Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf – Quill and Quire

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(Credit: Danielle Bobker)

Each chapter of Sina Queyras Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf opens by revisiting the corresponding chapter by Virginia Woolf A room of one’s own. For instance:

But, you will tell me, we asked you to talk about women and fiction – what does that have to do with a room of one’s own? (Wool, Chapter 1)

But, you will say to me, and I do too, no one asks you to talk about women and fiction, or Virginia Woolf and writing in the 21st century, or even what it means to have a room of your own. – or even what it means to be a woman. (Queyras, chapter 1)

This is a bold, even risky strategy. After all, Woolf is “the writer who thinks women around the world have been coming back again and again for a hundred years.” How “could I endure”, wonders Queyras, “even in the shadow of his genius?” Inhabiting Woolf’s own language is not an act of hubris, but a skillful illustration of the central subject of the book: Queyras’ longstanding creative engagement with Woolf’s writing. “Over and over,” Queyras explains, “every time I stray, I go back to Woolf. I go back to his lyrics and realign myself.

Queyras, a writer, poet and lecturer at Concordia University, fears adding to the vast accumulation of writings on Woolf. “Who am I to write this book? They’re worrying. “Surely there’s someone better suited to the project.” Not if: Rooms belongs to the “bibliomemoire” genre (other examples include Rebecca Mead’s My life at the Middlemarch and Nell Stevens Mrs. Gaskell and me), and is therefore a personal project – and not critical or biographical. The Queyras rightly decides that “no other spirit, however brilliant… [is] well suited to describe my own relationship with Woolf.

This relationship begins with an essay on Woolf submitted to Malaspina College in 1988: “The essay may have been entirely flawed, but it contained the most blood I have ever shed. The professor gives her a B, and their heated exchange over her assessment ends with the launch of a volume of the Norton Anthology in Queyras. Like the beadle who warns Woolf of the weed in A room of one’s own, the professor is an enforcer, controlling both academic and genre conventions. Queyras leaves it behind, moving on to creative writing programs at the University of Victoria, UBC, and then Concordia, but “the constant hiss of pain and confusion that only women could hear” persists.

Over the years, the Queyras struggle to define their identity, find their voice and “make a living out of writing”. Although many writers influenced Queyras along the way, including Daphne Marlatt, Constance Rooke and Marilyn French, Woolf remained the touchstone. “How did she manage the self-revelations, radiating at the heart of her text? Queyras asks. “It was this me that interested me.” Queyras acknowledges Woolf’s privilege, snobbery and anti-Semitism, but it’s “the room Woolf built” – a metaphorical and conceptual space that allows others to “lounge in our thought” – that matters in the end. account. In turn, the Queyras aspires to be “a conduit, a portal, a room to cross”.

As a genre, the bibliomemoire promises to illuminate both the autobiographical subject and the literary subject. Rooms does not quite succeed in this double mission. “I can anticipate criticism,” Queyras says. “’She needs Woolf; Woolf doesn’t need her. To some extent, that’s true. Rooms is not particularly illuminating as a book on Woolf, and its argument for the continued relevance of A room of one’s own seems unnecessary given Woolf’s ubiquitous presence in contemporary literary culture, something Queyras amply documents. The presence of Woolf, however, enriches both the life of Queyras and Roomswhich, as a book about Queyras, is an engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes heartbreaking story of personal and artistic development – ​​and ultimately blossoming: “I look in the mirror and see myself emerging.

Rooms is the least compelling as a manifesto on women and writing, as a revision (as these chapter openings point out) of A room of one’s own. It lacks the polemical clarity and rigor of Woolf’s original, and its organizational logic is not always obvious. In A room of one’s ownWoolf’s anger is subsumed in his art; Rooms, on the other hand, is sometimes prickly, defensive or authoritative. Queyras frequently expresses confusion and self-doubt: “It’s only when I say it out loud that I realize that’s what I’m trying to clarify in this book.” This may be strategic, a deliberate denial of Woolf’s magisterial authority, but it may leave the book feeling unfinished, its aims uncertain.

Is that really a problem, though? After all, what kind of “peroration” do you write if you want your room to be an opening rather than an enclosure? “What will the reader feel in my spaces? asks Queyras. “What will they see? Queyras hopes his readers will find what Queyras found in Woolf: freedom and joy.


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