Jo Hamya’s debut novel Three Rooms is, at its heart, a book about privilege and space, both of which I’ve never felt luckier to benefit from. It tripped off something in my gut: a sense of futility I’d been feeling against the backdrop of increasingly catastrophic disaster; a sense of gratitude for the spaces, both physical and communal, that have buoyed me through the past year and a half.
Hamya’s narrator is looking for something similar in the spaces she inhabits: it isn’t so simple as belonging, although that’s part of it, but rather a sense that she’ll be able to use these spaces as stepping stones to the lifestyle that’s been promised by a previous generation, even as that promise looks to be increasingly unfulfillable.
Hamya, who has degrees from King’s College London and Oxford, where she studied literature culture, is ideally positioned to comment on the straining and striving of the academic world. We chatted on Zoom about humanities degrees, autofiction, and the quest to find space away from the grind to breathe easy and think and write.
The Rumpus: This is your first published novel. Is this the first novel you wrote?
Jo Hamya: I wrote a really bad book while I was doing my MA, which doesn’t exist anymore because the laptop I wrote it on crashed and burned. I was really happy to see it go, but it was a nice training ground.
Rumpus: Did it inform this book at all?
Hamya: Not at all; it was really just an experimental thing. Maybe it informed my sentences and sentence structure, but other than that it had nothing to do with this one.
Rumpus: How did you land on the structure for this book?
Hamya: When I started writing, the structure was really different. It was going to be—I have a really wonky term for it—a “psychogeographical bildungsroman,” and it was going to track a set of English conservative politicians through a really particular set of spaces in England where the political elite grow up. Their families own land around Southern England, and then they go to Eaton, then Oxford, and then they end up in Westminster. I wanted the structure of the book to work through those locations, inverting the premise of learning about things through plot and character—rather than that happening, you would learn about everything through the literal rooms these people were in. And then I realized that I didn’t really want to write about politicians directly, which is also why I didn’t make it as a journalist, so I changed tack, but the idea of still focusing more on space rather than character or dialogue remained. And then I figured, once I had whatever weird semblance of plot there is in this novel, it would be interesting to do a kind of sliding scale: the more elite and upper-class the spaces the narrator ends up in, the less fortunate she is in life. In the middle of the book, you get a balanced moment where she’s in the neutral space of a public park, and an ostensibly neutral space on the internet, and then from there on, everything tips over again.
Rumpus: I was going to ask what came first as you were writing this, if it was this minimal plot, or this structure, or this character that’s floundering and we’re all rooting for, but it sounds like the structure informed the rest.
Hamya: Yeah, the thing that kept it nice and tight was that I knew I wanted the political events of one year, up until October 31, which was supposed to be Brexit day and obviously wasn’t, to hold the novel together. I had a file of news items that I knew I wanted to bring in, like the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, updates on how Brexit was going, or the election of Boris Johnson, and so it had a good timeline to it, which gave the more creative aspects of structure a nice form.
Rumpus: It’s always nice to find something when writing a novel that’ll do that for you.
Rumpus: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Hamya: A lot of people think it’s autofiction, and that I’m the narrator. The hardest thing about writing the book was that at regular intervals I’d stop and be like, what if people think this is me? It’s true I was at Oxford, but I was doing my MA—I wasn’t a research assistant—and while I did work at a society magazine, and I didn’t love it, I had a much less fraught time than this narrator did. And as I was writing, I kept thinking about how I don’t like this narrator at all. I understand why people feel sympathy for her, but she’s not my idea of a great person—she’s necessarily ineffectual and vague, because otherwise the book would wrap up neatly with her getting her life together. She’s a composite of the worst tweets I could find, and as I was putting her into various situations or environments that I’d been in my life, and having her act differently, I kept thinking how it would be awful if someone thought this was me, but it does seem to be happening [laughs]. I suppose that’s unavoidable. You can’t control what your readers think. I’ll just have to deal with it.
Rumpus: That’s the danger. I was actually going to ask: you mentioned autofiction, and I noticed and appreciated the Rooney and Cusk subtweets in Three Rooms. Can you still call them subtweets if they’re in a novel? I don’t know. But what do you make of the current popularity of autofiction? And the label of autofiction?
