A Dark New Novel Is A Brilliant Send-up Of MFAs And Mean Girls
Talking to Mona Awad about her latest book, 'Bunny'
As if you needed any more proof that universities aren't so much bastions of intellectual rigorousness and moral integrity (what's up, Aunt Becky), along hops Mona Awad's Bunny, a subversive, darkly hilarious look at the dark underbelly of an elite graduate writing program in a cloistered New England town. It's grotesque and visceral, simultaneously surreal and achingly familiar—and, yes, there are bunnies, both real and, like, too real.
With Bunny, Awad—whose debut novel was the similarly incisive 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which she wrote while getting her MFA at Brown University—has taken on two well-visited literary topics—mean girl cliques and college life—and blended them to come up with something new and disturbing. Set in an unnamed town that bears an uncanny resemblance to Providence, Rhode Island, and more specifically at Warren University (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Brown), Bunny centers around the experience of Samantha Mackey, a fiction MFA student who feels alienated from all the other girls in her program, whom she thinks of collectively as the Bunnies, since they all call each other "Bunny." (Samantha has her own nicknames for the four girls: the Duchess, Cupcake, Creepy Doll, and Vignette.) There are other reasons Samantha feels left out: She's a scholarship student, for one, and there's a new chill between her and the Lion, her former favorite professor. But everything changes for Samantha once the Bunnies invite her into their clique, revealing just what it is that has cemented their bond with one another, and offering Samantha a chance to bond herself to them, forever.
Revealing much more than that would risk spoiling the many stomach-lurching, visceral surprises within Awad's book, but suffice to say, it goes to wholly unexpected places, warping reality just enough so that readers can come to their own new understanding of the truth.
Below, I speak with Awad about why school is such a scary place, the allure of mean girls, and whether or not anyone should get an MFA.
Anyone who's read The Secret History knows that the liberal arts experience offers a pretty specific feeling of seclusion and the intensity of really being able to be allowed and encouraged to be in your own head like none other. So: Why is school such a scary place?
If you're an imaginative person, if you're a sensitive person, I feel like it's a dangerous place to be. It's a wondrous and exciting place to be, and that's the beautiful thing. And, that's why I think there's a lot of magic in the book, because I do think the imagination can be so magical. It can be so transformative to occupy that landscape for a little while as a creative person. But it is scary. I mean, you can go down some dark roads in your mind, and if you're in your own world, you're the center. You're the one who's kind of determining the rules of the world, so you can kind of create your own nightmare if you want to. And the potential for that, in a creative place, is really exciting to me. Especially in a secluded environment and an insular environment, like the one you have in an MFA.
Where did your writing take you in Bunny that surprised you most?
I just initially was really excited by the notion of a clique, and that's something I was interested in 13 Ways, just kind of the way women are with each other. And I started with that, and I started with the idea that there was this character who was an outsider, who was not really a part of that. Because cliques tend to form in these communities pretty easily, because it is so insular—it is so secluded that I think it just breeds community. But the community can be very, very intimate.
So I had that in my head, but the rest honestly, I just let myself be surprised. And I just kind of followed the characters' perspectives, and it led me down these very, very surprising roads in terms of plot. I did have some fairy tales in my head that I was playing with that I knew I wanted to bring in… Beauty and the Beast, for example, and Cinderella. But, apart from that, I just kind of let myself go down the rabbit hole so to speak.
Beyond the fantastical elements, there are also so many real issues that are addressed in Bunny. Like, the differences in what it means to be coming from a different economic background than your fellow students, for example, and dealing with the amorphous boundaries between a student and a professor. Was dealing with those issues very conscious, or was it also something that just happened in kind of an intuitive way?
I think some of it was intuitive, but I think the class difference was something that I was consciously cultivating and aware of, just because there is such a class disparity in a lot of these university towns. And it does kind of create the unsettling atmosphere that, to me anyway in my own experience of being in these kinds of communities, is a little bit prolific. It is disturbing, and I wanted to amp that up, and make it even more gothic, just for fun and for drama. But the class disparity is important, too, because the main character is an outsider, and there's a number of different ways in which she is an outsider, but I think the class difference is important in terms of where she's situated in relation to the majority of the students at that particular school because it's an Ivy League school. And those class disparities exist in these schools. I saw them firsthand at Brown, and I saw them at the University of Denver, and it felt important to write about that.
Even without knowing that you went to Brown, it would be very easy to deduce what Warren University is similar to. What kind of truths do you think you were able to get at, more specifically, by setting up a parallel world?
