Sometime in her early 20s, Mona Awad wrote a poem following an unsuccessful search for a plus-size cardigan. (Inspiration arrives in many guises.) “I could not find one anywhere,” she recalls. “There was always some sort of big cheesy design on it or rhinestones. I couldn’t find something just plain and black and that’s all I wanted.” Awad, who has since lost much of that weight, poured her feelings of indignity and frustration into the poem, which turned into a monologue she read in a writing class. “People really responded to it,” she says. “I put it away for a long time and wrote about other things. But I always thought about the poem and knew I would return at some point but I wasn’t ready yet.”
In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, her searing debut collection of linked stories, Awad has returned to her original inspiration: a store fitting room serves as the setting for a young woman struggling with her weight. The fitting room is where Lizzie faces off against some of her biggest adversaries: the mirror; the salesperson whose raps on the door are an admonishment; the dress that won’t quite fit; and herself.
“Those little rooms are real hotbeds of desire, humiliation, hope, dread, and anxiety,” Awad now says, “and I had a lot of fun drawing out all the different ways in which those emotions get played out, moment to moment. There’s always that knock on the door, that interested exchange you have to do with the salesperson. Overhearing other women talk about their sizes and comparing yourself to them, thinking, ‘Does this space have a mirror or not? Do I have to go out to look in the mirror?’ There are so many things about it that can be so punishing, and I’ve had my fair share of experiences that were not pleasant, so I just started having a lot of fun writing them out.”
Although many of the themes Awad tackles are dark, the collection can be quite funny. In a story told from the vantage point of a creep who’s using Lizzie, the writing gets some funny jabs in at the character, a musician who revels in Lizzie’s adulation of him. “How different her reaction from the reaction of Some People, who only rolled their eyes and muttered, ‘Here we go,’ when you offered to play your new collection (tentatively titled Novembral Musings.)”
Awad worked on 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl in “fits and starts” for six years before completing it as an MFA student at Brown University. Prior to her acceptance at Brown, Awad, who is originally from Canada, worked as an administrative assistant (“ordering lunches and cleaning the Nutter Butter wrappers up after meetings”) and then as an events coordinator at The King’s English bookshop in Salt Lake City, a job she loved. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D.in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver.
Readers first meet Lizzie as a bored, insecure teen in Misery Saga (“what you’re allowed to call Mississauga if you live there”) as she and her friend kill time outside of a McDonalds and play a game asking questions of the universe. “The universe is against us, which makes sense,” Lizzie thinks. “So we get another McFlurry and talk about how fat we are for awhile.” This particular story is told from some indiscernible point in the future, and Lizzie gives readers a clue of what’s to come: “Later on I’m going to be really…beautiful. I’m going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.” In the next story, “Full Body,” Lizzie’s anxiety over taking a photograph of herself to send to a man she met online is palpable as she cajoles her friend China into taking it, as though everything in her life will be all right if she gets the perfect photo. The stories follow Lizzie into young adulthood, where her determination to keep off weight becomes an obsession. Depending on where she is in her life and her weight loss, Lizzie goes by Beth, Liz, or Elizabeth, trying to shed former selves with the pounds, throwing on new identities as she might a dress.
Awad didn’t realize she was depicting one woman in all her guises and names until after the book’s first draft. “Essentially this is one woman, but I wanted to maintain multiplicity in the ways in which she changes in relation to how she perceives herself,” Awad says. “I think the term ‘fat girl’ is a layered idea. It brings to mind a lot of different connotations and associations and pictures, so it was important to me to keep that sense of being multifaceted. Even though I kept her as one person, I gave her the name Elizabeth so she could play with that, and it became a house for a lot of different permutations of that one person.”
And you would be hard-pressed to explain what Lizzie looks like. “I worked on this very specific interiority and then made her physical appearance a little vaguer,” explains Awad. The less Awad writes about Lizzie’s looks, the easier it is for her reader to imagine Lizzie. “I don’t mention actual numbers in terms of her weight. I stayed away from that because ‘fat’ is so relative, and I wanted people to play out what that looked like for them.”
Lizzie looks for acceptance everywhere but the one place she can find it: within herself. “Whether that’s possible for someone who’s struggled with body issues is a very complicated question and one of the reasons I wanted to write the book,” Awad says. “And the only way to do that would be to do it in story, to do it in fiction—that world that allows you all of that creative space to imagine. That’s what I didn’t have in that store when I couldn’t find that cardigan. I wanted to have that.”Courtney Allison contributes features to Kirkus Reviews.