Virgie Tovar is a writer, speaker, and activist. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality, focusing on the intersections of body size, race, and gender, and is one of the nation’s leading lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the author of Destination DD: Adventures of a Breast Fetishist with 40DDs (Sexy Advisors Press, 2007) and the online book project Awake, Sleeping Heart. She also keeps a blog. Tovar is a former plus size style writer for Buzzfeed, and her work has been featured by the New York Times, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, Bust Magazine, MTV, and NPR, among others. Tovar founded the four-week online course, Babecamp, designed to help people end their relationship with diet culture. Tovar also began the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight. She offers workshops and lectures nationwide. Tovar lives in San Francisco.
EB: How did you begin writing in general, and writing nonfiction specifically?
VT: I don’t even entirely remember how it all started. I think I am a multi-disciplinary person. My art, my process, is so reflective of who I am as a person. So much of that has to do with growing up with immigrant parents and being encouraged to be really versatile and really diversified. My grandfather raised me, and he always had eighteen hustles going. I think that versatility and that value of resilience and diversification reflects how I work as an artist.
The truth is, if you asked me how I got started with any of the things I am doing now I would give the same answer: the passion has always been really clear, but the vehicle has been mutable. Writing always felt like just one tool for me to get and give the things that I wanted. I never had one moment where I thought writing is the thing I really want to do.
But I’ve always been linguistically inclined. I was always the kid who was stoked about the spelling bee, who loved syntax, who loved grammar, who loved the world of language… I didn’t identify as a writer or specifically seek out or decide to become a writer. I don’t have formal training, but I always found writing to be a tool that felt very intuitive… But once I came into adulthood and started writing essays, it was really clear that I was drawn to memoir. Fiction has never been my thing… But then I got a grant to write fiction. I was so terrified by it. I had to do all this processing to understand why I didn’t like fiction.
EB: Will you speak more about the project that came from that grant? I know it’s an online book project, called Awake, Sleeping Heart, and you describe it as a fiction mixed with memoir. What does that mean exactly?
VT: Memoir is expository. Memoir is very conducive to editorial slant. Memoir is about the author, but also a lot about the world where the author’s life is being played out. Even with memoir when I am at the center of the work, the work is focused outward and is observational. What I realized about why fiction is so intimidating to me is because writing fiction is an act of world-building. It leaves you incredibly vulnerable. All of your most vulnerable wishes, all the most unresolved parts of yourself are in the story, and they’re not, in my opinion, as available for the editorial slant. Even though you could go anywhere with fiction, where you end up in a fictive world is often your weakest, scariest place—at least that’s what it was like for me. The way I was using memoir was to entertain people. It wasn’t actually to challenge myself as a writer or to create generative, meaningful work for myself; it was mostly an offering for other people.
We often mistake sharing taboo details with sharing actual vulnerability. I don’t have any real hang-ups about people knowing things about my sex life or the things that most people in society think of as part of the “private domain.” But the things about which I feel actually quite vulnerable are actually quite mundane… the fear that you’re ultimately unlovable, admitting to myself that I feel very lonely even though I am surrounded by people because of the traumatic relationship I had with my mother when I was growing up. And these aren’t the things that get chuckles. The work itself has been challenging because it’s not funny and because it has to have a fictive slant. And it was completely unexpected, but it’s been the most emotionally fruitful work for me… I had to push myself to examine my fears. Writing this new book forced me to examine how I was using memoir.
EB: How do you incorporate memoir into your fiction?
VT: To be honest, the work leans heavily towards memoir. I had to create a fictive world in which my grandmother and I could reconcile our irreconcilable relationship. Fiction lends itself so well to it. In the real world, we are restrained by our history and all the elements of our respective worlds. Fictive element comes in when real life can no longer sustain the story. What I do is I write all the way up to the limit of my real life and then I go into fiction… Here is a character that is my grandmother, and in fiction I get to write the advice that I always wanted my grandmother to give me… I never met my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, but I heard a lot about her growing up. So I took the parts of the story I did know, but created her to be this really powerful, outspoken, unflinching figure… I grew up really, really wanting to be inspired by the women in my life, but often the women in my life did not have the capacity to be my heroes. In fiction, these women become proxy heroes of my own creation so that I can heal myself in the story and in real life too.
EB: Have you found, then, that writing fiction helps you to learn about yourself more so than writing nonfiction?
VT: It is difficult to explore the same themes in memoir as in fiction, just because with memoir I have to own the entire story because memoir is about me, and that feels really scary. In the fictive world, I can create a character—that probably is just some version of me—but I can pretend it’s someone else, and that degree of separation makes it feel just safe enough. But! But! I really hope and really believe that I can get to that point as a writer in nonfiction. I am a strong memoirist, and I feel like I am flopping around in this fiction thing… I really believe I can get to the point where I can have this experience in memoir, but it feels very much like this is a transitional work into maturity as both a person and a writer, because I am in a transitional phase of my life as a person as well. This work feels very emblematic of that.
