Yara Zgheib calls herself a “bookworm, writer, and constant traveler and dreamer.” She’s also a Fulbright scholar with a PhD in international affairs and diplomacy—and most recently, a novelist. Her debut work of fiction, The Girls at 17 Swann Street, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in early February of 2019. This book narrates a young woman’s struggle with anorexia. Here, Pens & Needles Editor Audrey Farley converses with Zgheib about eating disorders, the book’s creation, and the challenges of narrating chronic conditions.
AF: Why and for whom did you write this book?
YZ: I developed anorexia nervosa in my early twenties. Before that, I understood very little about eating disorders. I learned quickly; it is a horrible, painful disease that not only robbed me of my body and my mind, but also of my relationships with the people I love. I was causing them pain and could not explain what was going on in my mind to them. The breaking point was seeing my parents cry. That was when I started writing this novel, for them and for myself.
By the time I finished it, I was writing for anyone with an eating disorder or mental illness in general—and there are so many suffering in silence—and for those around them struggling to understand and help. I wanted this story to offer insight and comfort, and now that it is out, if it gives one person hope, one person courage, I would consider it a great accomplishment.
AF: What research did you conduct for this novel?
YZ: A lot. I read all the medical literature I could find, as well as memoirs and personal narratives by people who experienced or witnessed what The Girls at 17 Swann Street did. I was struck by how little overlap there was between the two. There had to be a way to present both the disease and the experience of it to the average person like me.
AF: Early in the book the narrator says, “I do not suffer from anorexia. I have anorexia. The two states are not the same. I know my anorexia, I understand it better than the world around me.” This is just one instance in which that character suggests that clinical and popular thinking about anorexia is out of touch with lived experience. Do you agree with your character that general understandings of eating disorders are lacking? If so, in what ways? And what counter-narratives does this novel offer?
YZ: I definitely agree. Two flagrant misconceptions about anorexia come to mind: First, that it is just an extreme desire to be thin. Second, that both having it and being cured of it are a choice. This book offers a different perspective of anorexia: It is not about being thin. It is not a bad habit, or a lack or excess of self-control. It is an actual disease. No person chooses to have it, just like no person chooses cancer or diabetes. To have anorexia is to lose your ability to concentrate, your body heat, your hair, your period, your personality, your relationships, your dreams. Sometimes your life.
AF: This book is formally experimental in various respects. I’m most intrigued by the movement between first and third person with regard to the narrator/main character. Why did you choose this narrative style?
YZ: I wanted to tell the story both through Anna’s eyes and through those of an outsider. My goal was to showcase how different two experiences of the same events can be. Most importantly, I wanted the reader to be able to step inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder and experience their thoughts and emotions. I hope it worked.
A work of fiction, at least one that will sell, demands a resolution to the story, good or bad: Anna either dies or lives happily ever after. Life is not like that.
AF: As The Girls At 17 Swann Street suggests, recovery from an eating disorder can be a lifelong process. Is it difficult to narrate a chronic condition in fiction? It seems that the literary marketplace imposes certain forms (e.g. a clear conflict and resolution, or a beginning, middle, and end) on life stories, and these forms are not necessarily compatible with the experience of chronic conditions.
YZ: Absolutely. A work of fiction, at least one that will sell, demands a resolution to the story, good or bad: Anna either dies or lives happily ever after. Life is not like that. Chronic conditions certainly are not. Patients recover, relapse, start over, keep fighting. For someone with anorexia, every bite of food will always be difficult. In the novel, I tried to be true to that reality, but also offer hope. Because there is hope. People do leave 17 Swann Street and lead happy lives while learning to manage their anorexia.
For more information about Yara Zgheib or to read her poetic and philosophical musings on various topics, visit her blog, Aristotle at Afternoon Tea.