Mona Awad – 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Mona Awad’s debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (Penguin Books) is a fascinating study of relationships and the interactions of daily life. Told from varying points of view, each chapter traces the shifting power dynamics between mother and daughter, woman and lover, customer and salesperson. Each encounter, even the careless comment of a coworker or passerby is magnified by protagonist Lizzie’s perception of herself as a “fat girl” and the distorted mirror of our cultural obsession with thinness.
In thirteen chapters, each of which details a pivotal moment in Lizzie’s adolescence and early adulthood, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl offers readers a series of intimate, funny, painful and necessary glimpses into what it means to be female in a culture that measures our worth by narrow—often unattainable—standards of beauty.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: I think any woman who’s struggled with or felt judged by her weight will find these scenes intensely familiar; other readers may discover how their own comments or actions (no matter how well meaning or unintended) can and do contribute to this damaging cultural mindset. Did you have a particular reader in mind when you began telling this story, and how did that imagined audience change or grow in your mind as the novel took shape?
MONA AWAD: I didn’t really have a specific reader in mind. Since my main character is a young woman, I suppose I was hoping that it rang true for women, particularly women who struggle with body image issues, but my ultimate hope was that anybody that’s made of flesh and bones and has to look in the mirror and exist in this culture will relate to something in the book. My ideal reader was really anyone with a body, who has ever felt the fact of their body in the world. Certainly, anybody who has ever tried to change themselves.
AR: Though 13 Ways… is clearly Lizzie’s story from start to finish you aren’t afraid to switch points of view, take narrative risks, and experiment with form and tone from chapter to chapter. Each chapter can be read as a complete self-contained story, but collectively they bring an emotional power to the book that feels much greater than the sum of its parts. Did you begin writing these stories with a novel in mind, or did the larger story arc emerge at a later point?
MA: I knew that it would be a book project from the beginning and I started with the concept of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. The title was inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” though really only superficially. What I liked was the idea of using different ways of seeing as a way into the life of one character. In my experience, perception is a huge part of body image and so much of Lizzie’s story is bound up in how she views herself and the various people ways she imagines others see her.
There are so many aspects of our lives that can be affected by body image—and this structure let me organize the overall story around the many ways in which Lizzie might be seen or imagine she is seen by various people in her life: saleswomen, friends, parents, romantic partners, flings, as well as well as how she might see herself in these relationships—ways of seeing that she resented, ways of seeing that were simplifications, or generalizations. I would take each way of seeing—how Lizzie is seen by the other character, and how she sees them—and then, in the course of the story, try to unsettle and complicate it. This allowed me to tell her story as a series of glimpses—how she changes in relation to that shifting gaze, real or imagined—and I wanted the structure of the book to reflect that. Each way of looking seemed to be its own story that was connected to but also separate from the whole—another piece of a mirror (however warped) into which Lizzie is looking. It also seemed the ideal approach to telling the story of a woman struggling with body image and how she is seen, as well complicating and challenging our notion of what a fat girl is and what a portrait of a fat girl is.
AR: This book really underscores how we use each other as mirrors. Even though he can’t remember her name, the narrator of “Your Biggest Fan” craves the adoration of “the fat girl” to feel validated. And certain female friends need Lizzie around to “reflect” their comparative thinness or desirability. At first she plays into these flattering reflections, though they effectively erase her. Later she begins seeking her own validation from the bodies of other, fatter women (Mel, Britta, Cassie the nail technician). She doesn’t bother to remember Cassie’s name though she requests her services with the escalating urgency of an addict seeking a fix (an unsettling echo of the narrator from “Your Biggest Fan.”) I appreciate the risk in that complexity—these brutal moments when Lizzie is herself cruel. Did you feel any pressure to make Lizzie less complicit in this?