Hamya: I’ve always liked Cusk as a writer, but I didn’t think of the Outline trilogy in an autofictional sense; I was just so impressed with it. One of the reasons I was reticent to write fiction was because I have a real issue with everything that makes fiction obviously fiction, like speech marks or ending dialogue with “he said” and “she said,” and the kind of repetitiveness it brings. I think that’s why I read a lot of poetry while I was writing rather than prose.
I consider Outline to be a really radical reimagining of what a book can do, especially with the conceit of structuring it as a kind of Greek chorus rather than a subjective telling of what happens. These novels are so transparent, in a way, which I’d guess is why so many people rush to call them autofiction, but formally speaking, these books are so much better than the kind of gossip and salaciousness that autofiction brings with it as a tag. If you had to track it as a trend, it would go in line with the kind of transparency people project on the internet.
Twitter is basically one big autofictional project, and you have people like Teju Cole on Instagram using it as a novelistic device, or even to construct books and interact with readers. I think it’s an inevitability, but I do get a bit irate when it overtakes questions of sentence structure and form. I think with the way publishing now works through Twitter, at least in the UK, gossip and insider stories are pivotal to a book’s life cycle, so it definitely tracks with that trend. But what do you think?
Rumpus: I don’t know—it’s a worn out conversation and kind of a frustrating one, but I also think the conversation around autofiction is segueing into this conversation about “internet novels” which feels fresher, because they’re so related, as you said. I was recently at a talk about internet novels with Patricia Lockwood—
Hamya: Oh, I’m reading her book now! I’m just getting to the end.
Rumpus: Yeah, and I don’t know, she was talking about this injunction to write something timeless that authors strive for—
Hamya: Oh, no—
Rumpus: And her whole thing was that you can’t really aspire to timelessness as a novelist, but what you can do is try to chronicle what our specific moment feels like and hope it has reverberating implications in the future.
Rumpus: As I was reading Three Rooms, I felt like I was, in terms of the political stuff, super rooted in the here and now, as the book engages with Twitter and Instagram and the sometimes corrosive effects these apps can have. But at the same time, it also feels kind of uprooted from this moment, maybe because it’s so plugged into this timeless struggle of trying to find a space for yourself and your ambition in the world, which as we know from Virginia Woolf is an ongoing conversation. I’m wondering how you approached the specifics of the political situation, and how you balanced that timely subject matter with the more eternal struggle of trying to find space for oneself.
Hamya: To be completely honest, I didn’t really separate the two out. The reason I wrote this book is because I had kind of given up on my own eternal struggle—I moved back home with my parents to be able to write, and I was thinking about why it was so difficult, in London, specifically, to make a proper home. As for how that overlaps with the political, I couldn’t separate it, because we’ve had a Conservative government in this country for over a decade now, and it’s impossible to separate the decline in quality of life and the ability to afford a home from the policies they’ve instated. If you want to reference A Room of One’s Own, Woolf makes a good point that, of course, a woman must have a room of her own, but the case she makes for why that hasn’t happened—why our mothers haven’t gone to work and handed down money to us—is because those mothers were busy creating homes. The very fact that she was able to write is because she had family money from her aunt, and so the context that she’s speaking from is slightly depoliticized. It’s the same issue you have with internet feminism now; it’s not so much that it’s an eternal struggle, I’ve found, as it is—
Rumpus: It seems like we’re in a moment of unearthing, or being honest about, the structural obstacles that prevent most people from pursuing non-lucrative careers in academia or the arts. How did you kind of find your way into this conversation?
Hamya: Through my own experience, which has been honestly much better than most. Still, post-grad, I ended up in a difficult employment position, which I couldn’t get out of because it was my only source of income. I wasn’t being paid enough to live in London. I remember there was a publishing job that I got really close to and didn’t get hired for because a friend of the editor’s got it, and this was a repeating story.