EB: In both fiction and nonfiction, what do you think you personally bring to your writing? What makes something Virgie Tovar writing, as opposed to Ann Friedman writing or Rebecca Traister writing?
VT: I have a really strong voice, but I’m trying to pick up on what that is… one thing I have noticed about my work is that I would call it rococo. It has a very flourish-y characteristic. I think it mirrors who I am in life: a decadent person who wears a lot of jewelry. I think my fashion sense and my writing style are very similar.
EB: That’s awesome.
VT: There is a sense of delight in the garishness… I think there is a tension in my writing and in my life between walking the line of respectability and flouting convention. I think I am a wordsmith, but I rub up against traditional notions of good writing, even grammar. I tend to have run-on sentences, which I think is part of that rococo style. And I think my writing is humorous, but there is also an element of being incisive and funny. The thing that resonates with people is this raunchy vulnerability, but it somehow works. It’s authentic, because I am definitely an over-sharer. I am that person who wants to talk about literal shit at the dinner party.
EB: Speaking of over-sharing, I know you were voted Best Sex Writer by the Bay Area Guardian in 2008. What is that experience like, of sharing so much personal information that is often considered taboo?
VT: It’s a feedback loop. I feel comfortable writing about this periphery experience, because I have always felt on the periphery—as a fat girl, as a brown person, as the child of immigrants—even before I had language for it. I have felt on the periphery for as long as I can remember. So everything in my life and everything I’ve done in it has been dictated by my feeling of marginalization. I’ve been willing to take more risks, because I sensed the stakes were lower for me. For example, respectability when you’re a fat, working class, woman of color, is simply entirely out of your reach. You can sort of pretend to be aspirational and upwardly mobile, but at the end of the day, it never really felt like something that was real to me. I can see how someone who would feel that respectability is more in their grasp would shy away from some of the things I’ve written.
I also always got the sense that people wanted me to be silent, that I was some kind of inconvenient witness to the culture and the darker side of people. When you’re a fat woman of color, you see a part of humanity that people with privilege don’t see, and the culture wants to silence that. I think that my work is as provocative as it is, because I wanted to double down. I refused to be silent. I thought, okay, if I am not going to be silent, I want to say the craziest thing in the room, if I want people to reconcile that I exist. My position in society has affected how I write, and how I write has then affected other things… but, honestly, I don’t know, really. How we get divided up and silo-ed in life, and how it happens so early on, directs us down these artistic paths.
EB: What have you found to be especially challenging about writing nonfiction?
VT: Having your boyfriend’s mom Google you and read about you sucking dicks? The biggest challenge for me I think I have historically been far too consumed with taking care of my reader.
EB: How do you take care of your reader? Do you find you limit what you want to say or maybe over-explain yourself for the sake of your reader?
VT: I grew up in a dysfunctional family where I was the “hero child.” So I have from the very beginning been a caretaker of others. I think this reflects in my writing through making sure my writing is useful or funny or clever all the time. I find I often write out of an urgent need to hunt-gather information that the reader can use to make their lives better. I am obsessed with sharing information and insights that I think will help people. I over-anticipate what others need and want from me. This comes from my childhood when I needed to anticipate the moods of the adults around me because they were so emotionally volatile, and also growing up a fat kid who had to be emotionally armed at all times in order to deal with daily fat bashing. I’ve been working on these things, but those are some of the ways I take care of my readers.
EB: I can relate to this too. I also over-anticipate what others need and then put my own wants and desires on the back burner. That means sometimes I don’t end up writing about what I really want to be writing about, which is certainly a challenge. But what do you find rewarding about writing nonfiction?
VT: I love telling stories. For me, constructing an amazing, compelling, funny, vulnerable story, that’s the most enjoyable part for me. It’s funny, the task of the ideal writer is that you write like no one is going to read it, but if you’re drawn to being a writer, you’re always thinking about people reading your work. One of the things I do love is getting the power of directing the narrative—that’s extremely intoxicating to me. I get to decide who is the villain. If you screwed me over, you’re an irredeemable asshole and I don’t have to be measured or “fair.” I don’t have to care about all the things about you that make you amazing in the eyes of misogyny. All I have to know is what I feel about you. I love that.
When you’re a woman, your perspective is not the perspective that society is operating within. Women are constantly getting gas-lit by society, but when we write the story we place ourselves as the director of our own interpretation. Our perspective is no longer up for debate. It is simply truth. So when you are a woman writing nonfiction, you are getting to dictate the terms of the world, which is very pleasurable to me, because in a lot of ways I feel very displaced from normative society. Sometimes in my nonfiction, in my writing—it is one of the only times when I get to feel like I am the sane person, I am the person who is not the outlier. The people who are considered “normal” or heroic are not rich dudes and housewives. They are weirdos, because the weirdos are the heroes in my life, in my story. There is something very exciting about that.