MA: I’m so pleased you noticed this—that Lizzie repeats a behavior that she herself was subjected to. It was certainly a bit upsetting for me to realize that she was capable of this cruelty–particularly given what she herself has been through–that she could adopt the sort of diminishing gaze that she has been a victim of. And yet, as I came to know her through the course of writing her story, it wasn’t surprising. It felt honest and I was committed to that honesty as a story teller. The truth is I think that we do this to each other, we do use each other in this way, we can be very cruel to each other–even as we are tormented, we still maintain a capacity for torment. This is what makes Lizzie human. I think to fail to acknowledge this impulse in her would have been to fail to acknowledge something very ultimately human about Lizzie.
AR: The novel follows Lizzie from adolescence through early adulthood–through her mordant and funny, often painfully self-aware narration, we see her navigate questionable sexual encounters, office hierarchies, diets, rivalries, her mother’s complicated pride in her weight loss, and so on. Loosely chronological, each chapter gives us a peek of her daily life at a new stage. Once you’d committed to the project of detailing these snapshots of her life through this lens, which scenes came most easily for you and which were the most difficult to get right?
MA: Most of the stories, as you observe, are based on a moment of tension between Lizzie and another character–her mother, her best friend, a thin friend she idolizes, a sales person in a clothing store–in which body image issues are somehow informing the dynamic. The minute I had decided upon the specific moment of tension I wanted to zoom in on, the story would come easily. So long as I stayed in the present moment and stuck to reporting the surface details with as much care, visceral and emotional honesty as I could, I could trust that the more complex, latent material would emerge.
“The Girl I Hate,” a story where Lizzie, who is dieting at this point, has a recurring lunch date with a very thin co-worker who never gets fat no matter how much she eats, came very easily. “Caribbean Therapy,” where Lizzie has lost weight and is obsessed with an overweight self-content nail technician, also was a very organic one. The dressing room chapters came fairly easily too. Other encounters were trickier. For instance, I really struggled with the chapter about Lizzie’s mother, who also suffers from a weight problem. There was so much to say, and a mother-daughter dynamic informed by weight struggles is such a complex and charged relationship that I wanted to make sure I was being honest and doing it justice. It was hard to stick to the surface and trust that the deep would show, but it didn’t really show until I did just that.
AR: Those chapters around the mother really hit me hard, emotionally. The chapter you mention, in which they have this brief, bittersweet reunion that is overshadowed by her mother’s complicated pride in Lizzie’s weight loss, is followed by an even more devastating chapter, “Fit4U,” in which her mother’s lifetime of weight struggles is summed up, heartbreakingly, by the description of a dress that has been worn beyond all repair. I don’t want to give too many details, but the end of this chapter completely wrecked me. I’m curious, from a process standpoint, how you navigated writing and revising these more emotionally charged chapters, particularly since your prose is so spare and restrained. In trying to stick to the “surface details” as you mention above, do you write and then pare back the excess until those essential details emerge, or do you build the scene detail by detail? (And at what point do you benefit from outside feedback?)
MA: This was a challenging section of the book to write. Mother-daughter relationships are always complex to begin with and in this book, because both mother and daughter have body image issues, it’s a very charged, multi-layered dynamic. I wanted to do justice to all the different emotions, anxieties and desires feeding that dynamic but that was an overwhelming task. For a long time, this section was more realistic and severe in terms of tone and setting–just a mother and daughter having a somewhat fraught dinner. But the scenes I wrote like this felt off to me—not really ringing as true as I wanted them to. Something was missing. It was only when I hit upon the idea of “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy” that something opened. I was able to approach the mother and daughter playfully, with a sort of lightness and an element of fantasy. The section about Lizzie and her mother as you know, is ultimately quite dark, but I needed to start with lightness, with play, with fantasy, with describing a pair of ludicrous pink shoes that the mother makes the daughter wear, to really descend the way I wanted to.
I was at Brown in the MFA program when I wrote these sections—both the first attempts and then this new experiment—and I remember turning in my first draft of the new version to my advisor, Brian Evenson. It was very rough and I had been in the old version of this chapter so long, I really had no idea if this new approach was working. He told me it was, something I needed to hear at that point, so I kept going.
