to an email sent out by Barbara Strauss, the Senior Department Coordinator, was “cosponsored by the Mandel Center for the Humanities and the Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. It is made possible by the Dafna Zamarripa-Gesundheit Endowment.”

Reading excerpts from her novel, Sullivan told the story of Malaya, a young black girl living in Harlem in the 1990s. As the story progresses, she grapples with the perception of others around her body, and her own thoughts and beliefs about herself. Discussing concepts such as fatness, queerness, music, gentrification and self-love, Sullivan’s novel uses descriptive prose to discuss the various situations that Malaya finds herself in. According to Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s website, “Exquisitely compassionate and witty, Big Girl traces the intergenerational hungers and desires of Black womanhood, as told through the unforgettable voice of Malaya Clondon.”

Three excerpts were read that largely avoided giving away major plot points. They showed Malaya at three different ages and three very different mentalities. The first is that of an eight year old—not quite understanding the shame she is told she should be feeling about her body. The second, a 15-year-old trying to live in a world that does not accommodate fat women. And the last, a still young but matured woman realizing she needn’t be confined by how others perceive her. The excerpts effectively showed the range of topics and emotions represented in the book, while showing off Sullivan’s unique, poetic style of writing.

After the reading, Sullivan opened the floor for questions. Students and faculty alike posed queries addressing the various aspects of her work, from the technical process of constructing a book to the various points that her story addressed. In response to a question about advice for young writers of color posed by Mina Rowland ’24, Sullivan suggested that writers “write” and “read,” and in turn listed her own sources of inspiration, including artists such as Jamaica Kincaid, Notorious B.I.G. and Toni Morrison. In response to a question about her favorite part of the writing process for her debut novel, Sullivan stated that she enjoyed seeing the various versions of the book that came from her various drafts. Furthermore, she enjoyed writing about the main character’s grandmother, and finding her voice and listening to what the character had to say. Providing further advice for up and coming writers, she suggested that young writers find an aspect of their work that they are passionate about. Additionally, the Q&A portion brought up a discussion on how words we use today like “fatphobia” and “body positivity” simply were not used in the period of time when the story takes place, and how “diet culture was the culture.” 

The event ended with a raffle for two copies of Sullivan’s book, and the author remained to sign books raffled and purchased at the event.

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