Fiction: Rachel DeWoskin
RACHEL DEWOSKIN’s most recent novel, Big Girl Small (FSG 2011), is the recipient of the 2012 American Library Association’s Alex Award and was named one of the top 3 books of 2011 by Newsday. DeWoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton 2005) about the years she spent in China as the unlikely star of a Chinese soap opera, has been published in six countries and is being developed as a television series by HBO. Her debut novel Repeat After Me (Overlook Press, 2009), which follows the unexpected romance between a young American ESL teacher and a troubled Chinese radical, won a Foreward Magazine Book of the Year award. Her next two novels are forthcoming from Viking Penguin. Rachel has written essays and articles for Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times Magazine of London, Teachers and Writers, The Rumpus, and Conde Nast Traveler, and has published poems in journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, New Delta Review, The New Orleans Review and The Helen Burns Poetry Anthology. She teaches memoir and fiction at the University of Chicago, and divides her time between Chicago and Beijing.
BIG GIRL SMALL, CHAPTER 1
When people make you feel small, it means they shrink you down close to nothing, diminish you, make you feel like shit. In fact, small and shit are like equivalent words in English. It makes sense, in a way. Not that small and shit are the same, I mean, but that Americans might think that. Take The Wizard of Oz, for example, an American classic everyone loves more than anything even though there’s a whole “Munchkinland” of embarrassed people, half of them dressed in pink rompers and licking lollipops even though they’re thirty years old. They don’t even have names in the credits; it just says at the end, “Munchkins played by ‘The Singer Midgets.’” Judy Garland apparently loved gay people, was even something of an activist, but she spread rumors about how the “midgets” were so raucous, fucking each other all the time and drinking bourbon on the set. People love those stories because it’s so much fun to think of tiny people having sex. There was even an urban myth about how one of the dwarfs hanged himself—everyone said you could see him swinging in the back of the shot—but it turns out it was actually an emu. Right. A bird they got to make the forest look “magical.” And what with the five-inch TVs everyone had in those days, the two-pixel bird spreading its dirty wings apparently called to mind a dead dwarf. In other words, people wanted it bad enough to believe that’s what it was. Magical, my ass. I know that small and shit are the same because I’m sixteen years old and three feet nine inches tall.
Judy Garland was sixteen too, when she made Wizard of Oz, but I’m betting she must have felt like she was nine feet tall, getting to be a movie star and all. I should have known better than to try for stardom myself, because even though my mom sang me “Thumbelina” every night of my life, she also took me to Saturday Night Live once when we were in New York on a family vacation, and it happened that the night I was there they had dozens of little people falling off choral risers as one of their skits. My mom almost died of horror, weeping in the audience. Everyone around us thought she was touched, that all those idiots on stage must have been, like, her other kids. Like they were my beautiful Munchkin brothers or something, even though my mom’s average-size and so are my two brothers. They’d even have average lives, if only they didn’t have me. My mother’s idea has always been to try to make me feel close to perfect, but how close can that be, considering I look like she snatched me from some dollhouse.
Nothing on Saturday Night Live is ever funny, but the night we went was especially bad. One of the little people even got hurt falling off those risers, but no one thought anything of it, except my mom, who made a point of waiting for an hour after the show was done, to ask was he okay. I was furious, because everyone who walked by us kept saying “Good show” to me.
I would never be in anything of the sort, by the way, because my parents don’t believe in circus humiliation. That’s what my college essay was going to be on, freak shows and the Hottentot Venus. Most people don’t know that much about her, except that she was famous for having a butt so big the Victorians couldn’t believe it. So they made her into an attraction people could pay money to stare at and grope. I bet you didn’t know, for example, that her name was Saartjie, or “Little Sarah,” or that she even had a name. The “Little” in her name is the cute, endearing version of the word, not the literal little. Or even worse, belittle, which, by combining be and little, means “to make fun of.” I think I would have included that definition as, like, the denouement of my essay, after the climax, where I planned to mention that after her nightmare carnival life, Little Sarah died at twenty-six and they preserved her ass on display in a Paris museum. She was orphaned in a commando raid in South Africa; otherwise maybe none of those terrible things would have happened to her.
I have parents, thankfully. And they always tried to keep me private. I don’t mean they hid me in a closet or anything, but they also didn’t let people take pictures of me when we traveled or touch me for money. And when people stared, even kids, my parents stared back, unblinking, but friendly-like. The thing is, you can’t blame kids for staring. Not only because I’m miniature, but also because I’m a little bit “disproportionate.” That’s what they call it when the fit of your parts is in any way off the mainstream chart: “disproportionate.” Maybe your arms or legs are too stumpy or your torso is small and your head is huge. Or maybe you’re just you, like Saartjie Hottentot, and it’s only relative to everyone else that you’re disproportionate. Maybe someday they’ll think disproportionate dwarf is a rude expression and they’ll come up with a nicer way to put it. I think most people know now that Hottentot is considered a rude word. Maybe not, though. Most people are stupid as hell when it comes to things like which words are rude. And a lot of people, even once they find out which words hurt people, still like to use them. They think it’s smarmy and “PC” to have to say things kindly, or that it’s too much pressure not to be able to punish freaks with words like freak.
