Mona Awad’s new book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, is a bold, heartbreaking and humorous story of one woman’s struggle with her weight in a culture that defines women by their physical appearance. Of 13 Ways, Roxane Gay noted, “Awad gets everything right and, throughout these interconnected stories, reveals how absurd our culture is about women and their bodies. Several sections had me in tears.”
We talked to Awad about mothers, lovers, friendship, the craft of fiction, and most importantly the drama of having a body in a society obsessed with image.
CA: When I thought about the history of the “fat girl” in novels, the characters that come to mind are from young adult literature; Dolores Price in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Linda, the fat girl who gets bullied in Judy Blume’s Blubber. Both of these characters are isolated and a bit tragic, all the more so because we never get to see them become women. Where are all the fat girls in literature? Why did you want to tell this story?
MA: The idea of what a fat girl is brings with it a lot of assumptions, of set images. I wanted to complicate those ideas and I wanted to challenge them. That’s what I was doing in these stories. I was also interested in just how deeply body image can affect so many different aspects of our lives across the spectrum of our relationships—with friends, with family, with lovers. I’ve never seen a work of fiction in which we walk into a dressing room with a woman and there’s a moment to moment catalogue of that experience. I wanted to tell that story. I was interested in pushing past what we perceive to be a fat girl in terms of flesh and examine the notion of a fat girl as a state of mind, because my character does not stay physically fat, her physical size is very ambiguous in the book. I wanted any woman to be able to put themselves in her place, or any man for that matter, anyone with a body. I do feel the notion of fat is a very relative experience. If I had stopped writing the character when she was a teenager, the story would not have explored how body image struggles can manifest regardless of actual physical size.
CA: How did you find the form of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl? I’ve seen it called a novel in stories, a linked story collection. Do you find these distinctions resonate with you?
MA: I wanted to explore the ways body image struggles can shape relationships, especially your relationship to yourself. But also with clothing, with food, with your thin friends, with your fat friends. The “13 Ways” let me tell that story by telling all of those stories. It gave me a narrative arc. I was going to look at one woman from all these different perspective and how her body image struggles affected her life. I like the idea that this book occupies a space between a novel and a collection of short stories—it’s a novel because it’s telling the story of one woman, and it’s also discreet glimpses into her life.
CA: The voice of these stories—Elizabeth or Liz or Lizzie’s voice—is very funny, silly, sarcastic, self-deprecating, outrageous. How was humour important to telling this story?
MA: I wanted the book to feel true. I was very committed to emotional honesty with this character. Humour is a very important part of that. If a story, especially a story about the body, if it’s going to ring true, it needs to involve all the emotions, anger, vulnerability, anxiety and humour. Until the stories had both light and dark going on in them, I didn’t feel like they were working. As for Lizzie’s often humourous take on things, she is an outsider. I think that humour is a good defence strategy for an outsider, because even if you feel like you’re down low and looking up, or you’re outside looking in, humour allows you to at least feel like you’re looking down on someone, like you’re on top. This character needs that, it’s her coping mechanism. But for that humour to work, the reader also needs to feel her vulnerability, that there is something tragic about her. So I tried to do both.
CA: There is a lot of really brilliant dialogue in this story, especially between women, often this dialogue feels true because it captures Lizzie’s failure to communicate meaningfully, her repression. Sometimes the conversations are staged in the narrator’s head before the dialogue comes to pass. People do this in life, I’ve done it… But it’s brave territory in fiction. What’s remarkable to me is that you’ve made the trickiest of the realistic conventions, dialogue, real in its phoniness, if that makes sense…
MA: I love dialogue. It excites me so much, I love the way people talk to each other. I’ve always been endlessly fascinated with it. I love the subtext, how you can totally hear it if you’re really listening. I love how the things we say carry so much unsaid stuff that still somehow gets said. I loved writing dialogue where body image is a subtext, because it’s often a subtext especially between women. I had a lot of fun writing and developing those scenes and showing how this is true. This book is about looking. I think we show a lot of ourselves in how we talk to each other.
