Jo Hamya was born in London in 1997. Three Rooms is her first novel, published by Jonathan Cape in July 2021.
Okechukwu Nzelu is a Manchester-based writer. His debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Polari First Book Prize. His second novel, Here Again Now, was published by Dialogue Books in March 2022.
The authors discuss music, the internet’s gamified reading culture and reading your reviews.
I finished your novel on a train from Bedfordshire to London yesterday evening while Storm Eunice tired itself out and Storm Franklin took hold. It’s the only novel I’ve ever been able to read while listening to music. Blood Orange’s ‘Time Will Tell’ and ‘Champagne Coast’. There’s a refrain that echoes across both of those songs (‘come to my bedroom’).
It came to mind after I realised that you’d created a series of refrains about desire across your characters, and the novel itself – certain observations on the body and beauty which your three characters describe about each other almost word for word without ever conferring, for example, Ekene wanting to run a finger through Achike’s hair.
Those refrains appear almost as ghosts through the book, accompanying each character’s lack of language on the matters of love, and fear, and vulnerability — I thought it was incredibly clever, and beautiful, a testament to the way language has failed men of a certain generation and background. I spent a portion of your novel frustrated, muttering, ‘just say what you mean to each other’ before I realised that each character’s inability to do so was exactly the point.
All of the four epigraphs in your book are from Tennyson. Other than the Tennyson, did you read any other poetry while writing? Did that impact the formal elements of your prose? I know that all I read while writing Three Rooms was poetry.
I’d also love to hear why you think we’ve been paired together for this conversation. Your novel is a great achievement and I’m glad to be speaking with you about it. But I might have more naturally paired you with Douglas Stuart, or Avni Doshi. I suppose, in a way, I know perfectly well that it’s possible for authors to talk to each other about anything. Still, I wonder whether you had a similar feeling while you were reading my book — of slowly needing to puzzle out what the overlap between our work might be.
I don’t know how many times I’ve battled with whether to speak, or not speak when the time comes to point out that the novel I wrote was about class, not race: that in fact, the race of the narrator in Three Rooms is purposefully ambiguous (mixed, is the most the reader can discern), and that it would be more purposeful to have conversations about shifts in social values and politics across generations rather than ethnicities in relation to my novel. Sometimes I’ve felt brave enough to make the point, and sometimes, in rather obvious instances, I haven’t.
I wonder whether you’ve encountered something similar? I’ve just read this email in its entirety to my partner, who made the point that perhaps, since my novel could be perceived as particularly feminine, being paired with a novel about male experience is a nice contrast – might make for fruitful discussion.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. There was a problem with the delivery of Three Rooms, so in the end I just downloaded the ebook. And I’m a slow-to-medium paced reader into the bargain. I’m so sorry that Royal Mail and I have both let you down.
I want to thank you for writing this wonderful book. And I mean that sincerely. When I read something new that I really admire, especially when it’s funny (and Three Rooms is very, very funny) I often feel a profound sense of gratitude. Are you the same?
Did you have fun writing it? I wondered, because the novel is really very funny, but there’s so much quiet tragedy and peril in it, too like the moment when the protagonist’s pay is delayed. The way she experiences the precariousness of life as a creative in London was pretty close to my own worst fears about the city when I was 21. There are many wonderful things about London but the city, in your book as in real life, can feel like a gorgeous party taking place behind a very high wall. It’s a large part of why I never moved there, although Manchester has its own problems. It’s such a shame that the arts in this country are so London-centric, especially since London can be so difficult to live in.
On that note, I also find it very interesting that we’ve been paired. I’m delighted to be paired with you, and in fact I’m grateful to be put in touch with you because I’ve found the camaraderie of other Black writers indispensable. But I do see what you mean. Three Rooms handles the problems of class much more closely, consistently and conspicuously than Here Again Now, which is largely about someone who might be on the front cover of a magazine, rather than someone who might be poorly paid to write for one. (Although I wonder what Achike and your protagonist would make of one another? What do you think?)
It’s difficult to know what to say about these things, and when. There’s a bizarre dichotomy there: I sometimes feel I have to be gracious in a way that I don’t think my books need ever be. Maybe there’s a kind of freedom, there. But there’s also a kind of trap, because I think when people hear that a book is ‘about race’ or ‘about class’ (even if it’s not about one or both of those things) they often expect quite a specific kind of book, which they don’t and shouldn’t always get.
It’s so interesting that you listened to music while reading Here Again Now – I put together a Spotify playlist for the book, and one of the songs, Solange’s ‘Locked in Closets’ from one of my favourite albums ever, True, was co-written by Blood Orange/Dev Hynes. Do you listen to music as you write? I never can, but I do carry poetry with me as I write, I think. Elaine Feinstein once said that every line in every poem has its own rhythm, however quiet it might be, and I’ve never forgotten that. I think it’s true for prose, too; or I try to make it true. There are bits in which I tried to quietly echo iambic pentameter.
