In a recent starred review, PW called They Don’t Make Plus Size Spacesuits, Ali Thompson’s debut collection of short stories, a “heartfelt, empathetic collection” that sounds “a deeply emotional battle cry.” Thompson spoke with PW about the impetus for the book, today’s widening sci-fi landscape, and her work as an activist and advocate.
Your book integrates biting social commentary into sci-fi story lines. Can you talk about the intersection of fiction and activism?
My writing sits at the place where the personal and the political collide. I think that fiction can be a powerful tool for empathy. Part of the issue with how fat characters are usually represented in fiction is that they are not allowed to be protagonists. This is especially true for fat girls and other fat feminine people.
The process of reading fiction subtly compels readers to enter the points of view of the main characters and to take on their joys and pains as the readers’ own. That’s why I am committed to only writing fat protagonists. If people want to engage with my work, they will also have to engage with my fatness.
In your view, is it possible to write fiction that is not in some way informed by the realities of our historical moment?
It seems like the people who think that there is a way to remove a piece of media from politics or the historical moment it was created in usually think that because they don’t have any trouble finding media that caters to them. Artists can only create what they can imagine. The historical moment we live in can limit what we consider possible or what even occurs to us to consider at all. Those restraints sit lightly on people who identify heavily with the dominant culture, so they may not even realize that limitations exist.
But the people who live at or beyond the boundaries of what is considered mainstream or normal feel acutely the daily punishment that comes with being considered abnormal or immoral. So the lines are way more obvious to someone living a life that has been made political whether we want it to be or not.
Sci-fi seems to be an ideal genre for exploring human prejudices, injustices, and inequities, but it can also be exclusionary. What are your thoughts on how the genre has evolved?
Sci-fi is one of my first genre loves, but it can be such a mixed bag when some of the people writing it don’t seem to be aware of the full breadth of human experience. I think that sci-fi has been gloriously cutting edge on issues of civil rights and representation. Samuel Delany is the first person who springs to mind for me as someone who has been a trailblazer in the genre. But, like all other art forms and types of media, any steps forward for marginalized people tend to be met with backlash by the people invested in the status quo.
What’s the next step for you in your writing career?
I’m about three-quarters of the way through a first draft of a novel that is a queer love story with a fat girl protagonist, set in a dystopian future where an evangelical theocracy is in power.
Do you have any advice for authors struggling during the pandemic?
The part of the job of an activist and of a writer is to hope. We put in work when we don’t know the outcome because we hope that we can create something meaningful and good. I hope that the words that I write will give someone else the hope and comfort that other writers and artists have given to me. We are in the middle of writing the story of Covid-19, and middles are hard. The middle is where the work seems endless and thankless. But all middles turn into endings, given enough time. I wish there was a secret to making this part easier or faster or less terrible, but there isn’t. All I can say is that I plan to grab onto as much comfort and solace as I can while I am waiting. And I hope that everyone else does, too.