In the book, that experience filters through in various ways. For instance, the flatmate who makes rings and sells them online is super frustrated because she can’t hack it—she has art parents, but not literary parents—so even though she’s in the best possible position, she’s still working as a bookseller and making crappy rings in her kitchen. A lot of my friends went through something similar, which exemplifies the odd paradox of an art and literary culture that markets itself on a left-wing ethos of inclusivity, diversity, and fair pay but then profits by exploiting the goodwill of people who believe in those things. What’s really sad now is that, and I didn’t focus on this in the book, but now that kind of thinking is being reinforced so that tuition fees for university courses are probably going to be valued according to usefulness. So, science and math degrees, or engineering or law degrees, will be a third of the cost of obtaining an arts degree, because those professions are more useful to society. Which is a hysterical thing to hear from a prime minister who worked as a journalist and uses spin on a regular basis. It’s kind of galling to hear that this government would like to make it less possible for people to recognize rhetoric and misuse of language where it’s working against their favor. But it’s increasingly less about making art or understanding art and more about how these tools are being utilized against a voting public.
Rumpus: I think about this all the time because I teach a first-year writing and rhetoric course, and we’re having the same conversation in the US: What is the utility of these degrees? That’s another conversation I’m a bit worn out on, even though it’s really important, but I always say that being able to think critically about rhetoric, its uses, and how it’s being employed is the most valuable skill you’ll learn in college, and we need students to learn it, you know?
Hamya: Yes, absolutely. Another way that concern filters into the book is that the protagonist spends hours scrolling through Twitter, and she’s not stupid, so she can think more or less critically, but the monotony of the platform and its interface leads her to these perpetual gray areas where she’s not sure what to think, so she starts appropriating thoughts from other people rather than judging what she reads. And by the end of the book she ends up more or less mute.
Rumpus: Were you online when you were writing this?
Hamya: Oh, I was very online, but just watching rather than posting. I was also sifting through tweets I remembered seeing to include in the book. I started writing in December 2019 and finished around March 2020, so I did a lot of archival work digging through Twitter and Instagram for posts from 2018 and 2019. You can’t attempt to write a book about the internet without knowing the tone and tenor of how the internet works, or even just weird internet jargon. Patricia Lockwood does that really well—I don’t think I’ve done that at all, but just capturing the experience of sitting with your thumb on your phone for hours, and how your brain work when you do that, how it kind of glosses over stuff, and at some point you forget where you’re sitting. I was really online to try and replicate that on the page.
Rumpus: I think that’s replicated really beautifully—the actual interface of these platforms is well-seeded in the novel.
Let’s talk about the narrator and her situation: she so clearly loves literature, but her ability to engage with it, and really to engage with anything, deteriorates over the course of the novel because it’s so diminished by the precarity of not having access to basic necessities. Which she doesn’t have because the jobs available to her as a literature graduate don’t pay, so it’s a brutal catch-22. It felt really recognizable and cathartic to read about this, like we’re giving voice to this new paradigm shift or blueprint that didn’t belong to our parents but is what we’ve inherited. And I’m wondering if any part of writing this felt cathartic to you as well.
Hamya: Woolf has a really nice line about the fear and bitterness of living on a precarious wage. She was actually talking about freelancing, but it’s this kind of poison that exists in your stomach. I remember writing and thinking that if I finish this and do it properly, then it’ll fix everything. I don’t know why I thought that—it was one of those really desperate thoughts you have when you’ve got nothing else. And funnily enough, it did fix my life. I ended up sold and I’ve been living off this book for the past year, and it’s been great; I’ve managed to write another one. There’s a massive difference between who I was when I was writing Three Rooms, when I was anxious and continually suppressing the part of my brain that went “but things won’t work out and you’re going to die under a bridge and everything will go horribly,” and then writing this second book which I finished last spring, in which there’s a different kind of anxiety but no tension between the sentences, which is what I see when I read this. I now find it a bit difficult to read this one. It’s a really sad book, because I was sad when I was writing it, but I keep running into people who are like, “it’s so funny.” I’m glad that’s the takeaway, because I think the energy that propels it is that really desperate thought of, If you finish the book, then you’ll be okay.
Photograph of Jo Hamya by Urszula Soltys.