The Chat With 2016 Giller Prize Finalist Mona Awad

Next up in our special 2016 Giller Prize coverage, which is generously sponsored by Publishing@SFU, is our conversation with finalist Mona Awad. She’s the author of the acclaimed debut novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

The Globe and Mail says the book is “beautifully told, with a profoundly sensitive understanding of the subject matter.” The Literary Review of Canada, meanwhile, hails Awad’s debut as “a brilliant and disturbing first novel.”

Mona Awad was born in Montreal and received her MFA in fiction from Brown University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Walrus, Joyland, Post Road, St. Petersburg Review, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver.

TheChat-Giller-2016

 

THE CHAT WITH MONA AWAD

How did 13 Ways of Looking At a Fat Girl find life as a book?

Awad, Mona

I first started with the image of a young woman in a dressing room staring at a piece of clothing she already knew wouldn’t fit while her mother and a saleswoman waited outside. She actually sort of appeared to me during a long car ride in Utah. She wasn’t particularly specific in terms of her exact body size and her physicality. But I knew this was a woman for whom body image was a deep struggle. I knew this was a woman who saw herself as a “fat girl” and that the term itself was a loaded and complicated one for her.

Who and what were shaping that way of seeing herself?

And then a number of other images came to me: that same woman having lunch with a friend, having sex, out with her mother. In each of these scenes, this notion of herself as “a fat girl” was playing itself out differently, being reinforced differently. And I knew I wanted to explore all the ways in which body image issues had affected her life, her relationships, the way she was in the world. I was inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Bird.” I thought the idea of approaching a portrait of one character from various angles was especially suitable for my main character since, in my experience, “looking’’ or perception is a huge part of body image. I also liked the multiplicity as a way of approaching a term like "fat girl," which brings so many different sets of connotations, associations, presumptions to mind, all of which I wanted to challenge and complicate.

A term like "fat girl" ... brings so many different sets of connotations, associations, presumptions to mind, all of which I wanted to challenge and complicate.

Your book follows the life of Lizzie/Elizabeth/Beth/Liz, whom we see grow and mature, love and flee, live and learn, over a span of many years. In each period of her life, she struggles to find ease with the experience of living within her own body—an experience that’s common to many of us in the context of a body-obsessed North American culture. Can you talk more about Lizzie’s struggle and why this is such an important topic?

Lizzie’s struggle, though born of her body, goes way beyond her body. It’s bound up in how she views herself and the various ways she imagines others see her—and that’s a struggle that continues throughout the course of her life, regardless of her physical size.

In that way, I think her struggle is very universal—who hasn’t felt unease in their own skin? And where does that unease come from? You? The outside world? Somewhere in between? And how deep can it run, how much can it shape your life?

I was interested in reporting the depth and shiftiness of that fundamental unease. Through Lizzie, I wanted to explore how deeply body image issues can pervade and shape every aspect of one’s life and one’s relationships—with lovers, friends, family, sex, food, clothing, and most importantly with the self. And I also wanted to explore and complicate the notion of fat girl, how it’s not simply a question of physicality. It’s a far more dynamic, psychological, and relative state than this—one that can hold contradictions, is perceptional, is internally and externally constructed.

I also wanted to explore and complicate the notion of fat girl, how it’s not simply a question of physicality. It’s a far more dynamic, psychological, and relative state than this ...

Imagine you’re on a road trip across the continent with the teenaged version of Lizzie, who has decided to skip school to travel with you. What music do you listen to on the trip? What do you talk or argue about? What do you learn from her?

Music-wise, I think we would definitely listen to a Goth or dark wave mix. Maybe also some Morrissey. Probably she would ask for Nick Cave. I might introduce her to The Modern Lovers. I imagine both of us being quiet rather than talking. I think I’d probably learn from her to like myself a little more.

49thShelf.com is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?

MA: Rebecca Godfrey’s The Torn Skirt. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. Anything by Lisa Moore—her new novel Flannery is great. A favourite is Lynn Crosbie’s latest novel Where Did You Sleep Last Night, a finalist for the Trillium Award this year. I think it’s astonishing—so emotionally charged and the language is so blazingly beautiful and original. I’m currently reading Atwood’s Hag-seed, a play on The Tempest, which is wonderful in every sense.

 

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GILLER JURY CITATION

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl isn’t just funny, it’s painfully funny. Every page shimmers with a sharply-observed wit, wise in the ways of human folly, but the humour of the book takes the reader into a deep and dark place: the psyche of the character Lizzie, whose battle to become skinny is also a war against herself. With masterful skill, Mona Awad takes the social problem of body image obsession and makes it the stuff of utterly engrossing fiction.

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EXCERPT

She knows I’ve been coveting the von Furstenberg ever since I first stood on the other side of her shop window, watching her slip it over a white, nippleless mannequin, looping some ropes of fake pearls around its headless neck. I didn’t know it was a von Furstenberg then. I only knew it was precisely the sort of dress I dreamed of wearing when I used to eat muffins in the dark and watch Audrey Hepburn movies. Before I knew brands, I’d make lists of the perfect dresses – and when I saw this dress it was like someone, perhaps even God, had found the list and spun it into existence. Cobalt, formfitting, with a V in the front and one in the back. Cute little bows all down the butt crack, like your ass is a present. The sort of dress I’d wish to wear to attend the funeral of my former self, to scatter the ashes of who I was over a cliff’s edge.
 


“Can I try this on?” I asked her.


Excerpted from 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad Copyright © 2016 by Mona Awad. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Click here to read our interview with Giller Prize nominee Madeleine Thien, and stay tuned for The Chat with finalists Zoe Whittall, Gary Barwin, Emma Donoghue, and Catherine Leroux.

October 11, 2016
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