Lawyer, professor, and writer Savala Nolan joins Zibby to discuss her debut essay collection, Don’t Let It Get You Down, which covers the topics of race, gender, and our bodies. Savala reflects on the different iterations her relationship with her mother has gone through and shares where they are today. The two also talk about how Savala began writing as a way to find her place in a world where she doesn’t fit in seamlessly, and how it has also allowed her to process experiences that would have otherwise festered inside of her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Savala. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body.

Savala Nolan: Thank you, Zibby. I am totally excited to be here and can’t wait to dig into the conversation with you.

Zibby: I just love the way you write. I love your point of view. I loved all these essays, how you link them together, the way you talk about your body, your identity, your feet. Honestly, it was so good. It’s just amazing when you read great essays like this. I love essays. I just got very, very excited about it.

Savala: Thank you. I love essays too. These essays, hopefully, they kind of walk the line between personal and political. They’re very much, obviously, about me and my life, but they’re also about things that we all deal with like our bodies and race and class and gender. As different as you and I are in some ways, I love that the book spoke to you. That’s any writer’s dream, is to have what they do matter, even to people who come from different places and different experiences.

Zibby: We all come from the same emotional place deep down. I think so much gets in the way. I’m not self-conscious about my feet, for instance, but I have my things. We all have our things that we are embarrassed about about out bodies. We have the things we don’t like. We have not feeling like we fit in and not sure about things and parts of our families that embarrass us. The outside trappings are one tiny piece, I feel like, that often take up a lot of the air in the room, whereas the stuff that’s really important gets left behind.

Savala: Yes. The stuff that’s really important tends to be universal. I totally agree.

Zibby: Let’s back up for a second. When did you start this book? Why did you start writing this book? Did you always know it was going to be a book? Did you just start writing the essays? How did this whole thing come about? How did you even start writing? Let’s go there.

Savala: I’ve been writing forever. I’m one of those people that was writing little stories when I was eight years old on a computer after doing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which is really going to date me for any of your listeners. There’s a way in which I think I’ve been working on using writing to understand how I fit into the world and understand how different parts of the world fit into my own life since I was a really little kid. This project came together over the course of about four years. Essays were a really intuitive form for me. I always understood that if I published these pieces into a book that it would take the form of kind of a memoir in essays. This book is really my attempt to understand or reconcile or make peace with the fact that I don’t really belong anywhere in our culture in a seamless way and to make use of the perspective that that dislocation affords me. You’ve read the book, so you know I’m someone who embodies a lot of contradictions. I am black and white. My father was black and Mexican. My mother is white. I’m descended from enslaved people on my dad’s side and slaveholders on my mom’s side.

I happen to be raised in a place called Marin County, which at the time that I was growing up there had the highest per capita income of any place in the country. Within Marin County are pockets of more middle-class and blue-collar and poor people. I was more in that pocket. I had access to some of the benefits of being in this really wealthy place, including private schools. On my dad’s side of the family, when I was with him and his side of the family, I was experiencing generational poverty that was really intractable and deep. I’m also someone who has been fat and thin over and over pretty much my whole life. I was put on my first diet when I was about four years old. As anyone who’s dieted knows, they don’t tend to work long term. I’ve gone on and off diets until I stopped dieting altogether about five years ago. Being a woman and being someone who’s so tethered to how I look in the culture, having had the “right” kind of body and the wrong kind of body over the years has taught me things. Not belonging neatly into these major categories that are so definitional in our lives gives me a unique perspective. I wanted to write about that and share it with other people and also, selfishly, see if maybe I could kind of map out a place for myself at last. This book is the result of that effort.

Zibby: Do you feel like you did that? Do you feel like you came to some sort of conclusion or that you feel more at home? Did it work for you?

