The non-fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What events in your life have either tested or shaped the confidence and empowerment you display in “Yo Mama So Fat”?
Karen Craigo: I was blessed with two amazing parents—a mom who encouraged me to get involved in anything and everything (except cheerleading—“Don’t cheer for boys; make them cheer for you!”). Getting involved, she maintained, was the way to have fun in life—and so I was always joining and doing and just jumping in.
I also had a dad, and all fathers of smart girls are de facto feminists; that’s just how it is. My father thought I could do anything, and of course, he was right. It has taken me my whole forty-six years to realize that simple truth.
RR: What do you think of the power of a joke? Can they be harmless?
KC: I haven’t studied humor theory, if there is such a field, but harm and jokes seem to go hand in hand—pratfalls, farts, slipping on a banana peel. I think there’s probably more harm in tallying up each offense and making much of it than there is in examining a thing and finding the humor in it. There’s a lot of humor in me. And there’s the occasional fart.
The “yo mama” joke is a good example of faux harm. The jokes just don’t happen when someone’s actual mother is present. They wouldn’t even work that way, actually, because nobody’s mom is that fat, stupid, or hairy, and so the presence of the mom would refute the joke. But the apparent target, the mama, isn’t the real target. The real target is the son or daughter who is forced to suffer the jest at the expense of the most-loved person. But that’s not even true. A dozens-style joke is meant to forge community, I think. It’s a performance that helps the group to bond.
Getting back to your original question, I don’t think jokes are harmful or harmless. They’re neutral. The utterer may have ill intent, but a joke differs from a pistol in that we can reject its bullet. The listener is either looking for harm or looking past it, and I just choose to look past it. I hope my son can, too—if not now, then eventually.
RR: One of the piece’s greatest strengths is how concise it is. When you began writing this piece did the short length come naturally, or was it after much deliberation and trimming?
KC: I began my literary life as a poet, and that’s still the first word I use when I define myself. I’m accustomed to covering what I need to say in a small space, and lately I’ve been writing small essays, too. Heck, this one is epic compared to some of my micro-essays. And truthfully, this is starting to feel like a problem. I have a lot of these fat essays—physically small essays on the topic of weight, that is—and I envision them collected in a book, eventually, but so far a whole bunch of essays are yielding a very small book.
On a craft note, the essay is just a slice-of-life piece, the story of a moment in a day, and the short form seems to suit it. When all of the fat essays are together, I think it feels like a rather substantial project about body image and self-love and prejudice. There wasn’t much trimming with this piece; ultimately, I’m building something that goes beyond the limits of a single essay.
RR: Has your son tried any “your mama” jokes at school? If so, did it go as badly or better than you feared in the piece?
KC: I don’t think he has tried these, although he recently did a comedy routine at his school talent show and got a whole lot of laughs. This interpersonal sparring really isn’t his thing. He’s a sincere kid, and he doesn’t seem to have the chops for teasing. I guess he’s more likely to be the teasee instead of the teaser, and we are always working together to try to understand the rather merciless things that kids at school say to one another and to him.
RR: In your opinion, what does it mean to “embrace the hyperbole”?
KC: Embracing the hyperbole is something I try to do—to speak boldly, to inhabit my space, and to honor the self. Hell, yes, I’ll make earthquakes. Listen to me rumble. Watch me crack. Find yourself a sturdy doorframe until I’ve safely moved on. Causing earthquakes is epic! Being fat is just a combination of bad luck and a large number of iffy decisions.
“Yo Mama So Fat” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.2
Karen Craigo teaches English in Springfield, Missouri. A poet and essayist, she is the author of two chapbooks, most recently Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013). She is the nonfiction editor of Mid-American Review, and she also serves as interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly