Natalie Lima’s “Men Paid Me to Eat” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on June 3, 2019. Q&A conducted by Kosiso Ugwueze, Reader, Fiction
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Kosiso Ugwueze: On the surface, this is a story about men paying a woman to eat off her body. But a deeper reading reveals a woman’s quest for agency. We watch the main character getting more confident each time she asserts herself, each time she sets boundaries. Did you set out to write a piece about women asking for what they want? In what ways do you think it has gotten easier or harder for women to do so?
Natalie Lima: No, I hadn’t originally set out to write a piece about women asking for what they want. I began with a prompt that I was given in a fiction workshop in fall 2017: Write a scene where you take something ugly and turn it into something beautiful.
I came up with a first line: Men paid me to eat…and once I wrote the first scene, I quickly realized that I wanted to write about a women not knowing what she wanted and slowly figuring out what she wants and her boundaries.
I do think it’s easier for women today to ask for what we want, but it isn’t a perfect world yet. For example, I have a big personality and can be assertive and, even now, I notice myself second guessing myself if I feel like I sound too opinionated or if I feel like I’m taking up too much space in a room. But everyday I work against this. Everyday I challenge myself to allow myself to be seen.
KU: The ending to this piece is quite surprising. We often don’t see women taking care of each other in that sort of way. How did you come to such an ending? Are you the type of writer who knows the ending of the story before you even begin to write or do you arrive at it as you go along?
NL: Sometimes I know the ending, but for this story I had no idea. As a fiction writer and storyteller, I kept thinking about ways to raise the stakes. So with the final encounter, I decided to make it a couple that solicits her. Then I thought about what if maybe in this new experience, she enjoys herself more? I always feel safer and better around women. So the idea that the two women take care of each other at the end is, yes, supposed to be a little bit of a surprise (since it’s the husband who set up the meeting) but once we’re in the final moments, it seems natural that they do.
KU: I loved the center stage the body takes in this piece. Your exploration of the narrator’s relationship with her body is unflinching. What value do you see in exploring the different ways we treat our bodies?
NL: I’d say that all my writing centers around the body. Maybe because I’ve always felt like mine lives in the margins. I’m mixed race, I grew up working class, I’m a woman, etc. But it’s the fact that I’ve always been in a very large body that I believe makes me constantly think about bodies. I’m in a place in my life where I love my body and am very grateful for all that it does for me, but it wasn’t always that way. There have been times in my life where I felt detached from my body, because I wasn’t embracing it for exactly what it was. We are all living in imperfect bodies. So I often write about the weird parts of being in a body — since it ain’t always pretty.
And this story hopefully comments on how life is a bit more pleasurable when we allow ours bodies to have pleasure. When we allow our bodies to be the weird, powerful flesh-bags they are.
KU: Who would you say have been your greatest writing influences? How do you think reading other writers impacts your work?
NL: I have always loved writing that deals with people who live in the margins or feel out of place. In fiction, my faves are Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Patricia Engel, ZZ Packer, Justin Torres, Ottessa Moshfegh, Janet Fitch, Jhumpa Lahiri, Celeste Ng, Miranda July, and many more.
In nonfiction, this is Samantha Irby, Jaquira Diaz, Jenny Lawson, Lindy West, Cheryl Strayed, Michelle Tea, and many more.
I always forget people on these lists. But I am inspired by so many people who have shaped me as a writer.
KU: What’s your writing life like? When do you find yourself the most productive?
NL: When I have a deadline? ;) Mostly, I am my most productive when stress in my personal life is low. What that means is that I don’t do my best writing when I’m in pain or my life is falling apart. So a huge part of my writing life is taking care of my mental health. That means getting enough sleep, attending my recovery meetings, staying in touch with mentors and close friends. I make a deal with one of my mentors to go to the coffee shop three days a week to sit and write. I will never be a writer who writes every day, but if I give myself a minimum to actually get out of my house and do it, I end up writing more often than that.
Natalie Lima, a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and VONA/Voices alum, is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Longreads, Catapult, Brevity, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of humor essays about the absurdities of living in a body. You can read more about her work at NatalieLima.com, or follow her messy thoughts on Twitter @NatalieLima09.