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Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
A Phenomenal Book Club Pick
TIME • Best Books of the Month
New York Times • Editors' Choice
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An extraordinary debut novel shot through with remarkable nuance and tenderness, Big Girl traces the intergenerational hungers of the profoundly lovable Malaya Clondon.
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.
Exquisitely compassionate and clever, Big Girl is "filled with everyday people who, in Mecca Jamilah Sullivan's gifted hands, show us the love and struggle of what it means to be inside bodies that don't always fit with the outside world" (Jacqueline Woodson). In tracing the perils and pleasures of the inheritance that comes with being born, Sullivan pushes boundaries and creates an unforgettable portrait of Black womanhood in America.