‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

When I was at university in London, someone discovered that Virginia Woolf had attended the ladies’ department that was attached to the institution, before women were allowed to participate in traditional academia. We were taken to an archive to see the list of courses that had been offered to women at the time. I marvelled at the curls of Woolf’s name written in her own hand, registering her interest in bicycle lessons.

The university claimed Woolf as their own, naming a building after her and displaying a picture of her outside of the main entrance. This felt insincere to me, as the doors of the university had not actually opened to her, on account of her gender. I was a young woman in the future, where things were different. I was the first person in my family to pass through the doors of a university, yet I didn’t feel as if I was fully able to enter. The university was elite and I felt dirty and cheap. There were many kinds of people who were not given permission to pass through those doors and I felt that acutely as I sat on the wall beneath the picture of Woolf, smoking a cigarette, clutching at being cool.

I threw myself into the hard, fast city, trying to outrun my beginnings. I read Woolf for the first time and her dense, psychological prose unravelled a tight knot inside of me. When I found ‘A Room of One’s Own’ I knew that was what I needed. I had given up the place I came from in pursuit of freedom and there wasn’t anywhere in the world that felt like it belonged to me.

I have lived in many rooms since then (21 and counting) and the necessity of a space in the world that feels like my own, an anchor from which to write, has become increasingly important. Yet, rooms aren’t always physical spaces. These stories have functioned as places for me to inhabit, too. I have passed through each of these rooms at different times in my life; they opened their doors and offered me safety, refuge, or a push elsewhere when I needed it.

First published by Hogarth Press, September 1929, and widely available today

‘A Better Way to Live’ by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy’s short stories are controlled and precise, while retaining a surreal, dream-like quality. I continue to learn so much from her use of symbols; an object, person or animal in her work often holds multiple layers of meaning. She returns to them again and again, showing them to the reader from different angles, holding them up to the light to illuminate their contradictions.

‘A Better Way to Live’ is one of my favourite short stories because it demonstrates Levy’s skill with such finesse. It explores family, relationships, place, identity, yearning and what it means to want more for yourself, all within nine pages. Many of Levy’s characters are searching for the right way to live, or a for a life that feels true and authentic, while also accepting that they have made choices which have led them down particular paths. The protagonist’s mother tells him, “Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better way to live.”

First published in Black Vodka by Deborah Levy, And Other Stories, 2013

My Life in a Column by Tracey Emin

During my time at university, I went to see a retrospective of Tracey Emin’s work called ‘Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward Gallery. I didn’t know much about her beforehand, only that she did what she wanted and caused a stir, which was the kind of woman I wanted to be. As I walked around the gallery, looking at her searing neons, appliquéd blankets and trembling monoprints, my connection to her work felt immediate and visceral. It was the first time I’d seen art that felt as though it was speaking directly to me. I didn’t know that it was possible to tell the story of your own life like that; to take the hurt and the dreams caught beneath your skin and make them visible. Tracey pulled her shame from her mouth like a thread of light and hung it on the gallery walls for everyone to see.

I bought a book-length collection of the column she wrote for the Independent from 2005-2009 from the gallery bookshop. She described dancing by the jukebox in her favourite East-End pub, and in a curious twist of fate, I ended up working there. The landlady had nurtured young artists in the 90s, when they set up studios in old Shoreditch buildings, and she and Tracey remained good friends.

In her columns, Emin writes about whatever is happening in her life; the art she is making, her dreams, her friends, heartbreak, ruminations on time and people she has lost. My favourite pieces are the ones in which she writes a version of London that I recognise. We lived worlds apart and yet our lives occasionally intersected on certain streets and in the pub. We knew and loved some of the same people. It is possible to pick one of her pieces at random and gain access to her world, but the collection as a whole forms a record of a woman at a specific point in time, marrying her life and artistic career. The columns helped guide me towards my own path, and so it feels difficult to choose one in isolation.

Working at the pub was a heady, exhausting time in my life; I did long shifts and navigated the landlady’s unpredictable moods. Tracey and her friends were not always kind to me, and I felt hurt by her disinterest, because her work spoke to me so intimately. Yet, the proximity to art and glamour felt like worlds away from the place I had come from, and the pub became the first home I made on my own terms, in the life I was building for myself, which was the life that I wanted. It could be cruel and difficult, but I was happy to pay that cost to spend my days around people who had built their own lives too.

