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The Power of Perception

By Julie Young

 

Mona Awad, author of the recently published book “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl,” has dedicated her life to the field of literature.  

After graduating from York University in Toronto, she received her M.F.A. in Fiction from Brown University, and then her M.S.C.R. in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. She has worked as an instructor in the Literary Arts Department at Brown University and as a bookseller for numerous independent bookstores, including Pages in Toronto, The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, and Blackwell Books in Edinburgh.

Awad also worked as a food columnist for the Montreal-based magazine Maisonneuve, where her piece “The Shrinking Woman” appeared. Her writing has also been featured in publications such as McSweeney’s, The Walrus, Joyland, Post Road, and St. Petersburg Review. This diverse, impressive literary background aided her in becoming the author she is today.

Through her book “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl,” Awad explores life experiences, like the struggles of womanhood, relationships, and the pursuit of the path to loving oneself, all while remaining honest, uplifting, and witty.  

Lizzie, the main character Awad so exceptionally crafted, lacks self-reliance and confidence in her own body. Despite efforts, like online dating, to put herself out there, her body-related anxieties continue to worsen. As the book plays out, Lizzie loses the weight she believed was dragging her down, yet she struggles to shake her own self-perception as “the fat girl.”

Awad’s personal humor and wit, which bleed through to her writing, help establish an honest and relatable connection between the reader and the protagonist. Because of the personal and genuine nature of the topic, Awad uses this humor to create a balance between heavy and lighthearted content.  

“I guess it reflects my own sensibility as a writer. I wanted the book to feel true…Humor is a very important part of that…A story about the body, if it’s going to ring true, it needs to involve all the emotions: anger, vulnerability, anxiety, and humor. 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-humorous take on things, she is an outsider. I think that humor is a good defense strategy for an outsider…This character needs that; it’s her coping mechanism. But for that humor to work, the reader also needs to feel her vulnerability…So I tried to do both,” said Awad.

It is easy to question how Awad came up with the title, especially in such politically correct times, but for her, it developed almost naturally.  

“The title was inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Bird,” though really only superficially. What I liked was the idea of using different ways of seeing…In my experience, perception is a huge part of body image, so the idea of looking, for me, is really the most transformative, damaging, and powerful driving force in the book,” said Awad.  

Awad continued to speak of the title and the way it helped her create a helpful framework for her book.  

“Being fat is both a highly visible and invisible experience — visible because of the extra flesh and invisible because of the ways that flesh can eclipse you as a person, both in terms of how people see you and how you see yourself — so the title felt connected to that paradox of being both seen and unseen in various ways. It let me organize the overall story around the many ways in which Lizzie might be seen…ways of seeing that she resented, ways of seeing that were simplifications, or generalizations,” said Awad.

Awad’s vision for this book was based not on a personal experience, but on an inspiration.  

“I think 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 who saw herself as a fat girl, and that the term itself was a loaded and complicated one for her…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 that notion of herself as a fat girl had affected her life,” said Awad.  

Although writing the book was very arduous and, at times, testing, Awad explained that her passion to complete something empowering for women pressed her to power through.

“Of course. I wanted to quit many times. Writing the stories was often a challenge, I think, because they were so important to me. So I really wanted to get them right. But even though sometimes that sense of urgency could be stifling, it also compelled me to keep going,” said Awad.  

“13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl” presents a message to young women — it is important to love yourself. Awad aimed to provide a source of comfort and connection to those struggling with body insecurities and self-confidence.

“I think my hope is that the book provides what a story or song provides, for people to feel a sense of connection, for people to feel less alone. I wrote Lizzie with as much honesty as I could, in the hopes that I would provide that sort of connection for the reader. I think what I wanted above all was for women and men who are struggling with these issues not to feel alone,” said Awad.   

Awad offered simple yet brilliant guidance and advice for aspiring writers today.

“It’s often said, but that’s because it’s true: Read. Everything. Also, don’t be afraid to explore what’s exciting and dangerous to you, what really matters to you. But don’t be surprised if it comes out in ways you didn’t expect,” said Awad.

Awad is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Denver, where she is working intensively on her thesis; it will be her second book, a novel. 

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