Anyway, my parents would never even let me audition for American Idol, even though I can really sing, because they know Simon Cowell laughs at all the deformed people. It’s complicated, since my mom and dad would never admit that my “situation” qualifies, but they still have to protect me. Because of this quandary, they finally broke down and agreed to send me to a performing arts high school last fall for my junior year, which is what caused this whole hideous nightmare in the first place.
Maybe my parents should have admitted that dwarfs are better off cloistered or hanging in some forest of Oz, and saved me the humiliation of having tried to pretend I’m fit to attend a flashy school. My parents are five feet six and six feet one, but they’re on every board of every dwarf association in the world, and they use the words little people like there was never any other way to put it. They take me to “little people” conferences and manage to blend right in. So maybe from their dreamy bubble, it seemed possible that my “stellar academic performance” and charming personality would earn me popularity and favor among the rest of the kids, that I’d be a beloved Lilliputian among the Brobdingnagians.
That’s not how it turned out. I should say right here, though, that what happened is not my parents’ fault, and that I don’t blame them. They’re probably frantic right now, or dead from ulcers or heart attacks. I know they’re searching for me, and the thought of it makes me physically sick. I guess because I love them. But I can’t come out of here yet, don’t know when I’ll ever be able to rejoin the world.
Because most of society, including Darcy Arts Academy, is nothing like my parents. You can get a sense of the difference if you take a look online. I’ll give you an example. Google “little people” and you get 8 million hits, most of which are for stumpy Fisher Price figures with no legs. If you look up “small people,” you get under a million (but at least one of the first two is the charming lyric “short people got no reason to live,” preceding a story about tiny ancient people who hunted rats and lizards near the Java Sea). Call it predictable, but if you search “midget,” you get 21 million hits, about 20 million of which are YouTube videos of “midget fights,” “midget bowling,” or “midget Michael Jacksons.” There’s also the really nice website TinyEntertainer.com, with its “Rent a Midget” logo scrolling across the screen like breaking news ticker tape. And if you type in “midget girl,” you get email@example.com. Maybe up in the big world it’s difficult to understand why midgets might hate the word midget, but here, I’ll help. The Little People’s Association explains it like this:
the term has fallen into disfavor and is considered offensive by most people of short stature. The term dates back to 1865, the height of the “freak show” era, and was generally applied only to short-statured persons who were displayed for public amusement, which is why it is considered so unacceptable today. Such terms as dwarf, little person, LP, and person of short stature are all acceptable, but most people would rather be referred to by their name than by a label.
“Fallen into disfavor.” I love that. So everyone can call me Judy, even after I get a job as a hot porno midget escort, because there’s nowhere else for me to go from here. It’s funny how I’ve reached the bottom of something, but up is still not an option.
My parents named me Judy accidentally, by the way, without realizing that Judy Garland mocked dwarfs. Judy has always been my mom’s favorite name, and who doesn’t love that Klimt picture of Judith holding Holofernes’ head? Maybe someday there’ll be a picture of me, holding Kyle Malanack’s head, although it’ll be a smudged newspaper photo, ripped digitally from the security camera of a parking garage or something. I doubt people will produce millions of prints for dorm rooms. Although maybe they will. Some kids love a villain.
I was brilliant in school, by the way. You have to be smart as well as talented in some other, “artistic,” way to get into Darcy. Maybe that will be the next story, when it breaks, when they find me here. The sequel. Lots of Darcy kids being like, “She seemed so, well, normal!” Except they’ll have to stop themselves: “I mean, not normal, but you know, sweet”—except they’ll have to stop themselves there, too, because I wasn’t sweet, exactly, was kind of sarcastic, for a doll of a girl. “Well,” they’ll have to concede, “after what happened to her, I mean, who wouldn’t lose it?” They all know what happened. It’s too horrible to contemplate, and I wish I didn’t know. What they should say is that I was too smart for my own good, that it would have been better to be an animal, not to know what I was missing, not to have been able to see my life. A little bit of ignorance would have saved me. What good is there in seeing your situation clearly if there’s no escape from it? I’d love to hear the story of my academic genius, if there were any way of interpreting it other than that I’ve had to overcompensate every second of my life.
Here, news media, here’s a sound- bite for when you find me: if you’re born saddled with a word like Achondroplasia, you learn to spell. If the first boy you dare love pulls the worst Steven King Carrie prank in the history of dating, then you run and hide. Because who can love you after that? Maybe your parents. But how can you face them, when you’ve all spent so much time convincing each other that you’re normal?
All I’m saying is, if you’re me, and you can’t reach a gas pump, pay phone, or ATM, and your arms and legs are disproportionately short, and your mouth is too impossible to kiss without it becoming a public carnival, then you don’t get to be included in anything but the now obsolete, original meaning of the stupid word normal. Which, believe it or not, according to the OED, is rare.
So I’m the rare dwarf at the Motel Manor on the outskirts of Ypsi, close enough to my parents that they should have found me by now, and maybe in more danger than I can guess at. And you know what? I don’t care. I hope the story ends here. It’s fine if it does. I mean, that way I’ll be the dream come true of all those hopeful Oz watchers, waiting for a dwarf to hang.
Thumbelina, Thumbelina, tiny little thing. Thumbelina dance, Thumbelina sing. Thumbelina, it makes no difference if you’re very small, for when your heart is full of love you’re nine feet tall.
Excerpted from BIG GIRL SMALL: A Novel by Rachel DeWoskin, published in May 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Rachel DeWoskin. All rights reserved.