Rooms of their own
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“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” So said Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1928, where she was giving a blistering lecture on why a woman couldn’t have written the 1,225-page War and Peace. Women, she argued, simply didn’t have the space, time, autonomy or respect to be permitted entry into the male canon.
Nearly a century on, Woolf would surely be excited to discover the sheer volume of women commanding literary space. Bookshelves are stuffed with spines bearing female names; this fresh literary talent are not just reclaiming the narrative of female identity, but reframing it entirely. They are also dominating the bestseller lists – fitting, given the fact that women readers now far outnumber men. “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” wrote Woolf back then. In 2022, that is finally proving true.
Today’s women do have rooms of their own, and these have become a place of fascination. So sacred is the writing room, in fact, that the room itself has become part of the story.
Photographed in Tokyo by Sybilla Patrizia
For as long as she can remember, Mieko Kawakami has thought a lot about dying. “It always made it hard for me to wish people a happy birthday,” says the Japanese author. “I couldn’t conceive of ‘celebrating’ being one year closer to death.”
The author’s first full-length novel in English, Breasts and Eggs, sold more than 250,000 copies globally and catapulted her to literary sensation status overnight. In March, she was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize for Heaven. With such macabre preoccupations, one might imagine her writing room to be a cavern. But her office is, in fact, the antithesis of dark. Situated in a Tokyo apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, her writing space is filled with plush velvet curtains, frilly pink cushions and rugs, and vase upon vase of fresh peonies; even her side table is whimsically petal-shaped.
True to style, she sees a poetic decay even in these girlish furnishings. “The flowers on my desk remind me of people that I’ve lost,” she says of the pink and pastelly arrangements in situ alongside the Astier de Villatte candles and room sprays by Diptyque. Most of her objects have an emotional resonance. “I bought a mug with a flower design recently, one that looks a lot like the one my grandma used when we lived together,” she says. “Every time I notice it, my heart aches a little. I feel myself wanting to tell her to wait for me, that I’ll be there with her eventually. I really loved my grandma.”
Kawakami is a philosopher as much as a poet, and her candid world view bursts from the pages of her books. Life is endured by her characters, yet it’s told via a breezy, oft-deadpan prose, both deliciously childlike in its detail and devastating in its facts. In Breasts and Eggs – a portrait of contemporary womanhood in Tokyo – we meet Natsuko, a 30-year-old asexual who wants a baby; her older sister Makiko, an ageing waitress who becomes obsessed with breast implants; and Midoriko, a voluntary mute. Upon its release, Shintaro Ishihara, the then-governor of Tokyo, described it as “unpleasant and intolerable”, yet fellow author Haruki Murakami called it “breathtaking”. In her new novel, released on 12 May, All The Lovers In the Night (Picador, £14.99), we meet the lonely copy editor Fuyuko, who lives her life through other people’s stories; she refers to herself as “the dictionary definition of a miserable person”.
Juggling writing alongside parenting – she’s married to fellow author Kazushige Abe, with whom she has a young son – Kawakami writes for three hours a day. “There are always deadlines to meet for essays and columns, not to mention the Japanese translation of the Peter Rabbit series I’m working on,” she says; a stuffed toy of Beatrix Potter’s bunny sits opposite her desk. She tackles her schedule like a military operation. “I do all my writing work in a little, solid block of time, then take care of the housework, and then go back over the day’s writing on my phone and make notes for revisions before I go to sleep.” She keeps assorted notebooks to hand, decorated with delicate flowers. “The next day starts with working those revisions in.”
Her surroundings inspire her deeply. “I’ll be gone some day, and all that will be left of me will be my things,” she says. “Having those reminders around me make me want to keep writing while I’m still here… No matter how long your soul wants to live, you can only go on as long as your body lets you – it’s a limited resource.”
Photographed in New York by Timothy O’Connell
Torrey Peters admits that she “fetishises” her writing routine. In 2021, the Brooklyn-based author published Detransition, Baby (Profile Books £8.99), a razor-sharp domestic tale that follows a complicated love triangle between a trans woman named Reese, her ex-partner Ames and his pregnant girlfriend, Kristina. While writing it, she spent whole days building ergonomic keyboards or fixing up a secondhand leather office chair in a bid to bolster productivity; naturally, the bookshelves in her office are meticulously colour-coordinated. And yet stopping taking Adderall, the ADHD drug, has thus far proved the most effective shift in her literary ritual. Being sleepy when beginning writing “silences my inner critic”, explains Peters, 40, who last year became the first trans novelist to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for fiction.
