Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf by SINA QUEYRAS

A century ago Virginia Woolf proclaimed that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Woolf’s sweeping statement about modernism carries an arbitrary date that could easily shade into 1911 and beyond. Her shifting of human relations requires a fluid time frame to accompany it. Gone are outmoded unities of time, place, and action, replaced by multiplicity, stream of consciousness, shape shifting, and radical forms of experimentation.

            Sina Queyras’s Rooms would be interesting enough if it dealt only with its author’s biographical details, but in combination with Woolf’s life and works, it is doubly so. Like Woolf, Queyras writes in multiple genres; like Woolf, who refers to her partner Leonard as L., Queyras’s first partner is L. Both writers were abused by older siblings. Woolf lost her London home during the German bombing in World War 2; Queyras goes through several dislocations across Canada. In the end, Woolf filled her pockets with stones and sank in the river; Queyras swims, buoyed by her lover’s “cashmere hands.” While other convergences emerge in the narrative, the differences between the two lives add to the book’s compulsive thrust.

            Rooms alludes to Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she argues that a woman must have an income and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Queyras refers to her precursor’s essay with the acronym AROOO, an abbreviation that expands throughout Rooms. They pluralize rooms and pronouns to give a sense of multifaceted meanings of space and identity. They make rooms for themselves, overcoming the patriarchy of family, society, and academy. Alternating rhythmic alliteration in the subtitle, Women, Writing, Woolf, goes beyond feminism. Queyras’s portrait of and with Woolf may be a postmodern palimpsest, but it is also a swimming beside, where the later writer absorbs the sea swell of Woolf’s waterways. In the first of several epigraphs, Woolf writes: “My only interest as a writer lies … in some queer individuality.” Queyras has other interests, as Rooms subverts hierarchies and swims.

            The “Prologue” begins in 1988 in Parksville, British Columbia, when Queyras first encounters Woolf: “I … was aquatic, song-filled …. swimming through time.” Their song of themselves includes Whitman’s celebratory company: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes,” inhaled across the Americas and Atlantic. Democratic, domestic, lyrical, conceptual, environmental, and upending, Queyras’s vistas vary from British Columbia to Québec. Their trajectories may be submarine within Woolf’s The Waves: “I have lived a thousand lives already. Every day I unbury – I dig up. I find relics of myself in the sand that women made a thousand years ago.” At this millennial unburying they add a thousand and one nights of dreams, demons, and elegies – a digging under and through.

            Rooms engages not only with Woolf, but with the reader as well: “But, you may say, and I do too, no one is asking you to speak about women and fiction, or Virginia Woolf and writing in the twenty-first century, or indeed what it means to have a room of one’s own.” Interchangeable personal pronouns (who are “you”), and coupling of “and/or” create an intimacy and open up choices of layered fluidity. This opening sentence concludes: “—or even what it means to be a woman, a category that has never been simple for me.” Rooms multiplies categories and genres, and breaks them down. Rhythms are achieved through sectional breaks and demotic openings and closings: “Not by a long shot.” The book bridges the long shot between centuries, and between Thompson, Manitoba and Kensington, London. It takes shots at male privilege and snapshots of intimate and roomy settings.

            No sooner does Queyras trace her journey out of the closet to arrive at Malaspina College than she turns her sights to Woolf’s birth in 1882. Her list of Woolf’s accomplishments applies also to herself: they both write equally well in several genres, including non-fiction, memoir, biography, and essay. Both are poets who write prose, philosophers who write fiction, and critics who challenge the form of the novel. Another starting point or turning point for the poet is Lemon Hound, a book of poetry that engages the work of Woolf and Gertrude Stein. Lemon Hound evolved into a blog where the poet’s “houndish alter ego” gained a foothold on the Internet. Triangulation with Woolf and Stein, and the blogging alter ego expanded and channeled the poet’s persona in new directions. This blog hound advances and refurbishes Bloomsbury’s rooms with irony and truth, as ego and alter ego increasingly inhabit AROOO.