Savala: I think in many ways, it did work in the sense that I’m way less interested now in trying to fit into a neat category than I was when I began writing this book and that I’ve been for most of my life. I think we all desire a seamless or easy belonging. That’s a very natural desire, to just feel that you fit neatly and easily and organically with a given group. Of course, I still have that desire in a certain way, but I’m much happier and more at peace with just being someone who’s in between and who’s kind of on the balcony and the dance floor at the same time in so many different ways. I don’t have the same level of interest in trying to get rid of that aspect of myself that I used to have. In that way, yeah, I would say I definitely got something that I wanted from the process of writing these twelve essays.

Zibby: One thing that — haunted me is the wrong word — that I can’t stop thinking about is your relationship with your mom and how it’s changed over time and how you lauded the fact that she raised you with all these black culture influences, everything from singing at the church choir to just making sure that you had that even though your dad had left, and how important that was to her that you understood that part of your own identity, which I thought was awesome. As you got older, you started feeling more of a separation from her. You had this one scene of her as this frail older white woman and this difference. You could feel the space between you as you wrote about it. Tell me a little bit about your relationship and where it stands today.

Savala: I was, as you say, really lucky to be a mixed black person who was raised by a white person who understood that she was going to have to go out of her comfort zone, out of her way to connect me with black culture, black politics, black aesthetics, black history once my dad left our family and no longer lived in the house. I would’ve absorbed those things just probably automatically if he had been in my house all the time. Again, my dad was black. Since he wasn’t and I saw him — my mom was my primary caregiver. I saw my dad regularly, but there’s no comparison to the person who’s in the home raising you. Once my mom understood that I wasn’t going to get those things, she just had the presence of thought to know that I, as a mixed black person, was not going to be welcome in whiteness. It was incumbent upon her to make sure that I felt my connection to blackness. I’m incredibly thankful for that. I honestly can’t imagine my life if she hadn’t done that from a young age. It’s true that as I became older — any child goes through a process of individuating from their parents. When I was really young, I didn’t understand us to be so different racially. As I began to become more my own person and the world racialized me more, I became really aware of, in a way, how deeply segregated our experiences of the world were going to be because we didn’t share a racial identity.

There were times when that has been really sad and times when it’s made me angry and times when we’ve been able to become closer by having frank and loving and candid conversations about race relying on the intimacy of our relationship to get us through the more difficult moments. My relationship with my mom is really, really good. At this point, it’s really, really good. It’s been a complex road. Her efforts were honest and purposeful and not contrived. They were genuine, but of course, they were imperfect because she’s not black. She couldn’t translate everything perfectly to me. One of the things I write about in the book is the difficulty of having to contend with her racial blind spots and her unprocessed anti-black racism as a kid. Occasionally, that pops up now too, but we can talk about it. Because I’m not eight years old or something, I don’t internalize it. Of course, the other thing that impacts my relationship with my mom so much is dieting. She was chronic dieter. She learned that habit from her mother. She enrolled me in it, as I said earlier, in a really young age. That’s another part of our journey that’s been very, very complicated and has a racial aspect of it too. I don’t know if you want to get into that, Zibby. How much time do we have?

Zibby: I was looking for this quote, which of course, I can’t find now when I want it. There’s so much I want to talk to you about. Here, I’ll just read this passage that you wrote. I think that was in the same essay that we were talking about. You said, “It’s hard to describe how the particular resignation of American blackness sometimes feels. It swallows sound. It’s an impassive reflection in the mirror so massive you must look away. It feels like stopping time and disappearing, sliding through that tiny rip you used to press your eyes to years ago when you were little but you what you saw made no sense, candlelit ships bobbing on still Atlantic waters, the hedge of the new world green at the horizon, the smell of sex and menstrual fluid and puss from somewhere, and is that the sound of a violin?” Oh, my gosh, you’re an amazing — that’s amazing — writer. I don’t want to only talk about race because I do want to go back to your body, which personally, I’m super interested in. I’m interested in all of it. The moment on the swing set when somebody assumed you lived in this bad part of Marin County, you had this whole internal dialogue with the woman where you said all the things. Why did you assume that just because of how I look I lived in that particular neighborhood? Don’t you realize that’s racist? All these small slights along the way, these little things that just keep jabbing away at you, how do you resolve that and just move on? How do you be like, okay, I’m not going to yell at this woman? Tell me about that.