CA: Jealousy and intra-feminine aggression recur again and again in these stories. But this jealousy is more than mere coveting, it morphs into hunger, curiosity, insight. How did you find a positive, nuanced way to write about jealousy, this negative emotion that is often identified with women?
MA: Female relationships are very dangerous to take on as a writer. It’s dangerous to romanticize or idealize them, and it’s dangerous to describe interactions between women as petty, a mean girl type of thing. I think that both are true, or, the truth is in the middle. We’re cruel to each other but we can be very tender towards each other. We love each other but we hate each other. Sometime body image is at the heart of that contradiction, or why that contradiction is happening. I really wanted to show that going on. Lizzie and his mother are a great example of that—there’s love there, but there’s also anxiety, there’s jealousy, there’s a desire to live vicariously, there’s concern, there’s pride. I would sit with these stories as long as was necessary to be able strike that balance between all of these emotions until I felt like I had captured how these emotions can co-exist in one moment, how they can be simultaneous.
CA: Early in the narrative, we get an adolescent story that follows a young musician who drunk dials Lizzie and takes advantage of her generous nature. In “Your Biggest Fan” the young man is referred to in the second person as “you”, this form of address is conventional to love stories, but it also creates an ironic detachment from this very solipsistic character who sees the fat girl as sitting around waiting for him to call her. It’s also so much more. How was this form of poetic address inspiring for you?
MA: It was really nice to step outside of Lizzie’s first person perspective because, for the better part of the book, we are inhabiting her perspective. This story allows us a glimpse of her from the outside, we get to see her here before he begins her physical transformation. I think that’s important.
Also, that second person point of view, that sort of address, as you observed, is a tricky one. The “you” begs the question who is addressing this man, who is the speaker, is it Lizzie? Is it Lizzie later in life, you don’t know and I like that ambiguity. Who the narrator is, their identity, it’s left up to the reader to decide who is seeing these events and determining how we see these characters. It’s in between a love letter and a revenge letter.
CA: “She’ll Do Anything” is told from the point of view of Elizabeth’s husband Tom. While she is totally engrossed by her weight-loss regime, he is skeptical of the “benefits” of her success, for their relationship and for her own happiness. Why was his story an important one to tell? Can he narrate the experience in a more direct way, for example, when he speaks to how she’s spending all her money and dresses that don’t quite fit, and how she still hides herself from him because now that she has lost weight, is that something Elizabeth would avoid thinking of and never speak of, the way she avoided her own face in the mirror when she was fat?
MA: Tom gives a grounding perspective on Lizzie. It’s a glimpse from another’s perspective on this woman who is struggling with body issues. Between how she sees herself and how she actually exists in the world, we know that there is a space there, a gap. Tom looking at her from the outside is an important look at this character at this stage of her life and at this point in the narrative when she’s lost weight.
Also, Tom is quite sympathetic. He loves her. He’s someone who accepted her before she accepted herself. He’s continuing to accept her but what he can’t accept is not her physicality but her obsession, and what we see with Tom is that he’s not responsible for this obsession. What was important to me with the story of Lizzie’s struggle that it not be bound to any one gaze, especially a male gaze. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think there are a number of things both internally and externally that contribute to her problem with her body.
CA: Lizzie and her mother share a family history of obesity. How important was the intergenerational aspect of this story?
MA: I knew that was an important story to tell. This young woman is struggling with weight and I think that struggle is something that we inherit, to some extent. As women, I think we can take on what we see around us. Knowing that Lizzie has a mother who grappled with her weight, with dieting helps us know her etymology a little more as a ‘fat girl.’ How does that relationship with her mother inform her own struggle? I think this was a necessary relationship in the book to examine in a book that’s taking on the question of body image issues, where they come from , what it means to be a fat girl.