Rizzoli International, 2011. Her column for the Independent is available online here

‘Joy’ by Zadie Smith

In this essay, Zadie Smith makes a distinction between joy and pleasure, in a bid to understand what we mean when we talk about joy. She defines it as, “the strange admixture of terror, pain and delight.” To Smith, pleasure is something that makes us feel good in a simple way, whereas joy depends on risk, or a proximity to pain. She quotes the writer Julian Barnes, who received a letter of condolence from a friend, who told him, “It hurts just as much as it is worth”. It is an essay which feels true and an urgent prompt to consider your own pleasures and joys and work out why they matter to you.

First published in The New York Review of Books, 2013 and collected in Feel Free, Hamish Hamilton, 2018. Available online here

‘You, Very Young in New York’ by Hannah Sullivan

When I was 19, I was given the opportunity to spend a year studying in California. It was the first time I had ever been on a long-haul flight and nothing seemed real when I stepped off the plane. I looked at the long, straight roads stretching into the distance and the acid-green palm trees against a fluorescent blue sky and felt that I could be anyone I wanted there, which was anyone but me.

‘You, Very Young in New York’ captures that tangle of youth, longing and possibility. In America, none of my actions felt as if they had any consequences; I lived purely in the present. I chased the illusion of limitlessness, as if every possibility in the world was open and anything could happen, to counteract the way I felt in London, of doors being closed because I didn’t have any money, or lineage, or cultural capital; as if everything about me was wrong.

This poem encapsulates that feeling; of being young and out of place in a big city, feeling a sense of possibility and a hunger to do something with it, while also being dimly aware of your own limitations. It holds the bruised longing of waiting for something important to happen to you and the stinging realisation that perhaps you aren’t important at all.

“You stand around
On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed
Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress
With one arm raised
waiting to get older.”

First published in Three Poems, Faber, 2018. A recording of Hannah Sullivan reading the poem is available online here

‘The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes and Visible Desperation’ by Ocean Vuong

This early piece by Ocean Vuong uses the symbol of a fire escape clinging to the outside of a New York building to consider our relationship to danger, fear and hope. Through the lens of his uncle’s suicide, he considers what it means to be able to communicate that which is unsayable, and the role of art and writing in providing a language which can pull us out of the dark. He writes, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world, says Wittgenstein. And if we continue to censor our most vital dialogues, our world can only grow smaller. And here, the poem does not necessitate admittance to anyone’s dinner table. It speaks to whomever chooses to listen, whomever needs it. But mostly, it avoids the easy answers, the limited and stunted, convenient closures.”

First published in The Rumpus, 2014. Available online here

‘The Insect World’ by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys writes so beautifully about the sadness and loneliness beneath the façades of cities. In my early 20s, I spent a year living in Paris, working as a nanny and an English tutor. I had very little money, and I rented a tiny attic room on the outskirts of the city, which didn’t have a shower or hot water. At that time, a romantic view of the world was a mode of survival; I read Jean Rhys and imagined her moving from café to café in her fur coat, looking for something or someone to lift her out of herself, not knowing where her next meal would come from.

Yet, I also learned that romanticism is a fallacy, which is evident in Rhys’ work. A cramped attic in Paris sounds romantic on paper, but when you’re cold, hungry and dirty, it is simply disempowering. The women in Rhys’ books are angry, hurt and disillusioned; they want frivolous things like nice dresses and glasses of wine, yet Rhys shows us that these things aren’t really flippant; they are symbols of desire caught in a complex intersection of gender, capitalism and need.

In, ‘The Insect World’, Rhys writes, “almost any book was better than life, Audrey thought. Or at least, life as she was living it”, which encapsulates how it feels to be caught in a difficult reality and attempting to dream your way out of it. She writes about the desire for transcendence or elation, to be lifted out of oneself for a moment, before crashing back into the cold, hard reality of your own circumstances and a life trapped within your own skin.

First published in The Sunday Times Magazine, 19 August 1973, and collected in Sleep it Off, Lady, André Deutsch, 1976. Also available in the Collected Stories, WW Norton, 1987 and then Penguin Modern Classics, 2017, and in the Penguin 60 Let Them Call it Jazz, 1995

‘The longform patriarchs and their accomplices’ by Bernadine Evaristo

Bernadine Evaristo’s 2020 Goldsmiths prize lecture is a manifesto for the future of literature. She deconstructs the literary canon through a revised history of the novel, from oral storytelling in Africa to the gatekeepers of the contemporary publishing world. She writes about the necessity of decolonising the curriculum and expanding our idea of ‘literature’ which has traditionally been published by the elite. She writes that, “the novel is thriving because of the fresh perspectives and narratives infusing it with new ideas, stories, cultures, life” and examines what it would mean for our bookshelves to be truly inclusive. This is a searing, timely essay which deserves a place on every university reading list.