Savala: I do remember that moment. I still think about it even though I wrote about it, which is a form of processing. I still think about that moment a lot. I had this internal reaction of the pot boiling over. Externally, I was very calm and polite to her and just corrected her wrong assumption about where I was from, but in a very polite, friendly way, which is to say, I shoved down what I actually felt and stifled it. If you do that, you either have to process it at some point or it goes rancid inside you. You put things in the disappear box, and they don’t actually disappear. They just get moldy. Zibby, your question of, how do you process the thousand slights? that’s the million-dollar question. I think about it racially because personally, that is where I sense them. That is the way that they harm me most. Any woman has had to politely respond to a dude who said something or did something because she doesn’t want to risk seeming like she’s out of control. She just wants to get along or whatever. This is something that anyone who has a marginalized part of their identity relates to. For me, getting to write about it helps me externalize it. In the morning, you do so often have to just take a breath and put it aside and decide you’re not going to let it derail your day. It’s them, not you, all of that. That pile of stuff, it grows inside of us. For me, the straightest route to letting it go is probably writing about it because that’s how I understand the world. If I could answer that question with a one, two, three step thing, I could retire tomorrow. I wish that I knew how to not feel rocked by those moments because they’re part of life. They’re not going away. Even as the world improves in many ways, those little moments, I don’t think, are going away, not in my lifetime anyway.

Zibby: Let’s go back to the body talk if you don’t mind. Actually, when I was reading this, I made a mental note, I was like, I need to go and see if she had posted any pictures of what she used to look like. You make all these references. I didn’t even go back and check. Sometimes I post pictures of a much smaller version of myself. My before is now what I would love to get to in my life.

Savala: It’s funny how that works. I’ve had all kinds of bodies in terms of body size. I’ve been what you consider in New York City, let’s say, to just be a standard thin. I’ve been painfully thin when I was really deep in subclinical eating disorder behavior and overexercise. I’ve been what you would call a little bit plus size. I’ve been really fat. I’ve been all over more than once.

Zibby: Where do you feel the best? How did you decide to stop dieting five years ago? What does that mean? Where is your happy place?

Savala: Where I feel the best doesn’t actually have much to do with the size and shape of my body. That’s one thing. I was never thin enough. When I was thin, my boobs weren’t perky enough. It’s always something. The goal line is always moving. I feel the best right now. I’m probably the fattest that I have been that I’m aware of just going by dress size. Although, I don’t weigh myself anymore, so I can’t say for sure, but just going by dress size. I feel the best I have ever felt because I am not engaged in the project of perpetually renovating my body, not really treating my body as a place that I was allowed to just linger in and enjoy and savor, but treating my body as a problem, as a mistake, as something that was constantly out of control and I had to wrangle, as something that scared me, as something that felt out of control. That’s how I always felt about my body regardless of how it looked. Dieting is not really about how you look, to my way of thinking. Dieting is essentially a political sedative. There’s a quote that I love from Naomi Wolf where she says a culture obsessed with female thinness is not obsessed with female beauty. It’s obsessed with female obedience. That captures quite a bit of how I feel. There’s another quote by a scholar, Gilman Sander. I’m probably going to mess up. The gist of it is that dieting is a way that women show that they understand their role in society. It’s a way that they perform their gender.

As I became more politically aware of the underbelly of diet culture — it’s not natural or organic. There have been periods of time and there are places on the planet and cultures now that prize fat women. It’s not some natural law that women are supposed to be thin in order to be attractive. It’s a cultural construct that masquerades as something neutral. As I became more aware of the politics of dieting and the ways in this country that fear of fatness and the desire for thinness is very literally tied to anti-black racism and chattel slavery — you can see it in women’s magazines and entertainment from the antebellum era. As I became more aware of that, it fueled me to stop doing this to myself. I only speak for myself. People are on their own journey. People can disagree with me. For me, there’s no question that the creative and spiritual and political freedom that I feel no longer dieting is worth more than I could ever possibly say. I would never ever, ever go back no matter what someone said my body would look like. Plus, there’s the fact that diets don’t work for most people. It’s sort of a cure that doesn’t work for a problem that doesn’t exist, is how I think of it in a nutshell, or several nutshells.