CA: Yeah! Do Lizzie and her mother communicate through the language of weight loss, through their love of Audrey Hepburn? Is femininity—understanding it, performing it—something we can separate from the mother daughter relationship or are they hopelessly tangled? These are heavy questions.
MA: Definitely, and they are open to the reader. Where does the struggle with the body come from and what is it tied to and how does it get perpetuated? In this book there are a number of relationships that get examined and there are a number of ways those relationships are fueling Lizzy’s body image issues. Not any single one is responsible. Lizzy’s mother is a force, a complicated force. The stories about their mother-daughter relationship took a long time to write because I was really committed to showing the complications of that kind of dynamic and how much it can shape the way a woman sees herself in ways that are both destructive and positive.
CA: In the story, “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy”, the newly skinny Lizzie is an object of worship to her mother, who takes her out to show her off. Does this make her unrecognizable to herself? I don’t want to spoil it for our readers but this story involves a flight of magical realism in the final scene, can you speak to that?
MA: The first few times I tried writing it, I wrote is as a straight narrative between a mother and daughter who are having dinner after the daughter has lost a considerable amount of weight. There were some tensions during that dinner but I thought, this is not what I want to say about this. There’s another layer of stuff going on between these two women and I’m not getting at it. I threw it all away. When I came up with the title, “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy”, that gave me some sort of license, to be more imaginative and to really explore how Lizzie has become estranged from herself in some ways through this transformation. And how the mother is trying to become familiar with and even define the contours of her daughter’s new identity. There is a resistance from Lizzie to her mother, which is very universal and human, I can’t imagine a daughter not putting up some resistance to her mother in this circumstance. She’s still young. She finds it really freeing to resist by entering a world of fantasy. I decided to go all the way with that fantasy and it ended up feeling more “real” than my first attempt, a realist story about them eating dinner. A story where Lizzie can enter a fantasy, in which the structure is more experimental, where we can inhabit Lizzie’s spiral, she’s dizzy all the time she can’t really get a grip on the ground—somehow, that felt more true.
CA: Music is everywhere in these stories, from the band Dead Can Dance to trance music to Peggy Lee. Elizabeth loves all types of music and lives a very nuanced sensual life, it’s not all about food. When she loses the weight, she loses her interest in music, can you speak to what that meant for her character?
MA: I was interested in looking at how this kind of struggle takes its toll in strange ways. When you do transform, at least for this character, it’s not a fairy tale happy ending. This book is interested in examining what’s lost along with the weight, and just how much life can be used up in that struggle. In the first half, you’re right, the book is full of music. The book becomes silent in the second half. I think that might be a testament to how much life inside of Lizzie is being spent on this obsession. It’s still there inside of her. There are still references to music, but she’s still in the heart of a very absorbing struggle, she can’t connect to the things that used to mean a lot to her. I think that’s true of any major transformation. Our relationship to everything we love shifts and we have to reconnect. She’s in the process of dealing with that in the second half of the novel.
CA: You take on the language of advertising in this book, when Lizzie loses weight and becomes Beth she spends a lot of money on fashion and spa treatments. In your story, “The von Furstenburg and I” , you make light of the trope of “THE dress”, the dress that’s as fulfilling and elusive as prince charming, she squeezes into it until it’s strangling her. So I’m asking, is beauty a cult?
MA: Yeah. It is. At least in Lizzie’s eyes. It’s a club she can’t get into. And it’s a fairytale she’s trying to participate in, to be the hero of, and it’s not working. Even though she’s undergone a physical transformation that is fairy tale like in some ways, she’s not getting the things you’re supposed to get when you transform. Or at least the things the fairy tale has led her to believe. I wanted that very visceral struggle with the fairy tale, the beauty cult, and I wanted to catalog it. Those dressing room narratives do that in a tangible way, in a way that is important to understanding exactly how much she’s struggling.
Mona Awad received her MFA in fiction from Brown University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Walrus, Joyland, Post Road, St. Petersburg Review, and many other journals. She is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver.