Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award
A Phenomenal Book Club Pick
TIME • Best Books of the Month
New York Times • Editors’ Choice
Named one of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year by Vulture, Goodreads, Essence, Ms. Magazine, and SheReads.com
An extraordinary debut novel shot through with remarkable nuance and tenderness, Big Girl traces the intergenerational hungers of the profoundly lovable Malaya Clondon.
“Alive with delicious prose and the cacophony of ’90s Harlem, Big Girl gifts us a heroine carrying the weight of worn-out ideas, who dares to defy the compulsion to shrink, and in turn teaches us to pursue our fullest, most desirous selves without shame.” —Janet Mock
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.
About the Author
A native of Harlem, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is the author of Blue Talk and Love, winner of the Judith A. Markowitz Award from Lambda Literary. She is an associate professor of English at Georgetown University and lives in Washington, DC.
In Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s achingly beautiful coming-of-age debut novel, Big Girl, this body carries the weight of an entire neighborhood.... Big Girl triumphs as a love letter to the Black girls who are forced to enter womanhood too early — and to a version of Harlem that no longer exists. In this novel, gentrification means a violent thinning of the true beauty of Black and immigrant cultures and tightknit communities that have been nearly erased in service of commercialism and whiteness.
— Cleyvis Natera - New York Times Book Review
Big Girl... is as bighearted and as celebratory as a work can be. Set in Harlem’s “indominable largesse” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this is a book of big appetites, big feelings, big questions (“What else might a woman turn out to be?”), Biggie Smalls, big desires. Sullivan writes joyfully about bodies, the city, youth, culture, music, extended family, and food, describing them all with vivid, carnal detail. Against this backdrop, she unflinchingly examines what we do to Black girls and women: how even our best intentions squeeze them into small shapes.
— Annie Liontas - BOMB Magazine
Sullivan (the collection Blue Talk and Love) charms in her stunning debut novel about a Black girl’s coming-of-age.... All of Sullivan’s characters—even the cruel ones—brim with humanity, and the author shines when conveying the details of Malaya’s comforts, such as Biggie Smalls lyrics, the portraits she paints in her room, the colors she braids into her hair, and the sweet-smelling dulce de coco candies she eats with a classmate with whom she shares a close and sexually charged friendship. This is a treasure.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
[A] young girl learns—and redefines—what it means to take up space . . . Sullivan writes with tenderness and uses the language of poetry to communicate her protagonist’s inner life . . . A lyrical and important coming-of-age novel.
— Kirkus Reviews