Anxiety and Wit Go to Lunch
We are, fundamentally, storytellers. The ways we understand our lives and our worlds are through a series of stories we repeat to ourselves and to each other. And so when those stories are frankly examined, taken apart, and retold with more audacity and truth than usual, it serves us well to pay attention. This is precisely why storytellers like Mona Awad are national treasures worth listening to.
Awad’s short stories and essays have long been published in the likes of The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and McSweeney’s. Yet it is with her recently debuted novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl that her writing prowess has garnered widespread critical acclaim, including the 40th Anniversary Amazon.ca First Novel Award, co-presented by the Walrus Foundation. “Promising” would be a gross understatement for this truly exciting author.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, in the simplest of terms, is about a woman’s body and self. Awad traverses into a thorny landscape of weight anxiety and desire, illustrating it through the particular nature of key relationships - to other bodies, to female friends, to mothers, lovers, clothing, and food.
Forgoing a traditional structure, the book’s 13 chapters sprawl across the many manifestations of its main character Lizzie over the span of her life. From the teenage depths of suburbia, to masochistic lunches with loathed co-workers, we witness practices of validation and self-deprecation that are all at once familiar, hilarious, and sobering in their brazen depictions.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this is a story that doesn’t bother with patronizing or appeasing the reader. Awad doesn’t try to persuade you to like the main character, nor does she lay down a pretty landscape for uplifting music to cue. As Awad aptly puts it, “I’m always suspicious of the music”.
While this media-savvy era may now recognize the unrealistic pressures that the female body is subjected to, the dominant body-positive narrative is still limited to neatly packaged feel-good stories of fat-phobic struggle and triumph. Rarely do people delve into the depth of the mind’s anxiety and the lifelong experience of a chokehold obsession. Awad actively grapples with these idealized transformations, asking: “Can you ever actually leave a self behind? Are there emotional and psychological repercussions for physical transformation? Of course there are.”
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is as much about body image as it is about female friendships, which receive a refreshingly nuanced treatment. Awad illustrates the ways in which those dynamics can be riddled with both affection and venom -- a conditional kind of intimacy based on shared interests and shared envy.
Awad isn’t afraid of the darkness – instead, she casts a stark light that is neither flattering nor sensationalistic of those awkward sexual encounters or darkly comedic changing room nightmares. It is this unsurprising when Awad describes working on the book as emotionally demanding. “I felt a real obligation and commitment to getting it right. I had to step away if it rang untrue. It took a lot out of me and needed lots of patience.”
Born to an Egyptian father and French-Canadian mother, Awad grew up in Montreal with a high school stint in Mississauga (or as dubbed in 13, “Misery Saga”). In a predominantly white, protestant school, being an Arab was rare enough. Yet with her mixed heritage, ambiguity made her “an outsider even to outsiders”. Neither fully here nor there, Awad finds respite in the broader identification of ‘Canadian’. Awad affirms that this does not erase the influence of her parents’ culture upon her own identity, but rather allows for its greater complexity.
First and foremost, however, Awad defines herself as a writer. As a child, her mother used to bring her along to the deli she worked at, where young Mona would use the paper placemats as a canvas for her tales. In her teenage years, poetry became her primary mode of expression. That is, until the poems kept getting longer and longer, leading Awad to discover that stories were her ultimately preferred medium.
When asked what inspires her most to write, Awad answers, “I am endlessly fascinated by the dynamics that unfold between people -- what is said and unsaid contains so much possibility, so much story, that alone I can chronicle forever”.
And to that desire, she has definitely committed. Starting with her undergrad at York University, Awad continued her pursuit of chronicling forever by completing an MFA in Fiction from Brown University and a MScR in English literature from the University of Edinburgh, where she wrote her dissertation on fear and the fairy tale. Now entering her third year PhD at Denver University, we’re promised that her dissertation will be a collection of short stories with a supernatural element inspired by her previous Masters research.
For young creatives seeking to carve their own path, Awad advises: “Be unafraid to be bold. Be unafraid to have something at stake. Read widely and deeply. Watch the world, and note what turns you on about it and what turns you off. Notice it for real.”