She now takes up residency at her desk, by candlelight, at around 5.30am. To make the most of her office window she has positioned her desk so she can soak up the view. “I see the sunrise perfectly reflected off the glass skyscrapers going up along the river, and that is its own, very New York-specific sort of beauty,” she says. “When I start working early, I write things that I wouldn’t if all my defences were up; I discover the emotional core of what I want to say.”
Detransition, Baby is a rollercoaster of a novel that begins with Ames proposing that he, Reese and Kristina bring up the baby; Ames accidentally got Kristina pregnant after detransitioning. (Formerly James, he became Amy, then Ames.) “I wanted to mine what it meant to be a family,” says Peters, who transitioned in her early 30s. “The question of motherhood for me is never just between me and a baby, or me and a man. There’s always another woman somewhere that I have to reckon with.”
Funny yet frank, the novel is littered with truths that interrogate the spectrum of gender and sexuality. It also allows Peters to confront major taboos. “Detransitioning is so often weaponised,” she says. “Often people detransition because life as a trans person is very difficult” – not because, as some have suggested, transness is experimentalism or a sexual fetish (though the book explores those, too). Peters is currently adapting it into a sitcom screenplay, using multiple computer screens and a whiteboard to help her plot out scenes – it’s been picked up by the producers of Gray’s Anatomy.
“Representation matters,” she argues, because it “inevitably creates empathy… In reading, you become these characters that are different from you.” She now splits her writing time between Brooklyn and an off-grid cabin in Vermont, situated in a forest with no road access. She installed solar panels to charge her laptop, but it has no wifi, which is beneficial, she says – “except when I need to use Google”.
Torrey Peters’ UK book tour begins in London on 20 May; she will be in conversation with the British trans writer Shon Faye
Photographed in London by Antonia Adomako
Such is the gut-punching power of Megan Nolan’s literary debut Acts of Desperation (Vintage, £8.99) that one of the most searched terms when you Google the title is: “Is it autobiographical?” At just 31, the Irish author and journalist, who lives with her cat in a basement apartment in south-east London, has fast become a voice of her generation thanks to her uncanny ability to elucidate millennial emotions, anxieties and experiences.
“The feelings are real,” says Nolan, of the toxic relationship depicted between its unnamed twentysomething narrator and the enigmatic yet emotionally unavailable Ciaran. “The way she’s at sea and looking for validation is clearly based on what I’ve felt.”
So difficult were those feelings to put down on paper, in fact, that Nolan says she often had to “trick” herself into mentally revisiting them by pouring herself a glass of wine; she wrote much of the novel late into the night. “If I tried at 9am to sit at my desk and write it in a really normal way, I just couldn’t get into it,” she says. “I procrastinated writing the high-drama bits a lot, so I’d try to start them in a way that didn’t feel horrible.” She often works on journalistic features from cafés, but her novels – “the more vulnerable stuff” – she did exclusively at home. Her office, which doubles up as a guest room with a pull-out sofa bed, is filled with personal photographs, sentimental objects and books by favourite authors; it is otherwise immaculate.
Sitting on the green couch from which she often writes, Nolan is as confessional, wry and astute in person as she is in prose. During the pandemic, she criticised the government’s focus on defined relationships, when physical contact of any kind became illegal for uncoupled people. She wrote about missing casual sex: the story went viral, and she was chided for her flippancy. “It’s an indication of how little people want to think about those [things] outside the structures of relationship, marriage and kids,” she says. While her novel writing often takes her into the twilight hours – she is currently writing a familial crime drama set in 1990s London – she sticks to a more sociable 11-5 schedule for her journalistic work.
Nolan’s writing speaks to her peers, but the basis of it – love, loneliness and loss – transcends. “The existential need to situate yourself is beyond time,” she says. “It’s not remarkable to write about sex as a woman. What’s remarkable is that it’s going mass.”