Zibby: Awesome. New tagline for dieting. What is coming next for you? You have this book out. Has it changed your life? What do you want to do next? What are you excited about?

Savala: I want to write another book next. This was truly a dream come true. This was a childhood dream come true. I will be writing until the day I die. Whether or not anybody reads it is a different question. Whether or not anybody publishes it is another question. I’m thinking about what my next book will be about. I am in conversation with a couple different writerly platforms about writing more regularly for them. I’m really hoping that I get to. I’m a lawyer. I work at a law school. That’s the other hat I wear. I’m hoping that I can find ways to focus more on writing because it’s my place of joy even though it’s sometimes, as you know, really difficult and vexing. It’s a lot of work. It’s the place where I feel most alive and like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on the planet. That’s my goal, to have more time and space to write. That’s what I want.

Zibby: That does sound nice.

Savala: Doesn’t that sound nice?

Zibby: That sounds really nice.

Savala: We could just wave a magic wand.

Zibby: Sign me up. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Savala: Oh, my. My advice for aspiring authors would be — I can’t take credit for this advice because it’s advice that has been given to me and that I rely on — to focus on habits more than inspiration. Inspiration is fickle. It comes in and out with the tide. You can’t rely on it. Habit is just much more of a workhorse. There’s a quote from Madeleine L’Engle who said inspiration usually comes during work, not before it. I love that.

Zibby: That’s great.

Savala: Right?

Zibby: I love that, yep.

Savala: Don’t wait around for inspiration. Just keep chipping away. As you know from writing, you can’t get to the good draft unless you go through the bad drafts. If you’re unwilling to go through the bad drafts or you’re unwilling to work when you’re not inspired, then you literally can’t get to the good stuff. You have to walk through that hallway to get to the door at the end of it. That’s my one little bit of advice. Go for habit, not inspiration.

Zibby: I love that. Just one question because I’m curious. The guys who you mentioned, particularly the one who leaned over you like a table, do they know about this book? Do they remember those moments? Have you heard from any of them?

Savala: Oh, Zibby. There’s an essay in the book called “On Dating White Guys While Me.” I write about my former but very strong desire to be chosen by a white guy as a romantic partner because of the power of their approval in the culture. I do go through a number of guys that I had these — I don’t even know what I would call them, like an asexual romance. I don’t know. Not a normal friendship, but not a full-blown romance either. One of them knows for sure, but he hasn’t gotten back to me about it.

Zibby: Oh, dear.

Savala: Another one, his best friend told me, “Hey, I saw your book in a bookstore.” I suppose that means that his best friend, who’s the guy I write about, knows. I have no idea. It’s out in the world. Maybe they come across it. If they remember things differently, that’s okay. That’s the nature of life. In a way, the essay’s less about their behavior — although, I do think it was often strange — and more about my process of trying to get over this very strange habit that I was in with these guys. The guy who leaned over me, I don’t know. I still don’t know what to make of that. It’s a mystery.

Zibby: I know. I was reading along with you. I’m like, what was he doing? Whatever.

Savala: We’ll never know.

Zibby: I loved reading about it.

Savala: Thank you.

Zibby: The crazy little moments in life where you’re like, what?

Savala: I know. We’ll never know.

Zibby: We’ll never know. Savala, thank you so much. This has been so fun. Time went by in like two seconds. Again, thank you for these beautiful essays. I really admire your writing and the way you look at the world. It’s really cool. Great job.

Savala: Thank you, Zibby. I so appreciate the chance to chat with you. I just love your book world, your world of books. I’m really thrilled to be a part of it. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Awesome. Take care. I hope to talk to you soon.



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