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For a room of one’s own

Janice Pariat | Updated on June 29, 2018 Published on June 29, 2018

Making room for oneself: “I’ve come to realise that I must relinquish the need to be constantly accommodating”   -  ISTOCK.COM

Jane Austen’s small walnut desk spurs important questions about the space women have had to fight for in order to be able to write

Recently, a friend posted a picture on Instagram of Jane Austen’s writing table. What surprised him, and me, was how small the 18th-century walnut tripod was. And yet here she wrote her novels — beloved to so many, scathing in content, exquisite in form. After the Instagram story faded, the image stayed with me. For it wasn’t, of course, just a table. It was Austen’s ‘two inches of ivory’, Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’, Deborah Levy’s writing shed lent to her by a friend — I’ve come to think of these as the spaces women have had to fight for, tooth, nail, and more, for them to write.

Moving house a few months ago, from a singular existence in a barsati to one shared with a partner in a larger apartment, has made me think of space anew. My space. My walnut tripod. It hasn’t been easy; rhythms differed, schedules clashed, chores muddled, and in the midst of it all, I stopped writing. I pushed it away, thinking I must make this work, all this other stuff — the living together, the cohabitation. Because it was not enough, in the last few years, to have crawled out of a broken marriage, made a city a home, had three books published, to enjoy and be good at my teaching job, and yet, not be able to makethisone thing work. If I fail at this, somehow, I’ve failed entirely. Nothing else counts. I was cursed, as Levy says in her memoir Things I don’t Want to Know, “with the desire to not be disappointing.” Disappointing for whom? I’m not sure. Myself? Or as Levy calls it, ‘the Societal System’?

For the last few weeks, though, I have been away in London, visiting several libraries to work on a book. This visit was planned months ago, as a research trip but it has come to mean so much more. For the first time since March, I’ve managed to place my table by the window in the light. The trip has served to remind me that there are certain certainties that allow me to write, on which I cannot, will not, compromise. This has, consequently, pushed me to think about a question I haven’t addressed before: “What do I need in order to write?” And unfortunate as it is, having to add, “being a woman”. The first is rather simple — quietitude, space for reflection, some order in my day, invigorating conversation, a sense of lightness. The second is also easy to answer, but harder to put into practice — I’ve come to realise that I must relinquish the need to be constantly accommodating. To try and sync my schedule to someone else’s. To always have dinner on the table. And groceries that magically never run out. Yet I feel there is more to this, and I’ve been searching for stories of those who have sought to answer this question themselves. Other (women) writers, to quote Joan Didion, trying to “free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves.”

So now I’m armed with two of Levy’s books from her three-part “living autobiography” series — Things I don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living. The first, written as a response to Orwell’s essay “Why I Write”, contains these lines: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about the sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”

In The Cost of Living, also on writing and womanhood, we meet the writer at 50, divorced and adrift. As Kathryn Hughes recognises, in her review in The Guardian, the story, intentionally shorn of names and details, does not belong to Levy alone: “It is the story of every woman throughout history who has expended her love and labour on making a home that turns out to serve the needs of everyone except herself.” It carries a thought that makes me pause, and reread, and hold to my heart — “I moved into a smaller house but my life was much larger.”

Through Levy, I am led to Marguerite Duras’s Practicalities, a collection of 48 transcribed conversations with her friend Jerome Beaujour. Here, in fragmented, elliptical style, she tackles alcoholism, sex, desire, motherhood, and the (woman) writer’s life. Also tucked into my tote is almost the entirety of Didion’s non-fiction works — The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which, uniquely, she spins narratives that weave the personal voice into reportage.

In all, I sense an attempt by the writers to place, finally, themselves at the centre. To recognise themselves as the major character in their own lives. To claim not just the walnut tripod, but the room, the house, the city, and the world within which it is placed.

 

Janice Pariat   -  BLink

 

Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on June 29, 2018
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