AR: There’s so much in the novel that captures the cultural pressure to transform, reinvent ourselves by subscribing to new regimens, discarding the evidence of our old lives and selves.This is even more acute for women whose bodies don’t fit the cultural standard of beauty, and we see the narrator struggle to shed not only the fat, but her past identities as well. Her name changes with each new iteration: Elizabeth, Lizzie, Beth, Elizabeth, Liz. She sheds loved ones too, putting physical and emotional distance between herself and the friends, boyfriends, and family members who have known those past versions of her. As the book progresses it feels like she is less and less able to form attachments or relate to those around her, as though the Sisyphean task of keeping the weight off has become so all consuming that Lizzie is stranded between selves. What were your thoughts in deciding where to leave her as the book drew to a close?
MA: Physical transformation is a tricky thing. The idea that when we transform our bodies, we start off in one place and end up in another, is part of a notion about weight loss that this book is definitely trying to explore and challenge. This is the case for Lizzie, too. She still has to reckon with her flesh, even its ghost, and so does everyone else around her. Her body, changed or unchanged, is still bound up in how she sees herself. That doesn’t necessarily go when the weight does. In Lizzie’s case, she’s still cognizant of her fat and so it’s still informing the way she is in the world, her relationships—and not necessarily for the better. In fact, in some ways it’s more complicated, because the weight is no longer visible, and so it’s harder for others to understand her.
I think this idea of Lizzie as being stranded between selves is quite true. It was difficult to leave her where I left her—in such an uncertain place. But I also felt committed to reporting her story with as much care and honesty as I could. I was dedicated to being emotionally honest in this book and with this character’s struggle and its consequences. So to have her end up in another place, would have rung false. And yet she isn’t without hope. She’s still stranded between selves when we leave her but there is a glimmer too, of a possibility for change.
AR: I was reminded of the dilemma at the center of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing. Her light-skinned character knows she can “pass” for white and benefit from privileges that are denied to her as a black woman, but that privilege comes at the socially isolating cost of hearing exactly what her white “peers” think of blacks. As one of Larsen’s characters must take constant self-loathing precautions against being discovered, so Lizzie remains ever-vigilant to keep off the weight. Both seem to achieve a level of status that they cannot enjoy, because they are aware of its price; both are surrounded by others who’ve achieved privileged status not through effort but chance (born white; born with a “good” metabolism). In a recent Huffington Post interview you call out the misnomer of the happy “fairy-tale” transformation: “when the Little Mermaid loses her fish tail, in Hans Christian Andersen’s version, every step hurts.” Were there particular cultural and literary touchstones or artists you looked to as you explored this theme of the cost of transformation?
MA: I did draw quite a lot from fairy tales. I did a Master’s in English literature at the University of Edinburgh and fairy tales were the focus of my dissertation. There is a notion that fairy tale transformations yield happy endings and while that’s true of many of them, there is always a cost, a crucial sacrifice that accompanies physical change—it tells us something very important about both the change and about the person changing. What can’t they leave behind? I was interested in exploring that cost in this novel and “The Little Mermaid” was a story I thought about quite a lot. I also thought a lot about Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, another story in which the hero has divorced themselves from a body and a fate they don’t want, and yet is still tethered to that self and can’t escape it—not fully. I haven’t read that Nella Larsen novel but I certainly will now.
AR: Now that the book is out and you’re touring with it, have there been surprises along the way–unexpected or gratifying moments for you in terms of how readers/audiences have responded to the book, and what they’ve taken away from it?
MA: Perhaps the most moving moments for me have been readers’ responses to the book thus far. And how varied the readership appears to be. I’ve had pretty emotional responses from women and men of various ages and sizes. A woman in Providence told me she was 71 years old (she didn’t look it) and she still felt like a fat girl—she certainly didn’t look like it either. I purposely made Lizzie’s weight and physicality very ambiguous throughout the book—apart from having dark hair, we don’t really know what she looks like, what she weighs, and yet I still wanted readers to feel her body. I did this really because I feel that ‘fat girl’ is a relative experience—one that anyone with a body, who has to look in the mirror and exist in culture can hopefully connect to in some way.
Purchase a copy of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library.
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 elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English literature at the University of Denver.
Anne Rasmussen holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. She edits the Late Night Interview column and sympathizes with unreliable narrators.