Yara Zgheib On Her Haunting Debut Novel
It's an intimate portrait of a woman's struggle with anorexia.
The Girlfriend recently gave away 1,000 copies of Yara Zgheib's, The Girls at 17 Swann Street (on sale February 5, 2019). (Hope you are enjoying it!) To give you greater insight into her book, here's a Q&A we did with the author.
- How did your own experiences influence your work? I read that you have had experience with the disease. Was this why you chose this topic to be the focus of your debut novel, The Girls at 17 Swann Street?
I have had anorexia nervosa for many years, and one of the most painful aspects of this disease is the way it affected my relationship with those I love. I could barely understand what I was experiencing, let alone explain it to them. I was ashamed and angry and scared of my disease. I felt very much alone. Writing has always been my way of coping with things, so I wrote.
At first I wrote for myself, then as the novel developed, I wrote for my family, my friends, and anyone who has or knows someone with an eating disorder. I wanted this story to offer understanding and comfort. I sincerely hope it does.
- Your style was unique and inviting. I liked that you employed different styles for the main character’s thoughts and for any external words. Why did you choose that way of telling the story?
I wanted the story to be told through Anna’s eyes, so that the reader could step inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder and experience their thoughts and emotions.
- What do you think is the biggest misconception surrounding anorexia?
That having it is a choice. No one chooses to have anorexia, just as no one chooses to have diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, both medicine and society have yet to fully understand the causes and manifestations of this disease. However, I am hopeful that ongoing research and greater awareness, through books like this for instance, will change that.
- Obviously Anna had a fabulous husband, someone she looked forward to sharing her life with. What about those girls/women who don’t have anyone like that in their lives for support and motivation?
My heart goes out to these girls and women. This is a horrible, painful, lethal disease. Those who have it are, literally, fighting their own brains for their lives. And while treatment and medication help, these girls need love, so much love. No one should have to fight this on their own. That is why awareness of eating disorders is so crucial.
- How should you approach the subject when faced with a loved one or friend who is suffering from an eating disorder?
First, get informed. Read all you can about eating disorders. Then, simply, talk to that loved one. Be honest. Listen with love and without judgment. You will be rejected. Come back anyway. And keep coming back. Do not give up on that person you love. If you can get them to seek professional help, that would be ideal. If not, just be present, then try again.
- I was really moved by the friendships that blossomed between the women … and also by the fact that a few of the women no longer heard from their family members. Can you comment about the reactions people sometimes have to others with an eating disorder?
It is horrible to watch a loved one suffer, and it is even worse when they seem to be doing it of their own free will. Family members sometimes try to “fix” the problem, and when they realize, with time, that it does not work, that there is no magic pill or cure, they pull away. I cannot bring myself to blame them.
- Have you always wanted to write?
I have always been a bookworm, and I have always known that I wanted to write. The heroes of my childhood were authors. Their stories took me on great adventures all around the world. They still do today. There is something magical about words on a page being able to convey emotions from one stranger to another across time and place. The experience is without parallel.
As for writing, it brings me joy. I forget the world when I do. If I could spend my life reading and writing in a library — with a window and some fruit perhaps — I would be the happiest girl in the world.
- The facility seemed to really benefit Anna. Are there indeed many places like this where treatment can be sought?
There are good treatment centers for eating disorders in America, but they are few, expensive, and sometimes just difficult to access. Fortunately, there are many resources available to anyone who wants help, wherever they are. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), for instance, is an excellent place to start. So are therapists, nutritionists, psychiatrists and support groups. There is always a way. You just need to speak up. Please, please, do.
Author Photo Helen Karam