EB: I had never thought of that like that, but it makes so much sense. There are so many women who are drawn to writing nonfiction—I wonder if that’s part of the appeal. However, your nonfiction isn’t restricted to the personal. A lot of what you write combines your own personal experiences with historical, political, and cultural commentary. Do you approach writing personal nonfiction differently than you approach writing researched nonfiction?
VT: They feel one and the same. Everything I do is marked by hybridity. Maybe technically I am creating a hybrid of theory and memoir, but it feels very seamless to me. My writing has always honestly tracked the moment I am in my life. The first time I ever had anything published was an essay that I wrote called “Fatties of the World Unite”, which was sort of a manifesto and the predecessor of Hot & Heavy. At that time I was deeply, deeply enraged. I hadn’t yet gone to graduate school, I was feeling pissed off and displaced, I had just moved to San Francisco, I didn’t have many friends yet, and the writing showed exactly where I was in that moment in my life. And my writing now is heavily researched, because I went to grad school, and since then, my cognition has changed. Because of the success of Hot & Heavy, I have more emotional and financial resources than I have ever before, and as a result of that, I have the capacity to be hopeful and to share the tools and to see my survival as a tool. But that’s where I am in this moment.
For a long time I patently refused to engage with my deep sense of loneliness. Before that, a lot of my writing was very guarded. It would be hard to read it as guarded if you didn’t know me, but I can see it as guarded. I came across as an expert, but the identity of “expert” is one who doesn’t want to be penetrated, one who wants to penetrate others. But now I am taking more risks about sharing who I really am and sharing what I am afraid of in my work. Every single piece of writing is so honestly who I am at that point and that moment in time.
EB: I feel that too. It’s so hard for me to reread old pieces of writing. I always thought it was just because I’m embarrassed by my old writing, but maybe it’s also hard to revisit that previous time in my life, especially if it was a bad time. Also, I totally agree with grad school changing cognition. After I got my Master’s, I also felt like suddenly the whole world was different.
VT: Yeah, definitely.
EB: As you mentioned, you edited the collection Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion. What do you look for when you’re reading nonfiction? What catches your attention and holds your interest? Is it different from the kind of nonfiction that you write?
VT: I appreciate the really clear strong voice. Another thing that resonates with me, though I’m not totally capable of doing it yet, but that I admire: one of my friends and mentors, whose writing I absolutely adore, Michelle Tea, is very self-effacing. She doesn’t edit out the things that are inconvenient to share, the things that implicate her, and those things make her a stronger writer. For example, I was reading her most recent memoir, How to Grow Up, and there is a scene in it where she describes how she was 37 years old and living in a shared flat with seven other people. She had been invited to a dinner party and she made some kind of sweet potato something-or-other, and she went to put it in her refrigerator, and saw there had been a bunch of dead flies that had been clearly maggots not too long ago. So she had to call up her friend to ask to store her casserole in her friend’s fridge instead, and I just love that. My version of that is the strange and humiliating sexual things I’ve done in the pursuit of love and pleasure and curiosity. I am really drawn to the writer who sees themselves as part of the joke they are trying to make. They’re not outside of it. They’re not The Author who is there without intention or desire.
Also, I love when people bring their critique into their very personal story. I think one of the reasons why Hot & Heavy is powerful is because the contributors were able to talk about race, gender, sexuality, size, and class in a way that didn’t feel distant or inauthentic; it felt incredibly incorporated and very authentic. It was there. It’s when the analysis doesn’t feel forced but it’s clearly infusing the way you live and therefore the way you tell stories. One of my favorite essays from Hot & Heavy is “I Came to Femme Through Fat and Black”—she is writing about what it is like to be Black in the United States and what it is like to be a fat Black woman, and these are complex and painful themes, but you feel this completely unbroken intimacy with her. That’s what I think makes powerful writing: when the critique has become incorporated into your worldview and you’re able to write it the way you live it: intuitively. The ability to engage with difficult topics without coming across as condescending or distant—I think that is really the art of memoir, the intimacy of memoir. That might be why women are drawn to nonfiction. I think, socially, women are drawn to intimacy, because under patriarchy women are allowed such minimal lives, but memoir can give them that sense of intimacy.
EB: So, finally, speaking of reading nonfiction, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a fellow non-man?
VT: My favorite poem is “Shall the lie set you free” by Nikki Darling, a poet who writes about her life (does that count as nonfiction?!):
“Shall the lie set you free”
From Pink Trumpet & the Purple Prose
Someone told you that quiet was sexy
That person was jealous
(inhibited by their own fear of freedom)
Someone told you that modest was respectful
That person was pedestrian
(lacking radical creative vision)
Someone told you it’s polite to wait your turn
That person has the power of choice
(invested in keeping it)
Someone told you good things come to some and not others
That person was a priest
(pass the basket)
Light vortex brilliant soft body full of orgasm and laughter, color and blood.
That person is you,
that person is God
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.