I actually chose the epigraphs almost at the last minute: I’d studied ‘In Memoriam’ as an undergraduate and the part I chose for the epigraph to Part II, from Section XIV is one of the only poems that consistently makes me tear up, but I forgot all about it until I was looking for an epigraph during the line editing. The poetry I had in mind while writing was partly that of Gerald Manley Hopkins (especially ’The Wreck of the Deutschland’), but also especially Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I find so fascinating for its use of repetition and other Biblical tics. What poetry did you read while you write Three Rooms?
Please don’t apologise at all! The internet has created a slightly gamified culture around reading . . . speed and taste in consumption mean such entirely different things when they become relational, or somehow performed for public consciousness. Something I hear a lot from friends, and it’s been my experience too, is that their reading has slowed considerably since that first lockdown.
That statement is always given as an admission for some reason — and I do think it’s because platforms like Goodreads, with its reading ‘challenge’, or Instagram, with its grids of perfectly curated books posed in pretty surroundings, have created a need for audiences to mark themselves out as ‘good’ readers. That notion of ‘goodness’ means a sense of timeliness, and impressive intake. Of course, it’s not a novel concept . . . at the very least, it’s what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘distinction’ revolves around, pre-social media.
Did I have fun writing it . . . I think I had something better than fun, when it comes to writing, which was a sense of purpose. Perhaps that’s indulgent. I do worry it is – but it’s what got the book written, and maybe why people often misattribute it as autofiction. I’m not my narrator, but the undercurrent is very personal.
I’ve loved mulling over what our two narrators would say to each other. They’re both rather repressed characters, aren’t they? Both slightly fuelled by guilt. I think if you left them to have a few drinks alone, they’d confide in each other after a couple of hours. Perhaps not in the most healthy way, but it might give them a bit of solace, which they both need.
I’d love to see your Spotify playlist. I made one for my book as well. What other songs did you have on there? The Whitman makes utter sense. And there is so much of Hopkins’ rhythm in your prose…
From memory, Three Rooms was a lot of Hannah Sullivan (Three Poems), Anne Carson (The Glass Essay), Andrew Motion (Essex Clay), and Roger Robinson (A Portable Paradise). Those books are all formally brilliant, but I think what brought them together for me was the way they address the idea of home and memory, and the body in relation to those two things.
The funny thing is, my new book which I’m editing now (unpublished), is almost perfectly suited to being paired with Here Again Now. It’s about a father and a daughter who have a decade-long falling out set between 2010 and 2020 over the generational discrepancies in how they view gendered experience. At some point, we might have been paired anyway.
I think you’re right on readers expecting a ‘specific’ type of book when they hear the words ‘race’ or ‘class’, and this, again, might be a side-effect of publishing having spent the past two decades marketing novels in an increasingly digital context. ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ doesn’t provide for grey area, or experience one can’t fully explain in keywords or hashtags.
I don’t believe that a novel must intrinsically state a belief. It can also work as a thought experiment, where its progress contemplates an idea or encounter without coming to solid conclusions about it. A novel can concern the process of being, as well as being a retrospective on what things were like, if that makes sense (although it’s a slightly wanky way to put it, I admit). So I get mildly frustrated when a tentative or thoughtful consideration of experience gets a label which it may not be compatible with, all for the sake of according it cultural currency on a digital platform, or making it into a marketable asset.
That’s why I’m so keen to hear about your experience of being online as a writer, and also perhaps about your experience as a creative writing lecturer. So many of your students must consciously think about how they will publicly present as an author. Do you address that at all with them? I don’t think those questions should be thrown out the window – I just don’t completely agree with how that process takes place now.
Before you got published, did you think of yourself as a ‘Black writer’, or a writer of any particular social category? If so, does the reality of how that gets played out when you’re interviewed about your work line up with what you’d imagined? I know for some the answer is an emphatic yes, which is wonderful. But no one seems to stop to consider what happens when the answer is no.
But you know, I am very glad that we’ve been paired. It’s good to be able to talk this over with you. The camaraderie you described often happens privately, because it’s formed to be able to think through or overcome difficulties. I think there’s something worthwhile in lifting the carpet a bit: particularly at a moment where the cultural sector is so concerned with reform.
I know what you mean about writing being sustaining. That was my experience with both my books, in different ways. I wrote the first one over a few quite turbulent years in my life, and it was really important to me that I had something important to work on, something beyond whatever was happening to me at the time, even if I didn’t know if someone would ever publish it.