Well, emotional truths. Which, I think, is kind of what fairy tales sort of explore. They help us navigate rites of passage and important moments of transformation in our lives—courtship, marriage, birth, those kinds of things. And so for me, creating that parallel world of Warren and this unnamed town that, yes, definitely bears a lot of resemblance to Providence, allowed me to give me permission to blow it up as much as I wanted. All the little things that were inspiring to me about it—like, those class differences, the weird tensions between the university community and the community of the actual city—those things that I found very jarring, contributed to my sense of unease there. I could totally have fun with and just explode into horror and magic. And also the MFA community itself. Like the insularity of it, you know? The intimacy that it cultivates, it's very immediate and the dangers of that kind of intimacy when you're being creative together.
Let's talk about the Bunnies: There's the Duchess and Creepy Doll, did you just have the greatest time making the names?
I had the greatest time making the names.
What do you think the continued allure is of a group of girls like this, who are really tightly knit, who assert their dominance over whoever's around them? Why do we crave that specific dynamic?
Because it's so weird. And there are so many different kinds of power dynamics inside, and they're always shifting—they're always shifting. And I feel like, in a tight clique, when you're an outsider, you know where you stand. But when you're inside, you don't know where you stand. That's always changing, and so it can be very disorienting, I think. There's a lot of potential for great connection, but there's a lot of potential for alienation, and it's all unspoken. There's always that tension.
The mean girls are just, yeah. I mean, they're legendary, and I don't think it ever stops. Like those cliques are there no matter how old you get. There's a high school quality to almost any kind of group that humans find themselves in.
Were there any aspects related to this kind of dynamic that surprised you? Or led to any revelations about what it means to be ensconced in a situation like this?
I didn't realize how deeply in Samantha would get with the Bunnies. It surprised me how much she felt compelled by them, as well as being kind of repulsed by them. Like, it was a very shifting kind of feeling, but the spectrum of her feelings was much more vast than I initially thought. And so when she gets completely drawn in and her voice becomes indistinguishable [from what it had been], that was very surprising, but it felt very right. Of course, this happens, this makes absolute sense. The Bunnies are, as adorable as they are, monstrous. And there is something monstrous about being adorable, because it's seductive. It has a power. And you're not yourself under that power.
No, but you can become, or think you're becoming, something different and better. Like, you feel like by succumbing to the group, you're gaining a new kind of power.
Her vulnerability and her loneliness being the place from which, I think, she responds to the Bunnies and she's drawn to them and she wants to be included. I think we all want to be included and desire to be included, but that desire to be included can compromise your identity. It can reveal things about you that you don't necessarily want to face, but I think it can also change you in really powerful and maybe frightening ways.
One other way you look at the power of the clique is by examining it through the lens of an MFA program. Was that really fun? And, not that this book is intended to be sort of an indictment or anything of MFA programs, but also, did it feel necessary to offer up this fictionalized critique? Are you worried you're going to scare people off from MFA programs now?
[Laughs] I am a little bit worried, and there is a critique in Bunny for sure about what can happen in a workshop and what can happen in an MFA program, what can happen when you throw a room of writers together. They're each coming in with their own agendas, their own insecurities, their own social dynamics between each other, and all of that is informing the conversation. And, how much of that is coming through in the comments? And how much of that is really useful when you're taking in critique about your own work? It's questionable how useful it is and it's funny. It's very funny to me. I mean people are just funny when they talk to each other and when they give each other feedback, in general. Because they reveal so much about themselves in their feedback. I mean I do it too, right? I couldn't not make fun of that, because I just think it's hilarious.
Are MFAs kind of, I don't know, problematic? I think they kind of are. I mean, I'm a product of the system. I wrote 13 Ways as a result of my MFA. I did have a great workshop, so they were very supportive of my book. And I wrote Bunny in a graduate school setting [while getting my Ph.D.], and they were also very supportive. But I see a lot of potential for somebody to kind of fall down a rabbit hole, I really do. If you go in without a project, I think it can be very easy to get lost. I think if it's unfunded and you leave with debt and maybe not a manuscript at the end and maybe even a confused sense of what's working and what's not in your writing, there's a problem with it. So I think Bunny is kind of raising those issues. I also think it can be the right thing depending on what kind of writer you are, where you are in your career, where you are with your manuscript, and how much support you have, you know? And whether the community is one that you actually… whether they're actually your community. And that's a hard thing to gauge from the outside.
Bunny is available for purchase, here.
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