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Mona Awad.

Mona Awad, who won the First Novel Award for her book 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, almost didn't make it to Toronto for Thursday night's ceremony.

"Getting here was an adventure," she told the crowd which had gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel for the event. Awad, who was born in Montreal and has lived in the United States for more than a decade (she is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver) experienced "serious passport trouble" before leaving; her plane "lost power and control and we just started descending. So that was also something. And then I was randomly selected to be searched along with a number of other Arabs. So that was an experience. And then, of course there was the matter of writing the book."

The book, a collection of linked short-stories that probe a woman's struggles with body image and identity, was published earlier this year to critical acclaim.

In conjunction with the award's 40th anniversary, the winner's purse was increased to $40,000, making it one of the most lucrative fiction prizes in Canada.

"When I was writing the book, frankly, I never thought it would see the light of day," Awad said in an interview just after accepting the prize. "So these moments are very surreal for me."

"I think as an emerging writer it's just an incredible opportunity to get visibility," she added.

At 37, she was this year's youngest nominee. The other finalists were Elizabeth Philips for The Afterlife of Birds; W. Mark Giles for Seep; Aaron Cully Drake for Do You Think This is Strange?; Karim Alrawi for Book of Sands; and Judith McCormack for Backspring. They each received $4,000.

The finalists were selected by Russell Brown, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, while the winner was chosen by Prof. Brown, author Gurjinder Basran and Nick Mount, a University of Toronto professor and the fiction editor of The Walrus magazine.

In a review, Globe Books columnist Stacey May Fowles wrote that "the book depicts what it's like to endure a mandated pursuit of thinness, unapologetically facing our toxic, body-image obsessed culture head-on. It's also a very accurate portrayal of how hating the way you look affects your psyche over time, making for an uncomfortable and at times disturbing read. Beautifully told, with a profoundly sensitive understanding of the subject matter, it's clear that all of the anticipation for this particular fiction debut was entirely warranted."

In an interview with The Globe from earlier this year, Awad said she wanted to write the book "to challenge and complicate our notion of what fat is. To say all the things I wanted to say about body image and how deeply it can affect and shape various aspects of our lives. To tell stories that I wanted desperately to tell and to read that didn't exist."

Previous winners of the prize include Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Joseph Boyden, and Alix Hawley, who won last year's prize for her novel All True Not A Lie In It.