New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize lecture, October 2020. Available online here

‘My Jockey’ by Lucia Berlin

I moved to Donegal on the north-west coast of Ireland to write my first novel. I had been living in a London houseshare, juggling multiple jobs, so when my grandad died, leaving an empty cottage in Donegal, I decided to go there to find time and space to write. The house is in a remote fishing village and I cannot drive. I tutored a local student and cycled to the library every day. The experience was transformative; the landscape is wild and storm-wracked and I finally had a room of my own. I had very little money and no internet connection but I read and read, studying the shapes of novels and working out what kind of writer I might be.

My first novel, Saltwater, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, told through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. It is partly about northern, working-class identity, which I hadn’t often seen represented in literary novels. A Manual for Cleaning Women is a collection of short stories about women working all kinds of menial jobs, trying to find their way through the world. The title references the cleaning women that Berlin writes about, but it also centres working-class women as the readers of the anthology; these stories are about us and also for us, which felt radical to me as a working-class woman trying to write my own story, prompting me to consider whom we assume writing is for.

‘My Jockey’ is a short, piercing story which demonstrates Berlin’s power. It is told from the perspective of a woman working in the emergency department of a hospital, looking after a jockey who arrives with broken bones. The piece explores power, gender roles, loneliness, motherhood and the fragility of the human body in Berlin’s stark, direct prose.

First published in Home Sick: New and Selected Stories, Black Sparrow, 1991; also in A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Picador, 2016

‘Smote (Or When I Cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)’ by Eley Williams

I read this story on Durdle Door beach, my back pressed against warm limestone and my bare feet pushed into the pebbles. I had recently fallen in love and everything in my life was shifting. There was nothing to hold onto and it felt destabilising, yet thrilling, to be moving somewhere new. This story captures something of that feeling, while also exploring language, images, art-making and the politics of queer desire. Williams deconstructs narrative using innovative, exciting forms and her writing makes the world of ideas feel expansive.

“and you stark me
and I am strobe-hearted.”

First published in The White Review online, 2015 and collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Life on Mars’ by David Bowie

Of course, this is a song, but it is also a story, and a room that allowed me to glimpse a different kind of world to the one I grew up in. I first encountered Bowie at 13, when I heard ‘Life on Mars’ on a television advert for home insurance. I had never encountered anything like his voice, or his lyrics, or those unsettling minor chord changes. When I saw a picture of Ziggy Stardust in his skin-tight spangled jumpsuit I downloaded his entire back catalogue and listened to it on the bus to school, watching the terraced houses and kebab shops blur into grey through the window, dreaming of a glamorous, dazzling life. My father wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but my mother told me that he also loved Bowie and I felt that the music connected us, pulling us closer together.

The day Bowie died, I went to Brixton. Hundreds of people thronged the streets, wielding guitars and cans of beer. The Ritzy cinema wrote, ‘David Bowie: Our Brixton Boy’ across their letterboard and people painted murals on the streets. Bowie had always felt like my secret, despite his fame, and it was humbling to see the effect he had on so many others. A man climbed on top of a van with a guitar, lit by an orange streetlight. He played ‘Life on Mars’ and the whole crowd sang along with him. The song was my story, but it was also the story of so many other people too, which is one of the best things that literature can do.

Released on Hunky Dory, RCA Records, 1971. You can listen to it here

‘Cleanness’ by Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell is one of the best writers of sex, desire and emotion working today. He imbues each moment of intimacy between his characters with contrasting feelings of admiration, disgust, control and oblivion, which feel true to life. ‘Cleanness’ examines what it means to be clean, pure, debauched or dirty, what it means to want another person and the insubstantiality of both relationships and our own lives. His use of language is sharp and charged with feeling: “I thought, however slowly, nothing was solid, nothing would stay put, and I held on more tightly to R…I wanted to root into him, even as the wind said all rootedness was a sham, there were only passing arrangements, makeshift shelters and pearl harbours.” It is a masterful piece of short fiction that reminds me of the feeling of possibility that good writing creates.

Published in Cleanness, Picador, 2020