Photographed in London by Antonia Adomako
Hafsa Zayyan’s life has been a whirlwind since she first put pen to paper. In 2019, the London-based author was co-winner of the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize – a publishing deal launched by the British rapper Stormzy and Penguin Random House – for her first novel We Are All Birds of Uganda (Merky Books, £8.99). It tells the true story of the expulsion of Uganda’s 80,000-strong Asian community, and draws on the experiences of her husband’s family who were part of that specific south Asian diaspora. Back then, she was working as a lawyer in the City, snatching time to write while on her lunch breaks or on the London Underground.
“I didn’t waste a single second,” says Zayyan, 32, a Cambridge graduate who won the competition having submitted just five chapters. She admits she never gave much thought to the importance of a writer’s space before; unlike her day job, the perks of writing were that she could do it from anywhere. Often, that included tapping chapters into Notes on her iPhone.
Since then, Zayyan has had her first baby. The literary critic Cyril Connolly once suggested that female creatives were stifled by “the pram in the hallway”, but in her case, this is not true at all. While her parental duties are inescapable – a buggy, high chair and toys are in her eyeline when she’s perched at the kitchen table, which is currently her writing desk – Zayyan thinks motherhood has given her a creative boost. “It opened up a whole new world of feeling and empathy,” she says. “I’ve begun experimenting with how I can express this in my writing.”
Zayyan finds focus in her peripheral vision. She says the orchids, tomato plants and herbs on the table put her in a calm, writerly headspace; while penning her debut, she pinned timelines and family trees to the wall to help her follow her complex narratives. She also makes sure works by Toni Morrison and JG Farrell are easily grabbable. “If ever I get stuck, I read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or something brilliant,” she says. “It makes me want to evoke the feeling in somebody else that those words evoked in me.”
Photographed in Madrid by Guillermo de la Torre
As a child, Brenda Navarro had an overactive imagination. Growing up in the suburbs of Mexico City, she “spent a lot of time daydreaming”, and preferred to play alone so that she could “tell stories to my dolls”. Yet when it comes to her writing, she decides not to envisage whole new worlds at all. With only a self-curated Spotify playlist to get her in the zone, the 40-year-old author, who now lives in Madrid, offers up versions of reality much closer to home. Empty Houses, her debut novel (Daunt Books, £9.99), is set against the backdrop of Mexico’s war on drugs; her new release, Ceniza en la Boca (Ash in the Mouth) focuses on Ulysses syndrome – a chronic stress disorder that affects immigrants.
For Navarro, the notion of home is an intimate and emotional idea rather than a tangible place: “I can write anywhere: the living room, my bed or the kitchen work surface,” says the author, who describes herself as a nomad. “When I dream of physical spaces to write, I always envisage a chair by a sea or a lake, with a good battery for my laptop.”
The thing that grounds her is her headphones: “As soon as I put them on, my brain is in writing mode.” Her music – streamed on loop to lull away background noise without distracting – changes depending on the tenor of her work. “I have to totally focus while I have time to write, which could be an hour or four,” she says; she fits it in around parenting. Her room of her own is simply solitude: “Writer’s block is a thing for men with time.”
The first track on Navarro’s Empty Houses playlist was Radical Face’s 2007 hit “Welcome Home, Son”. Its themes are prevalent in the book, which tells the tale of a stolen toddler, Daniel, abducted at the park while his married mother is being broken up with by her lover over text. Between 2005 and 2013, 86,000 people disappeared in Mexico; Navarro found inspiration in the nation’s collective pain. “Society was in a state of constant shock,” she says. “How [could] the mothers of those who disappeared carry on living? How could they wake up not knowing where their child is? That’s the hardest thing to endure as a human being.”
In 2016, Navarro established #EnjambreLiterario, a female literary group that pushes for broader representation on the shelf. “Usually, our books are not in the same sections as those who write in English,” she says. “But where a book sits has an impact on royalties or printing numbers.” She is happy, though, that the industry “has woken up to the fact that female readers are the highest percentage of book buyers. Women want to see themselves represented… It doesn’t matter if [we’re writing about] chocolates or feminism.” What matters is that female authors have autonomy to write about whatever they want. “We don’t want a slice of the patriarchy cake, we want a different cake, and that’s exciting,” she says.