When I was seventeen I was obsessed with John Clare, and I read in a biography that he had a similar relationship to his own writing. At the time, he was living in poor-quality accommodation and struggling with a quickly expanding family and not a lot of money. I wonder if all writers – or all humans, really – tread that line of being sustained by, and drained by their work.
It’s interesting what you say about the internet’s culture of reading. I can’t help looking at it as a teacher, too: when I taught in secondary schools, I spent some of my time working with what we called ‘reluctant readers’, and I remember various well-intentioned schemes put in place to get them to read more, and to engage with what they were reading. Some were more successful than others, but the painful thing is that there’s no real substitute for being given the time and the resources to be able to read a lot early in life, and to be able to enjoy reading as a child, which too many people just don’t get, and that’s really sad in itself.
I definitely don’t argue with people online because I don’t think most people online are in a position to change their minds. I think there’s this belief that constantly being vocal about your beliefs on social media – or just shouting other people down – is ‘doing the work’. I think that ‘the work’ is learning, listening and making change where you can – and I’m not sure that the echo chamber of social media is the best place for that.
And I think you make a really good point about the way our work is often represented. I’m not reading media reviews of my work, but I’ve already stumbled on the headline of one review of Here Again Now which describes it as a book that ‘explores race.’ I spluttered. That kind of thing is really frustrating.
Alongside this I worry that because many of the narratives by writers from marginalised groups being commissioned or celebrated (many of which I love myself) are to do with trauma, there’s a growing sense that anyone who experiences trauma is automatically going to be able to speak about it articulately, movingly, marketably. I think, across society, we suffer under the illusion that all suffering is or has to be a teachable moment, and that suffering is an ennobling thing, and I worry that some of the marketing I see makes that worse.
I’ll send you my Spotify playlist. Do send me yours if you’d like to. I tried to give mine a mix of songs that helped me find the right mood for the story, or the right write mood in which to write (like ‘Goodnight and Go’ by Imogen Heap, or ‘Ex-Factor’ by Lauryn Hill) and songs which help evoke some of the feelings in the story, like ‘Dreams and Converse’ by Dawn Richard, who I think is incredibly talented and endlessly interesting to listen to.
I am sorry you stumbled on that review. I read that part of your email to my partner, and he agreed with your assessment on suffering wholeheartedly. I did read my reviews, and I did look at Goodreads, and I regret it. It’s not that I mind negative feedback – in fact most of what I read was extremely kind. But I think doing so muddied the sense of purpose I had with my book, and which you seem to have retained so clearly with yours. I’m envious. And also a little upset with myself, because looking at reviews is essentially a vanity project, and it seems so silly to have compromised purpose for vanity.
I’m full of admiration for the sense of purpose you have towards the politics of being an author. Is that something you arrived at over time, or something you knew about yourself when you started? I only began to think of myself as a writer or an author last year when I published, and I think I’m still in the process of figuring it out.
I love reading about writers’ past or present obsession with other writers, and so your aside about John Clare is wonderful. What form did your ‘obsession’ take? What I mean by that is, how did it feed into how you wanted to be as a writer? This is a slightly embarrassing thing to admit for Granta, but I think my two teenage ones were Zadie Smith and Virginia Woolf, and I know that for me, it was a case of reading diaries and listening to interviews. I was so invested in how lucid and thoughtful both are about what they create. I didn’t know that I would end up being an author myself, but I knew I wanted to be able to think the way they did, if that makes sense.
Reviews are funny, aren’t they? I don’t think reading them is a vanity project. It’s reasonable to want to see how people have responded to your work. We write, I think, to reach people, but because reading is such a private thing, we don’t always get to see that reach. And besides, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know if people esteem what you’ve written; we become writers because we esteem writers, after all.
I did read reviews for my first book, and I may well read reviews in future, but I just decided, for a number of reasons, not to read them this time around. It’s not that I don’t care at all what people think, and I’m definitely still figuring out my sense of purpose as a writer, but one of the things I’ve settled on is that there are people whose opinions I trust and people whose opinions I have less reason to trust.
I loved that even though John Clare was beset by poverty and mental illness, and even though mental illness was so poorly understood when he was alive, he had such a strong passion for creativity. I read Jonathan Bate’s biography, and memorised certain poems, and wrote a few of my own in poor imitation. I still know bits of ‘Remembrances’ by heart, and I loved that feeling of closeness you get when you memorise poetry you love.
Zadie Smith and Virginia Woolf are such great writers to be obsessed with! I came to like Woolf later (for some reason I was quite dismissive of modernism as a teenager) but White Teeth was a game changer for me – I’ve never read a funnier book, and it was the first time I’d read representations of the multicultural life I knew.
Photographs © Urszula Soltys and Alex Douglas