Canadian Writers in Person: Mona Awad on writing out emotional experiences
On Sept. 19, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course debuted with Mona Awad reading from her book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. York teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.
Author Mona Awad opened this year’s Canadian Writers in Person series with a riveting presentation about writing out emotional experiences.
An alumnae of York University, Awad continued her studies, earning an MFA in Fiction from Brown University and an MScR in English literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Walrus, Joyland, Post Road, St. Petersburg Review, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and English literature at the University of Denver, where her thesis project will be a novel.
During her visit to York University, Awad discussed her debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which came out in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and longlisted for the 2017 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.
Awad told the audience that the earliest conception of this book dates back to her second year as an undergraduate student at York University, when she heard a recording of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg reciting the poem Howl in a class she was taking. Haunted by the emotional rawness of that poem, she started thinking about exploring her own emotional experiences in her writing. First, she wrote a three-page long poem about aspects of her life as a fat girl, and although the emotions it conveyed felt true, she was still left longing for a way to explore these experiences more in depth.
Years later, she decided to tackle the topic in a novel. Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Awad organized her novel in 13 parts that allowed her to zoom in on a woman’s struggles with body image issues at different moments in her life. She said, “I wanted to bring the reader into Lizzie’s mind… I love stories that have a certain intimacy of voice.”
In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Awad brings us into the mind of a woman who is deeply affected by the pressures of a society that values women primarily based on their appearance. Through her protagonist’s struggles, she invites us to consider what is lost when we embrace society’s beauty ideals and have obsessive relationships to food and to our own bodies.
A The Globe and Mail review of this novel points out, “Awad is an incredibly skilled writer, with a rare ability to construct tiny moments of both acute empathy and astonishing depth. She can also deftly shift from one viewpoint to another, expertly unveiling how a culturally mandated hatred of fat affects all of us to varying degrees. This is a book twitching with heavy anxiety, with a feeling of doom as its backdrop and it’s impossible not to be deeply affected by Awad’s prose.”
All readings are part of a degree credit course on Canadian literary culture offered by the Culture & Expression Program in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. Readings are free and open to any member of the public. Readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus. On Tuesday, Oct. 3, novelist and playwright Anosh Irani will visit York to talk about The Parcel.