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Archive for August 2nd, 2022

Adriana Varga of Nevada State University delivered a paper at this year’s Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, part of a panel on “Feminist Spaces.” Her title was “Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: Ethical and Aesthetic Affinities in the Age of Brexit and the British Housing Crisis.”

The novel she discussed, Three Rooms, is, as Adriana pointed out, as applicable to the U.S. today as to Britain (now more than ever, I would add), in its emphasis not only on unaffordable housing and insufficient employment, but on sexism and racism, disinformation in social media.

Paying homage to Woolf

From the epigraph to the last page, Hanya pays homage to Woolf and makes connections to A Room of One’s Own, starting with three quotes in the epigraph, the third of which reads: “Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives.”

The first-person narrator is a young middle-class woman of color who has a temporary position as a postdoctoral research assistant. She lives in a furnished room in an Oxford house that once had been the residence of Walter and Clara Pater. The blue plaque outside reminds her daily that she occupies borrowed space. A housemate asks if she’s read “this Pater chap,” and she replies that she has, and that his sister was impressive too: “She dealt in languages, taught Greek to Virginia Woolf so that Woolf might hear the birds better.”

Punctuated by quotes from Woolf, Pater, Yeats, and others, the narrator’s day to day life is dominated by place and race, politics and economics.

In England, there was no question of home: depending on who you were, it was either always there, or not. It all worked by empire, by assumption. An orphan girl could advertise and inherit another woman’s burnt trove. Orlando found nothing different within themselves in the same mirror, hung within the same ancestral abode.

A student tells her, “The country’s going to hell and I can’t finish my essay … how do I know what matters … the pound hit a twenty-month low … what use was an English degree now that fake news had eliminated the meaning of words anyway?”

Another decries the required reading as dead and lazy:

They had been given Heart of Darkness so that they couldn’t say the course hadn’t covered questions of imperialisim and race. They had been given Mrs. Dalloway so that they couldn’t say the course hadn’t addressed feminism.

When her post ends, she moves to London to work for low pay and tentative status at a prestigious fashion magazine. Unable to afford even a room, she sublets the sofa of a friend of a friend for £80 a month.

Focusing on space

I’ve highlighted the narrator’s travails, but Hamya, in an interview, stresses that her focus is on space rather than character or dialogue. The context is rooms—the narrator’s downward trajectory in contrast to those in power, occupying rooms at Eton and Oxford, chambers in Westminster and country houses—in a climate of right-wing nationalism and the precarity of life for women of color.

When her employment contract isn’t extended, she has no choice but to move back to her parents’ house, into her childhood room, which isn’t hers either—she doesn’t even have house keys. On the train there, she muses about her circumstances and the link between the lack of personal space and her ability to achieve anything: “I had not found a job with which I could afford to put my life in one place.”

I’m grateful to Adriana Vargas for bringing Three Rooms to my attention and for her excellent conference paper.

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