            Another of Woolf’s tropes is the semi-transparent envelope where each character is sealed and protected. For the later poet who rejects closure, the envelopes become ambient, sentient, mobile rooms. Piercing yet preserving these envelopes, they make room(s) for others and otherness in the phenomenology of writing desks and open doors. These goals inform the writer’s future, because the past is haunted by demons on staircases where doors had to be bolted. Queyras pushes envelopes and uncovers bell jars in her Lyric Conceptualism.

            As a student, the would-be writer lacked formal training in grammar, so she had to learn other techniques to make her sentences live. Woolf’s words are cells of energy: “They sing. They follow a rhythm, not conventional logic, and yet the rhythm is also logical. Clear. Queer.” The prose is poetic: a simple sentence and rhyming incomplete sentences bracket rhythm and logic. Their song is a room and a swim of one’s own in Woolf’s wake. Rooms supplements AROOO, yet an apprenticeship essay receives a B from Professor Norton whose anger results in his throwing a chair at her across the room. This traumatic event forces the writer to change rooms and eventually chair sessions at conferences. The male is a throwback; the feminist throws back.

            The author progresses from Malaspina College to the University of Victoria. “The scene, if I may ask you to follow me, had changed, and was about to change further, but also not change at all.” The reader willingly follows these changes of locale, but not changes of circumstance where male barriers continue to dog the developing writer in workshops from B.C. to Montréal. Yet the hound writes and bites back.

            Crawl, sidestrokes, backstrokes, and breaststrokes elongate when song swims to painting, and form aligns with content in a grammar of gender: “Though I was beginning to understand the different varieties of sentences and could imagine them like strokes on a canvas, now broad, now thin, now like a continuous line one begins and doesn’t lift one’s pencil up until some marked duration of time passes, creating meaning out of the tension, the resistance of the pencil to the paper, the hand to the mind, the ongoingness versus the desire to draw to a close.” Ongoing resistance is also part of the grammar of gender, an unleashing of sounding hounds in apposition and opposition, an intertexting tug of war across lines.

            Pluralizing pronouns, fluid moods, upending, open-ending, and triangulating are all part of the style and rhythm of Rooms. They recount Woolf’s anti-Semitism towards her husband’s family. Queyras’s philo-Semitism respects Hanukkah, shofar, Torah, and kippah on Yom Kippur – legacies and rituals from her partner. Brimming with insights and ideas, Rooms is a gripping account of the tribulations and triumphs, eco-poetics and erotic pleasure of women’s writing.

            They grew up on the road: roads, rooms, expressways, and the roaming space between. After many detours and directions, a domestic destination, the density of destiny, past Plath ways to Virginia Woolf’s own owning. Their mainstream branches out to extremes of experimental writing, a liminal flow from origins to mouths and mixed genres. Vanessa Place, a writer and legal expert in California, describes this writing as “looking at looking through” – these prepositions supplementing pronouns in the grammar of gender. Queyras is a flâneuse, gazing at and through the gaze itself; also a bricoleuse, repairing rooms and genres; a lemon hound pausing to piece together myriad forms of Lyric Conceptualism; liminal more than minimal, a visitor of places of otherness such as stadiums, courtyards, or reclaimed land.

            On or about May 2022 human character transformed again. Kudos to Coach House for furnishing Rooms with an original view. The words of bpNichol form a pathway to the press. He begins in the pavement with “a lake,” which may be a different waterway – river or arteriole for this book. Remote from expressways, “a lane” leads to a hidden press in the heart of a city, its chambers pumping indoors, while outside the murmur to “a lone” finds company. A lane of one’s own joins Woolf’s Hogarth Press, an ocean and century away.

Sina Queyras is the author of My Ariel, MxT, Expressway, and Lemon Hound, all from Coach House Books. They were born on land belonging to the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and live and teach in Tiohtia:ke (Montreal).

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Coach House Books (May 31 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1552454339
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1552454336

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Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.