Interview with Kris Kneen by Freya Bennett // photograph by Anthony Mullins
Hi Kris, congratulations on your new book, Fat Girl Dancing, how does it feel to have it out in the world?
To be honest I am a little anxious. This very specific time—when the book is printed but events and reviews are yet to come—is a very delicate time. People are reading it but as I don’t have the feedback yet, the book is still mine. The more people start to read, review and talk about it the less ‘mine’ it is, and I can begin to detach from it. I have been really brutally open about my body in this book and it feels more personal than anything I have written before. It is the very beginnings of my new understanding of my gender and re-reading this book reminds me that I used to feel trapped in the gender binary. I have moved from that moment and now am much more comfortable about identifying as nonbinary but reading about that first twinge of understanding is quite odd. I have also been very open about my sexuality for my entire adult life and writing about sex has never bothered me, but writing about fatness has always been something I have avoided so I do feel quite exposed, and am very much wrestling with all those years-old feelings of shame that I rarely speak about publicly. I am just looking forward to finally launching the book and facing it head-on and living in that new understanding which comes with the dialogue between reader and writer.
I loved the creative writing that was woven into this book, how did you decide to add in elements of poetry/creative writing into your memoir?
The first draft of this book was dry and boring. I had a lot of facts, snippets of interviews, a lot of it wasn’t really connected to me. For a year of the writing I just couldn’t breathe life into it. I paid for a series of readings and sessions with my dear friend writer and reviewer Beejay Silcox to work out what was wrong and how to move forward. She astutely let me know that my other memoirs were funny and this one just wasn’t funny. She was right. I didn’t find the subject humorous. I am still steeped in shame and horror when it comes to my body. So in discussions with her I realised I needed to lean in to the horror of it. I needed to pluck the monsters from inside my head and put them on the page. This lifted the whole thing and gave it new life, like Frankenstein’s monster it began to speak. The other thing I did was to hack out all of the more journalistic stuff. All that research! But I felt that the only bits that worked were the very personal stories.
The whole premise of this book is about your body and what it means to be fat, where did this idea come from?
I have a philosophy: if something frightens you then that is the topic you really should be talking about. It seems to have been a guiding force in my life. If you really find it difficult to speak about it, then that is the topic you need to be talking about. My big scary thing has always been fatness. I have always had a huge amount of shame about my body when it comes to fatness and therefore, I knew that others would also be hiding their own shame about the topic. This means it is something we should take out of the shadows and bring it to the light. I had been wanting to write it for years and had a folder on my computer called ‘fat book’ but I felt far too ashamed to approach the topic. Finally I had to force myself to write it by applying for a grant from the Copyright Agency Ltd. I was incredibly lucky to get a fellowship to write it, but of course that meant I had to write it. It was not easy, I can tell you that.
How was the journey of writing this book as the topic is so deeply personal?
It was the hardest book I have ever written and if I didn’t have a deadline with CAL for the funding they so generously supplied me with, I would never have finished it. It made me look at areas of my own thinking and being that I really just wanted to avoid. There were lots of tears. Even now I can’t read some of the chapters without becoming super emotional. I am, however, glad I did write it. Without this unflinching look at self I would not have started to question my gender and I would not have made those changes in my life. So ultimately it has been a very useful process, but one that I am not keen to repeat any time soon.
What is your hope for Fat Girl Dancing in terms of what audiences will get out of this book?
I do hope that other fat people will feel like they are not alone. This is not a book that asks people to be body-positive all the time. It is a book that accepts that there is a lot of shame attached to fatness. There is a lot of stigma and a lot of social judgement. I think fat people reading this book might just relate to the journey I have been on and at least they will know it is not a solo journey. It might help people be more open about their own feelings about their bodies. I gave the book to a few thin friends and they told me they felt uncomfortable reading it because they really felt like they had had a glimpse into how it is to live in a fat body. I hope thin people read this book because we need those thin allies. We need people to realise that there are physical barriers to entry for people in fat bodies, that there are extra pressures and concerns for us about things that thin people take for granted. I hope this will make others aware of those extra barriers and maybe it will help some people realise that it is not a simple issue of ‘just diet and exercise’ for fat people, that it isn’t about laziness or stupidity or lack of effort. That dieting does not make you a ‘good’ fat person. That there are lots of issues that are invisible unless you yourself are fat. I also hope it will make people empathetic to others no matter their size. We all share fears and horrors and secret shames. I hope it brings people closer to an understanding of other bodies and of themselves.
Through your book you tried different activities such as diving, hiking and burlesque. It seems like burlesque was a pivotal moment, are you still practising burlesque?
I have been a bit too busy to attend regular burlesque classes but I bought an online subscription and have done many of the exercises online. I am hoping to go back to burlesque after this book tour. I bought a pair of feather fans and I love them but they are so heavy and using them for an hour makes your arms and shoulders ache so I am keen to go back to using them regularly as weights training. There are other nonbinary and trans folk in the burlesque school so I am keen to really explore my gender fluidity through the medium and haven’t been back to burlesque since I started using testosterone. I am keen to see if my new bodily changes (becoming a bit of a hairy bear) change my relationship to burlesque.
What advice would you give to young girls who are fat but struggling in a world that doesn’t celebrate them?
I would tell them to find their people. Surround yourself with your tribe. There are people who will make you feel like you fit in and others who will feed your anxieties. Embrace the former and distance yourself from the latter. There is no quick fix. Culture is a giant ship and it is turning but it isn’t turning fast. It will take a lot of movement to make the social changes needed to feel like we fit in, but the easiest way is to hang with the people who make you feel good about yourself. For me it was finding my beautiful queers and forcing myself to social events where my body is not seen as a freakshow. You might find other places of safety. Wherever that is, embrace it and minimise your time in spaces that are not friendly towards your body. Life is too short to put up with that. Another tip is to be open and honest. Others will empathise with your struggle, and the more you are honest about it the easier it will be to face those fears.
You can grab a copy of Fat Girl Dancing at all good bookstores or online here.