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Personal Essay: Mona Awad on the genesis of her novel-in-stories

FrontmatterMarch_Essay-MonaWhen asked about the genesis of my novel-in-stories, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, about a woman struggling with body-image issues, two seemingly incongruous memories most persistently come to mind: listening, as an undergraduate at York University, to an audio recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl,” and my years of shopping at Addition Elle, the women’s plus-sized clothing store.

It was difficult to be a fat goth girl in the 1990s. My clothes could never be as velvety dark as my soul. Not if the only places I could shop for them were Cotton Ginny Plus, the dreaded Penningtons, and of course, the aptly named Addition Elle. I watched my thin friends try on clothes at the long-gone goth clothing stores that used to line Queen West. To Toronto goth industrial clubs, I wore my mother’s plus-sized black lingerie as outerwear.

I also read and wrote a great deal of poetry.

I ended up taking a creative-writing class at Glendon College, during my second year of undergraduate studies in English literature. Our first unit was poetry. Our professor began the course by playing the infamous beat monologue read by the poet himself. I listened, in my terrible, baubled clothes. Though I was incredibly shy, I rested my arms on my desk and then my forehead on my crossed wrists, the better to listen. When the poem ended, our professor said something that has stuck with me ever since: “You can write things out of you.” When he said it, he pushed his hands away from his body. It thrilled me. I’d never thought of writing that way.

I knew my professor didn’t mean writing as therapy, or even catharsis – though perhaps these things were byproducts of the act – but as a way to at last say all the things. Not just to say them but to say them in such a way that they could be heard by someone else and they would leave me. And I would be light.

Of course I did nothing for a while. Not until I went back to the mall.

I was looking for a plain black cardigan. One without rhinestones for buttons or webs of pearl across the front. A tall order at Addition Elle at the time. There was nothing in the store but the usual gewgawed sacks branded with animals: camels, cats, sheep – the particular species of our humiliation changed depending on the season. Still, I searched. First with affected fatalism, then with genuine frustration, then with morbid curiosity, then with palpable rage and shame making my cheeks burn and my hands curl into fists.

Coming home, the rage still in my fingers, I wrote a poem. It started with the black cardigan and ended as a three-page rant/lament about being a fat girl. Things came up, came out that I did not anticipate – childhood girlfriends, meals consumed long ago, moments of sexual frustration and desire, sitting on the sidelines at goth bars, watching the disco ball scatter bubbles of light over a beautiful friend dancing. I addressed people by name. It was a howl. I called it “Zoology.” I wrote it in what felt like 15 minutes.

It felt good to read it aloud. I’d communicated something in such a way that it had left me. I felt lighter. But ultimately, it was unsatisfying. It was only a three-page poem after all. The cardigan had opened up a whole interior world I didn’t even know existed. I had barely scratched the surface with this act of writing it out. There was still so much more in there to say.

Only much later, when I was thin, did I attempt to revisit the terrain I had uncovered in my poem. I was having trouble. Content was no problem. I had so much to say, even more than before, now that I had experienced the less-than-fairy-tale ending of transformation. I wrote a short story. A poem. A non-fiction article. But every form I tried didn’t quite fit. The concept of fatness itself was so loaded. In approaching it creatively, I was encountering the same sorts of limitations, the same entrapments I had faced at Addition Elle.

Then I recalled another poem I’d read in that undergraduate class: “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. Remembering Stevens’s imagistic exercises in perspective, his way of approaching one thing from various angles, I felt again that freedom of possibility and catharsis that I had experienced when I first heard “Howl.”

Stevens’s structuring principle would allow me to zoom in on discrete aspects of a woman’s struggle with body image and explore how that struggle played out in specific scenarios: dressing rooms, a tense lunch with a female friend, shopping with a mother, sex, a cardio machine war at the gym. By accumulating these differently angled glimpses I could create the sort of multi-faceted portrait I was interested in, one that was necessarily warped, myopic, incomplete, full of gaps, and yet hopefully truthful and complex, one that layered and complicated our idea of fat. And anyway, on the subject of body image, one howl was not enough. I needed several.


Mona Awad’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and The Walrus. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is published by Penguin Canada.